Time Management Tips for Students

Learn how to effectively manage your time and you'll be one step closer to being a successful academic and professional. New graduate students are often surprised at how much is on their plate -- even students who worked and juggled classes in college. As a graduate student, you'll spend time in class, conducting your own research, working on faculty research, in study groups, in meetings with professors, reading, writing, and attempting a social life.  Many students believe that it will get better after they graduate, but, unfortunately, most people report being even busier as new professors, researchers, and professionals. Start developing good time management habits now to avoid feeling rushed and every day.

The first and most important time management habit to develop is to keep track of your time: how you plan to spend and how you actually spend it. Record your goals, plan how to spend your day, and record the daily progress you make toward your goals.

Maintain a Calendar System
By now, you probably use a calendar to keep track of weekly appointments and meetings. Grad school and a career in academia require taking a long-term perspective on time. Use a yearly, monthly, and weekly calendar.

Year Scale. It's difficult to keep track of today and remember what needs to be done in 6 months. Long term deadlines for financial aid, conference submission, and grant proposals creep up quickly. Don't find yourself surprised to realize that your comprehensive exams are in a few weeks. Plan at least 2 years ahead with a yearly calendar, divided into months. Add all long term deadlines on this calendar.

Month Scale. Your monthly calendar should include all paper deadlines, test dates, and appointments so that you can plan ahead. Add self-imposed deadlines for completing long-term projects like papers. At the beginning of the semester, lay out the semester-long deadlines for the coming months.

Week Scale.  Your weekly calendar includes your day-to-day appointments and deadlines. Have a study group on Thursday afternoon? Record it here. Carry your weekly calendar everywhere.

Create and use a to-do list
Create a long-term to-do list of stuff that needs to happen over the semester. Then organize it by month and week - and topic. The most important trick to keeping a to-do list is to actually use it --update it, add to it, and work from it. Take 10 minutes every night and make a to-do list for the next day. Look at your calendar for the next couple of weeks to remember tasks that need to be planned in advance: searching for literature for that term paper,  buying and sending birthday cards, and preparing submissions to conferences and grants. Your to-do list is your friend; never leave home without it. Your to-do list will keep you moving towards your goals daily.

Prioritize your to-do list. Rank each item by importance and attack your list accordingly so that you don't waste time on non-essential tasks.

Schedule time to work on classes and research each day, even if it is just a few 20-minute blocks. Think you can't get much done in 20 minutes? You'd be surprised. What's more important is when you work in frequent short blocks is that the material will stay fresh in your mind, enabling you to reflect on it at unexpected times (like on your ride to school or walk to the library) and have eureka moments of insight.

Be flexible. Allow time for interruptions and distractions. Aim to plan just 50 percent or less of your time so that you'll have the flexibility to handle unexpected events.

Stick with it.  Contrary to my "be flexible" advice above, try not to be easily distracted. When you're distracted by a new task or something that you need to remember, write it down and get back to work. Don't let a flight of ideas keep you from completing the task at hand. When you're interrupted by others or seemingly urgent tasks, ask yourself, "What is the most important thing I can do right now? What's most urgent?" Use your answer to plan your time and get back on track.

These habits are simple but effective. That said, they're not always easy to implement. It takes practice and patience. Moreover, you may find yourself revisiting and relearning these over the years.