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Figuring out Time Management

By Rory, a Writing Coach

Do you remember the end of the spring semester? So many of us found ourselves stuck in a swamp of work, unable to navigate a way out of the quagmire of deadlines, projects, emails, and life events pulling us down – we really had to push ourselves to get over the finish line. With the start of a new academic year though, the fall semester offers another chance to start over and avoid the same struggles we faced last semester. To help figure out how to make that happen, I first asked my colleagues at the Writing and Learning Center to talk about the last time that they felt like they were struggling with time management, and here’s some of the responses I got.

  • Carter: “I was very overwhelmed the last week or two before spring break. I think I was feeling a bit burnt out.”
  • Ana: “This week”
  • Emily: “This morning. Right now I have three long papers to work on, tasks to complete for my job next year, and a grad school application to finish. All of these are important for my long-term goals–which do I start with?”
  • Our coach Amery captures the current mood perfectly: “Right now, lol.”
  • Katie gives us a preview of why we should think about time management: “There are very occasionally days when I’m struggling (usually around midterm or final season), but after finding what works for me, I haven’t struggled too much.”

Two dogs sitting on a bed looking somewhat overwhelmed

Lucy and Woody can feel overwhelmed with how they manage their time – they want to know how they can fit that seventh nap into the day while also getting three walks.

In times like these, I always turn to some of my favorite time management strategies – planners, to-do lists, small tasks – to help me get through everything. What works for me might not work for you – and that’s fine! There’s no one way to approach time management. Our coaches agree – just look at the different answers they gave when asked to define what time management means to them.

  • Amery: “Cultivating practices that help you allocate enough time for everything you might want to do. This might mean having strategies for being efficient with the tasks you have (focusing on one task and giving it 100% so that you can move on to the next as soon as possible), knowing how to prioritize tasks, and balancing the need for work with the need for taking brain breaks”
  • Emily: “I think of time management as aligning how you actually spend your hours/minutes with what your real priorities and goals are. Usually this takes both big picture thinking and concrete, daily planning.”
  • Katie: “For me, time management has to do with organizing my time in order to get things done in a productive manner. This productivity can relate to either getting schoolwork done or setting aside time for self-care or to see friends. I feel like there is a misconception that time management only has to do with things that society sees as ‘productive,’ but I think that people also need to manage their time to take care of themselves.”
  • Carter: “Making use of my time in the most efficient way to stay on top of all of my responsibilities to my work, my family, and myself.”
  • Ana: “Figuring out a way to complete all the things I have to do while still having time for myself.”

Everyone talked about it in a slightly different way, but all of these responses deal with figuring out priorities. What matters to you? What do you have time for? How can you achieve these goals? Our coaches followed up to share some of their favorite strategies for answering these questions as they manage their time.

  • Emily: “My go-to strategy is to dump every single thing I can think of that I have to do on a piece of paper. Then I break down all the bigger projects into manageable (30 min) chunks. Then I use a paper planner to spread out all of these tasks over the next days/weeks/months. Having it all written out in front of me helps me realize that I actually can complete everything.”
  • Ana: “GCAL!!!! Also, designating study time for a exam/big assignment coming up”
  • Carter: “Making a digital to-do list, automating as much as I can (like reminders to put out the trash bins, etc), having certain places dedicated to work (like coming into the Writing Center early to do some work before my time starts), and, paradoxically, letting myself hop from task to task in a kind of random way. The latter one is key to getting things done with ADHD, at least for me. Gotta follow the dopamine.’
  • Amery: “I quickly sketch out things I need to do for the day in a text that I refer to. I put all of my classes, scheduled activities, and sometimes major assignments I’m worried I’ll forget about in Google Calendar”
  • Katie: “I did some trial and error at the beginning of my undergrad career to figure out at what times I do certain things best. After this ‘experiment,’ I discovered that I work best (and feel best, mentally and physically) by getting up early to dedicate morning time to getting schoolwork done and then spending evening time on more personal, self-care activities. It’s interesting to compare my schedule to other people — for example, my roommate finds that she is the most productive at getting her schoolwork done late at night, not in the morning like me. As basic as it sounds, the main strategy that I recommend is just trial and error. Try new times, new places, working in silence versus music, working with different groups of people around (or with no one around) — just try new things until you find a schedule that works for you.”

As you can see from all these different responses, there are a lot of different ways to approach time management. Don’t be afraid to try some different ones out – maybe it turns out Google Calendar doesn’t work for you, but you won’t know until you try it out. Think of trying new strategies as chances to learn something new about yourself – a chance to develop what practices work best for you will help you grow as a student and learner.

If you’re someone who thinks you might be having some trouble with time management, here are some questions to help you identify areas where you can grow.

  1. Are you often stressed about deadlines or commitments?
  2. Are you often distracted from important tasks?
  3. How often do you set aside time for planning and scheduling?
  4. If you use a “to do” list, how often do you prioritize it?
  5. How do you hold yourself accountable for meeting your goals?

These are just questions to get you started thinking though – this handout from the Learning Center has a bunch of other questions that you might consider! 

  1. Once you figure out what exactly you want to focus on, here are some paths you might take on your journey towards managing your time better.
  2. Ask someone you admire what they do to stay on top of their tasks and responsibilities – whether that’s an advisor, professor, friend, or a writing coach!
  3. Try creating a weekly action plan – the Learning Center has a worksheet that you can use, or design your own.
  4. Think or talk through what tasks, responsibilities, or commitments that are most important – if you like, use this template to jumpstart your thoughts.
  5. Try out Ana and Amery’s favorite tool – Google Calendar; buy yourself a pretty paper planner that you can write, doodle, and sketch out your tasks in.
  6. Schedule an appointment with a Writing or Learning Center coach to help talk you through different strategies to figure out what works for you.

A screenshot of a table that can be used to help students figure out what they need to get done during the week

Here’s the Learning Center’s weekly action plan worksheet – feel free to customize it for what works best for you!

Great job! You’ve started working on staying on top of your different tasks and responsibilities by managing your time well, so it’s only right that you celebrate that achievement. Sure, crossing something off of a list, or deleting something in Google Calendar feels good, but if you have time it’s worthwhile celebrating your successes. Here’s some of the things that our coaches do.

  • Ana: “Watch tv, watch a movie, treat myself to boba/dessert/takeout, read a book, go on a walk, go out, hang with friends (literally everything I enjoy in life is a reward when I do whatever it is that needs to get done 🙂 )”
  • Katie: “Taking a small break. This often results in me taking 10-20 minutes to scroll on TikTok, take a power nap, read a chapter of a book, grab a tasty snack, etc.”
  • Amery: “Doing nothing for a little while!”
  • Emily: “Check it off on my physical planner! Then bake cookies.”
  • Carter: “Food! Also reading for fun or playing video games – my favorite lately has been Super Mario Sunshine”

Two dogs sitting on a bed looking somewhat overwhelmed

My own personal favorite is board games with friends.

So as we start off on this new academic year, even as you figure out how to best manage your workload, try to work in some time to celebrate those small victories – go for a walk to check out the leaves changing color, carve a pumpkin for Halloween, bake something with apples and sugar in it. After all, the real benefit of managing your time well is that you have the free time to do the things that you really want to do.

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