Good time management skills are important not just in your studies but in other areas of your life. Planning your objectives and goals within a specific timeframe will mean that you are more likely to reach your targets and complete tasks on time or even ahead of schedule. As a result, you will get more time to enjoy other things in life that are important to you.
However, managing your time is easier said than done. University and life can throw many obstacles at you: multiple deadlines, work, social commitments. Sometimes finding the right balance can feel like a constant battle and this is where effective time management can help. So, how do you develop effective time management skills?
In this guide we’re going to focus on identifying some of the obstacles that might be stopping you from working smarter and recommending some strategies and tools to help you overcome these obstacles. The end result: better organisation of your time and a healthier work-life balance.
The tabs of this guide will support you in managing your time. The sections are organised as follows:
Reflecting on how you currently spend your time is a really important start. You can then begin to make the changes necessary to form an effective strategy for getting your tasks done on time. Some of these statements might be familiar to you...
What are your priorities? As a way of mapping your time, take a look at the following matrix tool. Decide what is urgent and what can wait, then plan what you do first.
If this method works for you try building it into your weekly routine.
Tutorial preparation for a looming deadline
Last minute preparation for an event or presentation
Reading lecture notes
Exercise / staying healthy
Planning time / goal setting
Some emails and phone calls
Helping a friend with a relationship problem
Catching up with missed TV programmes
Some phone calls
Checking your social media messages
Adapted from the Time management matrix as described by Covey and Merrill (1994) in “First things first”.
Although you may know what your priorities are you may still find you are distracted by other things. Avoiding what needs to be done or procrastinating can mean that you lose focus and this can really soak up your time. To build better study habits think about some of the following:
Ensure your desk is tidy and organised before you start to study so that you can focus on your work rather than searching for pens, notes and books.
Use a new route to work or university to stimulate your brain and recharge your thinking powers. Do you have a study buddy you can start your work with? Sharing ideas and talking about your work with someone else or a group will make it seem less overwhelming.
Do you feel like you have taken on too much? Then share some tasks with others. You can return the favour later on when you have more time.
Remember that it is ok to say ‘no’ to other tasks or calls on your time – negotiate what you can and can’t do and be responsible for yourself. Saying ‘yes’ is a good thing but saying it all of the time can be counter-productive. Remember the priority matrix.
Before you start your work, switch off distracting apps/social media accounts on your phone for short periods if you can. Put your phone out of sight. You will have plenty of time to check it when you have done a chunk of study – think of this as a reward for spending time working.
If you are still having difficulty getting started there are also some helpful apps that can help you along the way such as:
Finish – a to-do list app for Apple User. This tool allows you to set short, mid and long-term tasks. The different settings allow you to look at everything at once or just focus on more pressing deadlines. A “Bother Me” switch allows you to be bothered every hour to finish a task.
Mindly - helps you organise your thoughts in a more three-dimensional manner than a to-do list. This app helps you create quick summaries, plan projects and add associations to keep you organised. It can also be shared with friends and colleagues.
For more strategies on how to deal with issues around concentration and where to seek help take a look at our Staying focused while studying guide in this study skills series.
We’ve looked at managing priorities and how to deal with some things that hold you back, now let’s look at how you plan your work within the time slots you have available.
Sound familiar? If you use a diary or a planner you can plan a week, month or a semester ahead. You might want to plan backwards from a deadline so that you can visualise exactly what needs to be done in the time. Think about those assignment deadlines, exam dates and lectures. Start to enter any other work you do - don’t forget to add the time spent at any sports or social clubs you belong to and include time for cooking, eating, exercise, regular family commitments, and other social or free time. It is important to be realistic about the time you spend on different activities or tasks.
You may wish to use a portable printed diary, a wall planner, or download a timetable template. Colour coding can be used for formal tasks such as lectures, seminars and lab work. Don’t forget to include time for socialising, sleeping, eating, fitness, shopping, housework and part-time work – these timeslots can also be colour-coded.
Assignment Planner which allows you to set your start date and hand-in date and suggests a plan for you which includes researching, drafting, writing, proofreading and writing up your references within the timeframe.
If you are working on your dissertation then our Dissertation Planner is the tool to use. Don’t forget to add in other areas such as revision, prep for assignments and organising your work in physical or online folders as this will speed up your efficiency later. It is also a good idea to have some flexibility or contingency built into your plan so that, if anything unexpected occurs, you have time to deal with it.
Once you have decided on a planning tool or diary that works for you, start to think about your environment. Keep it varied. If you need to complete a project with friends or colleagues then try using a group study area, virtual or physical so that you can discuss ideas and practice presenting. If you need to travel regularly between sites, work, and university, think about using time on the bus for reading or drafting a mind map for an essay, or, if you are driving and need to concentrate, listening to a useful podcast/audio book.
Choose a good time to do your study. Recognise times when you feel tired and use these periods to do low energy work such as labelling folders and organising notes. Do high value work during times when your energy levels are at their peak – you will be much more productive.
Break larger projects down into smaller manageable ones. Think about “chunking” similar tasks together, starting perhaps with background reading and note-making work, then your writing tasks followed by a break, and then perhaps move on to computer based work. Decide how long the small chunks of time will last before you break. Try the popular Pomodoro Technique which uses a pattern of 25 minutes of work followed by a 5 minute break and possibly a reward to recharge before you start work again.
If you struggle with juggling a number of deadlines or tasks try Personal Kanban. This technique allows you to visualise the amount of work you have, and the way that work is carried out. Personal Kanban is also scalable. It can work with just you, or with your family or even with work groups.
We talked earlier about organising notes and labelling files during your downtime. This can be a helpful activity that will improve your productivity later on. Having well-ordered storage areas can save you time and unnecessary searching. You might want to colour code folders, use dividers and tags within box files, or use different coloured sticky notes to label articles you want to refer back to in your notes.
If you prefer online organising try the following apps which may help:
Evernote – allows you to gather all your notes, thoughts and ideas in one place across many devices
Google keep - a sleek pin board style app – allows you to pin notes, make lists and add photos onto a well-designed and easily updateable homepage.
Lastly, think about planning a “landing area" at home for when you come in, so it stays organized, and you don’t forget things as you leave the house. It can be a set of hooks or trays that hold your keys, phone, calculators, shoes, textbooks/notes, rucksack, memory sticks, headphones etc. This a simple but effective way of ensuring you don’t waste time trying to locate your important “stuff”.
Using a planner will allow you to set enough time to go over your work thoroughly before a hand in deadline. Remember, in many cases you need to leave enough time to submit your work online via e-submission through Turnitin or e-Assignment. See the guidance on Turnitin for Students to find out what steps you need to take around the submission process.
Taking responsibility for managing your time well and organising your work, keeping records of your sources and fully acknowledging the work of others, are key to ensuring that you follow good academic practice. Poor time management could mean you miss noting the correct references, or copy a quotation or source incorrectly simply because you were rushing to finish an assignment. Giving yourself time at the end of the writing process to check your sources thoroughly will help you avoid both plagiarism, and breaching the University of Southampton regulations and guidance on academic integrity. For more information on the University expectations in this area follow the Academic Integrity Guidance for Students.
There may be times when you feel you are overwhelmed by your workload, or you are feeling stressed and can’t concentrate, or there may something out of your control that has happened in your life which has affected your work.
There are many people in the University who can help and support you. Talk to your Personal Academic Tutor as soon as possible as they offer one-to-one support and advice throughout your time at the University, and will support you in your studies or with other issues you may have.
Student Wellbeing, Student Life and the Faith and Reflection Centre are also services you can call on amongst others - take a look at our Support Services Guide for more details. For free, independent and confidential support try the Students' Union Advice Centre.
For help with planning and writing dissertations and essays, referencing, research and general study skills check our Academic Skills Website.
If you have more minor worries but really need someone to talk to, try asking friends and colleagues for help as they may be able to listen, build your confidence and help you get back on track.
Recognising that time is a limited resource and that you have the power to make changes in order to get things done more effectively, is crucial. This guide should help you take control, reach your goals and achieve a better work-life balance.
Here’s a final recap of the main points:
Plan your work over a week, month or semester. Include assignment deadlines, exam times and lectures. Be realistic and include work and social or free time.
Set clear realistic goals and split larger tasks into manageable ones. If there are things you don’t like doing, try putting these at the beginning of the work /study session. Get them finished while your energy levels are high.
Decide what is urgent and what can wait then plan what you can do first.
Recognise the calls on your time and make changes. Remember saying ‘yes’ all of the time can be counter-productive. Take responsibility for yourself.
Try to vary your work and chunk like tasks together. After longer periods of work, review what you have done. If your concentration is flagging, stop, and do simpler tasks that are useful but can be achieved during periods of low energy. Take breaks and learn to relax - find out what helps you relax and add it to your planner or diary.
Reference Covey, S., Merrill, R. and Merrill, R. (1994) First things first: how to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy. London: Simon and Schuster