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Managing your time

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

"I know what to do, but I can't make myself do it…."

Many of the strategies needed to get time under control are obvious: for instance, making a timetable. So why don't we do them?

"All my deadlines are at the same time – why can't the tutors spread them out?" – So take control yourself - set your own early deadlines to spread work out.

"I'm just naturally disorganised – I always have been!" - It's a fallacy that organisation is an innate skill. It's just a set of practices that can be learned.

"My friends / family / teammates rely on me to get things done – who will do it if I don't?"– Perhaps someone else would like to try? Maybe they've never been asked?

"It's so much easier to waste time than to use it for study." – It's not so easy when you end up with two days to research and write three essays.

In the end, the only person responsible for managing your time is you. Setting targets, avoiding distractions and learning to say no will help you to do this.

Procrastination and perfectionism

You've had your essay titles for weeks and you've even done a bit of writing, but you only really begin to take it seriously the night before it's due, and then you have to pull an all-nighter to get it submitted...

Or perhaps you've been working for weeks, reading dozens of books and journal articles and making sheaves of notes, but your can't start writing - there's always one more book to read...

Or maybe you've written several drafts and discarded them all - they're not quite right, and you'd rather not hand in anything at all than hand in something that's not right...

Sound familiar? Well, you're not alone. Procrastination and perfectionism are especially widespread in universities, for some good reasons. Academic work is difficult - it involves understanding and bringing together lots of complex ideas, sometimes in new and untested ways. You will be using new skills that you may not feel confident about. Your assignment mark may count towards your final mark, having an impact more long-reaching than anything you've done before. No wonder students are reluctant to commit themselves and submit their ideas to be 'judged'.

If you often find yourself putting off an academic task, it might be helpful to remember these two points:

  1. There are rarely 'right' or 'wrong' answers in academic study. What your marker will be checking is that you have justified the statements, arguments and interpretations you make by citing references to your reading to show how you developed your ideas.
  2. The 'perfect' assignment would be the best one you can do within the limits that you have been set: the time you have to complete the work, the word count, and the resources you have available for your research. We are assessing how well you can work within those limits - not how well you could work if you had no limits. Every academic has to work to limits.

Some suggestions that might help:

Break down your big tasks into smaller ones so that they are more achievable. For instance, rather than thinking, 'Today I ought to write my essay', try thinking 'Today I will start by writing 300 words for my introduction'.

Set deadlines to start tasks as well as finish them. This is especially the case with writing: decide when you are going to start writing and do it regardless of whether you feel you've read enough. Writing can help you to organise your ideas and identify gaps that you can plug with more reading later when you have a draft.
If you're struggling to start writing, try writing the questions rather than the answers. Or try free-writing: just write what you're thinking without worrying about it being academic - you can tidy it up later. Or explain what you've been working on to a friend and record it so you can pick out the main points to write up later. Or explain your ideas in an email, or blog post (set up a private blog for this, it's essentially an online diary), or series of texts or instant messages to a friend or relative - using a non-academic genre of writing can free you up to think.
Take a step back and ask yourself what's stopping you. Often it's because of a lack of confidence about what you're doing. Perhaps you're not sure about what an assignment brief means; or how to structure your ideas; or whether you're referencing properly; or you haven't grasped a technique or theory. Identify your block and talk to the people who can help: your tutor, a Study Adviser, Maths Support or a librarian, perhaps?

Procrastination and perfectionism can have serious effects on your wellbeing. If you have a persistent problem with either of these, it may be helpful to speak to someone in Student Wellbeing.

Setting goals and targets

You're much more likely to stay motivated if you break your work down into realistic and manageable chunks and work through it one thing at a time. One way to accomplish this is called the Pomodoro technique: using a 'tomato timer', you work for a maximum of 25 minutes at a time, then take a break. If you break down your work into things you want to achieve within 25 minutes, then you can use the timer to give you a target to aim at.   

It's also important to have a clear view of what you're trying to achieve and why. The fact that you're reading this page means that you want to know more about managing your time when studying, so you are already taking responsibility. The next step is to think about why it would be a good thing to do this: what is it all leading up to? Identifying your goals and the rewards you hope to get in the future will help to motivate you to commit yourself to studying now.

What are your goals and targets?

Draw up a table with three columns. List long-term goals in the first; what you have to do to achieve them (i.e. medium-term goals) in the second, and short-term targets to aim for in the third. Put it somewhere prominent - on the wall in your room, the inside of your wardrobe door, above the kettle. Tick each off as they're completed.

Your long-term goals might be things like:

  • Become a graduate
  • Make myself more employable
  • Get a job doing something I enjoy
  • Prove to myself (and others) that I can do this

To do these, you have to achieve some medium term goals:

  • Improve my study practices to get better marks
  • Get my work under control so I feel less stressed
  • Make a study timetable that works so I can balance my work/life commitments better
  • Meet my assignment deadlines so I don't fail my module

You can break these down again into short-term targets:

  • Learn how to plan my essays; arrange session with a Study Adviser.
  • Make a list of everything I need to do; think about what I could leave out; prioritise what's left.
  • Print off a week planner grid and write in my commitments; book my study periods into the gaps; try it for a week, amend if necessary.
  • Get organised earlier; list all my deadline dates and set some artificial deadlines if necessary; list tasks needed, and when I need to start; tick each task off as I do them.
Not everything works for everyone – see a Study Adviser if you want to talk through your ideas for short term goals

Dealing with distractions

It can be difficult to focus on studying when your mobile's ringing, new emails keep popping up, the washing-up needs doing and your friend wants you to go for coffee. On top of that, you found a really interesting website while researching your assignment…

If you make yourself aware of the things that distract you from studying you can think in advance about strategies to deal with them. Use the time-use diary technique described on the 'Making more hours' page in this guide to see what is really soaking up your time. Then decide how to manage them. For instance:

- Stay focused on reading by thinking about the questions you need answers to (e.g. "What are the main points of/objections to this theory?") and looking for answers. Break down reading to one paragraph at a time, and write any notes at the end of each.

- If you find yourself spending a lot of time on a particular website, try a website-blocking application like LeechBlock or SelfControl to control the time you spend on it without blocking it altogether. 

- You won't be motivated if you feel like you're studying all the time. Fix times when you won't study and set an alarm for the end of each study or leisure period to remind you to stop and change mode.

- If your friends keep interrupting you, set a definite time and place to have a break and go for coffee together.

- Put the voicemail on and fix times when you will return phone calls or read and answer emails.

- Disable pop-up notifications on email and social media so you're not tempted to read them as they arrive. Alternatively, if you don't have the alert enabled and that means that you keep checking, try switching it on to see if that makes you more focused on the task at hand.

- Some people prefer to do chores like washing-up and shopping first thing in the morning so they have a clear day ahead. If you do this, have a fixed 'finish time' so they don't spread out to fill the whole morning. Better still, keep chores for your worst time of day for thinking – after lunch for most people. Use your best thinking time for studying.

Learning to say no

You've planned your termly and weekly schedules; you're working as effectively as you possibly can; you've found ways of dealing with the things that distract you - but you still don't have enough time! Maybe you're just trying to do too much. Learn to say no…

University study is a significant commitment, like doing a full-time job – you know how hard you're working. If you feel that you have to take on extra tasks to prove that you're doing something useful, you're tacitly agreeing with the people who think that you're "only a student".

Value yourself and value your studies. You only have a short time at university, and you've worked hard to get here. You deserve to give yourself the time to do your best.

Remember:

  • You're not expected to read everything on the reading list.
  • If you don't organise the social / game / party, it will probably still happen. And if it doesn't, the world won't stop.
  • If it needed an immediate answer, it probably wouldn't be on email.
  • A real friend won't mind waiting a bit longer to chat.
  • If you're trying to mix study with commitments you really can't say no to, like organising a family, caring for an elderly relative, and doing paid work, you will be overwhelmed. So ask for help.
  • However - don't forget that an un-vacuumed floor doesn't make you a bad person!