Both high school and college can, in their own ways, be as challenging as any job. So as you prepare yourself for adult life, it’s important to become well-grounded in one of the most critical aspects of any successful career: good time management. Now, you can’t really manage time of course; but you can manage how you respond to it, and you can certainly learn how to use it wisely.
In this article, I’ll offers pointers on how you can put your limited amount of time to the best possible use. Not only will implementing these techniques help you do better in school while carving out more time for yourself, while you’re still in school you’ll have a test-bed where you can refine these methods in anticipation of the day when you step fully into the business world.
The Basics of Organization
Before you can maximize the use of your time, you have to spend some of it on planning. This isn’t difficult or especially time-consuming, but you do have to be a little fanatical about it. It all starts with implementing a scheduling system, which can be paper-based, electronic, or some hybrid of both.
Your next task should be to create a master schedule for your life. Put everything on it that you can think of, starting with the fixed items: sleep, meals, chores, classes, tests, upcoming papers, and work time if you have a job. Next, estimate how long you think non-fixed assignments (like research papers) will take you to complete, and block off that time on your schedule. Everything else—favorite TV shows, extracurricular activities, a social life—has to be juggled to fit whatever blanks are left over.
Review your schedule daily, and update it at least once a week. When you do, ask yourself these questions: “What worked this week, and what didn’t? Did I schedule the right amount of time for each task? Which tasks took more time than expected, and which took less? What did I forget to plan for?” You can use what you’ve learned to plan next week’s schedule.
Your scheduling system is useless if you refuse to stick to it, so be tough with yourself. If you’d really like to go to a basketball game but you have a math test the next day, you’re going to have to buckle down and forego the game. It’s necessary to say no to things that you don’t have time for, as over-commitment can be stressful and damaging.
Another damaging mistake is to skip sleep so you can get more done, because you need the rest to perform at your maximum. While it may seem the ultimate waste of time, getting enough sleep actually saves you time, because you don’t have to redo things that you missed or did poorly because you were so tired you couldn’t think straight.
One final note: schedule in the occasional reward, like time with your friends or a nice dinner. If you’ve been following your schedule religiously, then you deserve it.
The ability to roll with the punches is important to any active individual—and when you’re a student—it can be your best friend. No matter how carefully you plan your schedule, the world’s not going to let you follow it point-by-point. You can’t always account for bad weather, the actions of other people, or your own health, so it’s critical that you allow for the unexpected.
Too much rigidity can lead to indecision and even paralysis if things don’t go just right…and when did that ever happen? So schedule a few blocks of free time, so you’ll have buffer periods you can use to handle the unforeseen. If nothing happens, great! Now you can do something fun. On the other hand, if your calculus teacher suddenly decides your class needs a quiz the next day, you’ll have time to study for it without ditching something else.
Another way to maximize flexibility is to reclaim every scrap of unscheduled downtime. If you have to sit on the bus for an hour every day, then get some reading done. And here’s another thing that I hesitate to mention—it’s the reality with some college classes—you don’t have to focus every second on the instructor. If he derails onto yet another story about his wasted youth, shoot off a couple texts or emails. This isn’t viable in high school, but you’re the boss in college.
The To-Do List
A good to-do list is the linchpin of any time management strategy, and can be used on a variety of time-scales. However, it all starts with the daily list, a series of short-term goals that you want to accomplish within the next 24 hours.
As a student, the general outline of your to-do list and the order in which you accomplish things is largely predicated by your schedule. If you’re having a history test in fifth period, that’s when it has to be, no matter how important it is. The hard part is deciding how to deal with all the unfixed items, like that paper that’s due in two weeks, or your household chores. While you need to make some progress on all fronts, you also need to categorize tasks according to their importance and urgency, and prioritize them accordingly.
Prioritization—that is, how you determine what comes first, second, third, and never—is the essence of time management. You must focus the majority of your attention on what’s most important, with any leftover time spent on your less-pressing list items.
Your list must also be realistic. If you have items that aren’t pressing and you just don’t have time to do them today, or your list is simply too long to handle, then you must be willing to postpone those extraneous tasks. Assuming you don’t defer them indefinitely, this isn’t abandonment, just good time management. And in any case, abandonment isn’t necessarily a dirty word. If you need to make time in your schedule, look at the things that matter least to you (within the context of your school and home obligations, of course), and let a few go.
A good not-to-do list can also help keep you on track. Simply make a list of things that steal or waste productive time, so you know what to avoid. This will vary from person to person, but may include things like Internet gaming, surfing when you should be working, online chatting, or checking email too often.
The Importance of Visualization and Goal-Setting
Planning for the future and setting goals for getting there is an important part of any time management scheme. Your goals can be big or small. This week, for example, your biggest goal may be passing a geology exam next Wednesday. Then there are the big ones: if you’re still in high school, your ultimate goal could be as simple as graduating, but it’s more likely that you’re looking forward to college at least, and possibly a career in a particular field. So how do you get there?
Simple enough: look at your life, and map out the path from where you are now to where you want to be. Now, what processes, classes, organizations, and decisions will help you achieve that goal? If your short-term goal is pass a test, figure out how much you have to study every day between now and then, and get with it. If the goal’s a big one, then break it down into smaller steps with their own individual objectives, determine what resources are necessary to achieve those objectives, and start working through the milestones one by one. This helps you set priorities and calculate how much time you need to spend on each goal, which in turn lets you determine your daily game plan.
Aside from your basic school/career oriented goals, you can’t forget the other important goals in life. Social, family, and financial goals all require a certain level of attention, and you can’t ignore them if you expect to become a well-rounded individual. Never lose sight of your long-term goals in any of these venues.
Develop a Laser -Sharp Focus
If you want to maximize your accomplishments, then you need to know how to focus in like a laser beam on what’s truly important. Needless to say, this is a big part of to-do list prioritization, but it contributes to all aspects of time management—not least in that it helps that you get things done in as little time as possible.
Easily said, right? For many of us, the hard part is learning how to focus. So let’s take a quick look at what’s required to do that.
First of all, suppress any tendency you may have to procrastinate. Procrastination is hurtful, because rather than focusing on getting something done, you focus on not doing it. All this does is make you feel needlessly bad about yourself. If the task seems too large to handle, then break it down into smaller chunks, set realistic goals for completion, and tackle them one at a time.
Next, choose your personal “prime time,” the time of day when you work the best, and concentrate exclusively on one task at a time for a reasonable period: one or two hours works best for most people. Do not try to multitask. If you need to take a break, stop at a logical stopping point, so you don’t lose focus on something you haven’t finished yet. Whatever the length of your focus period, be sure to eliminate any time-wasting activities, distractions, and disruptions insofar as possible. Even if a text, call, Facebook IM, or email drags you away for just two minutes, it’s going to take a while to regain the level of focus necessary to give your task the concentration it needs.
So turn off your phone and all computer alerts, especially email and chat notifications, until you’re done. Studies have shown that just knowing a message is waiting can ruin your concentration, even if you don’t answer it right away.
A Note About College vs. High School
In the preceding sections, I’ve outlined the basics required for any high school or college student to maximum their limited time. But I’d be remiss if I failed to point out that in college, things will be tougher than ever. You’re going to have to learn to be entirely self-reliant, because no one’s going to wake you up and demand that you go to class, or make sure that you study in the evenings rather than party. It’s all up to you.
And then there’s the difficulty factor. College is much harder than high school, so it requires a more Machiavellian application of your time management skills, especially if you also work (as many students do these days). Prioritization becomes much more important as a method of triaging your activities, and you need to be both more decisive and more willing to let things go. Experiment as needed with specialized memory and organizational methods, or even with tactics as simple as doing your homework is classes that require less direct attention. You don’t have to give up a social life if you’re careful, but do remember that you’re not in college just to have fun. You’re there to prepare for the rest of your life.
While I can’t claim that the pointers I’ve outlined here are the be-all and end-all of good student time management, they should provide you with a solid jumping-off point. And be aware, too, that while I’ve discussed these pointers in sequential style, they’re actually overlapping and intricately interrelated. You can’t really have a to-do list without having a schedule in place, and to put together your schedule, you need to employ big-picture visualization and set goals for yourself. You get the idea. As with most things of this nature, it’s up to you to experiment and find what works best for you. This may take a while, but it’s very much worth the effort —and the time—that you’ll put into it.