Finding time to succeed

One week has 168 hours. Take out eight hours of sleep each day (let's be optimistic) and we're left with 112 hours. A full-time undergrad is expected to spend roughly 40-50 hours per week on academics depending on their courses. That time includes all academic commitments, so it leaves about 60 hours for everything else, such as eating, hygiene, commuting, hanging out with friends, volunteering, binge-watching TV, working part-time, wasting time, and exercise.

If you're working, need to care for your family, or have other time commitments, keeping up a full-time course load might not be reasonable. Taking a "victory lap" is common. A 2010 study found only 39% of full-time undergraduates in the Maritimes graduated on time. A 2014 study of universities in the USA put the average lower at around 36%. And really, isn't it smart sometimes to slow down? Finishing quickly might not be worth 4 years of stress and sleep deprivation. Note that moving to part-time status can impact things such as your status for student loans and time until graduation, so it's a good idea to check with Financial Aid and an academic advisor before making that kind of decision.

There are still things we can do to use our time effectively: invest time, schedule, prioritize, and avoid procrastination

Before that, let's get one thing clear. We can't manage time. We all have the same amount, and time will not change for us. When we talk about "time management," what we really mean is self-regulation and being accountable to our schedules. The distinction is important because this is usually more about attitudes and lifestyle management than anything about time.

Time investments

There are ways to spend time which save us time in the long run. A habit of investing time reduces stress and allows us to accomplish more. Here are some examples:

  • Attending class: essential if you don't know the material, and valuable review if you do; plus, respect to an instructor goes a long way
  • Studying regularly: keep information in your memory and avoid having to relearn right before exams (stressful!). A habit of studying has been proven many times to be more a effective use of time than cramming. Unlike studying, cramming has limited impacts on long-term memory.
  • Making notes: while you're in class anyway, making notes will increase your memory of the material and provide you with faster study materials than the textbook.
  • Staying organized: having a system to file things like assignments, notes, and handouts will reduce time spent searching
  • Budgeting time: using a schedule or building the habit of saying "no" to things when you're already feeling stretched will reduce stress and allow you to get things done more effectively
  • Outlining and planning assignments: a few minutes figuring out what you want to say and how you can prove it can save an enormous amount of time on research and writing

Scheduling

Time scale

Regardless of how you schedule your time, you should keep track of both the long-term as well as short-term. Keeping track of an entire academic term is a great way to avoid getting surprised or missing an assignment or large test. On the other hand, we also have to keep track of the short-term, because the assignment due in a couple days is a bit more important now than the midterm in a month.

A student planner is an excellent way to keep track of both the short and long term. You can also use a different approach for each, for example using a calendar (paper or on your phone) for the entire academic term and a checklist to stay on top of what needs to be done now. 

In all cases, you should refer to your long-term schedule every time you're remaking your short-term schedule. This is the best way to look ahead while staying focused on what's immediate.

Format

There are lots of ways to keep track of how we plan to spend our time. Agendas and student planners might bring back fond memories of high school for you, or they could remind you of mountains of unfinished homework. It's important to find a format you actually like, rather than something other people tell you is good.

A big part of choosing a format is knowing yourself. If you like structure and being micromanaged, go for timetables, planners, and detailed schedules. If you prefer a more laid-back approach, go for checklists scribbled on paper and a quick and simple academic term calendar like these:

Each academic term, be sure to check the important dates for undergraduate students (dates may be different for Master's & PhD students; the calendars above are for undergraduates).

Frequency

The best schedule is completely useless if you don't use it. Get into the habit of checking your schedule. Picking a time of day to check is an excellent approach. For example, if you ride the bus to class every morning, check while you're on the bus. Or, if you study and do your homework every evening after dinner, check it before you start.

To stay on top of of large assignments and tests involving significant preparation, it's important to check your long-term schedule every time you are making a new short-term schedule.

If you struggle to do certain tasks or use your schedule, it's a great idea to reward yourself when you do. This will help you feel good about what you're doing and give the experience of using your schedule a more positive spin. It may also increase motivation in the future, which helps build good habits.

Content

It's a common mistake to fill a schedule with only courses, readings, and assignments. The problem with this is that it ignores how much of your day is spent doing other things, like talking to your friends over coffee or flipping through your news feed on your phone. We also have to do things like eat, sleep, and (ideally) clean. 

For many people, an ineffective schedule contains only responsibilities and work. It's something that can be used to identify the next task to trudge through towards a degree. It feels way too much like being an adult.

A holistic schedule is a much better approach. Do you love taking long walks? Put that in your schedule. Spend hours every night on the internet? If you're going to do it anyway, schedule it. Do you often find yourself staring off into space around 8PM? Perfect, pencil that in! Be realistic about how you actually spend your time and when you can get your academics done. Your schedule is your decision about how to spend your time. Be honest. Feel good about using it by including the things that make you feel good. You'll also be more likely to use it.

Prioritize

We can't do everything. Sometimes there are too many fun things to do, too many books to read, too many tests to study for, and too many assignments. When that happens, we have to decide what's important and spend our time towards that.

Defining importance

What's important to one person might not be important to another. We can establish a few ground rules of things that are important:

  • significant, missable personal events (anniversary, birth of a child, a funeral, a wedding, etc.) of family or close friends
  • things with large impacts on grades (midterm, exam, assignments, etc.)
  • things which save more time than we spend (going to class, small bits of studying, planning a large assignment, meal prepping)
  • things which are essential to our happiness or well-being (hobbies, taking breaks, regular health check-ups, bonding with friends)
  • things which are essential to a stable life (paying rent on time, getting groceries, applying for jobs or scholarships)

You'll notice many of these are not academic. University is not more important than the rest of your life. Aim for balance. This will allow you to enjoy your time here and take care of yourself. At some points in a term, like right before exams, the impact of academics may cause it to become a more important place to spend your time. 

Urgency and importance

Some things are very important (like calling your family if you live away), but can be done at any time. These things are not urgent. Other things, like a paper worth 3% of your final grade, may not have huge impacts, but can be urgent. When we're trying to figure out what to do in the short time we have, we need to consider both urgency and importance. 

An easy way to accomplish this is to first make a list of the things you have to do. Then, add two columns.

In the first column, give a rating of "urgent," "soon," or "whenever." To find out which, ask yourself when it has to be done. If there's no time limit, it's "whenever." If it's very soon, it's "urgent." Everything else is "soon."

In the second, give a rating of "essential," "important," and "optional." To find out which, ask yourself what would happen if you didn't do it. If something very bad would happen, then it's "essential." If nothing would happen, it's "optional." If it would be bad to not do it, but without huge impacts, then it's "important."

You should try to do what's urgent and essential first, followed by what's urgent and important. After that, you may need to decide between soon and essential or urgent and optional. You can put these on a grid, or pick without doing so. The grid below can be a helpful way to see patterns in the things we want to do. Note that at times you may disagree with others as to what's important or urgent, especially when doing group work. It's important to be flexible and realize our actions impact more than ourselves.

Eisenhower matrix of tasks, showing we should focus on what's most urgent and most important, and avoid what's least urgent and least important

 

Avoiding procrastination

People procrastinate. It's a normal process, but also one which can be highly personal. Rather than one-size-fits-all tips, let's explore why people procrastinate, and how we might get over each different type of procrastination. For further help with procrastination, make an appointment with a counsellor or the academic coach.

Being overwhelmed

Possibly one of the most common causes, feeling overwhelmed can make starting something seem intimidating. This often comes out as avoiding thinking about a task.

If this sounds familiar, a good approach is to talk to someone. Another person can often identify a great first step. It's challenging to do this when we're overwhelmed, because we're so focused on the volume and all of the individual parts that we sometimes miss the bigger picture.

A more practical approach is to sit down and make a checklist of all of the steps required to complete a task. If seeing the entire list is overwhelming, cut it up into smaller parts. Then, do each step. Remember to reward yourself for following your own plan  this builds self-control.

Lacking interest or motivation

It's not realistic to expect everything during your time in university will captivate your attention or fit in perfectly to your goals. At times, there are things that just seem boring or irrelevant. In those times, it's hard to get motivated.

This can often be caused by not understanding the purpose of an assignment or reading. It's okay to ask your academic coach or a classmate to identify some ways in which something is important or valuable. You can ask your instructor, too, but be mindful they already understand the value, so choose your wording carefully to avoid conflict. Sometimes assignments are given mainly to develop effective writing skills, solid research methodologies, or specific knowledge in a field. Rather than focus on how something is uninteresting, try to find ways in which it will help you develop important skills or better understand the world you live in.

Working well under stress

Many students believe they do their best work under pressure, and will wait until a day or two before an assignment is due to begin. This comes with significant risks, as you're less likely to have fully developed ideas and there is a strong chance you'll make a simple mistake in grammar or spelling. It also rushes research and formatting, which can be time consuming. 

"I do my best work under pressure" is an example of a self-belief, a belief we hold about ourselves. More often than not, these beliefs are created from a selection, not the entirety, of our past experiences. They lack solid evidence. If you think you're a better writer when you have less time, try doing an assignment much earlier. See how it compares to the ones you rush. You'll have to do this several times to get an accurate idea of whether the belief is true or not. We believe all sorts of nonsense about ourselves: check if your beliefs about procrastination are true. If it turns out to not be true, you might be underperforming. 

I'd rather do something else

Video games, TV series, social media, and the internet are likely culprits for this kind of procrastination. Picking one of those versus spending your time reading a textbook is sometimes an easy choice. We're only human, so we pick the thing that's more fun. 

If you enjoy doing those things, you should do them, but how do we do that and get our work done?

Making a more realistic schedule can be a good approach. If you find yourself binge-watching old episodes of Seinfeld or spending hours on Facebook, then put that in your schedule. If you're accountable to your schedule when it tells you to meet your friends for dinner, you'll probably also be accountable to it when it tells you to start researching that big paper.

Another option is to make a list of several things to do. Include only the tasks you're avoiding and things that sound even worse. Because you tend to pick the easiest or most fun thing, you'll pick what you were avoiding, because it was the best of the bunch. 

Perfectionism

Some of us procrastinate not because we want to avoid doing things, but because we haven't perfected what we're working on right now. If this sounds like you, it may be helpful to keep this in context. If you've only got one paper to write, then you can spend lots of time on it. If you've got several, spending too much time on one will impact your grades on the other ones. 

If you have done this in the past, try to develop a habit of at least making a draft for all assignments before you start to perfect them. At the very least, this will ensure you have something to hand in.

It's good to aim for quality. You can get help improving your writing at the Writing Centre. Help with studying is available from Academic Coaching. Tutoring in many SASE courses is available in the Math & Science Help Centre. Let us help you improve in a much shorter period of time. Perfection is practically non-existent in academia, but we can let you know when you're already exceeding expectation.

Fear

Maybe you're afraid of what an instructor will think of your work. Maybe you feel like an imposter. University is about learning, even beyond the undergraduate level. It's okay to make mistakes. That's how we learn!

If you need some pointers to get started, we're here to help. You can get help improving your writing at the Writing Centre. Help with learning or getting motivation towards academic success is available from Academic Coaching. Tutoring in many SASE courses is available in the Math & Science Help Centre. We're friendly and more likely to show you what you're doing right than wrong, but we'll also here to help you grow.