How to Improve Your Time Management and Study Skills

College is full of fun stuff like study groups, practices, last-minute trips...and classwork! Worried about fitting it all in? This college expert can help!

Rehearsals and practices. Study groups and last-minute trips to the beach. Not to mention, you know, classwork. Any way you slice it, college is full of stuff. Worried about fitting it all in? Author, consultant, and all-around college expert Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, can help! She was kind enough to share an excerpt from her book I Can Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide. Read on for her expert advice on how to improve your time management and study skills so you're ready to go when you get to campus! 

Life as a college student

Did you know it’s advised that you study two hours for every credit hour you take? So if you’re taking 16 credits, that’s 32 hours of study a week. But you’re also working 20 hours a week...and you commute three hours each day, 21 hours a week...and you do need to sleep at least six hours (42 per week) or you’re a mess. That’s 115 hours a week accounted for right there. And students who sleep more do better by a significant degree, according to various studies.

There’s obviously not enough time in the day. We all say that at some point, sometimes frequently. But actually, depending on how we choose to use it, there is enough time. I know perfectly well that if I watched less TV, I would get more done of a productive nature—so I make a choice. Less time on Facebook or YouTube, playing Frisbee or guitar, or hanging at Starbucks—less on all of those could yield you more time too. The activities listed in the first paragraph above total 115 hours, but there are 168 hours in a week. It’s up to you how you spend the remaining 53—that’s more than seven every day—fooling around or doing laundry, attending a club meeting, dating, seeing a movie, or whatever else you want or need to do.

Related: Video: A Day in the Life of a College Freshman 

Determine what takes up your time

To be more productive, the first thing you need to do is determine your time management style. This may seem annoying, but it is really useful. For one week (do this with a friend, to compare notes and make getting it done more likely), write down everything you do and how long it takes. How long do morning preparations take you? Note how long it takes to get to school, go to classes, have lunch, study, and whatever else needs doing for the entire day. I bet you find surprises by the time the week ends. If you work longer hours or have a family to care for, then your time is more constrained (and perhaps more unpredictable). But students manage all of these things and school. Often, paradoxically, those who have more to do are more effective and do better in school—and often in life.

Make your schedule work for you

Once you know where your time is spent, you can make your schedule work more effectively for you. The best strategy is to plan. That means you need some tools: a planner, a PDA, a calendar. Use whatever works best for you; I emphasize use. I myself prefer a Google Calendar and lots of lists and Post-It sticky notes. Planning is not simply recording when you have a dinner date or a paper due; it involves looking ahead and also back. You look ahead to see, for example, when your paper is due, then look back to see where you have blocks of time to work on the paper. You should put tasks requiring long stretches of time, such as writing a term paper, in time blocks of an hour or more. Set a goal for a first draft and put that on your calendar. Make a date to show the draft to your professor. You'll not only impress your teacher but keep yourself from procrastinating. Other assignments, such as reading a novel for your literature class, may be done in small time chunks. Always have that book with you for the times when you’re on the bus to school or in line at the grocery store or just have some moments available. But do put the reading on your to-do list for the day.

Related: 5 Easy Ways to Get Organized in College 

Write a to-do list

Let’s discuss your to-do list. Keep a daily list of the main tasks or goals you want or need to accomplish. You’re less likely to forget them that way. If you spend two hours working on your lab report, you know you’re that much ahead for the next day, even if it’s incomplete. Try this for a couple of days and see if you don’t feel a little more proud of yourself when, at the end of the day, you can see “done” items crossed out. Sometimes you need to make the list come to life: set reminders in your calendar or PDA, or put sticky notes on your mirror. You can even ask friends to remind you to check your list as you work on getting accustomed to using it.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get everything done. Situations can interfere: illness, family needs, a new priority at work. A good plan allows some wiggle room. Planning allows you to slow down; it is healthier. Move an item to the next day if you can’t get to it. But if you have to keep moving items, it’s an indication of a problem, and you should stop to see what’s happening.

Face your anxiety 

One of the biggest factors interfering with a plan is fear. Really. You may be afraid you can’t write a paper, and so you put it off. It’s better to talk about matters making you anxious than to be paralyzed by the fear of them. This kind of fear can also relate to not being able to say no. Out of fear of being unpopular, you agree to go to a party you have no time for, chair a committee you have no time for, hang out when you know you should be studying or working. You can effectively say “no” by saying that you’re sorry but you have other plans or are just swamped. You don’t have to explain more than that. You want to be the person with clear priorities, and that includes planning time for yourself. A nap means you are busy, as does the gym. And the time you lose because you got sick from lack of sleep or food or exercise is really time wasted.

Make achieving your goals a communal activity. Let someone else know your short-term goals. If you’re determined to have your lab report done by Thursday so you can enjoy your weekend, tell a friend. If you have to get grad school applications in by November 1, tell your mentor or advisor. If you need to be up early to exercise, find an exercise buddy. Others can help you stay focused and resist tempting distractions.

Related: Top 10 Ways to Avoid Procrastination 

Set your priorities

Setting priorities means you have to think about the long term. Why are you in college? You are there to gain the skills and credentials that will help your dreams come true. You are not there to drink the most beer, be president of the sorority, direct every play on campus, or win the final four in basketball. Your classwork, the job that allows you to stay in school or furthers your career plans, your health, and your relationships are your priorities. The balance can shift periodically, but you have to keep those four in your sights at all times.

Wondering what college students do with all their time? Check out our article Inside an Average Day in the Life of a College Student

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