I’ve developed a bit of a reputation among my PhD cohort for my time management skills and how far in advance of deadlines I tend to turn things in. Now, I will admit, some of this is down to my anxiety (perks of being an anxious human I guess?). But, I do think I have developed some solid time management strategies over the years.
Time management is super important for PhD students, particularly if you’re not working in a lab environment with some structure. I would also argue it’s become even more crucial for the entire population now that so many people are working from home. You basically have the freedom to do what you want all day every day with the expectation you’ll still meet your deadlines and get everything done. There are LOTS of competing deadlines and expectations as a student at any level and it’s up to you to manage them.
So, whether you’re a grad student, a young professional, or anywhere in between, hopefully this article will give you the tips you need to master time management.
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Now, I know if you’re reading this article, you probably already know that time management is important. But, bear with me. I’m hoping I’ll raise some arguments you haven’t thought of that will motivate you to work on your time management skills.
I know I’ve framed this as time management for PhD students, but really time management is crucial for EVERYONE in every aspect of their lives. It doesn’t just apply to work-related tasks. Time management is also key in things like feeding yourself, keeping commitments and plans with friends, and doing household chores. Mastering time management will improve virtually every part of your life.
I grew up valuing not only hard work, but also being busy and working a lot. This was only solidified when I worked in law where billable hours were king. Working more doesn’t mean you’re producing better or even a greater volume of finished work.
Our society glamorises working 60+ hours a week at your day job and then coming home and working several more hours on your ‘side hustle’. People no longer see the value in pursuing hobbies for fun—it’s all about finding things to do in your spare time that make you more money.
This is one thing I need to remind myself pretty often. Even though my job is flexible, I do still have to put in loads of hours each week and I’m running this blog on top of that (which takes up a tonne of time). If you’re managing your time well, there’s really no reason to be working into the wee hours of the morning on a regular basis. We all have busy periods but working late for the sake of being busy is just not the move.
I spent a lot of my life being the ‘stressed out’ and overworked friend. Now, yes, I do have anxiety, but a lot of that was just me procrastinating loads and not managing my time well. We all need extra support sometimes, but your friends are not your therapist and it’s draining to be friends with someone who is always talking about how much work they have to do, particularly if they’re not taking steps to address their workload.
I’m not a doctor, but I’m sure we’ve all heard that stress is NOT good for your body. Proper time management helps alleviate stress which will help you live longer. Similarly, not sleeping enough is SO BAD for you (please read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker (that's the U.S. link, you can find it here in the UK). Managing your time better will ensure you get your 8 hours every night.
If you manage your time better, instead of spending lots of time spinning your wheels and procrastinating, you’ll actually get more done in less time.
Ditto for doing higher quality work. When you’ve planned enough time to do things far enough in advance of a deadline, you’ll produce better work with fewer mistakes.
Particularly in the academic world, you need to give yourself enough time to ruminate on your research and conclusions. Furthermore, you’re just not going to be producing good work if you’re pulling all-nighters super close to the deadline.
Employers look for applicants with good time management skills, particularly in management positions. So, in order to advance, time management really is something you need to master.
For more career advice, check out my articles here.
No one wants to work with the person who doesn’t do their part of a project on time and makes you have to work up until the last minute because they dropped the ball. If you manage your time better and meet expectations, your colleagues will like you better and resent you less.
This goes along with some of the other benefits I’ve mentioned. One of the first signs of burnout for me is things taking a lot longer than I feel they should. If you manage your time well, you’ll have adequate time to relax, rest, and recharge. You’ll then be more efficient in your work.
But, the benefits of recharging extend beyond work and into your personal life. Someone who is overworked is more likely to snap at their partner or simply not be present in their relationships.
Basically, you need time to recharge in order to be successful and happy in basically any area of your life. Proper time management skills will help you get there.
I’m sure a lot of you have been there at some point in your life. You get anxious about an upcoming deadline to the point where it paralyses you. Eventually, you become panicked enough that you actually do something about it. Then, once you’re done the project you’re super exhausted and drained. It’s just not a fun way to go about your life and managing your time better will help you get out of this cycle.
Before we get into specific time management tips, here’s how I recommend working on your time management skills.
As with all skills, practice makes perfect, and time management skills are no exception. You need to consciously practice time management and implementing tips like the below into your daily life in order to get better at it.
One of my colleagues has said that working with me has helped his time management skills. Find someone who is good at time management and emulate their working style (to the extent that it's practical).
This is also one of my time management tips, but it’s important enough to mention here too. Not only should you plan your work, but, as with learning anything, you need to come up with a solid plan for how you’re going to improve your time management skills as well.
You should also set measurable and attainable time management goals. For more tips on goal setting (and achieving!) chick out this article.
As with any goals, you need to reward yourself to keep up your motivation. Your reward could really be anything, from a day off (if your job allows for it) to buying a fancy new calendar or planner (for some good ones, check out this article).
You will procrastinate. You will not stick to your schedule. You might sleep through your alarm one day (or two!). Be patient with yourself. Mastering time management takes time and it’s okay to fail sometimes. Just keep going!
Now that I’ve hopefully managed to convince you that time management is an important skill to work on, here are my top 11 tips for successful time management.
If you’re in that panic-procrastination cycle I mentioned earlier, spending time planning out your days and weeks can feel like a waste of time. Spoiler alert: it’s not! It’s actually so, so, so important! I spend probably about an hour a week planning everything I have to do and replanning when things change.
Say you need to do a presentation. You should break this down into EVERYTHING you actually need to do to get there. For example, for me to do a research presentation, I need to do the following:
Once you’ve come up with all the tasks, assign an estimated amount of time it’ll take you to complete them. For example, outlining a presentation might take me 30 minutes. That way, you can better gauge how long it’ll take you to finish a particular project completely and plan accordingly.
Breaking things into smaller tasks helps keep you motivated (ticking things off your to-do list can be incredibly motivating!) and also makes the whole process much more manageable. Planning these chunks in advance means you’re never guessing as to what exactly you need to do and you can just get on with it.
This is something I picked up from my time in law, where we had to keep track of our time in six-minute increments. Now, I definitely don’t recommend this, but I do think you can go down to as little as 10 minutes for small tasks. My morning schedule for a busy period might look something like this:
You need to be realistic about what you can accomplish in a day. Planning your time in small increments and breaking things into small chunks also helps with this. If you usually don’t get out of bed until 11am, don’t expect yourself to start waking up at 5am right away. If you’re a slow reader, you’re probably not going to be able to read 7 articles in an hour (even if they’re short). Don’t set yourself up to fail before you even start any tasks.
Things often take longer than you expect them to. And that’s okay. Your plans and schedule need not be rigid. Regularly adjust your schedule as needed.
This one is important. You should include everything on your to-do list and in your schedule that takes up time, including things like getting ready, making dinner, and relaxing! Then, you can tick them off just like your ‘work’ tasks. Doing things around the house or relaxing is still productive and both are important components of time management.
I like to start my day with one or two tasks that will take 5-10 minutes. Checking things off my to-do list is super motivating for me and helps me get into the productive mindset before I start on harder tasks.
Next, I order my tasks by importance. Don’t put off the thing you really need to get done that day even if it’s the hardest task! Start with things that have a looming deadline or will take the most brainpower as you’ll be more efficient when you’ve still got a full tank earlier in the day.
I use my partner for this one. Find someone else who also wants to be productive and manage their time effectively and work with them. If one of you starts to procrastinate or slips into bad time management habits, you can help each other get back on track.
Particularly if you’re a PhD student or have a job with flexible hours, it can be hard to get up in the morning and get to work. I have found, however, that getting myself out of bed and trying to keep as close to regular hours as normal increases my productivity and helps me get more done. Plus, if you’re not working late into the night you have time to see friends who have more traditional work schedules in the evening and to relax.
You can’t manage your time properly if you simply have too much to do. One of the most important parts of time management is learning when to say no to taking on additional tasks and managing expectations with your supervisor or line manager around deadlines. While some deadlines are immovable, many are more flexible. If you add up the estimated amount of time to complete all of your tasks for the week and it’s some ridiculous amount, talk to whoever you need to to adjust things.
I’m a huge advocate of celebrating small wins in basically all areas of your life and time management is no exception. If you complete the tasks you set out to on a day, pat yourself on the back or reward yourself.
On the flip side, if you fail or don’t get everything done, do not despair. It’s a process. Keep at it and you’ll get there!
First of all, if you’ve made it this far, congratulations, you’re the best! I know it’s been a lot and it’s probably a bit hard to figure out how to actually incorporate all of those tips into your daily practice. Here’s what I do.
I’m a bit old-fashioned and plan using good old pen and paper!
For doing more long-term planning, I often just use a blank sheet of paper and write everything out in lists in various categories.
Every Sunday, I plan my week. I start by filling in the date for that week and add in any meetings or planned appointments I have in my iPhone calendar.
Then, list out everything I have to get done in the near future on the side of my calendar. I also have a column for ongoing longer-term things that I need to remember but which aren’t priorities at the moment.
Then, I decide what smaller, component tasks I’m going to do on which days and add that to the appropriate part of the calendar. I list EVERYTHING from replying to a particular friend’s Facebook messages to watching a specific lecture.
For daily planning, if I’m not super busy, I only loosely plan what I’m going to get done in the morning vs. afternoon, etc. for that day. If I’m busier, I plan out every 15 minutes or so to make sure I’m as efficient with my time as possible.
I hope this article helped you figure out a plan to master time management or improve your time management skills if you’re already a pro! How do you plan your work for the day or week? Let me know in the comments below!