Juggling the College Experience: It’s About Time

Close up view of the clock app on a smartphone

Editor’s note: This post was written by  Kathleen “Kat” DeNicola Accommodations Manager, Disability Access Center at Western Washington University  

Many things are overwhelming about being new to the college experience, one being somehow fitting in time to do multiple assignments with multiple deadlines in multiple classes while still making time to eat, sleep, relax, and have fun. Time management will be one of the most important, and possibly most challenging, skills you learn as a student. With patience and the right tools, however, you can get better and better at it. Here are some tips that may be helpful. 

Lay Out Your Roadmap 

Depending on your interest in the course subject, you may view your class syllabus as a deliverer of delight or doom for the quarter/semester. While either may be true, the syllabus is, most importantly, your class roadmap. Besides containing deadlines for assignments and dates of exams, it also has information on what percentage of your grade each assignment and exam will be. This helps you structure and prioritize projects for each class. 

Gather Your Tools 

When approaching creating and organizing a schedule, gathering the tools you will need for these tasks is a good way to start. I recommend the following: 

  • Calendar: You can use this to schedule exams and assignment due dates for your classes so they are all in one place. 
  • Clock: You can set alarms for class times and study periods. Set timers to help keep you focused on your homework for a set period. This will help you know how long it takes to accomplish a particular task related to an assignment and remind you to take breaks when it goes off. If you have a smart speaker such as the Amazon Echo, Google Home or Apple Homepod, you can set alarms and timers on these. 
  • Reminders, Tasks, Notes: Use these to make a list of reminders regarding homework and studying that you can check off as you complete them. You can also create checklists in the notes app on mac and iOS. 
  • Email apps: Besides performing the obvious functions of sending and receiving email, you can also create folders and organize any email communications related to particular classes and assignments so that they’re easier to find later. The search function in these apps is also helpful. 
  • The Find Text keystroke: While not a particular app, this keystroke is invaluable when reading your electronic textbooks and articles, whether a PDF, Word document, or another file type or web page. Use this to search for text like a chapter title, section headings, or a particular word or phrase to find information faster. 

While using the apps mentioned above on your smartphone may be the most convenient, your phone can be a source of distraction. Using the do-not-disturb feature is a great idea in these situations. 

If you’d rather do something a little more low-tech and manual, you can write up a calendar and checklists in braille or use something like a 20-20 pen, depending on your level of vision. 

Instructions on how to use accessibility features for various products is beyond the scope of this blog post. Still, you can find more information at these links regarding accessibility for Apple products and accessibility for Outlook in Microsoft 365 and accessibility for Google products. 

Break It Down 

Just having a due date for one big assignment can be overwhelming. Where do you even start? Break down a large task into smaller steps. Put each step in your planner or calendar and track your progress by checking steps off a list as they are completed. Tracking your progress toward your goals can help you overcome the procrastination and anxiety that may assail you when looking at a big assignment. Keeping track of your progress will help alleviate the anxiety that can intensify with every day a deadline creeps closer. This process can also help you track how much time you need for each task. As you learn about your work style, you can adjust the time allotted to each task for the next assignment. For instance, when writing your first paper, you may discover that it takes you much longer to find and sift through material for sources than it does to write the actual paper. For your next assignment, you could adjust your schedule to allow for more time for your research and perhaps less time for writing your first draft. 

Build in a Buffer 

When breaking down tasks into smaller, more manageable steps, anticipate the unexpected.  Building extra time into your schedule will help you keep on track in case you run up against unforeseen challenges in completing steps of your plan. These may be accessibility challenges while using adaptive software. Maybe the PDF articles you’re finding are only images, and your screen reader can’t access them, or maybe you are having trouble seeing the text on a particular web page because you cannot change the color contrast.  These may be challenges with finding resources you thought would be easily available. For example, perhaps you located the perfect article for your paper, but it isn’t available online. You discover you can order it through an inter-library loan, but receiving the source will take an extra week! If you build in a buffer, you have extra time for the article to arrive, or you have extra time to refine and polish your final draft. Bonus, if everything runs smoothly, your buffer time might even become some unanticipated time to relax with friends on a Friday night! 

Maintain a Balance 

While academics will become the center of your life, it should not be your entire life. Make sure to keep a balance by building in time for basic things like good sleep and nutrition, taking care of things like laundry and making sure you have time for fun, and building social connections. Break up your study time to get up, stretch, and move around, which will help your health and focus in the long run. Make time for people in your life: Call home, message friends, take a break and get involved in dorm activities, order a pizza with your roommate, and watch a movie now and again. 

Don’t Give Up 

Time management is something that takes practice and improves over time. Don’t get discouraged if it takes your first year to figure it out. While I have touched on many tips in this article, remember that patience and self-compassion are the most important things. These provide a strong foundation for implementing the strategies mentioned here and will carry you through your academic journey.