Time management strategies

Time management is a critical skill and can be crucial for Distance learners. Distance learning is more flexible by nature, and it is often fitted into an already busy life. There is a feeling of distance from other students and support structures.

How much time should be allocated to study?

There are 12 teaching weeks in a semester. The credit value of the course generally indicates the number of hours per week of study required per semester. A 15 credit single semester course requires 12 hours per week—not always equally spread out!

Where do you find the time?

To find the time to study, you will need to reorganise your time in various ways. Your target is to save the time you need for study—approximately 12 hours per week for one course. Use the "4D method" to estimate the time you can save in hours per week.

  • Downgrading: Do to a less high standard (cleaning the house, preparing food, etc)
  • Delegating: Get someone else to do it (some child care, cooking)
  • Decommitting: Don't do it at all, or do less of it (watch TV, socialising with friends) 
  • Deferring: Put off until the end of the course (decorate bedroom)

Thinking about using all available time during the day, we can divide our time into three broad categories:

  • Small chunks (under 30 minutes): Travelling time, morning tea, waiting to pick up kids from school/activities, waiting for food to cook
  • Medium chunks (around 1 hour): Lunch time at work, waiting at kids' activities (netball practice, ballet, etc.)
  • Large chunks (over 1.5 hours): Evenings and weekends

Some study tasks are more suitable to accomplish in large chunks of time, and others can be achieved using many small chunks of time. Think about how you can use time, think about your tasks, and how they can be achieved.

  • Small chunks: Overview reading, brainstorm notebook, proofread
  • Medium chunks: Library database search, reference list, reading feedback
  • Large chunks: Focused reading/note taking, planning, writing assignments, exam revision

Establish a routine

Think about when you are most productive: in the morning, afternoon, or evening? If you can, plan your "large chunks" during the time you are most productive. Set aside definite study times that you will keep to. Create a pattern of expectation of study at those times, so your family and friends know it's "study time".

Managing procrastination

Procrastination is, in a nutshell, putting off things you know you should be doing. Students are particularly prone because learning is often self-scheduled and performed alone to exacting standards. These are all factors that enhance people's tendency to put things off.

Adopt a five-fold strategy for overcoming procrastination:

  • Realistic goal setting: Be sensible about what you can achieve in the timeframe
  • Planning: Look ahead and put in place steps to achieve those goals
  • Task chunks: Make a molehill out of a mountain by breaking down big tasks into a set of smaller ones
  • Know yourself: Work out why you procrastinate (perfectionism, fear of failure, disappointing others, not sure what to do)
  • Seek help: Team up with another student to support and encourage each other

Managing perfectionism

Perfectionism is not the search for excellence, it is the search for the unobtainable. Perfectionism refers to a set of self-defeating thoughts and behaviours aimed at reaching excessively high and unrealistic goals. One definition states a perfectionist is "a person having a disposition which regards anything short of perfect as being unacceptable." For example, a perfectionist student may hand in a course a week late, or not at all, rather than hand it in on time with imperfect structure.

Time management strategies

Managing perfectionism

Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Set realistic goals. Focus on the important things and aim for small rewards. Say "no" to perfectionism, and enjoy the journey.

Self discipline

To succeed at almost anything, you often need some self-discipline. Try this:

  • Set a timer for 25 minutes, and don't allow yourself to get up until it goes off.
  • Take a five minute break.
  • Repeat the cycle another three times before taking a longer break.

This is called the Pomodoro Technique after a tomato-shaped timer.

Taking regular breaks when you are learning material enhances recall. Study small portions of material, take a break, then study some more. We retain a great deal more if we learn in small, managable portions instead of attempting to learn a great deal of information at once.

Make these breaks mandatory even if you are enjoying your reading or studying. Breaks not only aid recall, they also prevent fatigue and loss of concentration so you can study longer.

Make lists and prioritise

To do lists

Start by writing down everything you've got to do. This list will not be entirely academic tasks; include work, home, and study tasks.

Break big tasks up into smaller, more manageable things to do. For example, instead of writing "do assignment", write "complete referencing" or "complete three paragraphs of writing".

Prioritising

Prioritise tasks that are important and must be done above those you would like to get done or those that can wait indefinitely. A good method of prioritising is by sorting tasks using this matrix:

A: Important and Urgent
B. Important and Non-Urgent
C: Non-important and Urgent
D: Non-important and Non-Urgent

Procrastinators will spend time on tasks in C and D. Try to avoid falling into this trap. Prioritise your goals for the day and, as much as possible, do the most important ones (those ranked A or B) first.

Making progress

You don't have to complete one thing on your list before moving on to another. Stick to a pollcy of doing something now rather than later, and always think of how you can best use the present time. Cross tasks off as they are accomplished, and do your best to make every day count. At the end of each day, work out what you have to do the next day.

Catching up

Here's the world's shortest guide to catching up on studies—because if you're behind, you don't have the time for long explanations!

  • Skim bits of the course: You can sometimes get a good idea of what's important by skimming through the information.
  • Skip: You can sometimes skip bits if you need to. Seek advice from your lecturer.
  • Scrape: You don’t have to ace everything. Sometimes it’s ok to aim to scrape through a bit of the course if you need to just catch up.
  • ‘Perfectionism is the Enemy of Progress’, which is another way of saying don’t get held to ransom by perfectionism. You really don’t always have to get 100% on that assignment…
  • Defer: There may be things you think you have to do which you can put off for a while.
  • Delegate: There may be things you can get someone else to do.
  • Downgrade: There may be things you don’t have to do so perfectly.
  • Decommit: A fancy way of saying there may be things you don’t have to do at all.

Timetabling

For further help with planning your own timetable for the semester, right down to the daily to-do list, check out our timetabling resources.

Visit the OWLL web pages to get further information and helpful tips on managing procrastination, perfectionism, and other study tips.

Some material adapted with permission from Ormond Simpson, "Supporting Students in Online Open and Distance Learning"

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