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Remote learning: Time management

“Time management is not optional. It is something that everyone who wants to work effectively must consider, whether formally or informally."

Patrick Forsyth,  Successful Time Management

Remote learning or learning online requires good time management skills. Your time will be largely self-directed, especially when compared to studying on campus where timetabled sessions provide more structure.

This guide gives you some helpful tips to take control.


Principles of time management

Whilst time management is very personal, with different approaches working for different people, there are some basic principles that are common to all: organisation, prioritisation, focus and self-discipline. These principles still apply if you are working remotely. 

Organisation

Immense amounts of time are wasted and deadlines missed if you are not at least reasonably well organised. There are two main ways to improve your organisation:

Organise your diary/calendar

Calendar with dates added

You cannot organise your time effectively without using a diary or a calendar. This can be paper or online but you must use it constantly and consistently. Don't just rely on the iHull app to organise your time, this only includes some of what you need to consider. 

The first step to organisation is entering all your fixed tasks and commitments:

  • Enter all your deadlines as soon as you have them - your official assignment deadlines should be on the Canvas site for each module you're taking—usually within the module handbook or the assignments section. Deadlines often bunch up together and recognising this can mean you can plan more effectively, perhaps by making earlier artificial deadlines to spread them out more manageably.
  • Enter everything that is unmoveable—your lectures, tutorials, lab work, part-time work, volunteering, sports commitments, regular child-care, family commitments...everything. If you are listening to lecture recordings instead of attending lectures, enter these into your diary as something unmoveable too. This will help to give your time more structure.

These are the framework events that everything else needs to fit around. Once these are in you can be more realistic about the time that you have to complete all the other tasks. 

Organise your stuff

Don't waste time searching for lecture notes, journal print-outs, lost referencing information and so on. Set up an desk or area in your home dedicated to study.

  • Create a system (physical or online) for organising all your notes and paperwork.
  • Every time you read something, keep a note of the information you would need to reference it (photographing the copyright page of a book for example). 
  • Keep your work area reasonably tidy. 

Spending just a few minutes each week organising your stuff can save you hours in the long run. Consider doing it on a Sunday afternoon and think of it as rebooting to start each week with a fresh and organised system.

Prioritisation

Some things are more important than others. They don't necessarily need doing first - but they need time allocating to them first. Assessed work is the obvious example but quite honestly it depends on your circumstances. You may have caring responsibilities and need to juggle looking after family members alongside study. Or perhaps you have the opposite problem, you have very little to occupy yourself with other than your studies and are finding it difficult to focus. Whatever your goals, at any given moment you will have to give priority to one task or another.

If we just look at university work, your priorities will depend on: list of tasks with arrows moving them up and down in order

  • Is the work assessed?
  • What percentage of the module grade is the assessment worth? (Give more time to those with more weighting.)
  • Will doing this task make my assessed work easier/better?
  • Will doing this task make a tutorial or lecture more useful?
  • How much time will it take?
  • How urgent is it?

Sometimes just answering these questions can be enough to help decide what to put where in the free spaces in your calendar/diary - if you are still struggling, think of using a tool like a To-do list or a matrix.

Focus

Focus is something that many people struggle with when working at home. There can be a number of distractions that you are not used to contending with when you are trying to focus on study. Once you have decided what you are working on and for how long, you need to ensure you can focus on the task at hand:

Avoiding social media

Social media icons crossed outFor most students, focusing means removing distractions such as social media and text notifications. For his book 15 Secrets Successful People Know about Time Management, Kevin Kruse interviewed a group of 'straight-A students' and more than half of them talked about the need to limit social media use. Many used apps that block social media sites on laptops or phones for specified periods of time - try searching online for "social media blocker" and look as some reviews to find the ones that are best for your devices.

If you don't want to use a specific blocker, then at least turn off notifications (or even your whole phone!) whilst you are working on task - it will make the work quicker and allow you to enjoy social media guilt-free later on.

Environment

The other way to help you focus is to choose or create an environment that is free of distractions. Normally you may like to work on campus or from a coffee shop, however, this may not be possible. Instead, we suggest that you try to re-create your preferred environment Your own home can be full of interesting things that can easily catch your attention, so consider where in your home might provide the least distraction. You may be lucky enough to have a study, or you may be able to set up a space at your dining table.

Student room with separated work zoneAlternatively, if your room is the only option, then think about how you can organise your space into a work zone and a relaxation zone. If you have to use the same computer or monitor, is there something you can do to signify work time and relaxation time. Clearing the desk, putting something different on the desk, changing the lighting or music - anything that is different can trick your mind into focusing.

 

Time of day

Students studying late at night and early morningDifferent people focus better at different times of the day. Some like to get up early and get straight on before other people are about to distract them; others like late-night working, with the room dark and a desk light illuminating their work and blocking out everything else. 

In reality, most people actually ARE morning people - no really! Unless you wake up regularly (and naturally) at lunchtime, the likelihood is that you are not using your most productive time of the day effectively. For most of you, the most productive time is the first two hours after you are fully awake (we appreciate the waking up process takes longer for different people). So if you can, use those two hours for getting the most important thing for the day done - reading a difficult paper, writing an essay, revising an important topic etc. Use hours later on in the day for catching up on social media, sorting your notes, housework, laundry etc. Don't waste the time when your brain is at its most receptive on tasks that don't require concentration.

Self-discipline

In the end, good time management comes down to self-discipline. Without this you can become prone to procrastination. Let's face it, there is nearly always something you want to do more than your university work. If you are working on a particularly difficult or uninspiring piece of work then even jobs you hate suddenly look appealing.

see-saw balanced with work and playSelf-discipline is all about balance. You need to build some me-time into your routine so that you do not feel like your life is all work and no play. This can be checking your social media at specific times a day; a daily work-out routine; spending time with family or a couple of hours watching TV* or gaming* at the end of the day. When this is planned, it is easier to convince yourself to spend other times on your university work. 

*Gaming and watching TV (especially with full series available) are known time-sponges. You can start off thinking 'I'll just have a half-hour break" and end up still doing it hours later. If you are reasonably disciplined and merely forget the time, then always set a timer on your phone or watch to remind you to get back to work. If it is more problematic than that, then don't start this activity until you have finished working for the day. Consider it your well-deserved reward.

For further help, see our Beating Procrastination page.


This video from Oxford University offers some good general time management advice:


Creative Commons License  The Remote learning SkillsGuide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. See embedded YouTube resources for their terms of distribution.