5 Time Management Tips for Students
Hi everyone! I’m Christine, and I’m a fifth-year psychology student here at the University of Alberta. I work at the Career Centre as a Career Peer Educator, which means that I help my fellow students navigate their career paths, give advice on resume and cover letter writing, and help conduct workshops and seminars. Through my job, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to write articles in conjunction with the Accessibility Work Experience Program (or AWEP). AWEP is an on-campus program that helps students with disabilities and mental health diagnoses find work, and we’ve been working together for the past few months to help address the unique mental health challenges of working from home. With these monthly articles, we hope to provide students with tips on how to work from home and stay on top of things during this difficult time.
When you’re going to school in person your schedule is usually a no-brainer. But what happens when you’re working from home and you suddenly have much more control over your schedule? When faced with an unsupervised workday devoid of lectures or labs it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Thankfully, we have 5 tips to help you take charge of your time management this semester.
Use time blocking
This is by far the most tried-and-true method of managing your time. Divide your day into blocks of time, usually hour by hour, and devote each block to some work-related task or a break. Time blocking works great because it’s uncomplicated and flexible. If you need two blocks of time to complete a task, for example, you can easily adjust your schedule. It also works wonders for establishing a routine, something many of us working from home struggle with. If your time blocks largely don’t change from day to day you’ll settle into a rhythm in no time. Of course, the downside of a consistent routine is that it can breed boredom very quickly. A simple solution to this is to have a variety of tasks included in your schedule every day. Our brains have a tough time focusing on the same task for long stretches of time so break up large projects into smaller time chunks with other activities or rest periods in between. This is also a great way to prevent cramming: if you set aside time each day to work on a project for two weeks, you’ll be less likely to find yourself spending 10 hours on it the day before it’s due.
Tackle the toughest tasks when energy is high
There is no perfect schedule but most people tend to have a particular period of the day when they have more energy and motivation. For some this is right at the start of the day; others need more time to ease into it. Whichever camp you fall into, take notice of when you feel more alert and attentive and try to schedule your more difficult tasks for that time. This allows you to take full advantage of your most attentive state and getting hard tasks done will likely feel easier. This also allows you to save less mentally challenging tasks for when your brain starts to feel a little fried or when that post-lunch slump hits. Pay attention to when your alertness decreases over the course of the day and save mindless administrative tasks or that fun project that you actually enjoy doing for then.
[Editor’s note: Read Sandy’s story “It’s Time to Re-Think the To-Do List” for more insight into identifying energy levels and using time blocking.]
Be aware of your own attention span
Attention span can vary quite a bit from person to person: some people can focus on a task for hours while others need a break every 15 minutes. Whatever your attention span looks like work with it, not against it. Forcing yourself to plow through a mental slump is both exhausting and less effective — few people produce their best work while staring blankly at a computer screen trying to will themselves to write. At the same time, be aware of environmental distractions. If you do your work in the same room as your favorite books and gaming systems, it can be easy to let your mind wander to those things instead. Try to do your work in a place where fun activities aren’t competing for your attention, like a living room or office space. If your main distraction is the internet (as it is for many of us) be sure to keep social media and email tabs closed and turn off notifications for them.
Think of projects as a marathon, not a sprint
When starting a task that’s going to take a while, like completing a project, start with a “brain dump.” Make a list of every little thing you’ll have to do, from start to finish, to get the project done. It always helps to break a large task down into smaller tasks that you can achieve over the course of a set time block. What an “achievable step” looks like will depend on the person and the day. Sometimes an achievable step will be writing 1000 words in an afternoon; other days, it will be giving your project a title. A little progress is better than none and you can feel good about achieving even very small tasks. Checking smaller steps off your list helps provide a sense of accomplishment which is needed when motivation is a problem. It also helps you keep track of your progress so you have a realistic sense of how long the rest of the project will take.
Procrastination: even the best of us do it sometimes
A huge contributor to procrastination is stress — it’s hard to focus on being productive when your mind is burdened with worry. Thankfully, there are some ways to handle stress proactively. Avoid the news during the day, it will nearly always feature some negative, anxiety-inducing event that you can’t do anything about (especially given the state of the world right now). If school itself is a huge stressor, talk to your instructor about how you’re feeling. Most instructors want their students to be calm and comfortable and will appreciate you handling the situation before it results in catastrophe. Remember, most people procrastinate at times, and it usually isn’t the end of the world. If you’ve already dug yourself a deep hole be gentle with yourself. Beating yourself up won’t get you out of that hole, and labelling yourself as a “procrastinator” can make it even harder to let go of the behavior. The best thing to do is to focus on the future, instead of being bogged down by the past.
Christine McManus is a fifth-year psychology student. She is a Career Peer Educator at the U of A Career Centre, where she gives general career management advice, helps students write resumes and cover letters, and conducts career-related workshops. When she’s not studying or at work, she enjoys hanging out with her cat, Scotty.