How I Organize my Time and Priorities as a PhD student
This week I’m sharing how I manage my time and prioritize my work. I’m currently a PhD student and I have a couple of part-time jobs, but I used these same methods when I was a full-time undergrad with a part-time job, and also when I was working full-time and doing my Master’s part-time. As with study skills, each person has to find what works for them, so take what helps you from this and discard the rest. Take some time to experiment and figure out what time management and prioritization methods will work for you.
I create a semester schedule with all my deadlines on it so I can monitor them. My semesters have always been four months long, so I use four monthly calendars. I’ve used whiteboard calendars in the past, and right now I use a paper calendar, but you could also use a digital calendar (Google, iCal, Outlook, etc). I use this calendar to manage my priorities so I can allot the correct amount of time to them. At least once a week, you will look through and see what deadlines are coming up so you can make sure you get the tasks done. Look a few weeks ahead so you can start any big projects ahead of time and have more than a week to finish them.
At the beginning of the semester, add all your course and project deadlines to this calendar so they are easy for you to review. That way you can always see what’s on your plate.
Weekly To-Do List
I also make a weekly to-do list, which is organized by topic (these are my courses and jobs: for example, EDUC 100, EDUC 200, research assistantship, bookstore job, personal, blog – whatever you have on the go). See how I do this in the image below. I break each page in my planner into four sections so I have eight boxes, and then each box is a category and I list everything I have to do underneath it. I usually have a lot more things on my lists – I took the picture before I finished populating it so it would look nicer.
I always note any upcoming deadlines beside the to-do item in brackets, just as a reminder, and I usually have the most important items or biggest projects at the top of the list because they are the first ones I add. I use my semester calendar and my course syllabi to fill this in, and then add more items as the week goes on. By the end of the week, most boxes are pretty full!
Anything that doesn’t get done carries over to the next week’s list or gets de-prioritized (which means it wasn’t very important).
I like to organize my day the night before, but if I’m really busy I’ll do it first thing in the morning. Many people have different preferences for this! I use deadlines to set my priorities and review these and update my priorities when I make my daily list, so I don’t miss any deadlines.
Weekly/Daily To-Do List
As you can see below, I create another 8-box spread for my weekly to-do list and then have a list for each day. If I have a lot of meetings, I’ll list them at the top or bottom of that day’s box so I dont have to keep looking back at my calendar. I fill out the week as I go – although I will often plan ahead to future days. As you can see below, I have a lot of meetings that day so I don’t have very many tasks on the list.
I also sometimes have days that are full of meetings – this year it has usually been Thursdays. I have to remind myself that on these days, it’s okay to get less work done and I need to lighten up my to-do list so I can go to my meetings without stressing.
Time Management Each Day
I look at my meetings, classes, or appointments each day and organize my day around those. I make sure to book some breaks, and also find the times when I can get work done. I usually aim to have a couple of study blocks that are 2–3 hours long each day uninterrupted. If I’m really busy, I might go up to 4 hours, but it’s very tiring and I can’t always focus that long.
I take fairly long breaks between the study blocks and meetings. I usually work for a couple hours each morning, then I might have a noon or 1pm meeting, and then I’d take a one hour break before going back for another 2–3 hours. Then I might take a longer break and work in the evening, or take a shorter break and just work a little bit more before taking the evening off.
I have a dog and I dog-sit as well, so I often spend those breaks walking one or more dogs. I find this really relaxing, and it forces me to get up and out of my house, which has been particularly helpful during the lockdowns of 2020/2021, and on days when the weather is cold or rainy and I might not otherwise motivate myself to go outside. Leaving the house and moving around also make it feel more like a break.
More Pro Tips for Time Management & Prioritization
When I have days with no meetings or very few meetings, I will have more focused study sessions. I try to book new meetings on days that already have meetings so that I can have more days without interruptions.
I am also in a few study/productivity groups each week, and I have a group of fellow students I can message on Whatsapp to set up new ad-hoc study groups. We meet in Zoom, set a goal and an amount of time we will work, and then check in at the end to see if we’ve met our goals. Some of the groups do timed pomodoros and tell you when to take a break – the one I’m in does 40-minute work sessions and then a 5-minute break.
I am not strict with times. I often sleep late, so if I get up at 10am, I just have a bit longer day and will probably study in the evening. I know that some people function better by having a start-time that they stick to, but that hasn’t worked for me.
If I am having a lot of trouble focusing or getting started, I will start with an easier task, or use pomodoros so that I can just focus for 25 minutes or so.
Like studying, you will have to experiment and find what works for you. I have tried less planning and also more structured time management, and I find that this is what works best for me. It may help you more to start at the same time every day – this is something I am still working on! You may find that you are a morning or evening person and have more focus at certain times of the day. Take some time to try different methods to manage your time and priorities and please reach out to let me know what works for you!
Upcoming Event: Webinar on Time Management and Prioritization for Students
I am hosting a free, online webinar on October 28th to share more about how students can organize their time and priorities. You can see the details and sign up on Eventbrite. This event is open to new and future university students (that means high school students are welcome) as well as their supporters (parents, friends, family, etc). You can find all upcoming events on the Chooseyouruni.ca events page.
You can also take a look at my Quora responses to see the other advice I’ve offered to students’ specific questions. And if you want to ask me something specific, please submit it through the Contact page.
Raul Pacheco-Vega’s website lists all his time management hacks. He has a number of good academic advice pieces on his page, particularly if you’re in the social sciences. He’s a faculty member, but many of these will also apply to students. He writes about his experiences with “Move Every Paper Forward Every Day (MEPFED) vs Work on One Project Each Day (WOPED)” that you might find helpful – I usually MEPFED and work on multiple projects each day, but see benefits with both methods.
sheCareer blog shares “16 Work-Life Balance Tips for Students” that may be useful. We all know students have to balance so many priorities, it’s a juggling act!
Her Digital Coffee shares her “7 Ways to Improve Writing & Studying Productivity,” and these are all small adjustments you can make to how you work that may help you.