Level Up: Time Management and Planning
Resources for Upper-Year Students
Prioritizing and project management for upper-year courses
Typically, university students spend the first years of their studies refining their time management skills. Many believe that they can apply these tried-and-true strategies to their third- and fourth-year studies and life will be a breeze! However, upper-year students will experience new time management challenges due to complex school projects such as thesis-based courses, extra-curricular activities, part-time work commitments, and internship and post-graduate studies applications. It can be disheartening to discover that time management strategies that worked in previous years are no longer effective. Not to worry. Academic Skills in the Colleges has some tips and tricks to share that may help with the transition to these important upper years.
Tip #1: Prioritize your tasks and schedule according to importance (not urgency)
Do you often feel you have so much to do and too little time - that you are constantly distracted by crises and the urgent demands of others? If this sounds familiar, then you may need to improve your prioritization and organization skills. By not prioritizing tasks, you give them equal weight, which makes it difficult to decide where to direct your attention. For example, when a friend texts you to help move some furniture, do you set aside your application to graduate school and rush to help? You may answer ‘yes’ if you have not considered what tasks are important to achieving important milestones. Pushing aside important tasks and focusing on urgent ones can lead to time stressors, lack of focus, and even anxiety over the longer term as you lose important progress towards your goals.
The Urgent Important Matrix
To avoid the negative effects of failing to prioritize, and the subsequent time management challenges, Dr Stephen Covey, of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” fame, developed the Urgent Important Matrix to help people more effectively manage their time. The Matrix helps people categorize tasks by importance and urgency. Once tasks are organized along these lines, individuals can ensure they have time for important/urgent tasks (e.g., assignments due this week) and time to focus on important/non-urgent tasks such as major assignments, graduate school applications, and recreational activities. The Urgent Important Matrix also encourages people to minimize the amount of time spent on urgent/non-important (e.g, helping a friend move) and non-urgent/non-important tasks (e.g., gaming marathon). Learn more about how to use the Matrix to ensure you focus on the important things in life.
Assignment due this week
Job application deadline
Assignment due this month
Weekly concept review
Helping a friend move
Returning a call from the bank
Responding to an invitation to a family event
Not Important/Not Urgent
Bingeing an entire season of your favourite show
Dyeing your hair
Tip #2: Break larger projects into smaller tasks and set mini deadlines
As mentioned earlier, in addition to more demanding and complicated coursework, you will take on larger and more complex projects with longer-term goals in mind, such as attending graduate school or getting a job in your field. These projects can be best accomplished if they are broken down into smaller tasks with mini deadlines. For example, applying to graduate schools can involve many steps: researching potential programs, deciphering the application process, writing a personal statement of interest, and contacting people who can provide you with a reference. As well, complex upper-year school assignments will make demands on your existing skills and require you to develop new ones. Tackling such larger projects can seem daunting; the key to success is to understand that they are comprised of a series of smaller tasks. When you are faced with a large, complicated, and multifaceted project during your upper years, remember to consider all the smaller steps towards its completion.
The Pomodoro Method
One effective way to work on the small tasks that make up a larger project is to use a technique called the Pomodoro Technique. This method uses a timer to divide your attention towards a task into ‘work’ periods and ‘rest’ periods. The basic premise of this method is that the brain can effectively focus on work for short periods of time and then requires a short ‘rest’ to process the information or activity. The duration of the ‘work’ periods is different for everyone but ranges between 20 – 30 minutes. Watch a short, informative video about the Pomodoro method.
Tip #3: Use a planner, block time for tasks and make to-do lists
Once you have prioritized important activities that you will focus on during the academic year, and perhaps further broken them into smaller steps, you are ready to set aside time to complete these tasks. Most students use a planner to schedule their time. Planners can take many forms, from paper calendars, such as Academic Skills’ Term-at-a-Glance calendar, to digital calendars, such as Google calendar, to planning apps, such as My Study Life.
Time Blocking is a useful task management tool you may want to use for larger projects such as writing, researching and taking notes on longer readings. This method involves setting aside blocks of time to devote to the larger task at hand. Many people jump back and forth between tasks (particularly when they allow distractions and the urgent demands of others to take them off-track), but this is unproductive; instead, set aside a larger block of time and stay on task. Experiment with structuring your day in ways that help you be productive.
For example, in one day, you might plan for two 1-hour blocks and two 2-hr blocks; during the 2-hr blocks, you might employ the Pomodoro method to ensure you get mini-breaks during this time. These blocks could be scheduled for different points in the day, around your class schedule.
11am to 12pm: Read for seminar
2pm to 4pm: Find 3 articles. Read 1 article.
7pm to 8pm: Read for seminar
8:30pm to 10:30pm: Outline and write draft (approx 2 pages)
Learn more about Time Blocking.
Why not use an app on your phone to help you focus during your blocked-off time? Learn about the Bear Focus Timer, which uses the Pomodoro method timer combined with a focus application that requires you to place your phone face down to eliminate distractions while you work.
To-Do lists are also excellent tools to help you meet deadlines, stay motivated, be productive, and achieve a sense of accomplishment. A digital To-Do list application used by many students is remember the milk and both Microsoft Office and Google have useful To-Do list applications. Learn more about making effective To-Do lists.
Tip #4: Set reminders on your devices to keep yourself on track
Students who struggle with time management report that while entering dates into a calendar is a good idea, without prompts to action such as To-Do lists or digital reminders, they tend to lose track of important dates and deadlines. Successful upper-year students know that setting reminders on their devices is an important strategy to help them stay on track. The Microsoft office To-Do and Gmail Tasks application allow you to create tasks lists and set reminders, and many online calendars also let you set reminders for scheduled events and tasks. Make use of reminders and never miss an important deadline again!
Tip #5: Put yourself first; rest and recharge
Finally, as you take on large and complex project, it is more important than ever to take care of yourself. While you are scheduling in time to research potential internship placements, also schedule in time for a power nap, a healthy snack, or a trip to the gym. As you set a reminder to complete a small task towards completing a research project, also set a reminder to drink a glass of water or take a short walk around the block in between work sessions. Last of all, learn when to say ‘no’, particularly to others’ urgent requests of your time! Your goals need – and deserve – your time and attention; in your upper years, you are setting the foundation for your future – use your time wisely!
Top time management tips for the upper years
- List and categorize your projects by importance and urgence. Plan to work on urgent items before non-urgent, and important items before non-important.
- Make a To-Do list of tasks and schedule them using a planner.
- Break larger projects into smaller tasks and set mini deadlines.
- Set reminders on your devices to keep yourself on track.
- Make time for yourself to rest and recharge.