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Ultimate Time Management Strategies for Students

Imagine what being a master of your own time would look like.

Maybe for you that would mean no more late nights. No tired mornings. Energy, focus, clarity. You jump into each project with a plan of action and you get it done, quickly. You can say yes to your friends and family. You balance work, school, your social and personal life easily.

You feel good about your accomplishments as you knock them down one at a time.

Procrastination vanishes.

Confidence grows.

Success is a recipe you can easily follow and it will make you the master over your time.

When time owns you, often you’ll find yourself struggling to keep up.

Overwhelm, frustration, and disappointment are easily accessed emotions. If you’re not getting “enough” done each day, you’re not in charge of your time, time is in charge of you.

This guide will show you proven strategies for taking control of your time, and your life.

If you practice and incorporate these 7 time management strategies I guarantee you’ll notice in how much you can accomplish during the day, and how great you feel about yourself.


SINGLE TASKING


Most students find themselves multitasking because of the sheer number of things students are supposed to juggle each day. Multiple assignments for classes, exams to study for, activities to pursue, plus figuring out all the adulting stuff no one ever told you how to do.

Our culture is obsessed with multitasking. Many people think they should advertise multitasking as a bonus skill on their resume.

But as anyone who’s built a system around multitasking can tell you -- it’s a false premise with false rewards.

Research has conclusively shown that multitasking is a myth.

Yes, you’re able to perform low level tasks at the same time, like cooking dinner and talking on the phone to mom, or chewing gum and patting your head, but your brain cannot focus on two different high-level tasks at the same time.

We’ve all done it: texted while a friend tells us a story (sorry, what?), written an email while on the phone (uhuh, yeah, uhuh), eating while watching tv (which only diminishes the pleasure of both).

As students, multitasking is easy because technology is constantly in use. But there’s a big downside. Researchers Junco and Cotten (2011) have taken a look at the correlation between multitasking and GPA among college students:

A study conducted by Junco and Cotten (2011) found that students who spent more time instant messaging and who reported engaging in schoolwork while IMing reported that IM had a detrimental effect on their schoolwork.

Wood et al. (2012) found that students who used Facebook while attending to a lecture, scored significantly lower on tests of lecture material than those who were only allowed to take notes using paper-and-pencil.

Across the experimental and control groups, students who did not use technology outperformed students who did use technology during lectures.

In addition, students who were classified as non-multitaskers scored better than multitaskers, regardless of the level of multitasking they reported. In another study, Rosen et al. (2011) found that students who received more text message interruptions during a lecture performed worse on an information posttest.

This entire post is built around single tasking methods. Without single tasking you can’t hope to master your time and free your mind from stress, anxiety, and overwhelm.

The principle behind single tasking is in the name: you focus on one task at a time.

Many self-proclaimed multitaskers (a syndrome from which I’m actively recovering) believe that you can get more done with multitasking.

Once you employ single tasking, however, you’ll notice a massive uptick in productivity and quality. I can tick off way more to do’s in a day single tasking than I could have ever hoped as a struggling multitasker.

I feel more relaxed and certain that I will achieve my big goals. I actually see steady, building progress instead of stunted growth spurts.

As a student single tasker, you’ll be able to…

  • Use your time more efficiently
  • Remember more from what you read
  • Increase your ability to focus and produce quality work
  • Build stronger friendships and relationships within your academic community
  • Feel less distracted, overwhelmed, and like you’re not living up to your potential

The rest of the strategies in this post will guide you into a single tasking mindset & ability.

I find it helpful to remind myself that focus is a practice and I need to work on it every chance I get.

Distraction impulses are ever present. Even now--as I’m writing this article on single tasking--my dog asked to go on a walk, three phone calls came in, and I denied my impulse to check my email 16 times.

Each time a distraction comes up I tell myself, hold out & this will all become a little easier next time.

You need to rub up against the urge to switch tasks/distract yourself and deny yourself the distraction in these moments. Every time you stand up to your brain wanting a distraction, you’re building your practice “muscle.” You may find it helpful to stick a note on the computer that reminds you, focus is a practice.

Since single tasking is made more difficult by the nature of school these strategies are designed to ease the disparate tasks you find yourself needing to work on in a given day.

Hint: if you’re taking classes across disciplines single tasking is more difficult. To combat this particular snag you can create a master thesis or through-line to connect your entire curriculum.


Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance


“Give me six hours to cut down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Don’t mistake movement for achievement. Being busy doesn’t mean you’re being productive or using your time wisely.

Unfortunately, school often keeps us students so busy, we don’t even have time to question whether or not we’re being productive.

I define the difference between busy and productive as this:

If you’re growing and moving toward your greater goal(s), you’re in productive mode.

If you’re completing tasks but feel like you have little to show for it, or aren’t certain what all of those tasks are adding up to, you’re keeping yourself busy.

It’s a scary thought, but most students don’t even have clearly defined goals. But with no clear goal, how do you know where you’re going? How do you know if you’ll get there?

Your degree is not your goal. It’s a means to an end.

High-level planning means you’re setting the right kind of goals for yourself so that you can actually achieve your dreams without getting lost, confused, or derailed.

High-level planning ensures you’re using your time wisely to achieve your ultimate goal.

Low-level planning is the territory of your daily, weekly, and monthly tasks.

There are a lot of strategies around planning and there’s no one-size fits all solution. I tried Cal Newport’s time blocking technique for months, but it ended up being too restrictive for me and I couldn’t stick to the plan.

Tony Robbins, whose strategies I also absolutely love, created the Rapid Planning Method. I’ve incorporated some of the elements of his RPM but never committed to the full process.

Mariah Coz, another top favorite strategist of mine, created a beautiful Sprint Planning Workshop. Again, I incorporate some of her principles in my own planning method but don’t use the full system every time I have a project.

The point here is that there are many ways to plan in a way that will allow you to access massive achievement efficiently. You need to try different practices and apply what works for you.

Here’s what ended up working smoothly and consistently for me:


Focus Days (high level planning)


I have a lot of projects to juggle, from blogging, to creating a Student Achievement Planner and Guidebook, to writing for Medium, working for clients, and continuing my own personal development which includes taking courses on Udemy and reading two books per month, plus experimenting and implementing different processes I’m learning. Not to mention applying to grad school, keeping an active social life, rock climbing and yoga-ing nearly every day, and keeping my pets and plants healthy.

As a student, you’re likely inundated with a similar amount of stuff to juggle.

Focus days delegate related categories of “stuff” to certain days. Anything that comes up that doesn’t fit into your focus for the day doesn’t need to be thought about until its related focus day.

Here’s what a student’s focus schedule might look like >>
 
Focus list (low level planning)

For the day to day grind I start off by writing a focus list each morning.

My focus list helps me refocus on my main project & purpose, gain clarity around what work will contribute to my goal and what I can leave behind as not taking me closer to my goal. My focus list motivates me like crazy, even if I wake up feeling confused and apathetic.

Because once you realign with your goal you realign with your excitement and the possibility of achievement.
Deep work = better work, faster

Laser-focused, distraction free work will allow you to produce better work, faster. Naturally this is a key time management strategy.

If you’re task switching you’re increasing your anxiety and lowering your performance.

Focused, directed work yields more benefits. Research shows that focused work actually makes you feel happier, as well as being more productive.

Like planning, there’s no one master strategy for focused work that dominates all others, but there are a few essential elements necessary for deep work.
 
  • Building a deep work routine
  • Working in a distraction free environment
  • Working on one thing at a time (singletasking)

Divide deep work activities (important, high-level tasks) from low level tasks (like email, errands, etc). (eg, spend the early hours on deep work and later hours on low level tasks when mental fatigue is higher)


Limiting distractions:

I wrote a post here about how to design your distraction-free environment, which covers another important point -- digital detoxing.

The tldr version of the post is this: cut down on your “stuff” to create a clutter-free environment, then set tools around you that maximize productivity. Make distractions more difficult by making them hard to access (eg, putting your phone in another room as you work, or putting a post-it-note on your door asking people not to bother you for a set period of time).

Single tasking:


I like using the Pomodoro method to ensure I’m focused on one task at a time before switching to a new one.

This is a great system for doing work when you don’t want to or when you have a lot to tackle in a given day.

The Pomodoro method is simple:

You set a timer for a certain chunk of time (usually 25 minutes but depending on the task I set my timer for 10 minutes up to 30 minutes).

The idea here is that you work with absolute focus for your allotted time.

Once the timer is up take a 5 (or 10) minute break and get back to your work or move on to the next task.

In my master planner I keep a running list of 10 minute tasks. These are things like, “do 1 phase of the laundry,” or “vacuum,” or “make a pot of tea,” or “walk the dog.” Short, distraction-free tasks that I can insert between projects so that I maintain focus and keep my brain juices replenished with downtime.

You should never check instagram, your email, texts, or watch a quick tv show in order to take a break between academic or brain-centric tasks. These will destroy your concentration and make it so much harder to get back into the flow state, if not preventing you from getting there entirely.


Divide Your Time


With classes throughout the day you might be hard pressed to find blocks of time in which to do deep work.

My favorite class schedules give me a window of time between morning and afternoon classes where I can hole up in the library and work, undisturbed, for an hour or two.

If you’re lucky enough to have a class structure that looks like this, deep work is easy.

Even if you don’t have a block of time during the day that facilitates deep work, you can find snatches here and there. With a busy daytime schedule you might find it easier to fill in your low level tasks between shorter class breaks, and then use a chunk of night time to get your deep work done.


Build a Deep Work Routine



Routines make everything in life easier, because routines are a form of habit and habits are low-friction activities you do almost automatically.

My morning shower is a daily habit. It re-energizes and revitalizes me. When I want to add new habits, I attach the new habit to something I already do & love. So when I wanted to include journaling in my morning routine, I scheduled a 30 minute journaling session after my shower.

For your deep work to become routine, try scheduling a consistent deep work time block. This is why it’s a great idea to use a 1-2 hour break between classes for your deep work habit.

But you can do this any other way: 1-2 hours after dinner. 1-2 hours before your first class. 1 hour before and after the gym (assuming you have a steady gym habit).


Defeat perfectionism & procrastination



One of the outcomes of effective time management is that you’re able to do more in less time.

For this to work, perfectionism and procrastination cannot be part of the equation.

Perfectionism never helped anyone. It’s really not an issue of producing A+ work. Perfectionism is, according to many health professionals, a mental health risk.

Perfectionism is a defense mechanism. We’re safe if we never try, and how can we try if we need the thing to be perfect the first time around?

“That’s the problem with so many adults, we’re all focused on getting it perfect, instead of trying. What ever happened to good enough?” ― Mel Robbins

I write about how to change your attitude from “I’m not good at…” to “I’m good enough for...” in this short, actionable post.

Once you defeat the thought process behind what perfectionism tries to protect us from, making those initial attempts becomes easier & more exciting.
Ditch procrastination with ritual and recipes

There was a time when I suffered madly from “blank page anxiety.” Every time I opened a new document my heart would push a little stronger, my hands would fidget, and I’d need to go get a glass of water, a snack, a different notebook, get out of the house, find the right coffee shop with the perfect vibe, and they too needed the right snacks and beverages or I just couldn’t get started on my paper.

Fast forward to now, 200 essays and about a zillion blog posts later. I have no fear when I hit the blank page. My fingers start flittering over the keys with confidence and ease.

How did I overcome this crippling habit of procrastination?

By developing a system. A ritual, or recipe if you will.

I can sit down and immediately hammer away, saving me insane amounts of stress and time spent arranging my desk so that everything was exactly perfect before I could begin.

If perfectionism is fear, procrastination is the tool the body employs to keep us safe.

But now, my plan keeps me safe. I know I can follow the same recipe and produce the same results.

Here’s how it’s done.

Create a step-by-step system for achievement

I knew I procrastinated hard around writing. I had to do a little digging to find the part that I was resisting the most. That made my body react and mind flip into flight mode.

The blank page.

It used to be that I would sit down at the computer with notes in hand, and then freeze, because the blank page was so terrifying.

To remedy the fear of the blank page, I just needed to get some black marks on the page, moving it from blank to full.

Nbd.

Plus, I needed a direct plan for writing. Something that would keep my fingers moving across the page.

I had the notes, but I didn’t really know where they were going or how I was to use them.

So I developed a formula for writing an outline, which turned into a formula for writing an essay, or blog post, or email, or whatever.

A formula is this handy little thing you can create that lets you start at the exact same place, each time.

You take one tiny element of the task you want to accomplish, make it super easy to do, rinse and repeat.

As another example, I’m awful at making tedious phone calls. So instead of “making the phone call,” I key in the number I need to call and leave it at that.

Next thing you know, when I go to pick up my phone looking for a distraction, I’m met with the number I want to call. Because I have the time and space for a distraction -- I just press call and do the thing I need to accomplish instead.

I’m not giving a black and white prescription for creating a specific ritual or recipe, because these are often personal and based on what your procrastination habit looks like.

But the easiest way to break a habit, I’ve found, is to come up with a clear & easy replacement action.

So instead of staring at the blank page, I start by writing down notes to myself about what the content needs to look like (easy).
Do one more thing

If you’re really tapping out you have a choice: let yourself quit and train yourself that when you’re tired or bored or just “done” you can keep quitting, or push yourself to do just one more thing.

That can be one problem. Making one flash card. Reading one paragraph. Writing a to-do list for tomorrow. Whatever it is, doing even just one more 10 minute task can train your brain to push through when it doesn’t want to and cultivates grit.

“Without effort, your talent is nothing more than unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn't.” ― Angela Duckworth, Grit

Training grit is perhaps one of the most useful skills you can develop in any field, and it will heighten your ability to manage your time -- how?

Because when you’re committed to doing the hard work, you’ll spend less time unfocused and wasted on netflix, instagram, or wherever you get your mind-numbing fix from.


Do one thing that commits you to take action tomorrow



At the end of the day, before you put everything you have to do away, do one thing that commits you to take action tomorrow.

That can be as simple as texting a friend to meet an hour before class to study.

Or signing up for a fitness class.

This helps you keep forward momentum and can help you persevere through burnout.


Be bored



If you feel like you don’t have an extra to spare to do self-care or if you often make excuses like “I’m too busy with school to ______,” you’re probably wrong. Because my guess is you still spend a certain amount of time watching netflix, scrolling pinterest, or, if you’re like me, just staring at the wall.

Your mind needs to reset and relax by switching to the Default Mode Network (does anybody else feel like a computer?).

This is our default mode and it’s necessary to revert to in order to sustain cognitive processing, especially when we’re thinking about deep work over the course of a few hours.

There are certain default mode network activities that refuel your brain, and others that hinder the reset process. It’s like charging your phone with an old charger, versus a new fast-charge.

Watching a show or engaging in the phone scroll doesn’t allow the brain to properly rest & do its thing. Being bored has been proven to facilitate creativity and can help you unlock solutions to problems as you chew on them in your mind.

In order to do the hard work again, day after day, and reach higher levels of success, you need to let your brain chill and do, like, totally nothing.

Here are some alternative activities when you need a brian reset but don’t want to damage your cognitive abilities with your phone addiction.

  • Go for a long walk
  • Take a bath
  • Read a (gasp!) book
  • Draw, paint, dance, or sing
  • Give your pet the pet they deserve
  • Bake some brain-fueling muffins

If you upgrade your leisure time so it really does what your brain needs it to do, you’ll open more time during your day for even more leisure or so you can fill in necessary chores, self development projects, etc.
Carefully assess your day

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

If you want to manage your time well, you need to measure how you spend it.

Finally, you need to understand how you’re actually spending your time in order to maximize your management over it.

Humans are wildly off in their self-assessments, and actually more so when they’re confident of their assessment.

So you may think you know how much time you spend working vs goofing off, but what you’ll really find is that your numbers are skewed.

It’s more helpful to have an accurate reading of your time, so do the work and log your day for a week or month, so you know what behaviors are serving you and what aren’t, and how you can adjust to better manage your time.
 
 

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