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How to Develop Better Time Management Skills

Vicki Nelson

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You’ve heard it and your student has heard it. An essential key to college success is good time management.

But although most college students can tell you that time management is important, it may be harder for them to tell you why it is, how to plan their time, and how to make sure the plan happens.

The summer before your student heads to college (or maybe the summer after a less-than-stellar first year of college) is an ideal time to have a conversation about planning and managing time.

Why does time management in college matter?

One of the biggest differences between high school and college is how students use their time. There will be a lot of things competing for those 168 hours each week!

First, your new college student will spend approximately half the amount of time in formal classes that they did in high school. They need to realize that the extra “free” time simply means “unscheduled” time — students are now free to control and plan how they use their time.

Then, although they spend fewer hours in the classroom, they'll be expected to complete larger, longer-term assignments and projects and to spend significantly more time on academic work outside of the classroom.

Finally, your student will have increasing demands on their time as they balance schoolwork with participation in campus events and activities, a social life that might be more active than it was in high school, and maybe even a part-time job. They're honing life skills and managing the roller coaster of emotions that accompany leaving home and establishing their independence. It's A LOT, and it’s common to feel overwhelmed.

It all begins with a plan.

Any time management plan must be based on goals and priorities. We tend to find time for the things that are important to us. It takes drive and determination to stay the course, and without clear goals, it's easy to become distracted.

Your student's goals may be broad and far-reaching or short-term and concrete, and defining them will require clarity of thinking and significant self-reflection.

Whether it's making Dean’s List, successfully juggling academics with sports or a job, eventually applying to graduate school, or building a resume for an impressive internship or career opportunity, each goal will require a different approach and different use of time.

Once your student has identified their goals and laid a foundation for the time management project, here are some practical suggestions for setting up a plan.

  • They'll need an organizer. This can be a paper planner or daily calendar (with plenty of space to write each daily entry), or a planning app on their phone.
  • What goes in the planner? The initial set-up can take time, but it will definitely pay off. Your student needs to look at the big picture — not just tomorrow or even just this week. Fill it with everything that needs to be done. Look at each syllabus and add assignment deadlines, quizzes and exams, meetings, organized study or review sessions, any obligations or anything that needs to be completed.
  • Now break the big things down into action steps. Look at the deadline for a paper. Back up a day or so and mark a deadline to complete the draft, then back up and mark a deadline to do an outline, back up a bit more and mark a deadline to have the research done. Do the same for a study plan for quizzes and tests, so the studying isn’t left until the night before. Now the planner truly becomes a planner rather than just a keeper of deadlines.
  • Add to the planner other obligations, events or commitments. Look for conflicts so that you can plan ahead and adjust accordingly.
  • Finally, schedule in some downtime, fun activities, social time. Try to keep things realistic. Don’t try to fill in every minute.

Executing the plan

Thinking about time management and acting on the plan are different skills.

One of the keys to making a time management plan work is self-management — finding the focus and discipline to stick to the plan and make important things a priority. This is what Sean Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens calls “will and won’t power,” the strength to say yes to your most important things and the strength to say no to less important things and to peer pressure.

Here are seven things for both you and your student to keep in mind as they work to execute their time management plan.

  1. Discipline takes time to develop. There will be failures. Don’t give up. Get back on track, keep at it and it will get easier.
  2. Be flexible. A plan is just that, a plan. New commitments will arise, deadlines may shift, projects may take longer than you expect. Adjust as you go along.
  3. Keep revisiting your plan regularly. Your plan is a dynamic process rather than a static, fixed set of rules.
  4. Anticipate the things that may derail or sabotage your progress. Look for the distractions or interruptions that can get in the way. Try to eliminate as many as you can. (Cell phone and social media? Guilty! Turn it off while studying. Friends stopping by to chat? Study somewhere else.)
  5. Feeling overwhelmed? Just do something. Getting started is the hardest part.
  6. Don’t try to multitask. Although it feels as though that may be efficient, it seldom works well.
  7. Stay with your plan. This is especially difficult when there is peer pressure to do other things. Be willing to say no when it is appropriate. Know your “why” and do the things that will get you to your goals.

Good time management is a lifelong skill, and many of us are still working at it. Encourage your student to stay the course and assure them that, as they become better and better at mastering time management skills, they will feel more and more in balance and in control of their life.

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Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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