Time management is problematic at all college levels, from the newest undergraduate student through graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty. Mastering it is a skill that will do much to help ensure success in higher education and, presumably, in the careers people undertake beyond it. An article in the New York Times, “Helping the Poor in Education: The Power of a Simple Nudge”, notes that while some of the more effective methods of helping people with time management are expensive, others are more easily done. Some few such are discussed below.
The first component in managing the limited resource that is time is to list – either physically or electronically – the tasks to be accomplished. Such tasks should include major administrative or organizational deadlines, course deadlines (i.e., when major projects are due and tests take place) and personal events, and they should appear on more than one list:
• The first is a list across the whole of the term, whether semester, trimester or quarter;
• The second should be a breakdown by month;
• The third should be a breakdown by week and
• The fourth should be a breakdown by day.
Having the multiple lists allows for different foci throughout the course of study and affords an idea of context that helps to assert which tasks should take priority. It also quickly identifies one of the factors that determines a task’s priority: when it must be done. All else being equal, what is due first should be done first.
Not all else is equal, though. Some tasks are more important than others; some assignments are worth more of the course grade, some administrative tasks have effects that span terms or years. The relative importance of a task is at least as important in prioritizing it as is its due date, such that a high-stakes task due a week away should probably be completed before a low-stakes task due tomorrow. High-stakes tasks are not usually done all at once, though.
Start Early, Do Often
Colleges and universities tend to be good about publishing deadlines early. Many schools have already set their administrative calendars for the next few years, and most professors are obligated to publish course calendars detailing the dates major projects are due and exams will take place early in the term. Advance notice of when what needs to happen is therefore usually available, and that means it is possible to start work on things early – which is one of the best things that can be done to manage time effectively. Starting early on larger projects and tasks allows for division of those tasks into smaller components, making them easier to do.
It is not enough to start early, however. The start needs to be followed up repeatedly and often, with each small bit of the task to be done integrated into the lists noted above. It is only through doing so that projects can be handled efficiently and well with a minimum of stress and a maximum of effect, allowing for an easier, more pleasant time in college.
Other things can be done to enhance time management skills, of course. Following such basic steps of time management as prioritizing tasks and starting frequent work on them early will do much, however, to ensure that things go well in college and afterward.