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. I also used these same methods when I was a full-time undergrad with a part-time job, and then working full-time and doing my Master’s part-time. As with study skills, each person has to find what works for them. 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.
What is Time Management?
Time management is about how you organize your tasks and your time. It’s about how you plan and organize yourself in order to get everything done. Organization and prioritization are key time management strategies, so we’ll look at all of these together. Undergraduate students, like you, have a lot of competing priorities and demands on your time. The biggest benefit of effective time management will be accomplishing more and meeting your deadlines. Time management skills benefit students not just during your time at university, but also into your career. Gaining a reputation for being an effective worker who can meet all their deadlines and get all their work done pust you ahead of your colleagues. Especially if they have to ask for extensions on their work.
Organization & Prioritization
One of my top time management tips is taking some time at the beginning of each day, week, month, and semester to get organized and determine your priorities. I love to make lists and organize myself. I could easily spend more time on list-making than actually completing the tasks on my list. But that would be really ineffective!
Regularly checking in on what you have left to do will help you avoid missing any tasks or deadlines. Following my plan below, you’ll have a master list of everything you need to do. Then you will always know what the next most important thing to work on is.
Another great time management tip is not to get caught up in unimportant tasks. I’m sure you could easily spend hours making pretty cue cards for your upcoming exam. But is that the best use of your time? If it helps you learn the material, or helps you relax, then maybe it is. Otherwise, make your cue cards quickly and get on with more important work.
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. Right now I use a paper calendar. You could also use a digital calendar (Google, iCal, Outlook, etc). The reason I do not use a digital calendar for this is because it can be difficult to find a view that easily shows the level of detail I like. On a paper calendar, i colour-code all of my commitments and deadlines so it’s easy to glance at it.
I use this semester calendar to manage my priorities so I can allot the correct amount of time to them. At least once a week, look through and see what deadlines are coming up so you can get the tasks done. Look a few weeks ahead, too. That way, 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. Each page in my planner is broken 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. Normally, I have a lot more things on my lists – I took the picture before I finished populating it so it would look tidy for the picture, but hopefully it gives you the idea of how I organize myself.
I always note any upcoming deadlines beside the to-do item in brackets, just as a reminder. The most important items or biggest projects are usually 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). If you have items that are continuously not getting done, it is time to ask yourself whether they are actually important. It may be time to just delete those items, or save them for the semester break if you’re not getting to them.
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. Making sure to book some breaks and also find the blocks of time when I can get work done are really important each day. I usually aim to have a couple of study blocks that are 2–3 hours long 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, so I prefer 2 or 3 hour spots.
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
My Pro Tips
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 (as needed) 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 – one that I’m in does 40-minute work sessions and then a 5-minute break, another one just works for 2 hours solid.
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. 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.
Pro Tips from Others
It turns out that humans are not actually good multitaskers. Are you surprised? I’m not! Monotasking is the opposite of multitasking – it’s the act of focusing on only one thing at a time. There’s a whole book about this, called Monotasking by Staffan Noteberg, and I think the concept is helpful. Basically, you pick your most important task and you focus on it. Close your email, hide your phone, set an alarm and work for a set amount of time. When your timer goes off, take a moment to re-prioritize your work, and then either do another period of monotasking on that task, or switch to another task, whichever is most important.
The Golden Triangle
I read about this one in The Pie Life by Samantha Ettus. This book is not specifically about time management, it’s more about life management and trying to find balance when you have multiple commitments, like a career, a family, friends, and other extracurriculars you care about. Instead of using a scale metaphor for balance, she talks about life being a pie, which we can slice into the sizes we want. We just can’t add more pie. So if you are spending more time in one category, it will have to come from somewhere else.
But she describes the golden triangle for efficiency: most of the places you have to go should be in the area between the places you go most. So, if you are a university student, maybe the three places you go most are home, the university campus, and your part-time job. This means that your grocery store, bank, dry cleaner, dentist, and wherever else you have to go, should be in between those three places. This means that your commute should almost always be within the triangle, and you should be able to go one place on the way to another. This will save you commute time because you can stop somewhere on your way to somewhere else.
(And yes, I know there are numerous other meanings of the Golden Triangle, but this is what she calls it in the book so it’s the phrase I’m using here).
Conclusion – Try Something New
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!
Workshop: Time Management and Prioritization for Students
I host an online workshop to help undergraduate (bachelors degree) students learn how to effectively manage their time and priorities. We go through all the tips above and more! It’s a short time management course that will help you get organized and get everything done. You can find all the details here and see when it will be offered next.
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.
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! Check out their post to learn more.
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