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How to manage your time at university

James Davis

It’s easy to sleep through your alarm, stay out too late or miss deadlines if you’re not careful. Here are some quick ways to keep yourself sorted.

University can be a wonderful time. New friends, experiences and opportunities to grow into a young professional. If ‘young professional’ isn’t your thing, perhaps some kind of citrus fruit? Maybe a handful of grapes? The world really is your oyster when you’ve mastered the laws of thermodynamics as though you’re some sort of Avatar-style matter-bending physicist. Regardless of which form you wish for your supple carbon structure to take, time management is equally important, for time and space are inextricably linked. You know what else is inextricably linked? Time management and success at university. This article will illuminate the cavernous recesses of planning, note-taking and other Geneva unconventional atrocities. Let’s get started.

Compile your deadlines

Your learning management system (LMS) will contain various deadlines, tests and other obligations for each course you’re enrolled in. Save yourself some time and note down each and every deadline as and when they occur. Use something like Google sheets or calendar, a document, greasy napkin, hieroglyph-adorned papyrus. Whatever works for you. The important thing is having each of these all in one place with whatever necessary details are required of the obligation. If it’s an essay for instance, you can throw the details into a Google calendar description complete with weekly or monthly notifications going straight to your phone. If it’s a mid-term, you can jot down chapters in your textbook, online questions to review or anything pertinent to the material you’ll be tested on. 

Sometimes the LMS won’t contain everything. This will often be the case for final exam dates, as they’re often only released just a month or two before. For this reason, it’s still worth occasionally checking the LMS just to make sure you’ve got everything. After all, if you’re going to be relying on this consolidated document/ plan, it pays to be absolutely sure it’s accurate and up-to-date. 

Detailed day-to-day plans

If you’re coming straight from high school, you’re probably really going to enjoy all the freedom of university. As we’re sure you’ve heard, this can be a blessing and a curse. Having teachers hound you throughout school, after all, should have helped you get work done. You’re the one making everything happen now. Tutors and lecturers aren’t there to plan your day. So, do your best to treat university like a full-time job and you’ll have a significant advantage. 

This doesn’t have to mean sitting down for eight hours just to plan out every day in detail for the month. All you really need to do is wake up each morning with pen and paper. Just scratch out the main priorities with some time estimates. What do you have on today? How long do you think each activity will take? How much time are you willing to assign to the task today? If you’ve done the above, you can start assigning a priority level to everything. This will make daily planning easier. 

This whole process only needs to take five or ten minutes, but can make such an incredible cumulative difference. It really is true what those insufferable cliche-artists say: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Some of you prodigies out there may get away with decent performance without planning, but think about how much better you could do with it. It’s a good idea for everyone to make daily plans. 

It can be difficult launching into daily plans without having done them before, so allocate plenty of 5 - 15 minute breaks every hour or so to just refresh and do something else, like going for a short walk. Even if you’re an organisational master, this habit can help you stick with those plans. If you make them too stringent, you’ll just burn out and not want to create them in the first place. 

Keep track of how long you’re taking to complete tasks

This is your chance to test your assumptions. If you gave yourself an hour to finish a tutorial task and it took you three, you can reflect and readjust your time estimates for future plans. If that assignment took two days instead of five, the same that can happen. Whatever you do however, it’s always best to err on the side of caution. We humans are riddled with biases, such as the ‘optimism bias’. This is a fallacious (read=wrong) tendency we have in just assuming things will go our way. If we think we’ll only need two hours to study for that exam, that must be how long we’ll need. If you’ve only got twenty minutes to blast out those questions, it’s fine! That’s all you needed anyway. This line of thinking can be eliminated just by taking our original estimates and adding to them. An extra safe method is to double your estimate, or at the very least add one third of the time you thought it’d take to the total. If you keep this in mind when you’re checking your priorities and planning out your days, you’ll have a much easier time creating more reliable timetables. 

Stop yourself from procrastinating

The modern world is full of distractions engineering specifically to steal our attention. It takes presence of mind to acknowledge these distractions and shut them out. This doesn’t have to mean keeping all your devices under lock and key, but it does at the very least mean stopping yourself from straying to these temptations. Jane’s message can wait. 

A good way to avoid this is getting into study groups with people, but your choice of partner can actually make this problem worse if you’re not careful. In our opinion, the best study partners are the ones you’re only really acquainted with through tutorials or other classes and aren’t good friends. Making friends at uni is great, don’t get us wrong. Building that rapport can make the experience that much richer. You want something else for this though. What makes acquaintances such good study partners is the fact you’re able to just keep each other in check, bounce relevant questions off one another and not feel at liberty to go off on a tangent about Jane’s recent text. Honestly, that girl can’t get her life straight. 

If you’re not on these kinds of terms with anyone, just reach out in a tutorial. You’ll more than likely have had to sit at a table or desk with or near someone. Just shake off the nerves and shake their hand. They’re just as nervous as you. Any level of study with a group, be it a short discussion of recent tutorial questions over coffee or booking a room and blasting out projects for five hours, can be extremely productive and help you to avoid procrastination. 

Another common cause of procrastination is anxiety. This can stem from all kinds of phenomena both inside and outside your control. Since things outside your control are outside your control, we’ll focus on the former! If you sit down to a task and aren’t clear when it’s supposed to end, how long it will take or anything else, this is likely a planning issue. Even if you don’t 100 per cent know the answer to any of these logistical questions, simply stamping some arbitrary parameters to it will help. Let’s return to that essay example. The task might ask for 3,000 words on so-and-so topic. You’ve been through school, so you know how essays are structured. What may help is just fitting those steps into your plan. Step one is getting that essay question sorted if you haven’t been assigned one or chosen from a predetermined list. You then assign maybe five minutes to this step. Step two is your structure; what will the paragraphs contain? Fifteen minutes. All you need to do is assign time estimates to each paragraph and you’re good to go. You’ve now got an ordered, timed list of sub-tasks with success metrics built in (is the passage written? Yes/No). Just this process helps you put pen to paper (figuratively speaking) and break you out of your procrastination funk. Try it some time and you’ll see it can apply to anything. Lab work, engineering dilemmas, design, artwork, experiments. You name it. It all ties in to the previous tips too.

Hold yourself accountable

Not even the most wrinkled of stoics can be disciplined 100 per cent of the time. If you make others aware of the deadlines and restrictions you’re setting for yourself (within reason), you’ll have a much better time keeping to all your top-level plans, time budgets, group work and other self-imposed commitments. This can be as simple as “sorry, I can’t come out tonight. I’m working on my spicy cyberpunk noir film”. Substitute “spicy cyberpunk noir film” with whatever pressing obligation you’ve got coming off the press. Kill two-birds with one stone by keeping those homework sessions with tutorial buddies regular. They’ll help keep you accountable. 

You can even tell people in advance. If you’re in one of those hyper-organised friend groups with shared calendars, just plug a few of your dedicated study/ assignment times. This can be as easy as sharing your Google calendar with some mates. Just remember to set any incriminating entries to private (Shrek-a-thon 2020: The Shrekaning should only be between you and Mike Myers). If your friends are just a hot mess, you’ll be a positive influence for them. Who knows? You may soon become that friend group as a result of your incredible habits. I’ll let you interpret the italicised that as you see fit.

Sometimes, even with all this in place, it can be difficult keeping yourself accountable. For this we recommend taking on new activities and seeing how much you’re actually able to accomplish with your time. You ever known that one person who seems to be able to do everything and still get their work done? That’s because they’ve pushed their time efficiency to the limit, which is something you can do too. Here’s another cliched proverb: the more you do, the more you find you can do. If you’re committed to other things, such as student clubs, sporting teams or volunteering, you necessarily have to get your sh-ugar in order. It’s kind of the “light a fire under yourself” accountability strategy, but it can work wonders. It’s also great for resume building. Doing stuff during university, provided it’s productive like a part-time job, internship or the above extracurriculars, is the key to getting the most out of it. It’s also a great way to get the most out of your time and holding yourself accountable. Netflix can wait. 

Ask for help

The whole article thus far has been focussed on what you can do personally to manage your time, but you can’t be expected to just ace everything off the bat. If you’re struggling, or even if you aren’t, feel free to just ask your organised friends, mentors and professors how they’re managing their time, or how they’d recommend you manage each task. Testing your own ideas and plans against those of others will serve to either strengthen yours or undermine them to such an extent you feel it necessary to adopt theirs. Either way, you become more reassured what you’re doing in terms of time management is actually optimal to the best of your knowledge. In the case of professors however, don’t push them or expect them to be as accommodating as your old high school teachers. In their case, ask them pointed questions. Make them specific and relevant to upcoming tasks. While many will be more than happy to help, others have different priorities. 

A good way to get some resume-building going is seeking internships that put you not only in your field of interest, but surround you with mentors and experienced time managers. A cheeky business card or three from a well-placed internship can put your whole university experience in a new and improved light. You’d be surprised how willing professionals and recent graduates out in the workforce are to help enthusiastic students. Just remember to be polite, humble and thankful for their advice and you’ll be alright. 

You should now be far better equipped to tackle the time-management challenges university presents. If you’ve scrolled to the bottom looking for the meat and potatoes, welcome! We’ve just finished cooking them by the fire. Take a seat. Here’s the summary:

Compile all your deadlines, complete with details of each task, in a calendar, spreadsheet or otherwise. This will help you get a handle on the full scope of your academic obligations.

Make daily plans with time estimates. This will let you stay productive and waste less time. 

Stop yourself from procrastinating by working with others and letting others know when you intend to study.

Hold yourself accountable to your plans so you have a better shot at keeping them.

Ask for help and advice regularly. You never know what good ideas others will have.

Time management doesn’t have to be an ordeal. It’s quite the opposite. If you follow these pieces of advice, you’ll find your life becomes more ordered, there are fewer surprises and fewer bleary-eyed nights at the computer blasting out surprise deadlines. We called some of these unconventional at the start, but they don’t have to be. No matter who you surround yourself with, you can be the one to make a positive difference in your friend group or wider cohort. All you need do is start.