Time Management for university students: techniques and strategies to develop time management skills

Guide written by Alex Vaughan

What exactly is Time Management?

Time management is an essential skill for students, but can be tricky to master. At university, students find themselves with too many things to do and not enough time to do it all: readings for weekly seminars, assignments every semester, applications for jobs/internships, commitments with clubs and societies, exercise, social events, sleep - it never ends!

If you can relate to this, you’re in the right place. This article will explain what time management is, how you can improve time management skills, what tools to use, as well as teaching you a proven time management technique called the 5 Step System. To help you understand why time management is so important, I will also provide you with a practical case-study of how you can use the System to excel at university and in your life after graduation, with in-depth and personal insights from myself, A First Class Criminology and Sociology Graduate, as I had to develop and use my time management skills to excel in my academic and professional life.

First, let’s define the term Time Management:

“Time management is the process of organising and planning how to divide your time between specific activities. Good time management enables you to work smarter – not harder – so that you get more done in less time, even when time is tight and pressures are high. Failing to manage your time damages your effectiveness and causes stress” (definition from www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_00.htm).

From this broad definition, we see that improving time management is particularly important for students as it results in a reduction in stress by making you more productive, even with high pressure deadlines. This is crucial at university and will help you “make more time’ to focus on specific activities, becoming more effective. Time management is a skill for life and it will support you in your professional occupation, allowing you to complete tasks on time to a high standard, lowering stress over work and helping you achieve a good work-life balance to live your precious life outside of work!

How to develop Time Management skills

Time Management techniques & strategies

Search for “Time Management Strategies” and you will find thousands of results showing many different approaches to time management. The point is, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all process; there are different ways to implement a time management strategy depending on your environment, activities, personality etc. The good news is that no matter what approach you take, the foundation of good time management lies in basic principles that you can master. Using my own experience, I’ve boiled “time management” down to a repeatable process that you can use to achieve your goals and develop productive daily habits. The process is based on 5 steps, hence the name 5 Step System:

  1. Goal Setting (define what you want to achieve)

  2. Priority Assessment (define the tasks that need your attention first)

  3. Organising Your Time (define how you will complete your tasks)

  4. Take Action (turn your plan into reality)

  5. Self-Reflection (understand how you can improve)

  6. BONUS: Repeat (make a habit out of the process)

In light of the article’s subject matter, I’ll show you how each step takes part into developing a good time management strategy with practical examples from my university and professional life, sharing relevant techniques and tools for each step - let’s get started:

1. Goal Setting

Before you can manage your time in working towards an end goal, you must define what your end goal is, and why you are pursuing it. This step is always the starting point, whether you set yourself a long-term end goal, e.g. “I want to become a neurosurgeon”, that you can break down into smaller intermediate steps; or a more achievable short-term end goal, e.g. “I will write 1,000 words for my report before Friday”.

Goal setting is definitely the most personal part since you choose objectives that are important to you and are decided by you and no-one else. As a student at University, my main goal was to achieve a First Class Degree, but that isn’t the same for everybody. Some of my friends aimed for a 2:1 while gaining volunteer experience, or running societies, or starting a side-business to gain experience while studying. There are many things you can achieve but you can’t do everything at once, even with outstanding time management skills, so you have to know yourself and identify what goals to chase.

The S.M.A.R.T. goal system is a great and simple tool you can use at this stage. The key is to be as detailed as possible. Avoid generic goals like “I want to get a job”, which have no detail you can plan for. The same goal should be stated as “by September 27th, I will have done enough preparation (you can be more specific here) to succeed in my interview for an internship at *company*”. Now this really hits the nail on the head! https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/smart-goals.htm

2. Priority Assessment

Now that you’ve defined your goals, you can move to the second step and assess what tasks are most important to achieving those goals. In the introduction, I’ve explained how students find themselves with too many things to do, but not enough time to do it all. Assessing your priorities is key to deciding which of these tasks are most important, which are less important and should be executed at a later stage, and which should be dropped altogether. To effectively manage your time, you need to be able to differentiate and identify the tasks that require your attention first.

To assess the priority of a task, use the Urgent/Important technique. Make a list of your daily and weekly tasks, then give them a rating for urgency and importance. Use this process every morning to decide how to manage your time for the day. E.g.:

  • Urgent and Important: completing assignment due tomorrow, work on it ASAP.

  • Important but not Urgent: deadline for the end of the semester, work on it after the Urgent and Important tasks are completed.

  • Not Urgent or Important: checking Instagram in the middle of the morning, avoid.

Bonus tip: go through the same process for the tasks of the previous day to check if you have misjudged your tasks. It can take practice to learn how to assess the priority of some activities, especially if you have been working on something that is not at the top of the list as it’s easy to get caught up and think you have to finish it before moving to the next task.

3. Organising Your Time

A fair warning: this is the part where you allocate your time into fancy spreadsheets, planning out when you’re going to work on your most important tasks. This is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think of “time management”.

The reason time management is usually so hard it’s because we tend to skip the preceding steps (Goal Setting and Priority Assessment) jumping straight into the action, which makes it nearly impossible to succeed. To become efficient in managing your time you have to create the right conditions first, understanding what tasks and activities need your attention and how to work your way through them.

If you’ve completed the previous steps, then organising your time becomes way easier since it’s all about ‘budgeting’ your free time. Unfortunately you can’t manage all your time (lectures, part-time working hours, internships etc. have fixed hours you must adapt to) but you can figure out how much time you actually have and how to make it count.

Let’s say it’s Monday and you have lectures between 9:00 and 12:00, you’ve planned to Skype your parents at 16:00 and you’re working a bar shift between 18:00 and 0:00. That amounts to roughly 9 hours of time out of your 24hr day. If you wake up at 7:00 and your morning consists of eating breakfast and traveling to campus, you are left with around 6 hours of free time. The key is to organise your time so that in those 6 hours you can be as productive as possible. Students with “poor time management skills” would fail in realising how much free time they really have (misjudging the amount of work they can carry out during the day) and in tackling first on the most important/urgent tasks, perhaps deciding to work on tasks that could wait at the cost of neglecting a priority.

With a clear view of your tasks, priorities and a good understanding of how much time you have, now you can easily plan to allocate your time to what is really important. If one task is of bigger priority than the others but you can’t complete at once because your time is constrained, you can always make a start on it and break it down into multiple shorter sessions, as long as you complete it first.

Bonus tip: your time management skills go hand in hand with your ability to assess how much time a task will take to complete. Don’t worry if at first you find it difficult to estimate how long writing 1,000 words for an assignment or conducting research for a paper will take: it’s a skill that you will build as you go and it just takes practice. To improve quickly, note down on your calendar how long specific tasks took you to complete and, next time you are confronted with similar assignments, refer to your notes to make your estimates more accurate.

In the professional world, you will have to deal with schedules and tasks that are out of our control, but you can get ahead of the game by organising your work, even with simple tools such as diaries, to-do lists, or calendar apps. Good news: it’s a lot of work but the skills you get from organising your time are also transferable to organising money and budgets, as you have to prioritise spending money on essentials while deciding on how much you can save every month.

4. Take Action!

The last 3 steps have been all about planning how to use your time to complete high-priority tasks. Once that’s done, the most important part of achieving your goals is taking action on your plans.

Bonus tip: keep track of what you do with your time, it will help you optimise and become more productive and will allow you to proceed to the final step, Self-Reflection.

5. Self-Reflection

Almost as important as planning and acting, self-reflection is a crucial part of my 5 Step System and will help you improve your time management skills. Evaluating your performance regularly in fact will allow you to course-correct and become better over time.

It’s also a good opportunity to slow down from busy life, so make the most of it. I suggest to pick a dedicated day e.g. “Self-Reflection Sunday”. Remember that you can self-reflect at any stage of the 5 Step System, even while on the go - e.g. you can evaluate which priorities are most important to you or how you have allocated your time.

Important note: self-reflection is not about criticising yourself for what you did “wrong” or how you didn’t do “enough”, but rather a safe and growth-oriented self-improvement method. As a simple rule, make sure to use growth-oriented language about what you did positively e.g. “I stuck to my routine of waking up at 6:00 a.m. to study”, as well as what you can do better next time e.g. “Next time, I’ll put my phone in my bag so I don’t get tempted to waste time on Instagram”.

As you look back to what you’ve done and how you’ve managed your time, try to understand why some things didn’t go as planned and note down the causes so that, next time, you’ll be aware and prepared.

In the same way, if you’ve been particularly good at performing a task, analyse what factors played a part in it and if you can recreate the same conditions again in the future.

Mentors can be extremely beneficial, as they can uncover “blind spots” that you may not see on your own while self-reflecting. In university, you can find mentors by talking to faculty on your course and you can leverage the experience of someone who has “done it themselves”.

Case Study: my experience with time management.

My 5 Step System emphasises planning because, as we’ve seen, having clear plans it’s fundamental to decide how to act. It details what you’re doing, why you’re doing it (prioritising), when you’re doing it (organising) and what you aim to achieve from it (assessing). If you’re like me and don't like to “wing it”, this system will provide you with a safety net.

In the real world, things out of your control can always go wrong. The bus that’s late for campus, someone that has borrowed the book you need, a member of your presentation group that doesn’t show up. Unexpected events can make you feel panicked (at least that’s what they do to me) but problems and adversity are part of life so the key is to focus on what you can actually control. You can’t plan for every future event, but you can adapt to what happens and be prepared.

Remember the cult movie Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican bobsled team whose bobsled broke in the Olympic race? Instead of dwelling on their bad luck, the team adapted to the situation and made it to the end of the track!

How I developed the 5 Step System.

This is a Self-Reflection of sorts, as I’d like to share with you how I managed my time at university and, later, in my professional life, touching on what worked for me, the mistakes I made and the lessons we can learn. In a way, you can see the system I’ve explained brought to life with real examples. I hope that it will help you realise that you can easily develop your time management skills too.

To a great extent, I unconsciously developed the 5 Step System without even realising it, so it only really “clicked” when I was in Third Year. Had I been aware of it earlier, I feel I could’ve managed my time better overall. In First and Second Year, my biggest mistakes when it comes to time management skills and techniques were:

  • Failing to set concrete goals (I wasn’t following step n. 1)

  • Trying to either “do everything” or spend every hour studying (I wasn’t following step n. 2)

  • Lack of self-reflection (I wasn’t aware that I would have been improving faster by evaluating what I had done)

Let's take a closer look at my mistakes.

Failing to set concrete goals and trying to do everything

When I started university, I had no idea of what I wanted to do after graduation. This, combined with the endless opportunities offered by the university life, led me to try to “do everything” in an attempt to gain as much experience as possible. Now I see so clearly that without “Goal Setting” - the foundation - there was no “Prioritising” simply because I didn’t have a plan and didn’t know what to focus on.

I was able to get away with this during First Year as the workload wasn’t overwhelming yet and I spent a lot of time studying. In Second Year though I quickly found myself close to burnout, to the point where my life ended up entirely revolving around only three things: my night-job at the Students’ Union, the rest of my time spent on studying and, last but not least, energy drinks to keep up with a night-job and day-studies. Like a caffeinated Batman (but not nearly as cool)! While I achieved Firsts and 2:1’s, I drastically increased my physical and mental stress. Time management is about optimising the time you have to increase your productivity and reduce stress. I could have achieved the exact same results without struggling so much by making a better use of my time, I just didn’t know how to do it.

I took a year out from university between Second and Third Year, when I got back it was as if I’d learned the 5-Step System without even realising it. So I started setting a personal goal of achieving a First Class Honours in my Final Year, and broke it down into smaller goals. I then noted down all of my deadlines as early as possible so that I could prioritise and allocate time to complete the most urgent ones without neglecting those that required longer hours of research.

As an example, having my deadlines mapped out allowed me to plan clearly for my dissertation; it wasn’t urgent but it required in-depth research so I was able to allocate one day a week for it throughout the year while working on other assignments and deadlines.

Having a timetable generated online also made organising my time a lot easier, so if your university (or company) provides you with a timetable, take advantage of it - it’s a great starting point!

Knowing how much time I actually had available helped me figure out a productive routing. I would often wake up at 6am in order to “get ahead of the game” and complete high-priority tasks. For me, it worked out well as I would be productive at times when facilities like the library are quieter, spending less time procrastinating with the people around me. I know, 6am starts are difficult, especially when you’re a student, but as you develop good time management skills and get your work done ASAP, you’ll find that you can spend more time doing other things you enjoy. And you will never again find yourself thinking: “S***! I’m so behind on my deadlines” - PANIC MODE.

Lack of self-reflection

Even though I became good at time management, I wasn’t actively taking time for self-reflection. Luckily I’ve always sought feedback from lecturers which allowed me to see my progress from a more experienced perspective. But aside from that, being consistent with the first four steps helped achieve a First Class Degree, work a part-time job, commit to volunteering opportunities, spend more time with friends and develop a regular sleep pattern while consuming less caffeine.

Even without being fully aware of the 5 Steps System, I’ve been able to use these time management techniques in my professional and personal life with consistency until I realised that these steps were key into planning how to use my time in an effective way. As an ESL Teacher in Beijing, I prioritised the ability to produce quality lesson plans efficiently, which gave me more time to work on additional responsibilities and learn/develop new skills, covering Office Coordinator roles, mentoring colleagues, learning 基本普通话 (basic Mandarin), and making plenty of adventures in an all new country!

However, I’ve learned the importance of self-reflection as a last step to improve my time management skills. It can be tricky to make time for it when you are living a busy adult life, but like with the other steps of my system, it’s worth doing it. For me, it has helped in evaluating my performance and, most importantly, to evaluate what I really want out of life - which is why recently I’ve taken the brave (some would say “crazy”) decision to change careers and become an Editor.


I hope that my experience goes to show the importance of time management and how using a detailed system can help you increase your time management skills as a student and a professional.

I’ve tried to provide you with practical examples from my own experience to explain how to use the 5 Step System to drastically improve your time management today, starting with small actions and then improving over time.

The 5 Step System will allow you to become good at prioritising and organising your time, providing you with the foundations for goal setting and a trusted method to improve your performance with self-reflection. The whole process is designed to help you turn time management into an everyday habit.

From my own experience, since I went from overworking myself to becoming systematic with time management, you gain immediate benefits from implementing the 5 Step System.

The best part is that developing your time management skills will not only help you achieve better results in your academic and professional journey, but also learn transferable skills (like self-management, goal setting and self-evaluation) that are extremely valuable in you personal life.


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