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Time Management 101

Find the Right Tool

Coming up with a system that fits your personality is a good first step. "What works for one person is not necessarily going to work for another," says Laura Miller. She's a learning strategist at a school. "Sometimes the bells and whistles of technology provide the motivation."

An app on your phone might be the right for you. Just keep in mind that technology can have its glitches -- even break down occasionally -- so make sure that you can and do transfer stuff from your device to your computer regularly, just in case.

If your laptop goes everywhere with you, then you could use its calendar and scheduling software, but this can be a bit of a pain. Unless you're already powered up, it means having to turn your laptop on every time you need to do something like check a date or record a deadline.

The good old paper and pen method of writing things down in an agenda or planner may be the way to go. It's simple, easy to carry and doesn't require any technological know-how. So head to an office supply shop and check out the range of planners. Choose one that lets you see a month at a time (maybe even four months at a time), and that also lets you see a week at a time.

Include Long-Term and Short-Term Plans

Find the month-at-a-glance pages in your planner and record every time commitment you have. That means assignment and project deadlines, exam dates, extracurricular activities (things like sports practices, games and lessons) and social commitments (things like family events, weddings and anniversaries, plans with friends).

Now take a good look at this long-term view. Maybe next month there's a week when you'll have an essay due, two exams and two evening soccer games. You're going to have to do some goal setting now, to stay on top of your essay -- maybe even finish it a week early -- and to get in some major studying before those exams.

"Write in final dates, but also write in lead-up dates," advises Miller. "Teachers don't have time to say, 'Take out your planners. You've got this essay coming up. What are the stages?'" This is something that you have to do yourself, so record when you want to have the research done for that essay, and the outline, the first draft and so on. And for exams, record when you're planning to study for them.

Your short-terms plans are what you put on those daily pages in your planner. Being able to see a whole week -- all seven days -- in one glance will make this easier. Basically this involves looking at your long-term view and making "to do" lists for each day of the upcoming week. This is something you really want to get in the habit of doing. You may want to take a few moments every Sunday to sketch out the week ahead.

Now you have to prioritize your activities. Put the important or urgent items at the top of each daily list. What should you do first in your Tuesday evening homework session, for example? Study for Wednesday's exam or finish the rough draft of a paper that's due the following week? It's an easy call.

Build in Balance

"Students need to be able to juggle jobs, homework, extracurricular involvements and exam preparation," says Chris Douglas. He's the department head of student services at a high school. "A student who does not effectively schedule their commitments will often be unprepared for class and exams, resulting in lower marks."

True, good time management skills are bound to help you do better academically, but they'll do much more than that.

"The way in which students use their time will direct the kind of balance they're going to have in their lives, and the success they're going to have academically and socially," says Donald E. Wetmore. He's president of the Productivity Institute. In his article Four Time Management Don'ts for Students, he writes, "Our lives are made up of seven vital areas: health, family, financial, intellectual, social, professional and spiritual. We will not necessarily spend time every day in each area, or equal amounts of time in each area. But if, in the long run, we spend a sufficient quantity and quality of time in each area, our lives will be in balance."

So, in your long-term plans, build in some activities that fit into all of those "vital areas." Record things like sports, visiting relatives and evenings of "down time" reading novels for fun or watching movies. You might also find it rewarding to commit to some volunteer work a few times a month. Remember, time management isn't just about managing your academic life; it's about managing and balancing your life.

Break Things Down into Manageable Chunks

Let's say you have an exam coming up. It will cover material from three chapters of your textbook and you have 15 days before the test. This means you have five days to study each chapter. Take each chapter, divide it into five sections and, on your daily "to do" lists, write down the numbers of the pages you need to study each day. If a chapter is about 40 pages long, you only need to study eight pages a day. That's pretty manageable.

Do the same thing with term papers and projects. Break them down into components -- for example, research, outline, first draft -- and plan when you're going to work on each one. Face it, a paper that you put together from scratch the night before it's due won't get you a good mark. And studying three chapters of a textbook the night before the exam, well, chances are you won't ace that exam.

As you're breaking down your tasks into manageable chunks, you'll need to decide how much time will be necessary to complete those tasks.

"Calculating how long things take is not a mysterious talent," writes Morgenstern. "It may take you two weeks to a month of practice to get the hang of it, but without a doubt, you can learn how. And it may be the most powerful time management skill you tackle."

"I like to have students estimate the amount of time that they need for a given task," says Miller. "I always tell students to overestimate slightly because underestimating time for something is detrimental. If you overestimate slightly you may finish early, so you have a built-in break or you can move on to your next subject or task."

Start Every Day With a Plan of Action

Every morning, check your planner. What's going on today? An exam? A soccer practice? What's on your "to do" list?

"Complete as much extra work as possible while you are at school, especially if you are involved in extracurricular activities," says Douglas.

So if you can see that today your after school or evening homework time will be limited, plan to use any spare moments you have during the day to get things crossed off your list.


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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.