Scheduling Success: A Student Guide to Managing Time whilst Learning Online

Monday, April 20, 2020

At the best of times, one of the challenges of being a student is managing time: juggling classes, staying on top of independent work and assessments, whilst fitting in extra-curricular and social activities and a personal life is not easy. In the days of COVID-19, it’s harder than ever, as normal daily routines and structured timetables are disrupted, and we adapt to working from home. If you’re a student, this post aims to help you take responsibility for managing your time and workload in a way you might never before have needed to do entirely independently.

You may be feeling more stressed about learning, and especially your assessment, as you are forced to adapt to new ways of working. Stress comes from your sense of not being in control: the more in control you are of what you need to do, and the greater you perceive your ability to do it, the less stressed you are likely to feel. But how do you stay in control when there’s so much uncertainty, and your normal study timetable has gone?

There are broadly two aspects of managing time: deciding what you need to do, and then using scheduling techniques, and tracking your progress, to make sure you get those things done. Let’s look at those two things in turn.

Identifying activities and tasks

Much of what you need to do academically will be determined for you through your modules and their assessments. But other things – like your family, friends, hobbies and interests, exercise and taking care of yourself – will be important to you too, and for the sake of your wellbeing, you need to keep fitting them in, even when studying gets really busy.

Start by thinking about all the different things that need your time and attention in the next few weeks, and write a list. Keep things at the broad level of activities to start with, not specific tasks. For example, don’t list individual assignments, but do list modules you need to work on, clubs, societies, hobbies and interests that you want to find time for, family commitments and relationships that need your attention, and so on.

Once you’ve got a list of activities, pause and look at it. What will you prioritise? Your studies? Your family and relationships? Yourself and your wellbeing? This probably feels like a difficult choice. And it is, because all of these things are important to you. All too often, the period leading up to exams tips the balance in favour of work: studying becomes a priority, and students end up working very long hours. This is never an ideal strategy, and finding a balance that allows us to commit to all areas of our lives is crucial.

Here’s how you can work towards finding that balance. Look back at your list of activities, and for each one, list the key tasks that need to be completed. For example, for a module, tasks might include completing a series of lectures, working through tutorial sheets or online activities, producing and submitting an assignment, preparing for an exam, etc. For family and friends commitments, it might be having video calls, meeting for online quizzes and social activities, etc.  Where these tasks have specific deadlines for completion, or a frequency with which you want to do them, note those down, too.

Your completed list tells you what you need to do, and, where appropriate, the deadlines for completion. It might look a bit overwhelming, but the next step is to build a schedule, so that you can see how it’s all going to fit in and get done.

Scheduling your tasks

To get started, download the weekly planner template linked at the bottom of this post; we’re going to use it to structure your time. You might have tried similar things before and found that they don’t work for you. Bear with me, if so, and I’ll tell you shortly why it doesn’t have to be perfect, and how you can adapt and build your skills with using it.

Take the timetable template, and block in some time to work on each of your modules. Where you are receiving teaching online, classes may have specific times, or at least be released at specific times in the week, so use that as a guide. Think also about how much time you’d have spent in class if you were still learning on campus, and aim to have at least that much time for each module. Around those core learning hours, put in some more time, in a different colour, for independent work – time you can use to review lecture slides, prepare for seminars, etc. Next, think about your non-academic activities: clubs, societies, family, looking after yourself, etc, and use other colours to put in some time for those. Crucially, though, don’t fill up all the time, keep some buffer slots – you’ll see why, shortly.

At this point, you’ve got a generic weekly timetable. Save it, or make a copy of it. This is the basis of weekly planning, and for each week ahead, you can create a more specific version to capture where you’ll work on specific assignments, fit in other ‘one-off’ commitments you may have, etc, by re-purposing your independent learning hours, or, occasionally, in deadline-heavy periods, reducing – but not entirely eliminating – your social activities.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to plan ahead, you might want to create a copy of the plan for each week through to the end of semester, mark your deadlines onto them, and then map out when you’ll complete work for your assignments down to specific detail, like when you’ll do literature searching, reading, write a literature review, collect data and conduct analysis, etc. If that level of planning feels difficult, you could tackle it week by week, and make a version of the planner at the start of each week. If you take the latter approach, it’s worth writing a list now of the key things you’ll need to complete in each week, so that you can check there’s enough time ahead to fit everything in. Either way, the aim is for you to see that what’s ahead is achievable by the deadlines, and to feel in control of all the demands on your time.

Changing your working habits is hard

You might by now be thinking that this is all well and good, but that you’ll find it hard to stick to the plan. You might even be thinking that, because you’ve found it hard to stick to plans in the past, there’s no point even trying this approach. Well, here’s the thing: however great a planner anyone is, nobody is perfect, because we’re human, and life sometimes gets in the way. Sometimes things take longer than we anticipated. Sometimes, we wake up unproductive, and don’t get as much done as we wanted to. Sometimes, we get distracted by other things.

Remember those buffer slots we left in the schedule? They are there because you’re not – and don’t have to be – perfect. If you find that you don’t do something scheduled in for a particular time, or you do it but don’t finish it in the amount of time you allowed, just write it into the buffer slot, and come back to it at that time. And, if you get to a buffer slot and are on top of everything, celebrate by having a little extra time for yourself. Go and do something you enjoy: it’ll make you feel even more motivated and reinforce your commitment to your schedule.

Talking of things you enjoy – remember that you scheduled some of those things in too. When you’ve got a lot on, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and not to take breaks to do fun things, for fear that you are compromising your studies. By scheduling things as I’ve outlined here, when you get to a break, you can feel confident that you’ve done enough if you’ve completed everything in your schedule up to that point. And you know there’s enough time ahead to finish everything else, because you scheduled it. So you can relax and take a break, knowing that you’re on top of things and without feeling guilty that you’re not working.

Tracking your progress 

Finally, did you notice that on the timetable template, there’s a narrow strip across the bottom of every hour of every day? This is to help you track your progress – both with the tasks, but also with adapting to managing your time independently. As each hour passes, colour this strip in, using a traffic light system: green means you did what you planned; orange means you partially did it, but maybe you started late, or didn’t get as much done as you planned; and red means you didn’t do it at all.

At the end of the week, look at the colours. It won’t all be green, and that’s OK; you’re human, not a robot. Count how many blocks each of green, orange and red there are, and write the counts down at the bottom of the page. Now, as you move into the next week, aim to do better than you did this week: increasing the greens, and reducing the ambers and reds. Over time, you’ll find that you get better, as you learn the self-discipline required to follow the schedule, and if you’re getting better, you know your system is working, even if it’s not perfect because you’re not 100% green.

Finally, don’t throw the schedules away once the week ends. After a few weeks, look back over them and see if any patterns are emerging. Are your 9am, slots always red, because you’re not really a morning person? Are your 1pm slots always amber, because you didn’t allow enough time for lunch, or find it difficult to focus straight afterwards? Perhaps your 3-6pm slots are almost always green? Consider what this tells you about your working styles. What are your most and least productive times of the day? The slots where you don’t have much energy, and the slots where you are super-productive? Use what you see to help you restructure the weeks ahead, so that you put the work that demands the most effort into the times when you’re most able to focus. Turn the flexibility of managing your own time into a positive, by working at the times when you are most productive.

Good luck!

I hope you’ve found this post helpful and that it’s given you some techniques to try out. As with all professional skills, you will probably find that not everything I’ve suggested works well for you straight off. So don’t be afraid to adapt it to make it helpful in your context. How you use the tools, and even which tools you use, isn’t important, as long as you can manage your workload to be successful in reaching your goals. Let me know in the comments below if you make changes to my suggestions, or if you find specific ideas effective – it may help others reading this post, too.

Good luck with completing the semester and with keeping some balance in your life at this challenging time. Remember, you are not alone and can always talk to your module or personal tutors if you need some help. Be kind to yourself, and aim to get better at managing your time, not to be perfect.


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  1. Read your post and I really liked the human element to it that we aren't perfect beings :)

    1. Thanks for the positive feedback, Ka Sen! I think it's a really important point because with a lot of tools and techniques you need to find your own way of adapting them so that they work well for you. And because managing time is a skill, like any other, it takes time and practice to get good at it.

  2. thank you for posting! i have already read them and feel very useful

  3. thanks for your posting! it is really help for myself to address my problems.

  4. thanks for your posting. I have read and tried to use these methods to arrange my study and improve my study efficiency.

  5. This method does work, people!
    A while back, when assignments and revision and lectures were in full swing, I felt powerless and overwhelmed against the real tidal wave of work headed my way. I figured there was no time for the things I enjoyed, leading me to enjoy work less, giving me less time for the things I enjoyed. I had a meeting with Gary and he introduced me to this system.
    If I were to remember one thing he said, it was that 'stress is the feeling of not being able to control your time'. After this, I took the system seriously. It started off looking like a stop sign, but eventually I was following it to such an extent that before I realised, I had done all of the revision and work I needed to do all while spending the time doing the things I enjoyed, stress free. I was able to get an overall first that semester, and it's honestly thanks to the adoption of this method.
    Give it a try!