Study, just like life, places many demands on your time. The demands are not only many but varying. Some weeks you may have little to do, while others you have far too many tasks to complete: essays to write, presentations to give, lectures to attend, a birthday party for a friend, and so on and so forth. At school your teacher probably gave you pressure to work and monitored your progress, and when you are in employment your employer or supervisor will determine your workload and check how you are doing. At university, you are more responsible for managing your time. Your tutors are likely to check the final assignment very carefully (the product), but are unlikely to check how you complete it (the process). In order to succeed you therefore need to learn how to manage your time well. Good time management comprises various factors.

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Identifying targets

An important first step in managing your time is to clearly identify all the tasks you have to complete. This would create a simple list, which on its own would not be very useful. To make it more helpful you can add the date by which each task must be completed (the deadline), and make a note of why each one is important. These tasks will mostly be study tasks, though there will also be important life events which you need to plan for (e.g. organising a birthday party, getting ready for a holiday), so you need to include these as well.

A simple example, for two tasks, is shown below.

Task Deadline Why is it important?
Write Economics essay Next Monday It is worth 5% of my grade
Prepare for Clarissa’s wedding Two weeks from today She’s my best friend


Once you have successfully identified your targets, your next step is to decide which ones to tackle first. You can do this by prioritising them. The first step in doing this is to consider how urgent and how important each one is. If something is both urgent and important, then you should do it now (or as soon as you can). If it is urgent but not important, you need to consider whether you have time to complete it. If it is important but not urgent, you should begin it before it becomes urgent. If it is neither urgent nor important, don’t do it: your time is too precious!

The diagram below summarises these ideas.


Is it important? Do it as soon as you can
Is it urgent? Do it if you can
Is it important? Do it before it gets urgent
Don’t do it


Of course, almost all of the tasks on your list are going to be important to you (that’s why you put them on your list), and all of them are going to be relatively urgent. What might help is to quantify them (give them a number) as follows:

0 = not urgent/important, 1 = a little urgent/important, 2 = fairly urgent/important, 3 = very urgent/important

You can then use this to create a ‘priority index’ by multiplying the numbers together. If something is very urgent and very important, it would have a priority index of 3 x 3 = 9, which means it should be higher on your list than something which is very urgent but only a little important, which would have a priority index of 3 x 1 = 3.

The example above is continued below to show how the tasks can be prioritised. Clearly writing the Economics essay (priority index 4) is going to be a higher priority than preparing for the wedding (priority index 3).

Task Deadline Urgency (0-3) Why is it important? Importance (0-3) Priority index
Write Economics essay Next Tuesday 2 It is worth 5% of my grade 2 4
Prepare for Clarissa’s wedding Two weeks from today 1 She’s my best friend 3 3

Breaking down tasks

Many of your tasks at university are going to take you many hours, and the work will need to be spread over several days or weeks. In order to plan for these more effectively, it is useful to break each task down into smaller, more manageable ‘sub-tasks’. When doing this, you should try to make your sub-tasks SMART, in other words, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timed. For example, if you have one hour to spare, do not decide to do something like ‘find sources for report and take notes’. This is too general (what kind of sources?), not easy to measure (how will you know if you have enough sources?), and is likely to take you far more than one hour, which means it is not achievable in the time you have. A better task would be ‘find 2 journal articles for report’. This is a specific task, which you can measure (by counting how many articles you have), and it is achievable in the time you have allotted (one hour).

Below is an example of how the Economics essay task above could be broken down into sub-tasks.