Getting Time On Your Side
Whether you are a full-time student, a working adult, or have a busy family, these time management strategies will help you lessen your stress and achieve your goals
A single mother with a 3-year-old daughter. A junior in college majoring in agriculture. The manager of an office with four other employees. These three busy people are actually all the same person and her name is Ashley Burba. And when I visit her apartment on the Berea College campus, she has even baked toffee cookies, which are cooling on the kitchen counter.
Her secret? “I write everything down,” Ashley says. “I keep a calendar book.” In her weekly schedule, she marks out blocks of time for all her commitments: her classes, her 23 hours as manager of the Student Financial Aid Office, her volunteer work at the college’s Ecovillage. After she picks up Isabella at day care, the two have playtime and dinner while Ashley does housework. She studies when her daughter is in bed.
It’s a daunting schedule, but Ashley handles it with grace and energy by staying focused on what’s most important to her: her daughter and her education. This semester her special goal is to get all A’s and B’s in her classes.
Ashley and other successful students across Kentucky have discovered the key to using time well: setting priorities and then building the day around them. We all have our “have-to’s” (study, work, chores) and our “want-to’s” (sports, TV time, socializing). An effective schedule allows enough time to cover all the have-to’s, in order to make room for plenty of want-to’s.
For students at all levels, this means setting up a plan built around classes and study periods. The first step is working out your daily time budget—how much time you will allocate for each area of your life. If you sleep eight hours at night, spend seven hours at school, and need three hours for commuting and meals, that means you have six hours left for all the other things you do.
Six hours probably seems like not nearly enough. That’s where choosing priorities comes in. On a day-to-day basis, students need to consider which assignments and activities are the most urgent. Studying for a math test tomorrow is more urgent than writing a report that’s due next week, and practicing for a piano recital this weekend takes priority over shopping for a birthday present for next month.
Students also need to consider long-term priorities, especially for extracurricular activities. If your schedule is too full, which activity would you miss the least if you dropped it? Is anything a one-time-only opportunity, like acting in a play you especially love, or could you do this next year instead?
Once you’ve decided what your priorities are, you can make a weekly schedule, with blocks of time set aside for all your activities. There are many different kinds of planners available, from paper calendars to computer software to hand-held personal digital assistants (PDAs). The important thing is to choose a system that’s easy for you to understand and stick with. A middle-school student can use a simple weekly calendar sheet, while a college student with a part-time job might need a PDA that gives automatic reminders.
Ashley Burba emphasizes that it’s important to stay flexible when planning. “You can’t predict everything. You have to leave yourself some unscheduled time.” To de-stress, she’ll go for a walk around town with Isabella in a stroller, or swing in the hammock on her back porch. She often goes home to visit her family in Munfordville.
Ashley believes that she learned to be organized while growing up as the oldest of four children, and experts agree that the family plays an important role in learning time management skills. According to Professor Melinda Willis of Morehead State University, “Kids acquire a sense of scheduling from the ‘tall people’ in their lives—parents, grandparents, babysitters.” They see the decisions that adults make and take them as models.
Willis feels it’s important for kids to learn that there isn’t always time for everything they want to do—they will have to make choices, especially in extracurricular activities. Parents need to guide them in making decisions. Willis remembers talking to an elementary student who told her, sadly, “I have ice skating, and piano lessons, and a recital to practice for. I’m so tired, and I don’t even have time to read a book.” The girl was in second grade.
In Willis’ own family, they have decided to focus on one activity per person: she sings in a choir, her husband takes art classes, and their 15-year-old daughter plays one seasonal sport at a time. “You need to help younger kids think about what is realistic,” she says. “Write down a list of the pros and cons of each activity they want to participate in. For example: Do we really want to drive 50 miles to karate lessons? How much time would that take? Think out loud and let them see the process.”
And each family needs to work out a system that fits their particular needs. Chris Tolliver of Madisonville is the father of two teenage daughters. When he lost his wife, Amy, to cancer three years ago, he was faced with a whole new set of responsibilities, on top of his job teaching music at two different schools, his church activities, and his volunteer work with Kentucky PTA. “We learned that we had to pull up our bootstraps and go on,” he says.
Amy Tolliver would no doubt be very proud of how well they have done that. Katherine, a junior at Hopkins County Central High School, performs with her school’s color guard, plays the oboe, and does babysitting. Her sister Lauren, an eighth-grader at South Hopkins Middle School, is on her school’s dance team, plays the flute, and belongs to the Spanish Club. Both sisters are active in the Beta Club, a service organization, and in church youth groups.
Time management in the Tolliver family revolves around a wipe-off note board. “Everything has a special place on the fridge,” says Chris. The day’s activities are all written down on the board there, together with other reminders. Notices for things like doctor’s appointments are posted next to it. “I also leave them a list of what I need them to do for the day,” he says, and the girls take care of their chores before he gets home. Three cell phones are vital for keeping in touch.
Because all three are constantly on the go, they make a special effort to find time to be together. The Tollivers’ church is in Greenville, 30 miles away. What could be just another annoying commute has become a valuable opportunity for the family. “That drive to church is think-time, family time,” says Chris.
We may be rich or poor in terms of money, but every one of us gets exactly the same amount of time to spend: 24 hours per day. By thinking about that time, and developing strategies for using it better, we can all be a little richer.
TIPS FOR ORGANIZING YOUR STUDY TIME
Write everything down in the same place
List all your homework assignments in a special notebook, rather than burying them in the notes for different classes. Take down all the details as your teacher gives them. Don’t just rely on your memory.
Set aside regular study hours.
These don’t need to be the same every day (for example, Monday: after band practice, Tuesday: 4-6 p.m., etc.). If you don’t need all the time you’ve allotted, great!
Be realistic about how long things will take.
Many students look at an assignment and think, “I can do this in 10 minutes before dinner,” when in reality it will take an hour. Think about similar homework you’ve done in the past. How long did it actually take?
Break up big assignments into smaller chunks.
For example, if you have to read an entire book, assign yourself two chapters every day for a week.
Say you have a 10-page term paper due four weeks from now. How many days will you need to write each section? Mark those dates on your calendar. How long will it take you to do your reading before that? When must you get the books? When will you need to decide on your paper topic? Set a date for each step, and write it on your calendar.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: BEAT PROCRASTINATION
To find out why people procrastinate and the tricks to get you back on track quickly, click here: procrastination.