As a new college student, one of the most challenging aspects of time management is accurately assessing how much time you will need to complete the diverse range of tasks you will encounter in college and what problems may come up along the way. These problems will be specific to you and your college experience, and they may be recurring time-management challenges in your life. For instance, procrastination is one of the biggest challenges for college students, just as it is for people who are not in college. If you are willing to assess and evaluate your time-management habits on a regular basis, however, you will be able to recognize your time-management challenges and address them before they become serious problems. Only when you have a realistic understanding of these challenges will you be able to set goals and refocus your time—and your life—to maximize your success in college.
Dr. Piers Steel, who specializes in researching procrastination and motivation, writes that procrastination is on the rise with 80–95 percent of students in college spending time procrastinating.4 According to Steel, half of college students report that they procrastinate on a regular basis, spending as much as one-third of their time every day in activities solely related to procrastination. All this procrastination takes place even though most people, including researchers who study the negative consequences of procrastination, view procrastination as a significant problem. These numbers, plus the widespread acknowledgment of the negative effects of procrastination, provide evidence that it is a serious issue that trips up many otherwise capable people.
The good news is that, of those people who procrastinate on a regular basis, 95 percent want to change their behavior.5 As a first step toward initiating change, it is important to understand why people procrastinate. According to Steel, even people who are highly motivated often fear failure, and some people even fear success (although that might seem counterintuitive). Consequently, some students procrastinate because they are perfectionists; not doing a task might be easier than having to live up to your own very high expectations or those of your parents, teachers, or peers. Many procrastinate because they are easily distracted, they have difficulty organizing and regulating their life, they have difficulty following through on goals, the assigned task may seem too far into the future, or they find an assigned task boring or irrelevant6 or consider it “busy work,” believing they can learn the material just as effectively without doing the homework.
Many of the traits most associated with people who chronically procrastinate can make change more difficult. Fortunately, though, there is hope. With certain changes in behaviors and mind-set, you can reduce procrastination and become more effective at managing your time. In college changing how you think about and approach less enjoyable assignments is key to decreasing procrastination and increasing your success.
For instance, simply disliking an assignment is not a good reason to put it off; it’s an excuse, not a valid reason. Throughout life you’ll be faced with tasks you don’t find interesting, and in many cases you won’t have the option not to do them. Whether it is cleaning your house, filing your taxes, completing paperwork, or responding to hundreds of e-mails, tedious tasks will find you, and you will have to figure out strategies to complete these tasks. College is a good time to practice and hone your skills at finishing uninteresting tasks in a timely manner. Perhaps counter-intuitively, research indicates that making easier or less interesting tasks more challenging can decrease boredom and increase your likelihood of completing the tasks on time.7
When you’re in college, procrastinating can signal that it’s time to reassess your goals and objectives; maybe you’re not ready to make a commitment to academic priorities at this point in your life. Only you can decide, but a counselor or academic adviser can help you sort it out.
Here are some strategies for beating procrastination:
Think about ways to make less enjoyable classes and assignments relevant to your interests and goals to decrease boredom and increase motivation.
Remind yourself of the possible consequences if you do not get down to work. Then get started.
Create a to-do list. Check off things as you get them done. Use the list to focus on the things that aren’t getting done. Move them to the top of the next day’s list and make up your mind to do them. Working from a list will give you a feeling of accomplishment.
Break down big jobs into smaller steps. Tackle short, easy-to-accomplish tasks first.
Promise yourself a reward for finishing the task, such as watching your favorite TV show or going out with friends. For more substantial tasks, give yourself bigger and better rewards.
Find a place to study that’s comfortable and doesn’t allow for distractions and interruptions. Say “no” to friends and family members who want your attention; agree to spend time with them later.
Don’t talk on the phone, send e-mail or text messages, or surf the Web during planned study sessions. If you study in your room, close your door.
If these ideas don’t sufficiently motivate you to get to work, you might want to reexamine your purposes, values, and priorities. Keep coming back to some basic questions: Why am I in college here and now? Why am I in this course? What is really important to me? Are these values important enough to forgo some short-term fun or laziness and get down to work? Are my academic goals really my own, or were they imposed on me by family members, my employer, or societal expectations? But here is the bottom line: If you are not willing to stop procrastinating and get to work on the tasks at hand, perhaps you should reconsider why you are in college and if this is the right time to pursue higher education.
Researchers at Carleton University in Canada have found that college students who procrastinate in their studies also avoid confronting other tasks and problems and are more likely to develop unhealthy habits, such as higher levels of alcohol consumption, smoking, insomnia, a poor diet, or lack of exercise.8 If you cannot get procrastination under control, it is in your best interest to seek help at your campus counseling service before you begin to feel as though you are also losing control over other aspects of your life.
For many students, distractions are used as a way to procrastinate. For others who are actively trying to focus on tasks, distractions are simply part of their lives that hinder their time management, and they need coping strategies to help them focus on tasks at hand.
When considering how to deal with distractions, assess the types of distractions you encounter, the times and places you encounter these distractions, and the activities these distractions affect. For instance, where should you study? Some students find it’s best not to study in places associated with leisure, such as the kitchen table, the living room, or in front of the TV, because these places lend themselves to interruptions and other distractions. Similarly, it might be unwise to study on your bed because you might drift off to sleep when you need to study, or you may learn to associate your bed with studying and not be able to go to sleep when you need to. Instead, find quiet places, both on campus and at home, where you can concentrate and develop a study mind-set each time you sit down to do your work.
Accurately assessing the distractions you will face is especially important if you have significant family obligations at home or plan to take online classes. If you have children at home, assume that they will always want your attention no matter how much others try to help. Online learners may be more tempted by online distractions, such as e-mail or Facebook, because they are already online for their classes. In these instances students tend to struggle with fulfilling their college obligations until they have tried a variety of strategies for minimizing distractions within their studying environment.
Try to stick to a routine as you study. The more firmly you have established a specific time and a quiet place to study, the more effective you will be in keeping up with your schedule. If you have larger blocks of time available on the weekend, for example, take advantage of that time to review or catch up on major projects, such as term papers, that can’t be completed effectively in 50-minute blocks. Break down large tasks and take one thing at a time; you will make more progress toward your ultimate academic goals this way.
Being overextended is a primary source of stress for college students. Often, students underestimate how much time it will take to earn the grades they want in college and have overscheduled themselves with work and other commitments, leaving them little to no flexible time to use when they need more time.
Even with the best intentions, some students who use a time-management plan overextend themselves. If you do not have enough time to carry your course load and meet your commitments, drop a course before the drop deadline so that you won’t have a low grade on your permanent record. If you receive financial aid, keep in mind that you must be registered for a minimum number of credit hours to be considered a full-time student and thereby maintain your current level of financial aid.
If dropping a course is not feasible or if other activities are lower on your list of priorities, which is likely for most college students, assess your other time commitments and let go of one or more. Doing so can be very difficult, especially if you think you are letting other people down, but it is far preferable to excuse yourself from an activity in a way that is respectful to others than fail to come through at the last minute because you have committed to more than you can possibly achieve.
Many of the decisions you make today are reversible. You can change your major, your career, and even your life goals. It is important, however, to take control of your life by establishing your own goals for the future, using those goals to set your priorities, and managing your time and motivation accordingly. Many first-year students, especially recent high school graduates, might temporarily forget their primary purposes for coming to college, lose sight of their goals, and lose motivation during difficult or less engaging parts of their college experience. In other instances they may spend their first term of college engaging in a wide array of new experiences, which is OK to do within limits.
Some students, though, spend the next four or five years trying to make up for poor decisions they made early in their college careers, such as skipping class and not taking their assignments seriously. Such decisions can lead to plummeting grade point averages (GPAs) and the threat of academic probation or, worse, academic dismissal. Staying focused means always keeping your eyes on your most important purposes for being in college. Ask yourself whether what you are doing at any moment contributes to, or detracts from, those purposes.
Many students of all ages question their decision to attend college and might sometimes feel overwhelmed by the additional responsibilities it brings. Prioritizing, rethinking some commitments, letting some things go, and weighing the advantages and disadvantages of attending school part-time versus full-time can help you work through this adjustment period. Again, keep your long-term goals in mind and find ways to manage your stress rather than reacting to it. The bottom line is to stay focused and take control of your time and your life. Make a plan that begins with your priorities: attending classes, studying, working, and spending time with the people who are important to you. Then think about the necessities of life: sleeping, eating, exercising, and relaxing. Leave time for fun things such as talking with friends, checking out Facebook, watching TV, and going out, but finish what needs to be done before you move from work to pleasure. Also, don’t forget about personal time. If you live in a residence hall or share an apartment with other students, talk with your roommates about how you can coordinate your class schedules so that each of you has some privacy. If you live with your family, particularly if you are a parent, work together to create special family times as well as quiet study times.