Savvy Student's Study Skills: Time Management

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The Savvy Student's Guide to Study Skills—Chapter Twelve

Why Managing Time is Hard

Talking about time management is a challenge for two reasons, and they both have to do with your parents. Until very recently in your life, your parents were your time management system. They woke you up, told you to get dressed, hurried you through breakfast to get to school on time, got you to your after-school events, told you when it was time to eat, told you when to study, and got you into bed. It's hard to perfect skills you haven't practiced, and since you're pretty new at time management, you might not be drawing on a lot of experience—especially if your parents don't really understand what your day is like.

You've probably taken on some of these responsibilities by now, but you may not be having the greatest success—and that has to do with your parents, too. Since we tend to be as good at things as the models we have in our lives, most students have lots of time management issues, because their parents do. Take a quick peek on any parent blog, and you'll see parents who don't like the way they look, who feel unprepared to be a parent—and who feel like they can't get anything done. There may be many reasons for that—they're trying to do too much, or they're being too hard on themselves—but it's tough to feel confident about your life choices if your parents don't feel great about theirs, especially if they show their frustrations in unhealthy ways.

Learning anything is easier to do if you're willing to admit three things: you're new at this; you don't know what you're doing, and you're willing to change and make some mistakes along the way to get better. That allows you to take the best parts of what your parents have taught you about making the most out of every day, and seeing how to build it into something even more productive, making you time's friend, and not its victim.

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Asking the Right Question

I work with a lot of students who are interested in going to college, and they often ask questions about what they should do with their time to make sure they can get into a college that's right for them. I often respond to their question with a question of my own—“What's next for you?” If they answer by telling me (rather impatiently) that they want to go to college, I try to get them to tell me about life after college. I do this, because college isn't the end of someone's life, but only part of what's next. If they're able to tell me what they want to do in life, they're able to see the big picture, and that makes doing the tasks needed to be college-ready more manageable. They think less about the clock, and more about living.

It turns out that the same approach works with time management. John C. Maxwell helps business leaders make the most out of everything, including time, and his key advice to effective time management is—watch this—to forget about time. He writes, “Time is beyond our control, and the clock keeps ticking regardless of how we lead our lives.”

That makes a lot of sense, especially to any athlete who wishes they had five last seconds to make that last shot. But if we can't really control time, what can we do to make more out of every day? Manage our priorities. By figuring out what matters most to us, we devote all of our resources in ways that make sure we finish each day having completed the tasks that mattered the most; having made progress in the areas that mattered a little less, and having set aside those things that just didn't matter all that much. By demonstrating our priorities in five important ways, we're making the most out of the time we have, and we're happy with our choices as well.

At this point, it may seem like this is the only way to be in charge of your priorities—but really, there's a better way. Part of you may feel that school doesn't matter all that much, but other parts of you realize that consecutive days at the beach just isn't a good idea in the long run. This makes managing priorities part-values, part-Emotional Intelligence—and that ends up looking like this. Business management guru Stephen Covey created the best known version of this chart, where you have to take each task of the day, and place it in a box, based on when the task is due, and how important it is. Put everything in its proper box, and you're good to go.

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Time Management and the Roles We Play

Using this version of time management can help you make the most of your study time, but the block system has its limits if you only use it for one part of your life. Take homework, for example. It would be easy enough to put all of your homework in the Urgent/Important block, and spend all of your time outside of class just doing homework. That might lead to better grades in the beginning, but if that takes away from your time for clubs and sports, or your time to be with friends, or your time to sleep, that imbalance is going to show up in your life, and in your grades.

Stephen Covey recognized this, which is why he said the key to using the blocks effectively is to make sure you apply it to every part of your life. In his classic book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey suggests the best way to make the most of your time is to set aside an hour or two every week, and outline the tasks you'd like to complete in each role over the next seven days. Some of these choices are up to you (when to start the major paper due in two weeks), while others may be easier to assign (time with friends goes on nights and weekends). To see what this could do for you, print out a blank daily block (also known as an Eisenhower matrix), and assign priorities to everything you have to do tomorrow. Use the blocks to guide your day, and see how you feel about all you did at the end of the day.

Taking this up a notch, use this weekly worksheet to give each task to a day of the week. From there, you look at what needs to be done in each day, and assign it a block. This not only integrates the many things you have to do; it integrates your life. (And if you think this sounds like a great idea only for adults, see if you can dig up a copy of The Seven Habits for Highly Effective Teens, where Steven's son Sean applies the same ideas to the schedule many teens have to take on in high school.)

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Time Management Made Just for Students

Another model of time management based on the business world model comes from Patrick O'Brien. Making College Count uses some of the same priority skills adopted by Stephen Covey and John C. Maxwell, and puts them in the business context—where your task is to take care of everything related to your studies between 9 AM and 5 PM during the weekdays.

If you think this approach takes a lot from the business world, you're right. Patrick O'Brien talks about planning your study time at the beginning of each semester, using each syllabus to schedule your reading, reviewing, studying, and paper writing. If that makes your college week sound a little dull, don't worry. You're also supposed to build in time for work with clubs, organizations, and group projects, as well as some career-related social activities. Weekends and evenings are reserved for friends, hobbies, and leisure time—just as if going to school were a job.

The up to using this approach is that it is the ultimate time management device. Most students are used to a high school schedule where every class meets every day. When they get to college and find that most classes meet 2-3 times a week, this creates huge chunks of free time during the day students have never had before—and as a result, they don't know what to do with them. This means everything gets moved to the “Later” block on the Stephen Covey grid, and students spend a lot of time doing—well, nothing. Then along comes midterm exams and finals, and it's late nights, long weekends, and a general lack of learning, all due to bad time management. Patrick O'Brien's method prevents that.

The down side is that this schedule is pretty tough to use as a high school student, where the typical student has time off for lunch and perhaps one free block, not nearly enough time to schedule everything related to school. One way to modify the 9-5 approach to high school is to see how much school-related work can get done before dinner—that creates the same goal of having nights and weekends free. It may not always work, but this approach can help prepare you for the more flexible world of college, and it can help you develop an attitude about learning that will keep you from looking like this at 10 o'clock any morning of your freshman year in college.

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Other Time Management Systems

There are other time management systems out there, and the most successful ones include the key value of thinking about your work in terms of priorities, rather than time. This article summarizes some other approaches you may want to take, especially if:

You have a lot of important tasks and need to be reminded of them.

The Covey weekly schedule is great for planning, but if you carry it around with you all week to remember what you have to do, you could end up with one ratty looking piece of paper by Wednesday. This system helps you keep your priorities straight and your to-do list crisp.

You keep putting things off.

Some of the best organized people I know are really great at organizing, but can't complete a project to save their soul, their friends, or their grade in American History. This time management system is designed for the procrastinators, and this one breaks tasks into 25 minute units.

You have a tough time giving tasks to others.

Let's be clear here—you can't farm your schoolwork out for other people to do, and you really need to do your share of the chores around the house, even if your little brother will gladly do them for a fee you can afford.

Having said that, many students involved in leadership positions in school clubs want to make sure everything runs perfectly—so they do all the work themselves. That may be a way to make sure the Chess Club has eight sets of working pieces, but it's also a sure way to lose friends, put your grades at risk, and enter college (and life) with limited leadership skills. This approach to time management allows you to look at the tasks you can share with others, and shows you how to delegate like a boss—which is what you'll need to do if you ever become a boss.

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Tools of Time Management

Now that you've created an approach to time management that lets you lead from your priorities, how do you complete the tasks on your calendar in a way that's effective, efficient, and allows you to remember the relationship between the task and the priority it supports? There's no sure fire formula that meets everyone's needs, but thinking about how well you use these tools can make you a priority sensei.

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Use a Planner

Nearly every time management and priority management system recommends you use a planner that allows you to develop a prioritized list of tasks to complete every day. Planners come in all shapes and sizes, and some planners are more portable than others—but this is really one of those situations where function is just as important as form.

The best way to get pointed in the right direction for planners is to make sure all of your “to do” list will fit in the blanks of any given planner. Start by downloading some printable planner sheets with different sized blocks, and write in a typical day or week of goals and tasks. The ones that leave you some room to spare are the ones to go with.

If you're going electronic, make sure the functions are easy to use, and especially easy to edit—if you can't change an entry while walking between classes, it isn't really all that portable after all. You'll also want to check to make sure any electric planner stores your priorities in its long term memory. Users of some phone-based planners will tell you their task lists disappear after two weeks or so, and having a record of what you did, and when, is important.

Finally, make sure you use your planners to cross out, check off, or somehow indicate when you've completed a task. This information will be important when you review your time management strategy at the end of each week and month.

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Portability

To get the most out of every day, you'll need to make sure that more than just your planner is portable, and easy to access when you're short on time, so you can make the most of any down time you have. You'll want to develop a system of detailed notes that you can use to study for quizzes and tests (more on this in our section on Study Skills), as well as a system that gives you information on group projects, errands , and other key information that will help you meet your priorities.

Options here also include paper and electronic, but you'll really want to keep an eye on the electronic version you use. Most phones come with a Notes function that is good for quick reminders, but they aren't usually meant for storing notes by subject in an effective way. Some phone apps use off-site storage to hold on to notes, but some are really better designed to work with computers, where the bigger screen and keyboard make them easier to use. Whatever you choose, make sure your systems help you stay flexible, and don't weigh you down.

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Space

We'll talk more about the importance of a well-organized study space at home when we review Study Skills. For now, it's important to think about how you will create an effective, productive space when you're somewhere else—at school, at the coffee shop, even in the car. Having a portable schedule and notes won't do you much good if you can't spread them out and use them in a meaningful way.

The key to creating an effective study space outside of home is to know how much space you need. If your approach to studying looks like this, there are going to be some coffee shops, and even libraries, that just aren't going to work for you. A quick afternoon tour of the local study hangouts, combined with a review of what you really need to make the most of your time, will let you know if the cozy chairs at the bookstore will help you meet your priorities, or if you're better off at a coffee shop where there are larger, family-style tables.

And keep in mind that there are some projects that are just best done at home. Would you really want an errant cappuccino to land on any of these, just as you're putting the finishing touches on them?

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Organization

Planners can organize your time, and a little advanced planning can organize your space, but how well organized are your supplies? Reviewing for tomorrow's quiz on the rivers of Africa requires little more than note cards, a book, and access to the Internet, but if your priority calls on you to wrap and send a birthday gift to your brother at college, how do you organize all of that? Or a project that calls for many moving parts?
Organizing big projects is going to require a different approach to keeping things together, one that will require more space than keeping notes or used lists. Plan ahead, try to find a dedicated space to store your materials, and keep them tidy.

And while you're at it, give some thought to how you're going to file old notes and used planner sheets, too. They'll come in handy later on.

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Free Blocks

We talked earlier about the biggest challenge of college—using those massive periods of free time that are in the middle of the day that you've never had to use before in high school, because they didn't exist. Seeing those hours of free time as opportunities to get things done is pretty easy to do with a little practice. But what about the smaller periods of free time, either in college or in high school? What can you do with twenty minutes at lunch, or an unexpected fifteen minutes of free time before the bell rings?

As it turns out, plenty. The portability of your projects should let you pull one out at a moment's notice and start working on it—and as long as you know you only need the space the size of your school desk to get something done, there's nothing holding you back.

Some students will also use their planners in a way to expect the unexpected. When they build their weekly schedule, they'll create a separate list of Quick Tasks that they can do with unexpected free time. These tasks are still built into their regular schedule, but by keeping a separate list of them, you can review them quickly when some free time pops up, pick one, and get it done. This will free up time from your schedule, which you can reorganize later. More important, it will increase the number of priorities you can complete without adding to your stress level.

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Project Partners

We talked earlier about the advantages of working with others, and learning to delegate appropriate tasks when you shouldn't be doing everything by yourself. This is worth mentioning again here, because most students aren't used to collaborating with others, other than on a sports team or for a one-time class project.

As you become more comfortable with the idea of letting others help you, you'll start to see potential partners in places you hadn't even considered. The reference librarian, whose job is to help people find resources they can't quite put their finger on. The stock clerk at the grocery store, who gets rid of tons and tons of empty boxes that are perfect for projects and project storage. The college professor, who happens to be an expert in the field you're researching for a high school paper, who doesn't mind talking to high school students at all.

It's one thing to have friends who are long-time study buddies, but if you have a project that requires some unique expertise, chances are there's someone out there ready to advance your priority, if you just reach out and ask them.

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Productive Partners

You may have never stopped to think about it, but there are times in your day when you just get more done. These periods of top productivity vary greatly from person to person, and they're certainly influenced by things like what you eat and how much coffee you drink. But everyone from morning people to night owls know when they get the most done, and like doing the work they have to do.

Quizzes like this one can help you determine when you're at your most productive, and that's the time to take on the projects that require the most focus. A quick glance at this article shows that productive people have their own unique “best time” of the day—but almost all of them use that time to do work that they can do by themselves, without having to run around to gather supplies, and without having to rely on other people's schedules to ask questions or have a meeting.

The lesson here is simple. Find the time of day when you can get the most done, then use that time to do as many things as you can where you don't have to be interrupted by anyone—including yourself.

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Variety

Another way to keep a high level of energy and focus is to change the kinds of activities you do, especially when you have a long period of time to work on your priorities. Like a good workout at the gym, you don't want to spend all your time working on one set of muscles, since they'll fatigue with overuse. The same is true for making the most of your time; if you want to get the most out of it, the way to keep alert is to vary the projects you're working on, and how you're working on them.

In building your schedule to make the most of big blocks of time, remember you can build variety into your schedule based on both what you do, and how you do it. If you've been studying for a quiz by sitting at your desk, pick up your notes and walk around the room—or around the block. If you've been researching an English paper, set it aside and start your math homework. If you've been researching sources on your computer, set up a phone call with your study partner to see how their part of the project is going. Starting something new is one way to stay alert, no matter what time of day you're studying. Make sure you build some variety in your schedule.

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Handling Surprises

What happens if the unthinkable occurs, and you discover the test you thought was next week was tomorrow? What if the paper you put down as due the 15th is actually due the 5th? Is it time to go into panic mode?

Actually, it's time to go into Give-Yourself-A-Break mode—literally. Deadlines sneak up on everyone, and beating yourself up over missing one takes energy and focus away from the priority that's now before you.

Rather than panic, it's time to plan

Pull out your planner, and create a block of time you need to catch up. You'll have to reschedule some priorities to do this, but that comes later.

Keep planning

Once you have the block of time, plan how you're going to use it. Do you start by preparing notes? Studying notes? Reading? What comes after that? Is there a part of the work you can realistically do tomorrow before class?

Build in breaks

Devoting three full, nonstop hours to one task might seem like the best way to approach an urgent task, but research suggests that breaks in studying give you the mental rest you need to refocus, see the big picture, and jump back into your studying with renewed energy.

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Insight

Every movie that's ever been made about high school (from this one to this one) shows students want to be two things in school—cool, and successful—and if they can't be both, Hollywood always lets them be cool.

That's great for the movies, but what about the real world, where meeting your priorities creates opportunities for college and jobs and meeting people, things that are both important and cool? In order for everything to work out here, it's important to understand as much as you can about who you are, what you value, and how you work.

This last skill is rarely taught in school, but it's a must in terms of time management. Too many students who get good grades enjoy the joy of a job well done without looking back and thinking about why they did as well as they did. If your grade is less than you expected, almost no one goes back to consider how much they studied (or didn't study), or what they could do differently next time.

A key first step to making sure you're making the most of the time you have is to review your tasks and goals. Did you get them all done? Are some taking more time (or less) than you planned? How does that change the plans and goals you're setting for this week? Is there someone (like a teacher) who can offer some advice on what you should be doing differently?

Stepping back and measuring your progress is a key part of growth. It's why each class has more than just the final exam; it's why sporting events are played in periods; it's why each day has an end and a beginning.

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