With the new semester getting into full swing and assignment deadlines now coming back into play, many students may find themselves drawing up schedules or to-do lists for their tasks in the hopes of completing everything on time. Here, several members of the Trent University community have shared their personal productivity tips and time management tactics.
Time is a funny thing, and you will often hear it said that it flies, it is fleeting, it slips through your fingers, and you can’t get it back. It is unsurprising then, that many people want to manage their time as effectively as possible, especially when it comes to meeting deadlines. Time management is a valuable skill in almost every aspect of life, and can lead to a healthier lifestyle and reduced stress.
Mary Ann Armstrong, Senior Academic Skills Instructor with the Trent Academic Skills Centre (ASC), says that time management is a common reason for students to visit the ASC and that it is a common struggle for students new to a university environment where there is less of a structure and more ‘free’ time.
“The first thing that we usually ask them is if they themselves can sort of diagnose what is holding them up, the thing that’s stopping them from managing their time,” said Armstrong. “Most people will say procrastination, and for many first year or lower year students it’s the lack of a structure that they had when they were in high school. They have fewer hours in classes and more open time to do their own work and they have a hard time putting the structure in place.”
Armstrong highly recommends establishing your own structure so you have a guideline to keep you on track.
“What I often start with is I say to them that if you’re a full time student, whether you’re taking four or five courses, you should almost think of it as a full time job,” she says. “A full time job is between 35 and 40 hours a week. So add up the amount of time you’re in classes, subtract that from the 40 hours, and that sort of gives you an estimate of how much time you should be putting in. Then take a look at your week and try to make up a schedule where you have identified those hours as work hours.”
One of the benefits of creating your own schedule in this fashion is that you can cater it to your work habits. Common advice from the ASC is that your schedule should “reflect your life.”
“There’s no law that says you have to sit down at 9 o’clock in the morning and start being productive right then,” says Armstrong. “Just make sure that you’ve thought [the schedule] through and identified when you should do your work in a way that reflects the way you are. The closer it does that, the more likely you are to follow it.”
Trent University Professor and Principal of the Catherine Parr Traill College, Dr. Michael Eamon, agrees that structuring your time based around your work habits is beneficial, and explains how he divides his time into categories based on his knowledge of himself.
“When I am in a primarily academic environment, I divide my time into three sections based on my level of alertness and productivity, namely Prime, Secondary and Tertiary times,” he said in an email to Arthur. “To do this method, you need to be familiar with your own natural rhythms. Prime Times are the times of day that I reserve for writing, creating new things, or things that need high concentration. Personally, they fall around 8 to 11 AM, 1 to 3 PM and 7 to 10 PM. Secondary times are those spaces that I am not at my best, but can do things such as correspondence, research, etc. Tertiary times are the times that I am tired, but can do things that don’t require too much thought and are more repetitive. I think dividing your day into three core times can be very helpful for students.”
Currently, some of his main time management strategies are writing everything down in his agenda and dividing his tasks into immediate and long-term categories. Additionally, incorporating some short-term projects provides very important senses of variety and progress as they are performed and completed. Of course, simple and unproductive pleasures are necessary as well.
“The most productive diversions are ones that are related to your other work,” said Eamon. “However, I am also a musician and find that losing yourself in a hobby is also an important way to realise that immediate success can help keep you motivated.”
Another important aspect of time management was expressed by Dr. Leo Groarke, President of Trent University, when stressed the important of not spreading yourself too thin when it comes to projects. He said that he has found focusing on a smaller number of tasks at one time to be more effective than trying to do everything at once.
“My advice for anyone who wants to be productive is to have a clear set of priorities,” he said. “There is only so much anyone can accomplish in a given period. If one let’s oneself be pulled in too many directions, one will not accomplish anything of significance. Pick some very clear priorities and focus on them. Once you have one priority complete, add another to the list. If you try to write ten papers at once, you will confuse yourself and nothing will get done. If you focus on one or two, you can get them done and turn to the next.”
Groarke also highlighted the importance of being able to say no to projects so you have a manageable list of commitments to work with.
Structure works fantastically as a guideline, but it is impossible to plan for everything, so flexibility and revision of your strategies are also a must. Eamon expressed that often the effectiveness of productivity strategies are dependent on the situation.
“Finding balance is a tough prospect no matter what age or stage of life you are experiencing. I have used various organizational methods over the years,” he said. “I think it is important to remember that certain methods work in particular environments. However, when a routine changes, you enter a new job or start a new degree, you might have to re-evaluate.”
Another example Eamon gave from his own experience was the birth of his two sons during the time he was working through his PhD, an event that understandably required an alteration to his previous time management schedule. He feels now that the birth of his sons helped him become productive, but noted that he does not recommend having children as a time management strategy.
Armstrong also acknowledges the fact that nobody is permanently productive, and that times of unproductivity are fine as long as you are willing to get back up and give it another shot. “Everybody struggles with procrastination and putting off things that are not their favourite things to do, and that’s alright. I mean, it’s just like anything, you just have to get back on it. If you waste a morning or whatever, that’s alright, then move on.”
For students looking to apply some new ideas to their productivity, the ASC offers numerous resources on their website including a 24/7 weekly schedule so you can schedule out everything from classes to sleep and a full term calendar so you can view all your deadlines at a glance.
Skills learned now will be valuable for the rest of your life, as Eamon explained; “Life after your undergraduate degree does change. However, a lot of the organizational pressures do not. You will always have to balance deadlines, assignments, personal issues and professional expectations. Your life after Trent will be more like your life at Trent than you realize. Good organizational skills learned now will hold you in good stead for the rest of your life: whether it is a life of work, school, family responsibilities or a blending of it all.”