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Managing your time

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

There is so much going on at university – how can you fit it all in? The key is to get your time under control.

To manage your time successfully, you need to get informed about:

What you have to do (e.g. assignments, seminar reading, paid work)

When they have to be done (e.g. deadlines, lecture & seminar times)

How to fit them into the time you have (dividing up available time)

Remember that your course tutors only know about assignment deadlines for their own courses – it's up to you to manage your work for all your different modules so you are able to meet all your deadlines.

Planning to meet your deadlines

If you only had one academic assignment to complete in a semester, planning to meet your deadline would be relatively easy! It's more likely that you will have a number of deadlines throughout the semester - perhaps a presentation for one module in Week 3, and one for another module in Week 6, then two or three essays all due in Week 10. Or a lab report every fortnight plus a project report at the end of the semester. Or you're trying to juggle finishing your dissertation with revising for your Final exams.

The key to meeting all your deadlines is to keep yourself informed about what, how and when you have to do things, and to have systems to keep everything under control. These need to be simple so that you'll actually use them.

Tip… Much of the information you need will also be accessible online, on Blackboard or via your Dept's website. If you can't find information about deadlines, referencing etc, ask your tutor or your dept secretaries. Don't guess – guessing wrong could cost you marks.

The simplest system is to make an A4 plan to pin up somewhere you will constantly see it. Download a template for a semester plan below. 

  • Start by entering deadlines for your assignments so you can see when your busy times will be. include seminars and presentations you need to prepare for.
  • In the 'Remember' column, add any events which you need to take into account when planning, e.g. family birthdays, social events, Hall formals, sports fixtures etc.
  • Decide on the major tasks you need to complete for each of your deadlines, and roughly how long you need to spend on each.
  • Fit them into the 'Targets' column, working back from the deadline.

So the plan for one essay might look like this:

  Deadlines Targets Remember!
Week 8     Brainstorm and plan research by Friday (30 mins)  
Week 9    Start research (3 x 2 hrs)

Mum's birthday – go home Fri, leave at 3

Week 10 Essay due Friday

Write first draft Monday afternoon (3 hrs)

Edit, proof & check refs Thurs morning (2 hrs)


REMEMBER that this is only for one essay - you will need to fit all your work in. So you may need to set your own deadlines so you're not trying to finish all your essays at the same time.

Tools to help you plan your time

It's tempting to keep all the details of your life on your phone - but if you lose it, or it breaks down, you can lose track of everything if you haven't backed it up somewhere else! Make sure any information you keep electronically is backed up to a cloud-based server so you can access it from other devices. Most people find it best to use a combination of paper and electronic tools.

Diaries are good for carrying with you to write in dates as you get them. However, it can be difficult with a diary to get an overview of how your semester looks.

There are many electronic tools you can use to help you plan your time:

  • Your phone or tablet will have a calendar function to record dates and times for events and deadlines. You can also use it to store memos (even record short voice messages to yourself) and to set up reminders with alarms for tasks and lecture times.
  • An online web-based calendar like Google Calendar can be accessed at any computer, or via a smartphone. Or if you have your own laptop, use something like Microsoft Outlook.
  • Even simple tools like an alarm function on a watch can be set to remind you about meetings and events.

There are also an ever-growing number of online tools and apps that can help you to plan and use your time more efficiently.

However, the simplest way to get a clear visual overview of the time you have and the tasks you need to fit into it is to have something like a wall planner that you can fix up somewhere you will see it every day (e.g. above your desk). Study Advice have free wall planners for University of Reading students: collect one from our desk in the Library.

Making a study timetable

One of the biggest time wasters is when you spend time trying to decide whether to study now or later. If you schedule your study times in advance, you won't be wasting time each day deciding whether and when to study. Book study times into your timetable with lectures and seminars, as academic commitments.

Make a week plan with columns for each day of the week, and rows for 'Morning', 'Afternoon' and 'Evening'. You can download a Word template from the LearnHigher link below. 

  • Enter lectures, seminars and other fixed academic commitments.
  • Add regular commitments like paid work, club meetings, sports fixtures and training.
  • Mark up times which you are going to commit to as study sessions. A good target to aim at is five two hour sessions a week.
  • Plan to be flexible – if something else comes up, you can trade a study session with a free session.

You will probably have busy weeks when you need to add more sessions, and quiet weeks when you can claim time back.

Choose your best times to study – most people have a time of day when they are more focused (often in the mornings), and a time when they find it hard to concentrate (often after lunch). Trying to process or write a complicated text when your brain isn't working well is a waste of time, and can be depressing and discouraging. Work out your best thinking times, and use them for tasks that need more concentration.

"Timetables don't work for me". You may find it works better for you if you keep an overall tally of the hours you spend studying in a week. add more study times, or give yourself more free time as necessary.

How many hours should I study?

The University's view is that studying is a significant occupation, like full-time work. So if you are a full-time student, you should be spending about 35 hours a week on academic activities including independent study, lectures, seminars, tutorials and lab work. Of course, you don't need to fit those hours into a 9-5, Monday-Friday routine - you might spend some time in the middle of the day on leisure activities and catch up with study in the evening or at the weekend.

Keeping a work-life balance

Defining study times also means defining times when you won't be studying - and sticking to them. Here are some good reasons to have time off as well as time studying: 

- Being at university is about taking part in a wide range of activities, including sports and socialising. If all you do is study, you will not be getting the full benefit from being at university.

- All the things you do that are outside of your studies contribute to your overall experience of the world - and you will import that back into your studies to make your understanding and analyses richer.  

- You aren't expected to study 24/7. The university expects you to treat a full-time degree like a full-time job, and do 30-35 hours of studying a week, including lecture, seminar and lab times. If you can commit yourself to definite times to study and work effectively during those times, you won't need to feel guilty when you do something else at other times.

- Thinking time is as important as reading time and writing time. Your brain needs time and rest to process new information - if you just keep throwing new facts at it, they will not stick.

- Likewise, your body needs exercise and sleep to keep it in a proper state of alertness so that you can focus on studying effectively. Walking or running is especially good for clearing your head and producing feel-good endorphins - and it's free.

Gathering information

If you've taken the trouble to plan your time, you won't want to waste it because you can't find the things or information you need.

Have a simple filing system – if it's complicated, you won't use it. One way is to use a box file for each module to keep lecture notes, handouts, notes from reading, photocopies, even small books. Stick lecture/seminar times, rooms, and deadlines inside the lid.

Social bookmarking can help you keep track of the hundreds of useful websites you'll come across so you can find them quickly when you need them - you may not need help with finance or a guide to referencing now, but when you do you'll be pleased you know how to find it. Social bookmarking allows you to save useful website addresses on a web server so that you can access them from any computer, to add new ones when you find them, or go to sites you've already marked. This is better than saving them to My Favourites as that only saves them onto the computer you are using at the time. You can usually organise your bookmarks into categories (e.g. general University websites, course-related websites, websites for your own interests) and you can share them with others, for instance if you were working on a group project. There are various social bookmarking tools that you can sign up to for free, including Pocket, the Web Clipper in Evernote, or Pinterest if you're saving links that are more image-based.

Decide on your spaces for study just as you decided on times for study. Find a place that works well for you. If you can, keep it as a space just for studying, so you can have all the necessary things close at hand. If it's somewhere where other people might interrupt, it helps to have a way to let them know that you are working now but will be free later.

Finally - remember that things usually take longer than you think! If you find you don't need all the time you've alloted, it's extra free time.