Finding time to succeed

Pie chart of student's week with 1/3 of time left for work, family, and fun

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 spends 40-50 hours per week on academics. This leaves about 60 hours for downtime, work, or family.

Slowing down can be smart

A full-time course load isn't always reasonable. Other commitments like a job or a family can make it challenging.

A 2010 study of graduation rates found only 39% of full-time undergraduates in the Maritimes graduated on time. A 2014 study of graduation rates in the USA put the average lower at around 36%. The 4-year plan isn't for everyone. 

Switching to part-time can impact your status for student loans and time until graduation. Check with Financial Aid or an academic advisor.

Control your use of time

To be effective we can invest time, schedule, prioritize, and avoid procrastination

We can't manage time. "Time management" means self-regulation and being accountable to our schedules.

It's about attitudes and lifestyle.

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 do more. Here are some examples:

  • Attending class is 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 keeps information in your memory so you don't need to relearn right before exams (stressful!). Studying is more effective than cramming. Cramming only works for the short-term.
  • Making notes will increase your memory of the material and provide you with faster study materials.
  • Staying organized will reduce time spent searching
  • Budgeting time by using a schedule or saying "no" reduces stress and allows you to get more done
  • Outlining and planning assignments saves time on research and writing

Scheduling

Short-term and long-term scales

Regardless of how you schedule your time, you should keep track of both the long-term as well as short-term. Keep track of the entire term to avoid missing an assignment or large test. Keep track of the short-term to stay on top of immediate, important tasks.

Agendas and planners keep track of both the short and long term. You can use a different approach for each, for example using a calendar for the term and a checklist for what needs to be done now. 

Whatever you do, refer to your long-term schedule every time you remake your short-term schedule. This is the best way to look ahead while staying focused on what's immediate.

Choose the right format

It's important to find a format you like, not one other people tell you is good.

To do this you need to know yourself. If you like structure and being micromanaged, use timetables, planners, and detailed schedules. If you're more laid-back, go for checklists and a term calendar like these:

Each term, check the important dates for undergraduate students (Master's & PhD dates are different).

Check it as a habit

The best schedule is completely useless if you don't use it. Get into the habit of checking your schedule. 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.

Stay on top of of large assignments and tests. These require preparation, so check your long-term every time you make a new short-term schedule.

If you struggle, reward yourself when you succeed. This helps us feel good about what we're doing and makes the experience more positive. It may also increase motivation, which helps build good habits.

Your schedule reflects your life

It's a common mistake to fill a schedule with only courses, readings, and assignments. Most of our time is not spent on academics. We also have to do things like eat, sleep, and (ideally) clean. We also lose hours to social media, being with friends, TV, and other entertainment.

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.

Holistic approaches work. 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. There are too many fun things to do, too many books to read, too many tests to study for, and too many assignments. We have to decide what's important and spend our time on that.

Importance matters

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

  • major events (anniversary, birth of a child, a funeral, a wedding, etc.)
  • large impacts on grades (midterm, exam, assignments, etc.)
  • time savers (going to class, small bits of studying, planning a large assignment, meal prepping)
  • happiness & well-being (hobbies, taking breaks, regular health check-ups, bonding with friends)
  • adult stuff (paying rent on time, getting groceries, applying for jobs or scholarships)

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. 

Do what's urgent and important

Some things are very important (like calling your family if you live away), but have no deadline. These aren't urgent. A paper worth 3% of your final grade may not have huge impacts, but can be urgent. To prioritize, consider both urgency and importance. 

To do this, first make a list of what you need to do. Add two columns: urgency and importance.

In the first column, give a rating of "urgent," "soon," or "whenever." 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." What would happen if you didn't do that task? 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, then the urgent and important. After that, decide between soon and essential or urgent and optional. The grid below can be a helpful way to visualize this. 

Sometimes groups disagree about what's important or urgent, especially when doing group work. Our actions impact more than ourselves, so it's important to be flexible.

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

It's normal to procrastinate. Different reasons have different solutions.

For help with procrastination, make an appointment with a counsellor or the academic coach.

Being overwhelmed

If starting something seems intimidating, you're overwhelmed. Often a symptom is avoiding thinking about a task.

A good approach is to talk to someone. Another person can often identify a great first step.

We can get focused on all of the steps and the volume and miss the bigger picture. Seeing less helps. Make a checklist of the steps in completing a task. If the list is overwhelming, cut it up and look at a smaller part. Then, do each step. Remember to reward yourself for following your own plan – this builds self-control.

Lacking interest or motivation

Some things in university will not captivate your attention or fit in to your goals. At times, things seem boring or irrelevant. This can cause procrastination.

Identify some ways in which it could be important or valuable. Assignments are often given to develop writing skills, research skills, or specific knowledge. Rather than focus on how something is uninteresting, explore how it will help you develop skills or better understand the world you live in.

Working well under stress

"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 lack 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. Do this several times to get an accurate idea of whether the belief is true or not. If it turns out to not be true, you might be underperforming. 

If you find it's not true, it will be easier to stop.

I'd rather do something else

Given two options, we usually pick what's more fun. 

Scheduling can help make boundaries. Set time aside for leisure as well as responsibilities. Having a plan helps limit leisure taking over.

A sneaky option is to make a special to-do list. Include the tasks you're avoiding and things that sound even worse. You'll pick what you were avoiding, because it was the best of the bunch. 

Perfectionism

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 leaves no time for the others. 

Develop a habit of making a draft of assignments before perfecting them. At the very least, you'll 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. There is no perfection in academia, but we can let you know when you're exceeding expectation.

Fear

We can be afraid of what an instructor will think of our work. We can feel like an imposter.

University is about learning, even beyond the undergraduate level. It's okay to make mistakes – that's how we learn!

We can help you feel good about the process. You can get help improving your writing at the Writing Centre. Study skill training is available from Academic Coaching. Tutoring in many SASE courses is available in the Math & Science Help Centre. You're probably doing more right than wrong, but we'll also help you grow.