TIME MANAGEMENT: Undergraduate Students

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IntroductionGetting Organized, Strategies for Success Overcoming Procrastination

Introduction and Self-Reflection

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 socialize. 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 magic in getting things done with minimal stress rests in planning, self-discipline and recognition of a job well done.

Self-reflection questions

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!

The common challenges faced by university students are feeling overwhelmed by the volume of work required, and not knowing how to tackle those tasks efficiently. The amount of homework time you’ll need to do to keep up in a course will vary according to the structure or style of each course. There is a continuum from traditional lecture courses to on-line/in-class courses to fully on-line courses. The amount of independent learning or homework required varies with each style. Students should expect to spend a total of about 10 learning hours per course per week, regardless of the structure of the course. 5 (6 unit) courses x 10hrs = 50 schoolwork hours a week. So, school is a full time job!

The number of independent learning hours or homework hours will also depend on:

  • your goals for the course (e.g. what mark you want)
  • how familiar you are with doing lab reports or quantitative problems
  • research requirements of your paper
  • volume and speed of your reading
  • your knowledge of vocabulary and course-specific jargon

Most strategies are simple, take a short time to implement, help you organize, and also help you achieve balance in your personal life. The strategies are grouped around central themes:

  • your values
  • awareness of your current habits
  • goal setting and prioritizing
  • organization
  • procrastination

We have also included reflective questions in each section to help you learn about your own preferences and practical tools to guide you along.


Knowing your personal 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 form help determine how we use our time, eg. 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 stem 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.

Becoming Aware

Becoming aware

We have all 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. Below are some self-reflection questions to help you understand where you are coming from and where you might want to go.

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?
  • can work independently vs. accustomed to being directed?
  • need pressure to perform vs. can’t work well at last minute?

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


Take 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?

Tools for self-awareness

Time Monitoring Form

Weekly Time Use Chart


Goal Setting

Setting goals helps us determine a direction, assess whether we are on track, and provides an opportunity for us 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.

For example, a useful mid-range goal might be “to complete the History 344 paper one day before the due date and edit it before handing it in.” A less useful goal would be “to feel good about the History 344 paper.”  Some goals are realistic (and achievable) and others are idealistic, and keep us reaching for a high standard or level of thinking. It’s helpful to know the difference in relation to each of your goals.

Students are generally tired, busy and distracted by many competing demands. This makes the task of setting priorities for your goals all the more important. Sometimes priorities are set based on immediate need (e.g., the test is today), the relative value of the task (e.g., a paper worth 60%), how quickly a task can get done (e.g., satisfaction of finishing something), your motivation (e.g., I love this course!), or consequences of NOT doing something.

Self-reflection questions

What are my goals:

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

Why have I set these goals for myself? How do these goals relate to my values? How are these goals helping me achieve what I want in university and in my life?

Strategies for setting goals

Identifying and recording goals

The process of goal setting can be viewed in the 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 aligned with your value system. Therefore, it is important to spend time considering what part your values play in your academic choices.


A suggested time frame for setting and revising academic goals

reverse pyramid of values (life values, academic program, term goals, weekly, daily)Academic Program: At the beginning of each year of your 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 Goals: Term goals should be set at the beginning of each term and then at regular intervals, perhaps each month, throughout the term. Continuous assessment of term goals will help you stay on track with your weekly and daily goals. Term goals can include tracking test and assignment due dates and grades, as well as improving skills such as public speaking or use of lab equipment.

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

Daily: 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.

Strategies for prioritizing: 4Ds System, and the 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 do.  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 it.
  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!


Tools for goal-setting and prioritizing


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 preferences and tolerances, and some people are “selectively organized” in areas that reflect their personal values.

Self-reflection questions

  • What is my preference?
  • What is my organizational style? Why do I use this style?
  • How is it working/ not working for me?
  • How can I improve my organizational skills?


Strategies for successful organization

Strategies for success



  • Use scheduling tools like term calendars, weekly and daily planners, study plans
  • Use ‘found time’: these are small amounts of time between classes or appointments – which can add up to many hours over the week!


  • Organize your study space/desk area: your notes in binders with tabs, file folders or note pads; colour-code by course; download notes or slides before each class; find old exams early in the term

Analyzing assignment worth:

  • At the beginning of the term, review your course outline or syllabus to note the value of each assignment. Write the assignment AND its value on your term calendar.

In a group

Form a study group:

  • work with 2-4 classmates or friends
  • set a regular meeting time and place
  • keep all members informed of meetings and agenda
  • define group objectives: discuss homework questions, “teach” other members how to solve a problem, design potential exam questions and share answers
  • rotate leadership
  • come prepared
  • if members are behind on readings, consider assigning 1 reading per member, and then each shares their summary of the reading
  • socialize for the first 10 minutes and perhaps last 10-15 minutes as part of the structure of the group, to avoid distractions during the work session

Find peer support:

  • use a friend to help you stay on track
  • find someone who is very organized as your role model
  • find someone you can go to the library with every day

Make a contract to get organized:

  • list what you will do in the presence of a family member, friend, peer mentor, or learning strategies
  • have them witness it
  • review regularly

Use technology:

  • check in with friends online
  • use scheduling software

Tools for getting organized

Why and how do I procrastinate?

Overcoming procrastination

Procrastination is the most common motivational problem affecting all of us to some extent but severely affecting about 15-20% of the general population. And its prevalence is growing.

However, 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 repugnant task, like reading your physics textbook, suddenly cleaning your toilet seems like a lot more fun!

Why do I procrastinate?

Procrastination can occur for many reasons; however, here are some of the most typical reasons for procrastinating:

  • 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
  • burn-out

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.”1  If perfectionism in writing is a problem for you, there are strategies that can help you learn new habits.

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)?

Activity: List your reason(s) for procrastinating. If you have more than one reason, highlight the one which is most troublesome.

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 accomplished 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 for each task.
  4. Plan & Schedule: Use the Weekly Schedule and a day timer to identify time available for school work. 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.


Trouble-shooting FAQs

Some common concerns experienced by students include the following:

Do I feel overwhelmed, under constant pressure, easily derailed, down on myself, or incompetent?

I can try:

  • encouraging myself,
  • altering my expectations,
  • examining the “fit” of my program,
  • reviewing my past results for bright spots,
  • working with and getting support from a friend,
  • scheduling satisfying work breaks, or
  • building balance into my life (rest, meals, exercise, relaxation).

Do I spend too much time on my phone, Facebook, gaming, socializing with friends? How much time is too much time for me?

I can try:

  • considering school my job,
  • doing my work before my pleasure,
  • practising saying NO,
  • making a contract with a friend, or
  • rewarding myself with one of those distracting/fun activities.

Does it take me a long time to read or process information? Do I get buried in detail or have trouble figuring out what is most important?

I can try:

  • allowing more time for readings, assignments;
  • breaking tasks into smaller sections;
  • using visual aids, mind maps to find the patterns or structure of readings;
  • finding out about specialized software;
  • comparing notes with a friend or Peer Mentor;
  • attending a related Learning Strategies workshop in Stauffer Library; or
  • talking with a learning strategist in Stauffer Library.