Time Management Tips for College Students

How to manage your time at school.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #99

Ryan writes in:

Time prioritization is tricky for students. I schedule regular assignments, but my 2 hours for math runs out, the assignment is due Wednesday, and I'm booked all day Tuesday. Right now I usually cut something non-essential like a work-out or social activity. I just listened to a book on how to beat procrastination and learned this isn't the right thing to do...so what to do?

Ah, Ryan. I remember the life of a student with fond nostalgia. The learning, the camaraderie, the late-night discussions about the nature of the universe. And the Vaseline, Black Light, Twinkies, and Beer Party. Did you know both Twinkie cream and Vaseline glow under black light? And it takes six weeks to get Vaseline to come out of ... *wistful sigh* Those were the days.

As a student, you're juggling class, socializing, taking care of yourself (sleep and working out), and doing homework. Your teachers don’t coordinate, though, so your workload might change from week to week, from too much to handle to not enough. You’re being exposed to new things, never knowing what will or won’t grab you. Thirteenth century poetry by celibate lesbians may be your calling. I hope not, because then you’ll starve to death, but your agenda at school is developing the skill base for whatever path you’ll end up pursuing in the future. Only you don’t know now what that will be. Isn’t life a stinker?

Face Reality

There’s a huge difference between scheduling tasks that are well-defined and scheduling squishy, vague tasks. Making a peanut butter fluff pizza takes 15 minutes to mix the ingredients, and 25 minutes to bake. But learning? It’s not so cut and dried. You never know how long it will take.

If you’re truly overcommitted on an ongoing basis, I don’t know any way to cope but to drop something. Next semester, you can take fewer classes. But for now, you need a system flexible enough so you can let stuff slide while still meeting your goals.

It’s All About You

Top priority is you, you, wonderful you! College students suck at self-care. Either you're young enough that your bodies can take the abuse, or just don’t notice you're abusing yourself. I toured with an undergrad comedy troupe, attending 3 am dorm parties. I could hardly keep my eyes open. I felt old. Then I saw the undergrads could hardly keep theirs open, either. It’s just I knew I was tired. Get enough sleep. Eat well (the Nutrition Diva can help you!). As I know from bitter experience, screwing up one problem set in order to get enough sleep is better than getting mono, being sick for a semester, and screwing up several classes.

Schedule Your Studying, with Breaks

You're on the right track scheduling study time for each class. If possible, schedule gaps between study sessions. Hard subjects can use the extra time, and easy subjects let you finish early. Use the gaps for self-care activities like recharging, hanging out with friends, napping, or hopelessly obsessing over the cute sophomore who always mispronounces the word “solipsism.” Which is OK, because it's all in your mind, anyway.

In addition to between-study-session breaks, take a 5-minute break each hour. Alternating bursts of studying with short rest periods makes it easier to learn. In the book The Power of Full Engagement, authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz share how our brains use these breaks to consolidate, absorb, and file information. It’s like having your own little OCD reference librarian you can take with you everywhere.

Do Your Hard Classes First

I find it tempting to do what’s easy first. But then I stretch it out as long as possible because I enjoy it, and I don’t want to get to the hard stuff. School lets you step beyond your comfort zone. Do it! But do the work for your hardest classes as far in advance of the due as possible. By starting soon, you’ll have the ability to rearrange your schedule before assignments are due if you need extra time,. Study groups are key. Friends can help you through the parts that are hard for you. Schedule time to do work for easier classes after you’ve completed the work for your harder classes. Those assignments will be easier to handle when you are under more of a time crunch or when you feel a little burnt out.

And do get just enough socializing to keep yourself sane. If it involves ping-pong balls, alcohol, and romantic decisions that look really different in the morning, that's too much. Socialize enough to stay sane, not to go insane. Once you’ve done all your studying, then do the extra socializing whose effects, er, hang over your head the next morning.

Make sure you make some sober friendships, too. College is all about relationships. Twenty years from now, you may be doing business with your college friends, socializing with them, marrying them, or farming together in a post-apocalyptic survivalist compound following the collapse of civilization. (It could happen.) Your college friends will stay with you for life. No matter how hard you try to get them to leave.

And Ryan, as you’re taking care of yourself, scheduling the work for your hard classes first, leaving gaps between study sessions, giving your brain time to recharge, and building your future network, relax. Twenty years from now, you won’t even remember this week’s assignment, no matter what grade you get on it. Unless of course it’s the one assignment that makes you fail, drop out of school, and dooms you to a life of begging for used candy bar wrappers in Central Park.

For a Quick Tip on organizing your to-do list so you can get through it quickly, head on over here.

This is Stever Robbins. Follow GetItDoneGuy on Twitter and email questions to getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.