Organizing Your Time

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Discover your time personality and know where your time goes.
  • Understand the basic principles of time management and planning.
  • Learn and practice time management strategies to help ensure your academic success.
  • Know how to combat procrastination when it threatens to prevent getting your academic work done.
  • Use a calendar planner and daily to-do list to plan ahead for study tasks and manage your time effectively.


Time and Your Personality

People’s attitudes toward time vary widely. Since there are so many different “time personalities,” it’s important to realize how you approach time. Start by thinking about how you spend your time during a typical week by completing Activity 1 below.

Activity 1: Where Does the Time Go?

For each of the activity categories listed, make your best estimate of how many hours you spend in a week. (For categories that are about the same every day, just estimate for one day and multiply by seven for that line.)

Category of activity Number of hours per week
Eating (including preparing food)
Personal hygiene (i.e., bathing, nails, et cetera)
Working (employment)
Volunteer service or internship
Chores, cleaning, errands, shopping, et cetera
Attending class
Studying, reading, and researching (outside of class)
Transportation to work or school
Getting to classes (walking, biking, et cetera)
Organized group activities (clubs, church services)
Time with friends (include television, video games, hanging out, and similar activities)
Attending events (movies, parties, et cetera)
Time alone (include television, video games, surfing the Internet, et cetera)
Exercise or sports activities
Reading for fun, hobbies, or other interests done alone
Talking on phone, email, Facebook, et cetera
Other—specify: ________________________
Other—specify: ________________________

Now use your calculator to total your estimated hours. Is your number larger or smaller than 168, the total number of hours in a week? If your estimate is higher, go back through your list and see if you can adjust numbers to be closer to 168. But if your estimated hours total fewer than 168, think about where your time goes.

One way people differ in time personality is how they respond to schedule changes. Some go with the flow and accept changes easily while others function well only when following a planned schedule. Either way, it’s a good idea to plan extra time for unexpected disruptions in your schedule.

Sunset over waterAnother aspect of your time personality involves time of day. If you need to do something which requires concentration, such as write a class paper, are you more alert and focused in the morning, afternoon, or evening? Do you concentrate best when you look forward to a relaxing activity later on, or do you study better when you’ve finished all other activities? Do you function well if you get up early or stay up late to accomplish a task? How does that affect the rest of your day or the next day? Understanding these things about this aspect of your time personality will help you better plan your study periods.

Regardless of their time personality, everyone can learn to manage time more successfully. The key is to be realistic. How accurate is the number of hours you wrote down in Activity 1? The best way to know how you spend your time is to record what you do all day in a time log, writing down what you do every day for a week and then adding that up. You might be surprised that you spend a lot more time than you thought on things such as hanging out with friends or watching television. You might find that you study well early in the morning even though you thought you were a night person or find the opposite to be true. By examining your log for patterns, you might learn how long you can continue at a specific task before needing a break or which class needs more study time than your other courses.

a page showing 24 hours of 15-minute time slots from 5am to 4:45am

Time Log

Time management strategies can help us better use the time we do have by creating a schedule that works for our own time personality.

Time Management

Time management for successful college studying involves these factors:

  • Determining how much time you need to spend studying
  • Knowing how much time you actually have for studying and increasing that time if needed
  • Being aware of the times of day you are at your best and most focused
  • Using effective long- and short-term study strategies
  • Scheduling study activities in realistic segments
  • Using a system to plan ahead and set priorities
  • Staying motivated to follow your plan and avoid procrastination

For every hour in the classroom, college students should spend, on average, about two hours outside of class reading, studying, writing papers, and so on. If you’re a full-time student with a fifteen hour course load, then you need another thirty hours to complete the rest of your academic work. That forty-five hours is about the same as a typical full-time job.

Look back at the number of hours you wrote in Activity 1 for a week of studying. Do you have two hours of study time for every hour in class? Remember this is just an average amount of study time; you may need more or less for your own courses.

Special note for students who work. If may have almost no discretionary time left, you may have overextended yourself. If you cannot cut the number of hours for work or other obligations, see an academic advisor right away. It is better to take fewer classes and succeed than to take more classes than you have time for and risk failure.

Time Management Strategies for Success

The following are some strategies you can begin using immediately to make the most of your time:

  • Prepare to be successful. When planning ahead for studying, focus on the positive. Visualize yourself studying well.
  • Use your best and most appropriate time of day. Different tasks require different mental skills. Some kinds of studying you may be able to start first thing in the morning as you wake while others need your most alert moments at another time.
  • Break up large projects into small pieces. Whether it’s writing a paper for class, studying for a final exam, or reading a long assignment, students often feel daunted at the beginning of a large project. It’s easier to get going if you break it up into stages that you schedule at separate times. Then begin with the first section that requires only an hour or two so you feel a sense of accomplishment.
  • Pie chart reflecting one person's average dayDo the most important studying first. When two or more things require your attention, do the more crucial one first.
  • If you have trouble getting started, do an easier task first. Like large tasks, complex or difficult ones can be daunting.  Sometimes it helps to switch to an easier task you can accomplish quickly. That will give you momentum, and often you feel more confident tackling the difficult task after being successful in the easier one.
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed because you have too much to do, revisit your time planner. Sometimes it’s hard to get started if you keep thinking about other things you need to get done. Review your schedule for the next few days and make sure everything important is scheduled; then relax and concentrate on the task at hand.
  • If you’re floundering, talk to someone. Talking with your instructor or another student in the class can help you calm down and get back on track. If you’re really struggling, consider seeing a counselor.
  • Take a break. We all need breaks to help us concentrate without becoming fatigued and burned out. As a general rule, a short break every hour or so is effective in helping recharge your study energy.
  • Use unscheduled times to work ahead. You’ve scheduled that hundred pages of reading for later today, but you have the textbook with you as you’re waiting for the bus. Start reading now, or preview the chapter to get a sense of what you’ll be reading later.
  • Keep your momentum. Prevent distractions, such as multitasking, that will only slow you down.
  • Reward yourself. It’s not easy to sit still for hours of studying. When you successfully complete the task, you should feel good. A healthy snack, a quick video game session, or a social activity can help you feel even better about your successful use of time.
  • Just say no. To reduce the chances of being interrupted, always tell others nearby when you’re studying. When interruptions happen, it helps to have your “no” prepared in advance: “No, I’d love to go with you, but I really have to be ready for this test.”
  • Have a life. Never schedule your day or week so full of work and study that you have no time at all for yourself, your family and friends, and your larger life.  Schedule in some down time.
  • Use a calendar planner and daily to-do list. We’ll look at these time management tools in the next section.

Battling Procrastination

Procrastination is a way of thinking that lets one put off doing something that should be done now. This can happen to anyone at any time. It’s like a voice inside your head keeps coming up with these brilliant ideas for things to do right now other than studying: “I must clean my room before I study” or “I can study anytime, but tonight’s the only chance I have to go out.” That voice is also very good at rationalizing: “I really don’t need to read that chapter now; I’ll have plenty of time tomorrow at lunch . . .”

Procrastination is very powerful. Some people battle it daily; others only occasionally. Most college students procrastinate often, and about half say they need help avoiding procrastination.

People procrastinate for different reasons. Some people are too relaxed in their priorities, seldom worry, and easily put off responsibilities. Others worry constantly, and that stress keeps them from focusing on the task at hand. Some procrastinate because they fear failure; others procrastinate because they fear success or are such perfectionists that they don’t want to let themselves down. Some are dreamers. Can you relate to any of these styles of procrastinating?

The time management strategies described earlier can help you avoid procrastination. Because this is a psychological issue, some additional psychological strategies can also help:

  • Since procrastination is usually a habit, accept that and work on breaking it as you would any other bad habit: one day at a time. Know that every time you overcome feelings of procrastination, the habit becomes weaker and is being replaced with a new habit of being able to start studying right away.
  • Schedule times for studying using a daily or weekly planner. Carry it with you and look at it often. Just being aware of the time and what you need to do today can help you get organized and stay on track.
  • Counter a negative with a positive. If you’re procrastinating because you’re not looking forward to a certain task, try to think of the positive future results of doing the work.
  • Study with a motivated friend. Form a study group with other students who are motivated and won’t procrastinate along with you.
  • Get help. If you really can’t stay on track with your study schedule or if you’re always putting things off until the last minute, see a college counselor. They have lots of experience with this common student problem and can help you find ways to overcome this habit.

Calendar Planners and To-Do Lists

Calendar planners and to-do lists are effective ways to organize your time. Many types of academic planners are commercially available or you can make your own. Some people like a page for each day while some like a week at a time, and others prefer a month at a glance. Some use computer calendars and planners and it’s becoming increasingly common to keep track of everything on a cell phone. Almost any system will work well if you customize it to your needs and use it consistently.

Some college students think they don’t need to actually write down their schedule and daily to-do lists. They’ve always kept it in their head before, so why write it down in a planner now? Calendars and planners help you look ahead and write in important dates and deadlines so you don’t forget, but it’s just as important to use the planner to schedule your own time. For example, the most effective way to study for an exam is to study in several short periods over several days. You can easily do this by choosing time slots in your weekly planner over several days that you will commit to studying for this test. Then schedule a reward for yourself after you meet your study commitment. You don’t need to schedule every single thing that you do, but the more carefully and consistently you use your planner, the more successfully will you manage your time.

Check the example of a weekly planner form below. You can use weekly planners to write in all your class meeting times, your work or volunteer schedule, and your usual hours for sleep, family time, and any other activities you do at fixed times. You can include time needed for transportation, meals, and so on. Your first goal is to find all the blocks of free time that are left over.

Next, check the syllabus for each of your courses and write important dates in an academic planner. If your planner has pages for the whole term, write in all exams and deadlines. You might want to use a highlighter for these key dates or different color ink for each class.

page showing columns for each day of the week and rows for 24 hours from 6am to 5am

Weekly Planner

Now plan an average of two hours of studying outside of class for every hour you’re in class. These are the time periods you now want to schedule in your planner. These times change from week to week, with one course requiring more time one week because of a paper due at the end of the week and a different course requiring more the next week because of a major exam. Block out enough hours in the week to accomplish what you need to do. As you choose your study times, consider what times of day you are at your best and what times you prefer to use for social or other activities.

Next, look at the major deadlines for projects and exams that you wrote in earlier. Estimate how much time you may need for each and work backward on the schedule from the due date. See the following example:

You have a short paper due on Friday. You determine that you’ll spend ten hours total on it from initial brainstorming and planning through to drafting and revising. Since you have other things also going on that week, you want to get an early start; you might choose to block an hour a week ahead on Saturday morning, to brainstorm your topic and jot some preliminary notes. Monday evening is a good time to spend two hours on the next step or prewriting activities. Since you have a lot of time open Tuesday afternoon, you decide that’s the best time to reserve to write the first draft; you block out three or four hours. You make a note on the schedule to leave time open that afternoon to see your instructor during office hours in case you have any questions on the paper; if not, you’ll finish the draft or start revising. Thursday, you schedule a last block of time to revise and polish the final draft due tomorrow.

If you’re surprised by this amount of planning, you may be the kind of student who used to think, “The paper’s due Friday. I have enough time Thursday afternoon, so I’ll write it then.” What’s wrong with that? Remember your instructor expects high-quality work that is difficult to churn out quickly without revising. Second, if you are tired on Thursday because you didn’t sleep well Wednesday night, you may be much less productive than you hoped, and without a time buffer, you’ll be forced to turn in a paper that is not your best work.

The example of a student’s weekly planner page below shows what one student’s schedule looks like for a week. This is intended only to show you one way to block out time as you’ll quickly find a way that works best for you.

page showing a weekly planner filled out with examples of when to attend class, study, work and sleep

Example of a Student’s Weekly Planner Page

Here are some more tips for successful schedule planning:

  • Studying is often most effective immediately after a class meeting. If your schedule allows, block out appropriate study time after class periods.
  • Be realistic about time when you make your schedule.
  • Don’t overdo it.
  • Schedule social events that occur at set times, but leave holes in the schedule for other activities. Enjoy those open times and recharge your energy.
  • Try to schedule some time for exercise at least three days a week.
  • Plan to use your time between classes wisely. If three days a week you have the same hour free between two classes, what should you do with those three hours? Maybe you need to eat, walk across campus, or run an errand. But say you have an average forty minutes free at that time on each day. You could use that time to review your notes from the previous class or for the coming class or to read a short assignment. Over the whole semester, that forty minutes three times a week adds up to a lot of study time.
  • If a study activity is taking longer than you had scheduled, look ahead and adjust your weekly planner to prevent the stress of feeling behind.
  • If you maintain your schedule on your computer or smartphone, it’s still a good idea to print it and carry it with you.
  • If you’re not paying close attention to everything in your planner, use a colored highlighter to mark the times blocked out for really important things.
  • When following your schedule, pay attention to starting and stopping times.

Your Daily To-Do List

Your daily to-do list starts out with your key scheduled activities and then adds other things you hope to do that day.

Some people use their to-do list only for things not on their planner, such as short errands, phone calls, email, and the like. This still includes important things, but they’re not scheduled out for specific times.

Although we call it a daily list, the to-do list can also include things you may not get to today but don’t want to forget about. Keeping these things on the list, even if they’re a low priority, helps ensure that eventually you’ll get to it.

Use some system to prioritize things on your list. Some students use a 1, 2, 3 or an A, B, C rating system for importance. Others simply highlight or circle items that are critical to get done today. Note the two different to-do lists below.

two handwritten to do lists

Examples of Two Different Students’ To-Do Lists

Use whatever format works best for you to prioritize the most important activities.

Here are some more tips for effectively using your daily to-do list:

  • Be specific: “Read history chapter 2 (30 pages)” is better than “ Do history homework.”
  • Put important things high on your list where you’ll see them every time you check the list.
  • Make your list at the same time every day so that it becomes a habit.
  • Don’t make your list overwhelming. If you added everything you eventually need to do, you could end up with so many things on the list that you never read through them all. If you worry you might forget something, write it in the margin of your planner’s page a week or two away.
  • Use your list. Lists often include little things that may take only a few minutes to do, so check your list any time during the day you have a moment free.
  • Cross out or check off things after you’ve done them. Doing this becomes rewarding.
  • Don’t use your to-do list to procrastinate. Don’t pull it out to find something else you just “have” to do instead of studying!

Key Takeaways

  • People use time very differently. To develop strategies for managing your time, discover your time personality and observe how much time you spend in different activities in the course of a week.
  • Plan your schedule with two hours of study time for each hour in class. Use your most alert times of day, break up large tasks into smaller pieces and stages, take breaks to help you stay focused, avoid distractions, and reward yourself for successful accomplishments.
  • Procrastination has many different causes and is a problem for most students. Different techniques can help you battle procrastination.
  • Use a weekly calendar planner to block out study times and plan well ahead for examinations and key assignments to achieve success in school.
  • Use a daily to-do list along with your weekly planner to avoid overlooking smaller tasks and to make the most of your time throughout the day.


1. What time(s) of day are you at your most alert? What time(s) of day are you at your least alert?



2. What category of discretionary activity (not sleeping, working, studying, et cetera) represents your largest use of time? Can you reduce the time you spend in that activity if you need more time for your coursework?



3. For each of the following statements about time management, circle T for true or F for false:

T F Think yourself into a positive mood before starting to study.
T F Break up larger projects into smaller parts and stages.
T F Get everything done on your to-do list before studying so that you’re not distracted.
T F When feeling stressed by a project, put it off until tomorrow.
T F Talk with your instructor or another student if you’re having difficulty.
T F Try to study at least three hours at a time before taking a break.
T F Reward yourself for successfully completing a task.
T F Avoid studying at times not written in on your weekly planner.
T F Whenever interrupted by a friend, use that opportunity to take a break for up to thirty minutes.
T F Studying with a friend is a sure way to waste time and develop poor study habits.
T F There’s no reason to keep a weekly calendar if all your instructors have provided you with a syllabus that gives the dates for all assignments and tests.