Time management

Good time management isn’t just about being able to make a study timetable or work schedule; it's about knowing your priorities, getting organised and making realistic plans.  No matter how brilliant your ideas, or however hard you work, it’s vital to learn how to use time effectively to maximise your chance of success. These webpages can help you to think about:

  • allocating your time so that you work on particular tasks at the best time of day for you;
  • motivating yourself to complete your work;
  • developing your study practices so that you use your time efficiently;
  • getting organised so that you don’t waste time looking for things;
  • staying informed about practicalities like timetables, submission processes and deadlines;
  • avoiding distractions from studying; and
  • overcoming procrastination to get started with your work and keep going.

Using your time effectively

Good time management isn’t just about being able to make a study timetable or work schedule. It’s about using time effectively. Filling in a time audit sheet will help you identify where your time goes, and how much spare time you have. This will help you to create a realistic study schedule.

Making a realistic study schedule

Everyone knows that having timetables and schedules works, but not everyone makes them. Often that's because it's discouraging if you find that they're too difficult to keep to. The key is to be realistic, and leave a bit of room for flexibility.

There are three kinds of timetable that are especially useful for students: weekly plans, semester plans and project plans.

Weekly plans

If you are taking a taught course, you probably already have a timetable of lectures, seminars or tutorials, and labs.  Work around these, and add any other fixed commitments like paid work, or regular sports events. Decide which of the remaining times you are going to use for study.

Think about when you work best. If your brain doesn't work so well after lunch, it won't be helpful to plan most of your study periods for the afternoon. Book in some time to ‘not study' in your worst time for thinking, and use it for tasks which require less concentration such as emails, chores, exercising etc.

The number of study periods you need to include will depend on your programme- if it's mostly independent study, you will need to plan in more time for this than if you're working in the lab most days. As a guide, imagine university study as if it were a full-time job with flexible hours - about 40 hours study a week, including your lectures etc.  It's more important to keep a tally of the number of hours you study than it is to stick to a Monday-Friday 9-5 routine. That means if you work best in the middle of the night, work then and sleep in… …providing it's not the night before a 9am lecture!

Once you’ve worked out your regular study periods, it’s a good idea to book in some ‘overspill’ time for especially heavy weeks. These are periods which you use for study only if you need them.

Setting study periods in advance has many advantages. It means not wasting time on deciding whether to work today or not, or deciding what to study when.  It also makes it more likely that the time you spend studying will be effective, if you can plan to work at your best times.  Above all, it reminds you that you shouldn’t be studying all the time - you need time to relax in order to let your brain process new information.

A template for a weekly planner is available for download

Creating a semester planner

One of the reasons timetables don't work is that we often fail to note busier and less busy periods in our lives. When you're planning your workload, always make sure that you build in some extra time in case something goes wrong (your printer cartridge runs out, you can't get the book you need from the library, you come down with a ‘flu etc). It can help to set personal deadlines for assignments a few days before you actually have to hand work in, and work to them.  That way, if the work takes longer than you think, you’ll still meet the deadline.  If you finish early, you've got some time off!

A template for a semester planner is available for download.

Creating a project timetable

Most coursework assignments are completed over a relatively short time. Dissertations and major projects are likely to be more spread out, perhaps even over more than a year. It's easy to keep telling yourself that there's plenty of time, right up to the moment when you realise that there isn't!  To plan a project timetable, you first need to decide on the tasks needed to complete the project. Then build them around any fixed deadlines (e.g. presentations on proposals or early results, draft chapters, final deadline etc).A sample project plan might look like this:

Start background research
End May
Presentation on proposal ready for -
30 June
Complete background research and decide on themes and methods End Aug
Gather information Sept – Nov
Draft chapter to show to supervisor for - 14 Dec
Finish first draft End February
Edit/write final draft End March
Proof read, bind and submit for - 15 April

This project schedule is only an example, and your own schedule will depend on your individual project. However, breaking the project into tasks and planning deadlines for each task, will help you keep the work progressing, and avoid a last minute panic.

Using tools for planning

There are various tools you can use to help you keep track of your time:

  • Diaries are convenient and portable, but don’t allow you to get an instant overview of all the work you need to do.
  • Wall planners make your time commitments much more visible, but aren’t as portable as diaries.
  • Mobile phones can be useful as portable short-term organisers, for daily to-do lists and reminders. If you’re finding it difficult to find time for breaks, you could set an alarm to remind yourself to stop for a bit.
  • Online calendars make it easy to set up recurring events, and to get an overview, but you need to be online to access them. You can also use them when you’re planning schedules for completing assignments, to keep lists of tasks and set up reminders for the dates they should be started.

As each works well for different purposes, many find it best to use a combination of these tools.

Working out priorities

It's often difficult to know where to start.  How do you decide what to do first?

Try listing all the study tasks you would like to fit into your schedule. Break larger tasks down into smaller steps and think about which of these needs doing first. Then put them in order of importance.

Bear in mind not only when tasks should be done, but also how significant they are. For instance, reading to prepare for a lecture is unlikely to be more important than finishing a piece of assessed work. You can sometimes test this by asking yourself what would happen if you didn’t do something, or did it later.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by work it can help you feel calmer if you get one small easy job done and finished. However, beware of the classic trap of doing all the easy jobs first, then not having time for the more daunting tasks. If procrastination is an issue for you, have a look at the page on beating procrastination.

Getting organised

You can reclaim a lot of lost time if you can get yourself better organised. That includes establishing a simple filing system so you can find the tools and the information you need when you need them, and staying informed about things like deadlines, exam times, and changes to your timetable.

Making a filing system

Unless you are lucky enough to have a dedicated space to study, you will probably have to keep packing your work away, and often carry some of it around with you, so having a good filing system will help you to keep on top of your studies.

Here's an example of a simple filing system:

  • Keep a shelf dedicated to study materials. Use it for box files, books, pens, paper etc.
  • Have one box file for each course or module. Use it for notes, photocopies, handouts, journal articles, small books, etc. When the box file gets too full to find things easily, spend ten minutes going through it and throwing out anything you no longer need.
  • Mark up a folder 'Current work' and use it to carry around whatever you're currently working on. Go through it at the end of the week and transfer anything you don't need on a daily basis to the appropriate box file.
  • Pin copies of your weekly timetable and your semester work plan somewhere that you will see them everyday.

The key is to make it simple - if you have lots of ring binders with colour-coded dividers, it'll be easy to find things, but you're less likely to file stuff away when you're tired; experiment to find a system that works best for you.

Staying informed

As well as keeping your own work organised, you will need to know about what other people have organised for you, including things like:

  • lecture and seminar times and locations;
  • coursework deadlines;
  • marking schemes; and
  • exams.

Keep this kind of information transportable so you can add to or amend it when necessary (perhaps in a pocket planner, small notebook or diary, or on your mobile phone), and remember to go through it once a semester and delete anything out of date.

TIP: Find out how your Department or School will let you know of any changes to your timetable and check this regularly - it's a waste of time, and very annoying, to trudge into campus through the rain for a lecture that's been cancelled.

More information