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Learning to learn 07: Time management

I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes at nine every morning. – William Faulkner


We’ve all been told that effective time management is an important part of self-regulated learning but has anyone ever gone through what this might look like for you?

First off, this isn’t really about managing time. It’s about managing your attention within set periods of time. This module is about setting aside specific periods of time during which you choose to allocate your attention on certain activities. In other words, it’s about scheduling. However, for the purposes of this module, I’m going to stick with the more common phrase “time management” so that it aligns with what others talk about.


Why you should care about time management

Planning helps to follow through on important tasks as well as make intentions concrete. If you’re not allocating time to tasks then you’re explicitly making a decision not to value it. If you think about this in terms of sleep, for example, by not setting a time for when you’re going to go to bed, you’re making a choice that sleep isn’t important to you, which means that learning isn’t important to you (because we know that there’s a strong correlation between getting enough sleep and being cognitively productive).

Without allocating periods of time to tasks it’s hard to know how long things take. For example, I have a tendency to add too many items to my daily to do lists, which means that I either end the day with loads of unfinished tasks, or I rush through the ones on my list to try and get them done. The unintended consequence of this is that I may focus on the small tasks that are quick to complete (typically admin-related activities that are quite low-value) or those that I enjoy doing. Either way, these typically aren’t the activities I should be doing to improve my learning.

Another reason to pay attention to time management is that it helps to avoid multitasking (which is properly called context switching). It’s a common misconception to believe that you’re capable of multitasking; the reality is that you’re rapidly switching between contexts (e.g. watching TV and studying). And every time you switch, you pay a cognitive cost because the switch is a high-energy activity. In other words, you get more cognitively fatigued when switching between different contexts (i.e. multitasking) than if you simply focused on one thing at a time.

And finally, controlling your schedule is a way of asserting your autonomy, which is recognised as one of the protective factors against burnout. This means that, when you constantly feel that your day is being controlled by someone else, it can lead to burnout. Asserting some measure of control over how you spend your day is one way that you can prevent the feeling of things being out of control.


We’ll now go through a series of approaches that take time management from an abstract concept to a set of practical strategies that you can start implementing immediately.

Time-blocking

Time-blocking is one form of scheduling where different tasks and activities are allocated to specific blocks of time in your daily schedule. It forces you to make intentional choices about what to spend your time on because there are only so many hours in the day.

The alternative is that you keep adding items to a never-ending to do list, which increases anxiety because the list is open-ended i.e. you don’t know how much time to allocate to each task, nor what to work on next. When your day is time-blocked you can focus all of your attention on what needs to be done at that time.

You should schedule time every day for things like email and personal admin, as well as for rest and relaxation. Start your day by allocating everything you want to do during that day to a specific block of time, including eating, sleeping, socialising, and relaxing. If this sounds extreme consider the alternative; that you leave the outcomes of your day to chance

Also, you should avoid trying to make your schedule too rigid; it’s important to build in a buffer so that you can adapt your schedule to make space for unanticipated activities.

Task-batching

Another form of scheduling is task-batching, which is the process of grouping together similar (usually smaller, less cognitively demanding) tasks and doing them all at once in order to avoid context switching.

Email is a good example of task batching as a way to avoid becoming distracted. What we tend to do is check our email (or social media feed) every time we get a notification. But when you use task batching it’s easier to avoid that notification because you know that you’ve got 2 hours scheduled for that later in the day (although, ideally, you should probably have your notifications turned off when you’re studying; see the module on How to focus).

For example, you might say that 13:00 – 15:00 is set aside for “admin” of which the first 30 minutes will be to return phone calls, and then the next 90 minutes to answer emails. This reduces the urge you feel to check your emails intermittently and thus reduces the cognitive overload of regularly switching between different tasks.

Day theming

Day theming is the process of dedicating each day of the week to a specific area of focus or responsibility. This is a more extreme version of task batching since you’re allocating significant portions of an entire day to a collection of tasks that are all related to one project or study theme.

It may be difficult to do the extreme version of this when you’re a student but you should be able to work with the main principle, which is that you can choose to focus your attention on a specific area of the curriculum in the spare time that you have in that day. For example, the content of your lectures is predetermined and you can’t change that. But you can decide that Mondays are “anatomy” days, Tuesdays are movement science” days, etc. And then for whatever content is covered during lectures on Monday, you try to specifically link those concepts to anatomy. And then the same thing for movement science the next day. Or alternatively you could decide that Saturdays are “admin” days. This might be when you organise your notes from the week. So you know that you’re not going to be “studying” but will instead elaborate on the notes you took during the week, format and mark them up, file them in the correct places, etc.

With some creative thinking you can see how the focus of your attention for the day can help you to link seemingly unrelated concepts across the curriculum and provide you with a focus that can prevent distraction.


Reviews

Daily reviews

By now you should have noticed that most of scheduling is actually planning; planning for what you’re going to focus your attention on during each part of the day. But that’s not enough. You also need to 1) look back over what you’ve accomplished that day, and 2) look forward to what you’re going to do the next day.

This is where your reviews come in. Allocate 20-30 minutes at the end of each day to reflect on what you’ve achieved. This is not only helpful to give you a sense of progress towards a long-term goal but also reinforce the concepts you’ve addressed. You can also use this time to reflect on your long-term goals (i.e. what you’re doing and why you’re doing it), meditate, wrap up your notes, etc.

And then you need to look ahead to what’s on the agenda for tomorrow. What lectures are scheduled? What do you need to have with you to make the most of those lectures? Are there any questions you need to ask in class to fill in gaps in your notes from today? It means starting the next day with a plan rather than waking up and beginning in reactive mode where you’re simply reacting to others. It makes it easier to go to the library in the 1 hour gap between lectures, instead of agreeing to hang out in the student centre with friends (an activity which also makes it easier to skip the next lecture).

These activities should be quite short to complete and create a sense of finishing up for the day. Your daily review is a cognitive stopping point that means you can go to bed with nothing on your mind, comfortable in the knowledge that you’ve moved your learning forward today and that you’re ready for tomorrow.

Weekly reviews

Weekly reviews serve a similar purpose. On a Sunday evening you should be looking ahead to plan your week. What are the tasks that need to be done this week? What assessments are coming up? What needs to be submitted? When have you put aside the time to make sure that those tasks get done? Whatever the due dates for submissions are, I plan to submit the day before. This isn’t so that I can impress anyone. Rather, it’s to make sure that I have a buffer built in for those unplanned emergencies that always seem to pop up right when something is due.

A weekly review is also a great time to make sure that you’re building in time for personal commitments that are outside of studying, and for ensuring that you’re taking care of yourself. Have you set aside time to spend with family and friends? Are you getting enough sleep and physical exercise? Are you eating properly? A weekly review gives you a moment to stop and reflect on how you’re spending your time, and to proactively make decisions about what’s important to you. If you decide that you need a weekend off, what arrangements can you make now to ensure that you start that weekend with no work hanging over your head?

A weekly review should be aimed at:

  • Getting thoughts out of your head and into your notes.
  • Clearing your digital and physical workspaces.
  • Updating your to do lists.
  • Deciding on your priorities for the week.
  • Reflecting on the week behind you.

A weekly review is not a comprehensive review of your long-term goals because a week isn’t really enough time to make any significant progress towards those goals. It’s also not a suitable time to actually do any work, except if the task can be completed in one or two minutes.

Monthly reviews

A monthly review is the process of identifying the high-level goals that you’re working towards and making sure that you’re making progress on each of them. This is a relatively short process, since you can only really have 2-3 of these kinds of goals in a month. It’s also a great time to plan for exams. Instead of reacting to exams a couple of weeks beforehand, the monthly review gives you an opportunity to build in study time at least a month before your exams begin (although, in a perfect world, you’d be working towards your exams throughout the entire year).

Annual reviews

I started doing annual reviews a few years ago and really enjoy them. Early on in the year I set aside a few hours and think about what high-level projects are important to me and what I’d like to focus on during the year. Do I want to improve my writing output? Or spend more time at home with my children? Exercise more? Watch less TV? I think about all of the different aspects of my life that are important to me, and here is the important part, I start allocating time to them. If you’re not putting aside time for the things you say you value, then you should accept that you don’t really value them.

This is different to making New Year’s resolutions, which often come without a concrete plan. An annual plan isn’t a vague promise you’re making but rather a set of concrete steps that you can implement. For example, deciding that you want to be more physically active in the year to come can’t end there. Once you’re decided that this a goal you need to start thinking about how you’re going to change your habits so that it’s achievable. When I decided that I wanted to take better photos, I set a goal of taking a photo every day for a year. This is a measurable outcome that I can use to see if I’m taking more photos. I decided that I want to improve my writing so I try to set aside time every day for writing.

Then, at the end of the year I go back and read through my monthly reviews to see what I’ve achieved and whether or not my annual planning was successful. An annual review isn’t an abstract reflection on the promises you made; it’s a concrete review of specific tasks you set for yourself, that you implemented on a daily, weekly and monthly timetable.


Conclusion

Time management (or attention allocation) isn’t something vague that you stumble upon if you’re lucky. Like everything else in this Learning to Learn programme, scheduling your time (and attention) is a practical skill that you can get better at. In this case, time management is a conscious set of choices that you make every day, week, month and year. What you choose to do every hour becomes what you do every day. And what you do every day determines what your weeks and months look and feel like.

Time blocking, task batching, and day theming are all very practical strategies that will help you to focus on what you’ve decided are important activities for the day. Once you’ve made the decision that they’re important tasks, and you’ve set aside time to achieve them, it’s much easier to stick to the plan than to simply hope that you have time to get everything done.

If you say that you value learning and that you want to get better at something, you’re saying that this activity is important to you; that you value the outcomes. But without intentionally planning for the achievement of your goals you’re leaving success to chance. Making an intentional choice to spend this hour elaborating on your notes from the lectures today shouldn’t be a choice that you made 5 minutes ago. This is a choice that you should have made yesterday, or a week ago.


References

  • Barker, E. (2014, August 10). How To Stop Being Lazy And Get More Done—5 Expert Tips. Barking Up The Wrong Tree.
  • Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (1 edition). Grand Central Publishing.
  • Newport, C. (2006). How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less. Three Rivers Press.
  • The Complete Guide to Time Blocking. (n.d.). Todoist. Retrieved 16 September 2020.

If you found this module on Time management useful and haven’t yet signed up for Learning to learn, consider subscribing to the weekly newsletter here. The newsletters include reminders and short readings on the topic for the month. You can unsubscribe at any time.

There are six other modules in the Learning to Learn programme that you may want to explore:

  1. How to create new habits.
  2. How to focus and avoid distraction.
  3. How to take effective notes.
  4. How to read.
  5. How to write.
  6. How to remember.

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