Managing Your Time for Graduate Students

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Introduction and Self-reflectionI. Becoming AwareII. Setting and prioritizing goalsIII. Getting organized IV. Overcoming procrastination
Introduction and Self-Reflection

Introduction and self-reflection

Why should I use time management skills in a) my life and b) in my academic setting? Am I having trouble organizing and managing my time? If so, do I want to improve my time management skills?

If the answer to this last question is YES, read on!

Challenge or opportunity? 168 hours per week

There is no mystery about the importance of managing our time. We all have 168 hours each week to eat, sleep, study, exercise, and have a personal life. A combination of improved time management skills and effective study and learning strategies will result in you feeling more in control of your life and more likely to achieve your academic goals. The greatest difference in managing time from undergraduate to graduate school is the level of complexity. By graduate school, there are greater responsibilities and expectations both academic and personal. These expectations are both internally (self) and externally imposed.

Some common challenges facing graduate students are:

  • unclear expectations (from self, professors, supervisor);
  • not feeling in control (of processes, timelines, outcomes);
  • feeling guilty (e.g., of not doing enough work);
  • fear: feeling not capable and/or over one’s head;
  • supervision: communication, availability, unclear on rights;
  • lack of accountability or feedback on progress;
  • juggling multiple and complex tasks;
  • managing large projects (e.g., thesis writing, data collection);
  • lack of structure (e.g., no classes to “frame” the week);
  • non-academic demands: family, work; and
  • finances.

International students have added stressors and challenges, such as:

  • homesickness, loneliness, and/or culture shock;
  • language (especially for non-native speakers of English); and
  • caring for and worrying about family who have accompanied them and family at home.

Time Management module

This module aims to assist you in balancing your complex life, specifically through good time management practices. Reflective questions in each section help you to assess how well you are managing right now and if any changes need to be made. Specific time management strategies are provided from which you can pick and choose according to your style and preferences.

The strategies are grouped around central themes:

  1. Becoming aware of your values and current habits
  2. Setting and prioritizing your goals
  3. Organizing your schedule
  4. Overcoming procrastination

Knowing your values

 Self-reflection questions

What are my values? Do my current actions reflect those values?circular diagram of actions, attitudes, and values

Values are those core ideas you have about the worth of something, and the judgments you make about what is important in life. The values we hold help to determine how we use our time (e.g., if there are 30 spare minutes, someone who values orderliness and needs a tidy space to think clearly may spend that time organizing their work and home space, while someone who places a higher importance on fitness may go for a run).

Our attitudes or opinions stems from our values which, in turn, result in our actions. When our actions (e.g., chronically handing in papers late) and our values (e.g., being a responsible student) don’t match, we tend to feel conflict.

Students generally place a high priority on successfully completing their university degree (a value), think they are capable of doing this (an attitude), and are willing to persist and do whatever it takes to get there (actions).

Motivation is one of the keys to success, and internal motivation happens when things are in line with our values. There are strategies that can help you understand the link between your values and your time management habits. See Manufacturing Motivation.


I.   Becoming aware

 Self-reflection questions

What is my current approach to managing my time? For example,

  • a structured approach vs. flexible approach?
  • find deadlines helpful/not helpful?
  • need pressure to perform vs. can’t work well at the last minute?

Why do I use (and keep using) this approach? When is this approach helpful and when is it not effective? When do I need to be more self-aware and change my approach to suit the situation?

Generally, do I feel in control of the time available to me?

My time management style

My time management style

We all have developed personal habits that may help or hinder our efforts at using time effectively. These patterns may reflect our personal values, or they may result in distress or internal conflict. The self-reflection questions will help you understand where you are coming from and where you might want to go.


Adopt an awareness approach: Monitor –> Analyze –> Revise

Monitoring: How is my time used? What are my time usage patterns?

Analyzing: When am I the most productive? Is this style working for me? Should I change or modify what I am doing now?

Revising: Given what I now know, what do I need to change?


Controlling my time: Who's in charge?

Controlling my time: Who’s in charge?

Grad school requires a great deal of independent thought and work. Therefore, one might assume that grad students have more control over their time. Although this might be true at some levels (e.g., organizing their schedules, setting up your research apparatus), there are many aspects of grad life over which a student has limited or nominal control (e.g., availability and time spent with supervisor, deadlines for proposals and theses, research data such as live lab specimens).

Even a well-organized grad student might face slowdowns and stoppages occasionally. This can be very frustrating and even scary, especially when your 4th year of funding is drawing to an end and you still have one more year of work to do! Unchecked, high levels of stress associated with this feeling can produce crippling effects, both emotionally and physically. Your stress may not only affect you, but also your loved ones and colleagues. Before things start feeling out of control, take time to sit down and analyze how much control you wield over each aspect of your program.

Once you have a better (and probably more realistic) sense of your situation, you can implement processes and strategies to assist you in feeling more in control.


Self-Reflection Questions

II.   Setting and prioritizing goals

Setting goals helps us to determine a direction, to assess whether we are on track, and to celebrate achievements. Goals can reflect different time frames (immediate, mid- or long-range) but are most useful when they are specific, measurable, and involve an action or concrete outcome.

Some goals are realistic and others are idealistic, and keep us reaching for a high standard or level of thinking. Given the nature of grad school, it would be prudent to be more realistic than idealistic when setting your goals. Ask how much you can really accomplish at one time. Being an over-doer hurts not only yourself but your loved ones, too. You might need to alter your expectations once you’ve done a thorough and realistic plan for yourself.

Self-reflection questions

What are my goals:

  • in the short term?
  • in the long term?
  • in terms of academics?
  • in life?

How do these goals relate to my values? How are these goals helping me achieve what I want in university and in my life? What can I do when I’m not clear on other peoples’ expectations?

What roles do I play? Which are the most/least significant in terms of demands on my time and energy?

Challenges to goal-setting and prioritizing

Unclear expectations

Expectations of professors, supervisors, and your department are not always clearly laid out. This can make goal setting and prioritizing abstract and, therefore, more difficult to do. It can also lead to working too much and not having a life and/or wasting a lot of time. Another problem might occur if there is dissonance between your goals and that of your supervisor or department. For example, your supervisor wants your thesis proposal done by the end of the term, but you feel this is unattainable and would like several additional months to complete it.

Multiple and competing demands

Grad students need to juggle competing demands placed on them from the multiple roles they play, both professional and personal. For some students recognizing the relative significance of goals and tasks can be difficult as everything feels important. However, all things are not created equally! With the immense number of tasks grad students face, prioritizing is a must. Sometimes priorities are set based on immediate need, the relative value of the task, how quickly a task can get done, your motivation, or the consequences of not doing something. To survive and thrive as a grad student you’ll need to assess the importance of each task vis-à-vis your life values and your goals.

Strategies for goal-setting

Strategies for goal-setting

Values-based goal-settingtriangular values-based goal setting diagram: life values, academic program, term goals, weekly, daily

The process of goal setting can be viewed in a shape of a coffee filter: you start by thinking about what you value in your life and how these values translate into BIG picture, long term goals. Once you have done this, you will find that you have greater clarity to make good decisions in the short and medium term. Thinking at the macro level first will help guide your daily decision-making and ensure that the immediate goals you set are couched in your value system. Therefore, it is important to spend time considering what part your values play in your academic choices.

Life values

What are your important life values? Identifying the areas of your life which are the most important to you lays the foundation for determining where you want to head in the future, that is, your goals. Take a moment to write down your life values. These values can be concrete, like “career success,” “family,” or “financial security,” or they can be more abstract, like “pursuit of excellence” or “personal growth.” Your values will evolve and change over time. You may wish to jot down all your values and then display them to get a snapshot of your life right now.

Moving from values & goals

After you’ve listed your values, you may wish to convert one (or many) of your values into a goal. It’s best if you write the goal out so it can be reviewed later. Use the SMART method of writing goals as described in the next section. After goal-setting you will need to put an action plan into play to activate and track your goal.

For a values and goals worksheet and an example, see Values-Based Goal Setting.

Identifying and recording goals

Academic program

Set aside an hour or more to jot down your needs and desires for your program. Compare this list to the one you made last year. Are the goals the same? different? Are you satisfied with where you are now? If not, what changes do you need to consider?

Term or academic year goals

Goals should be set at regular intervals, perhaps each month, throughout the term. Continuous assessment of term or academic year goals will help you stay on track with your weekly and daily goals. For guidance in writing useful goals, try using the SMART method.

See: Make your goals SMART!


Review your upcoming week. What tasks need to be accomplished and when? Set aside 30 minutes, for example each Sunday night, to prepare a list of goals for the week.

Daily To Do list

At the end of each day, set aside 5-10 minutes to prepare a “To Do” list for the upcoming day. While doing this, have your weekly goals at hand so you can compare and contrast bigger picture items with here-and-now tasks. If you find that the weekly and daily tasks collide, it is time to rethink and revise.

The “Unlist”

Some students find facing a To Do list stressful, especially when they cannot complete the tasks they previously set out. Instead of a motivator, the list provokes guilt and may lead to procrastination. If this is your situation, try compiling an “Unlist.”  Instead of writing a list of tasks prior to doing them, write down your tasks AS you complete them. The outcome of seeing a list of items accumulate can be very motivating. You may wish to continue adding completed items to your “Unlist” throughout the week, month, or term, whichever you find most useful.

Strategies for prioritizing: 4Ds system and A-B-C method

Strategies for prioritizing

There are a number of strategies and tools you can use to help prioritize your goals. Always refer to your course outline (especially learning objectives and evaluation sections) to see what the professor considers important. We have provided an array of techniques in the hopes that you will find one (or more!) that really works for you.

4Ds system

No matter what the stuff in your ‘inbox’ is, you have only four choices:

  1. Do it: If the task can be completed in two minutes or less, do it
  2. Delegate it: Give the task to someone else to This might be troublesome if you hate waiting for something to be done by someone else.
  3. Defer/Delay it: But make a plan as to exactly when you will deal with
  4. Dump it: Your choice here!

Source: David Allen, Getting Things Done.

A-B-C method

Categorize your goals into:

  • A: immediate/must do
  • B: might do now but don’t have to/could do if there’s time
  • C: nice but not likely to happen/can be delayed

Mark each goal with an A, B, or C. Do the A goals now!


Self-reflection questions and common challenges

III.   Getting organized

Being organized requires an understanding of: the task, how long it will take to complete, the time available, and the required tools. While there may be a connection between neatness and organization, it is not always the case. People have different methods and tolerances, and some people are “selectively organized” in areas that reflect their personal values.

Self-reflection questions

  • What is my preference?
  • What are my organizational methods? Why do I use them?
  • How are they working or not working for me?
  • How can I improve my organizational skills?


Common organizational challenges for grad students

The loose or “open” schedule

On the surface your schedule may appear very open. Unlike undergraduates who often have their school days filled with classes, grad students don’t have a great deal of structure in their day. Creating a self-imposed plan of action for each year, term, week, and day is paramount to keeping on track.

Planning a schedule can be particularly difficult at the beginning of one’s program if “things haven’t started yet” (e.g., reading courses not yet laid out, thesis unclear, etc.). For some students, setting up supervisory meetings, group meetings, and research studies may take weeks. During this phase students who have not organized a tentative plan might find themselves wasting precious time. Getting into a routine too late may also lead to procrastination.

A sense of openness or too much space in your schedule accompanies some students throughout their programs with dire consequences. They might chronically hand in work late, not be well prepared for presentations or comprehensive exams, and/or get further and further behind in their research.

Regularly revisiting your values, goals and priorities will give purpose to your schedule!

Large projects

Large projects (e.g., researching and writing a dissertation) may span many years. Even with clear goals and time management skills, large projects might feel daunting and energy levels might falter. In addition, certain aspects of the project that are in your control (e.g., making a plan to finish your literature review) and others are not (e.g., waiting for your supervisor to read and provide feedback on your research proposal). A large project will also compete with many other tasks, both academic and personal. When managing large projects, grad students often struggle with:

  • Long timelines: When do I want to be finished my project? When are major deadlines? When do I need to complete X, Y, Z? What are the consequences of not finishing on time? Do I have a Plan B in this event?
  • Loose structure (see above section “Loose & Open Schedule”)
  • Locus of control: What aspects of the project do I control totally, somewhat, not very much? Who else has control over my decision-making and in what ways? How do I feel about having limited control in some aspects of the projects?
  • Limited feedback: How and from whom can I get feedback? What feedback can I expect from my supervisor?
  • Unclear expectations & accountability: What is expected of me? When? To what extent/level? Who am I accountable to? What am I responsible for?
  • Multiple and competing tasks: How will I ensure that this project is not obscured by other competing tasks? Where does this project fit in vis-à-vis my other priorities? How can I maintain a balance in my academic and personal life?
  • Energy: How will I sustain my energy and a positive attitude to the project? How will I stave off burnout? How will I balance my schedule to ensure I have downtime, sleep, exercise, healthy meals?
  • Procrastination & Perfectionism: How will I get started on the task I’ve planned to do? How will I know when it’s time to let go and move onto something else? How can I do my best without going overboard to the detriment of other tasks? How can I control my tendency to make things perfect?

Negative thoughts: Fear & guilt

Do any of these statements sound familiar to you?

  • “What if I can’t do what my supervisor has asked?”
  • “I’m way over my head.”
  • “If I can’t get this done when [my supervisor] asked for it, will s/he think I’m lazy? Not smart enough to be a grad student?
  • “If I don’t finish this degree, what will my [family, friends, partner, kids] think of me?” “I’m not grad student material. Who was I trying to kid?”

Negative thoughts can impact your performance. They increase your stress levels and, consequently, interfere with concentration, focus, and time managment. If you are feeling this way, you might consider a professional consultation with a learning strategist and/or a personal counsellor at Queen’s Counselling Services.

Strategies for organizing

Strategies for organizing …

… Yourself

  • Create Structure
    • Use scheduling tools: term calendars, weekly and daily planners, “To Do” lists
    • Include quiet time for thinking, discussing, percolating ideas, and spontaneous creative thought.
    • Seek balanced health (physical, intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual).
    • Give yourself permission for downtime, sleep, exercise, and socializing. Guilt-free play is very important as it recharges your batteries for the next work day.
    • Use “found-time”: these are small amounts of time between scheduled activities that can add up to many hours over the week.
  • Create a Positive Learning Environment
    • Organize your study space/ desk area. Make sure it is a quiet place where you cannot be distracted.
  • Stick to Your Schedule
    • Make a contract to get and stay organized. List what you will do in the presence of a family member, friend, colleague, faculty member, or learning strategist. Have him/her witness it. Review it regularly.
  • Show Progression
    • Allow yourself to see that you are moving ahead (e.g., Mark Xs on your calendar days to denote work days complete leading up to a big event).

… Your external environment

  • Supervisor & Faculty Support
    • Faculty can play a key role in helping you stay on track. Set regular meetings with faculty involved in your learning.
    • Have regular, ongoing email communication, even when your supervisor is not physically available.
    • Keep a personal record of weekly goals and achievements and next intended steps and share these with your supervisor at each meeting. Make a copy for her/his files.
  • Professional Support & Mentoring
    • Get professional support to help you organize: learning strategists, writing consultants and peer tutors, other faculty members inside or outside your department. Sometimes there are retired professors in the community with expertise in your area who are willing to lend a hand.
  • Collegial Support
    • Colleagues can help you stay on track. Find a colleague who is very organized as your role model. Ask what his/her time management strategies are.
  • Family Support
    • Explain your student life to your partner and family, and enlist their cooperation in making realistic plans involving you.
Why and how do I procrastinate?

IV.  Overcoming procrastination

Procrastination is the most common motivational problem affecting all of us to some extent and severely affecting about 15-20% of the general population. And, its prevalence is growing. The percentage is higher among post-secondary students: 50 to 70% of students procrastinate to such an extent that they feel their marks are affected.

Procrastination is not simply putting things off. According to procrastination expert, Professor Piers Steel, at the University of Calgary¹, procrastination occurs when a person believes it would be better to start working on a task immediately, but can’t get started.

¹University of Calgary, 10 January 2007, “Sorry this is late; we meant to send it out sooner.” Accessed online in 2007.

Working-Hard-To-Get-Out-of-Work Syndrome

We work very hard to find anything else to do which allows us to avoid the inevitable. For example, most of us wouldn’t jump up and down to do housecleaning. However, faced with an even more onerous task (e.g., preparing my comps), cleaning your toilet suddenly seems like a lot more fun!

Why do I procrastinate?

Procrastination can occur for many reasons. Here are some of the most typical reasons for procrastinating. Feel free to add your reasons, or to highlight the most important one you face.

  • Feeling overwhelmed.
  • Insufficient prioritizing of the task’s importance.
  • Fear of being evaluated.
  • Feeling like there’s plenty of time.
  • Not sure how to do the task.
  • Burnout.

P.S.  Perfectionism is Not the Culprit!

Perfectionism is not a predictor of procrastination, according to Professor Steel. He argues that “perfectionists actually procrastinate less, but they worry about it more.”  He also points out that there may be a genetic component to procrastination. So, maybe you can blame your great-great grandparents.

How do I procrastinate?

Do I use:

  • avoidance?
  • external distractions (e.g., noise, other people)?
  • internal distractions (e.g., mood, thoughts, feelings)?
  • negative thinking (e.g., don’t have enough time/not good enough)?
  • time bandits (e.g., phone, computer, friends)?
Producers vs. Procrastinators

Producers vs. Procrastinators

Neil Fiore’s “The NOW Habit” distinguishes two broad types of people: Procrastinators and Producers.


  • feel pressured;
  • fear failure or success;
  • try harder, work longer;
  • feel resentful, lose motivation;
  • focus on what they “should” be doing; and
  • feel like they have little control of their circumstance. So, they procrastinate!


  • put aside fears of failure or success, low self-esteem;
  • don’t get carried away with feeling overwhelmed;
  • enjoy guilt-free play;
  • feel in control of their lives, as the producers of their own narrative; and
  • focus on what they can start.

The influence of self-talk

Fiore argues that negative self-talk can lead to procrastination and outlines self-statements that distinguish procrastinators from producers. How do you talk to yourself about your work?

Procrastinators say … Producers say …
I have to. I choose to.
I must finish. When can I start?
This project is so big and important. I can take one small step.
I must be perfect. I can be perfectly human.
I don’t have time to play. I must make time to play.


Source: Fiore, N. (2007). The NOW habit: A strategic program for overcoming procrastination and enjoying guilt-free play. 2nd edition. Toronto: Penguin Group.

Strategies for overcoming procrastination

Strategies for overcoming procrastination

The motivation myth: Don’t wait for motivation to magically appear when you sit down to work. Motivation usually follows after you’ve already done some work.

  1. The Pleasure/Pain Principle: Procrastination causes both pleasure and pain. Ask yourself if one outweighs the other.
  2. Use the Time Management Matrix. Focus on Quadrant II.
  3. Set Realistic Goals: Be realistic about what you can accomplish in the available time. Try not to overshoot and become overwhelmed. Estimate about 25% more time to each task.
  4. Plan & Schedule: Use the Weekly Schedule and a day timer to identify time available for school work and then commit to treating that time like a job.
  5. Set False Deadlines: Set a false deadline about a week before the actual due date. Set up legitimate and meaningful check-ins with an outside party to ensure you meet your goal.
  6. Remove Distractions: Don’t try to fight temptation. Simply remove those distracting things so that you set yourself up for success.
  7. Reward Yourself: Reward yourself for working hard with short and simple things that you enjoy. When you’ve earned it, feel proud of yourself. Conversely, do not reward yourself before you’ve completed your task.
  8. Record Distracting Thoughts: Give your brain permission to forget distracting thoughts by writing them down and knowing you can return to them later.
  9. Break the Habit: Do it NOW! See The “Now” Habit.