Time Management 101

Helping College Students Manage Their Time More Effectively

Posted Sep 29, 2015

This fall, I am teaching a course on Human Adjustment. Most of the students enrolled in this class are first-year students. The topic of adjustment appeals to most of them, as we discuss personality, stress, coping, physical health, and similar topics that touch the everyday lives of these 18 and 19 year olds.

Not surprisingly, many are struggling a bit with the freedom college life permits. One of their main concerns is learning to effectively manage their time. Some of them feel like they are not studying enough or in a consistent way, but they are not sure how to remedy the situation. To help them in the first month of college, I have them keep a Time Management Log for a week and then they write a brief paper analyzing where and how they use (or lose) their time.

The instructions are straightforward: “Write down everything you do in 15 or 30-minute segments. Your log should include things like commuting, sleeping, attending class, watching television, surfing the internet, working at a job, athletic practice, studying, hanging out with friends, looking at your Smartphone/texting, eating, and so on—everything. This week record will provide you with a realistic snapshot of how you choose to use your time.”

Once the week is up, they review their time logs and the write responses to questions like the following: “How do you use your time? Do you spend it wisely? What are the main causes of your “lost time” or the feeling that you don’t have enough time to all that needs to be done?  What changes could or should you make to better use your time? Are you wasting any time? Are there any “time-sucks” in your week? Are you reserving enough time for studying, doing homework, writing papers, and so on? What is your plan to better manage your time in the future? Were you surprised by how you spend your time?”

Where does their time go?

Quite a few students report being surprised at how they actually spend their time. Those who do not have major time commitments like athletic teams or part-time jobs turn out to often feel most at sea. Why? Because having free time between classes is spent napping, hanging out and socializing, downloading and watching videos, or engaging with social media. College work is pushed off except for those who have set study routine that involves a good place (the library, an empty seminar or classroom) to study regularly. As a result, quite a few students report racing to finishing reading and homework assignments at the last minute, which creates stress and often leads to mediocre performance.

Reviewing their time logs allows other students to realize how little time they are spending getting a good night’s sleep. Dorm life encourages late night discussions or parties, and some students are shocked when they see how little sleep they get each week (several students report not heading to bed until after 1 or 2am). Others learn they are sleeping too much—meaning 10 hours or more a day and sometimes much more on the weekend. In class, we discuss the importance of getting 7 to 8 solid hours of sleep a night. Failing to do so has consequences, what some researchers refer to as “sleep debt,” which leads to fatigue, lack of attention in class, and poor academic performance.

There is some good news: After reviewing their time logs, most students develop reasonable plans for addressing and changing their problem behaviors. I tell them not to try to make extreme changes, rather, they should gradually implement moderate changes that allow for more and consistent study time while allowing dedicated, if less frequent, time for socialization, relaxation, and activities (sports, clubs, video games). Weekends, too, need to include dedicated time for study, something many students neglect until Sunday night when the specter of the coming week of classes and other responsibilities looms large. Virtually all my students report that their Smartphones are a distracting temptation that wastes a lot of time.

If you are a college student or you know one, ask how their time management is going. If the answer is “not very well” or “I feel rushed and behind all the time” or the similar, then encourage the student to keep a simple time log like the one described above for a week or so. Nothing beats solid data indicating where time is spent and lost. This simple intervention can help students get firmer control of their lives in and outside the classroom. (And by the way, if you are employed and wonder where your time in the office or wherever goes, you can adapt the time log for that setting, as well—who knows, you might learn to be more effective in your workplace.)