You're not lazy, you're just overwhelmed: 9 time-management tips for students (and everyone else)

How to take control of your time this academic year.

How to take control of your time this academic year

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Making the move from high school to university life brings a major increase in freedom and opportunity. Educational, social, and extra-curricular possibilities abound. Students are usually more free of parental surveillance than before, and university teachers aren't watching their students too closely. Freedom and opportunity are good things, but getting a lot of both at once can be overwhelming. Loleen Berdahl, chair of the political studies department at the University of Saskatchewan and co-author of Work Your Career says that many students experience stress, anxiety, and depression, especially in their first years of post-secondary study.

But she doesn't think that's because they're lazy or are partying too much. "The problem is that students have moved from the highly structured environment of high school, where all the goals and standards were clearly laid out into a university environment where demands and opportunities of all kinds come hard and fast, but there is little overall guidance on how to take it all on. Students aren't lazy, they're overwhelmed." Here are Berdahl's top tips to help students use their time effectively while at university.

1. Set goals

University life provides more worthwhile opportunities than you have time to take advantage of. At nearly any given moment, you could be studying, hanging out with your friends, getting involved in any of the wide range of activities available on and off campus. How to choose what to do?

According to Berdahl, the best thing to do is to set goals early on. They shouldn't be purely academic and they're not set in stone. But they need to be clear and arranged in priority. "You can't manage time. You can't control it or get more of it. You can only try your best to use it to meet your goals." Having clear goals and priorities provides the basis to make decisions about your time.

2. Build good habits 

A habit is your default setting. It's what you do automatically without even thinking about it.

When transformed into habits, tasks that might otherwise require a lot of willpower get done as a matter of course. If you've hit the gym every afternoon from Monday to Thursday, getting there on Friday will be easy. If you wait till the inspiration hits you, you may never make it there. Because university life provides relatively little external structure, you have to build good habits yourself.

Berdahl recommends that "before the school year even starts, imagine your ideal realistic day. How much time do you need to study? When will you do it? How often will you exercise or go out?" When you've decided what habits you want to build, set up nudges, reminders, and incentives to help set them in stone. Get out the calendar and put in all your classes. Write in library time and exercise time. Set reminders for when you should be going to the gym and when you should be going to bed. Reward yourself when you stick to the plan.

You stand the best chance of making your habits stick if you start right at the beginning of term before deadlines start hitting. The sooner they become second nature, the sooner you can turn all your attention to reaching your goals.

3. Break down big assignments with a 'backward timeline'

"In high school," says Berdahl, "projects are broken into smaller bits. There is a lot more scaffolding. In university, the big paper is due at the end of November." The best way to handle these kinds of long term projects is to break them down into smaller tasks, set milestones and be accountable to them.

Berdahl recommends making a backward timeline. Start by writing the final due date of the paper in your calendar, then work backwards through the steps required to get there — editing, drafting, outlining, researching, meeting with the instructor, making a research plan, etc. — and write down when you'll need to have each of these sub-tasks done. Even though the paper is due months later, says Berdahl, when students complete a backward timeline, "They realize they have to start in the next few days."

4. Know what time you're at your best

"An hour is not the same as an hour," says Berdahl. "There are certain times of day that people are more creative and productive and can get more done." Many students (and non-students) are unaware of their natural rhythms. Others falsely believe they're night-owls.

Doing some intentional experimentation can pay off. "Start paying attention to yourself," says Berdahl, "if you spend just three days observing where your energy and focus is best, you'll start to see a pattern." When you've discovered when you're most effective, build around those hours. Use them for your top priorities and hardest tasks, and use your lower-energy times for things that require less creativity and focus.

 5. Take care of yourself

You have to study to do well in university, but that's not all you have to do. Berdahl insists that a balanced lifestyle is better for academic performance than single-minded fanaticism. "If a student is sleeping, taking time to exercise, eating well, having a reasonable social life, their quality time studying is so much better."

This is especially important during high-pressure periods, such as exam season. "You aren't going to do well on two hours of sleep," says Berdahl. "People like to brag about how busy and exhausted they are, but it should be the opposite. Be proud of getting a good result out of a four hour study session rather than chaining yourself to a desk for twelve hours straight." 

6. Do ONE thing

As we've mentioned before, multitasking is bad for focus. "If you're trying to study or read and you have e-mail or your phone on, it's a waste. Rather than being distracted for two hours of studying, you'd be much better off splitting into one hour of focussed work and then one hour break."

To get started and to stay on track, Berdahl uses the "pomodoro technique." Set a timer for 25 minutes and shut off all possible distractions: e-mail, phone, internet, etc. Work on the task at hand until the timer goes off. Take a short break. Get up and move around. If you have to check your inboxes, check them. After five minutes, restart the timer.

6. Use the plentiful resources available to you

"Librarians are the unsung heroes of university life," says Berdahl. Every university's library has plenty of resources on how to manage your time, how to study, how to research a paper, and other topics. "Students should binge on them," says Berdahl. And remember, the earlier you avail yourself of these kinds of resources, the longer they'll pay off. There are full-time staff devoted to helping you make the best of your time at university, and there is no reason not to take full advantage.

7. Take a 'growth mindset' toward grades

Especially in their first year, many students are shocked by the grading standards in university. Work that earned them A+'s in high school may only receive B's in university. This is normal, but it can become a problem if students conclude from a disappointing grade that "I'm not good at this" and give up on trying to improve. Grades aren't an evaluation of you as a person and don't tell you everything about your potential. They're there to communicate where you can improve. Use the resources available, including insight from your instructors, to find out how to do so.

8. When the going gets tough, ask for help

Things will inevitably happen in your university career that will disrupt your plans. When this happens, talk to your instructors as soon as you can. Sometimes they'll extend your deadline, but even if they don't, your professors and TA's can help you develop strategies to work most effectively under whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Your instructors, the writing centre and student counselling centres are all excellent resources to lean on.

9. Study actively

When exam season arrives, many students respond to the pressure by spending punishingly long study hours looking at their books. According to Berdahl, this isn't the best strategy.

"Reading and highlighting at this stage can almost be a waste of time. Students should already be familiar with the material and use the final weeks of term practicing writing out answers, doing mind maps and testing themselves. An hour spent active studying can be worth an entire afternoon just reading through the textbook." You need to know the material, but to perform well on an exam, you also need to practice delivering it. 

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.