The Ultimate Guide to Managing Your Time During the School Year

“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” ― Michael Altshuler

So how do you take control of your time? You’ll find everything you need to become the pilot in this blog post from how to figure out what time management system is right for you to what tools to use to help you maximize your time.

But before we get into it, a quick note…

Many people have unfortunately come to think of the words productive and fulfilling as synonymous. Productivity can be amazing as long as it makes you happy, but taking breaks is equally, if not more so, important to make sure that you feel like your best self.

So try your best to use at least one thing mentioned in this post to maximize the time you have to do the things you enjoy, whether or not they’re what we traditionally think of as “productive” or not!

Your Time Management Style, Simplified

First things first: you need to find the time management system that works best for you! There’s about a million and one different ways to categorize these systems but I’ve simplified it into a chart down below with tools to help you depending on which category you fall into.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry! We’ll first go through how you can figure out which category you fit and then go over the different recommended tools briefly. If you already know your category, skip right ahead to the “Tools” section.

To find out which tools are right for you, let’s begin with the simpler of the two divisions: are you a paper lover or a digital planning lover? Think past to all of the activities you do that could either be done with pen and paper or a digital device. Which do you usually go for? Here are a few scenarios to think of…

  • Do you prefer to take notes using pen/pencil and paper or a computer?
  • Do you prefer to use the a reminders app on your phone or just a piece of paper?
  • (If you use a to-do list), is it usually on paper or on a device?

If you replied “pen and paper” to most of the questions above, then you’ve got your answer! And if the digital route was usually your route of choice, you know you’ll likely be a digital planning lover. Just a note that some people who generally prefer paper like digital time management but vice versa but this way of looking at it can be helpful!

Now onto the next division: minimalist versus complex systems lover. And here’s another set of questions to guide you:

  • How many colors of highlighters do you usually use when notetaking? → If you use 3+, we’ll count this towards complex systems lover.
  • Do you enjoy having a super meticulous and detailed plan of every hour of your day or a general idea of the things you need to get done? → If you picked the first option, another point for complex systems lovers. If not, you’re a minimalist in the context of this question.
  • Do you prefer to spend a lot of time on getting ultra organized for your tasks or just want to jump straight into actually getting your tasks done? Again, the first option is for complex systems lovers and the second for minimalists.

So once again, tally up your score out of three and find our which category best fits you! Now put the two together to find our if you’re a minimalist paper lover, minimalist digital planning lover, complex systems and paper lover, or complex systems and digital planning lover. Now that we have that figured out, let’s talk about what time management really means and then jump into some tools.

So… How Do You Actually Manage Your Time?

To-Do Lists

The most common way of course is to-do lists. In their simplest forms, they’re just a list of the tasks you need to get done in a day. But more complex ones may include your monthly and even yearly goals and subtasks for how you’ll achieve those.

I firmly believe that every single person, especially students, need a to-do list to make sure that no space is taken up in their mind by their to-dos. Instead that can be put towards other, more useful tasks! You’ll learn lots more about the different types of to-do lists you can use down below in the tools section. But before that, we need to address a question that so many people have: how do you make a good to-do list. That brings us to…

The Eisenhower Matrix

Some people strongly believe that you should write every single task you need to get done on your to-do list from putting away the laundry to sending an email to studying. Others think you should only have three priorities for the day (though this isn’t super realistic for students).

I think the question should be reframed: I like to put everything on my to-do list so that I don’t forget any tasks, no matter how small. But that doesn’t mean every task gets assigned the same priority. Studying for an exam coming up the next day is obviously more urgent than sending an email about a volunteering position.

So to help you figure out the different categories your to-dos fall into, consider the Eisenhower Matrix. The idea is to categorize your tasks into four buckets: Urgent & Important, Urgent & Not Important, Not Urgent & Important and Not Urgent & Not Important. But this isn’t super useful for students well nearly everything important.

Instead, take a look at this modified matrix created by Studyquill. Instead of the “Important” and “Not Important” headings, the headings are “Hard” and “Easy.” You first begin by completing the hard, urgent tasks on your list. The urgency part makes sense but the reason you begin with the hard is because they take up the most energy and the easy tasks can be done when you’re less energetic and have less brain power. Then come the hard, non-urgent tasks, and finally the easy, non-urgent tasks.

Inspired by Studyquill. Designed in Canva.

Time Blocking

Now you’re equipped with a to-do list and a way to tackle that to-do list. How do you manage the time it takes to get those tasks done? This is where time blocking comes in. It’s the idea of allocating certain blocks of time in the day to certain tasks you need to do to make sure you get all of them done. Many people use Google Calendar for this but you can also do it on paper. It’s a method that many swear by but I’ve personally found doesn’t work for me.

An alternative method is time theming or task batching, which essentially mean the same thing. In this method, you set aside blocks of time for certain similar tasks instead of each individual one. Let’s say you need to email your professor, call your friend, and set up a meeting time with a club you’re a part of. Instead of setting aside individual time slots for each task, you might set aside an hour for “Communication tasks” in general. This is a way to simplify the time blocking technique but still ensure that similar tasks get done one after another because that doesn’t require you to spend time switching between different ask types.

What a calendar with time theming may look like. Source: Asana

Now that we’ve discussed basic time management skills and tips, it’s time to get into the specific tools that can help you make the most of your time.

Tools To Help You Out

Minimalist Paper Lover

If you fit into this category, you’ve got quite a few simple but effective options to help you create to-do lists and systems that help you achieve your goals!

First up is a good old notepad, maybe this 12-pack from Amazon for $12. Here, you can simply jot down anything you need to get done. It’s frictionless, portable and light, and great for anyone who loves the feeling of crossing out tasks off of their to-do list. One con you might want to consider if planning into the future since there isn’t a very nice way to do this other than put it down on the current day’s to-do list and later transfer it.

Another option is if you want a bit more structure to your to-do lists. This notepad specifically designed for this purpose has checkboxes already set up for you and has a very sleek and minimalist look, for lack of a better word. While it looks nice, it’s definitely overpriced at $18 for a single notepad so maybe you can treat yourself to it every once in a while!

The final option I’ll mention here is a weekly or monthly overview with sections for you to write in. This solves the problem I mentioned earlier of not being able to plan into the future while keeping the minimalist spirit alive. You could consider this dry-erase board with the days of a week as one of your cost-effective and environmentally friendly options though it’s not quite on paper!

Minimalist Digital Planning Lover

I certainly fall into this category so do excuse me while I rant about my favourite tool for a second before we return to our regularly scheduled programming.

This absolutely phenomenal tool is an app called TeuxDeux (pronounced to do). It replicates much of what makes paper planning amazing, like the simplicity of it, while taking advantage of all of the amazing things digital planning has to offer.

The basic layout that you’re first greeted with is simple: a weekly to-do list. You’re able to input any tasks that you have, then cross them off by clicking or tapping on them. Plus, if you enable this option, whenever you complete a task, a flying cat will congratulate you as it goes across the screen! But when you go a bit deeper, TeuxDeux has some awesome features.

One of my favourites is setting recurring tasks. Let’s say I want to study for my English class every Monday and Wednesday. All you do is type in: [TASK] every day OR [TASK] every week OR [TASK] every other week OR [TASK] every year. There’s lots of options to play around with! This is one thing you definitely can’t automatically get with paper planning.

Another feature that’s been game changing for me has been very simple: whichever tasks you don’t cross off for the day automatically moves onto the next day at midnight. It’s such a small touch but it’s super helpful if you’ve gone through having to rewrite the tasks you didn’t complete each day when planning on paper.

Finally, here’s a pro tip for how to best use this tool that I learned from this video. You can create headings on TeuxDeux by typing in # [TASK]. This makes that task bolded and gives it a gray background. The tip is to use this type of formatting for any scheduled events that have to be done at a certain time like a class, meeting, or appointment. Then you write out the rest of your tasks and plan them around the timed events!

In terms of pricing, the mobile version is free forever, but using the web version (which is required for viewing on desktop) costs 24 USD per year after the one-month free trial ends.

Notion

If you enjoy digital planning and simplicity, then Notion is another good option you should try out! If you’ve ever spent some time on the time management and productivity side of YouTube, I’m sure you’ve seen the super complicated Notion workspaces that some people set up. But if you’re minimalistic, then those probably intimidate you as they do me!

But Notion can be simple too while still giving you lots of control over how you organize. To show you how you can do this, I put together this nice and simple Life Planner. It includes a place for your daily to-do lists as well as a place to archive them after you’re done with that day. Plus, there’s a monthly goals page and a brain dump for things like interesting quotes you hear or even your grocery list if you’re off to university.

More!

The next three apps I’ll talk about more briefly but I recommend playing around with them more on your own time to find what best fits your needs.

One of these apps which is not commonly known (and was created by my friend Laura Gao) is The Prioritizer. This web app teaches you different principles of time management such as only have 3 buckets of tasks to do and having subtasks while also having a great user interface and design.

Next up are Timepage and Structured. These two are probably the more complex ones out of this minimalist list but they still offer very simple interfaces that help prevent you getting overwhelmed. Timepage has a subscription that you have to pay in order to even try it but you can check out this video to see if it’s something you like. It’s a very gesture-based app that has a monthly, weekly, and daily overview as well as the ability to set reminders for things like if it’s going to rain that day. It’s worth a try if you’re willing to pay about 26 USD a year.

This next one is free to use unless you want some of the more premium features and it’s called Structured. It beautifully integrates the idea of time blocking/task batching that we talked about above. It lets you set your tasks and how long you think they will take. Then it’ll count down the time for you and help you ensure you’re always on top of your work!

Structured on the left, Timepage on the right.

Complex Systems & Paper Lover

This category is an interesting one because it means you like to have rigid and complicated systems in place but also want to use a fairly simple medium, paper, to achieve it. But paper can do lots to and adjust to your needs so let’s get into it.

First things first: a bullet journal. If you fall into this category but haven’t yet looked into what a bullet journal is or better yet, haven’t used one, you’re missing out! The whole idea behind a bullet journal is to make a system that works for you. So what better way to do that than to create the system yourself? Bullet journaling has some simple principles that help you create daily, monthly, and yearly logs of what you have to get done; but you can also explore more complicated logs like habit trackers and mood trackers. It is really customizable. This website and this YouTuber are great ways to get started with bullet journaling!

Source: Bulletjournal.com

Another option if you don’t have time to set up your own bullet journal is to buy a pre-made yearly agenda that allows you to plan far into the future and also for today. Some planners, like this one, have even more options like habit trackers, a place to write what you’re grateful for, and a class schedule for you to fill out. It may take a while to find an agenda that you really like but once you do, it’ll be a game changer!

Finally, if you really want to create an efficient system but love paper, you may ant to consider a hybrid option and combine paper and digital planning together. A tool like Google Calendar is amazing for time blocking/task batching and remembering your scheduled events. But you can still keep using an agenda, bullet journal, or even a simple to-do list for your tasks. This way, you can reap the benefits of both worlds while having a more complex system in place.

Complex Systems & Digital Planning Lover

This category is one with endless tools but I’ve narrowed it down to a few that I’ve heard people love and seem to use a lot. One of these is Clickup. It has so many features that it doesn’t even make sense for me to try and explain all of them. But at a glance, their entire mission is to bring all of the productivity apps you use together into one. You can time block, set tasks and priorities, take notes, set goals, and more, all in one. This leads to a pretty steep learning curve for users but once you figure it out, there are so many amazing features to use.

Source: The Digital Project Manager

Another interesting app is Todoist. This app isn’t the most complex of this bunch but is still quite powerful. It allows you to have various projects under which yo can have to-dos with different levels of priority. You also have an “inbox” where you can just dump whatever task comes to mind throughout the day, then organize them into categories! Watch this video to see how this person utilizes the app.

And now we come to Notion yet again, but this time I’m bringing you much more complex templates. These have everything from class syllabi to habit trackers and to-do lists. Here’s a list of some of these templates as well how who they’re best suited to:

One of the templates linked above! Created by: Michelle Kanemitsu

Other than using premade Notion templates, an option for you is daily updates! This is something I haven’t heard too many people talk about but it’s a very interesting concept relying on an accountability system.

The idea is to use a template like this one and fill it out with your weekly goals, daily goals/to-dos, the results of your work, what you didn’t get done, the habits you completed, how you’re feeling, and a daily reflection. You can edit the template however you like, but the goal is to have someone to send it to that will keep you accountable for both reaching your goals and filling this out. Once you get into a good routine of always getting your daily updates done, you don’t necessarily have to keep sending it.

I’ve seen this method work really well for some and not so well for others. If you have a lot of control of your time (maybe you’re a university student with a pretty light semester), this may be a great way to make sure you’re getting what you want done, but if you have tons of classes taking up your time, this may not be for you.

An example of what a filled out daily update may look like.

QUICK TIP FOR ALL NOTION TEMPLATES: To play around with the template and/or use them, click on the “Duplicate” button in the top right corner.

Concluding Thoughts

There you have it, a complete guide for how to manage your time best during the school year. I hope you enjoyed this blog and stay tuned for our next blog which will, once again, be a part of the Undergrad Series.

About the Author

Parmin Sedigh is a 15-year-old stem cell and science communications enthusiast as well as a student researcher, based in Kingston, ON. She’s also the Director of Writing at Superposition and is working with the University of Guelph on a research project. You can usually find her on her computer following her curiosity. Connect with her on LinkedIn or email her at parminsedigh@gmail.com.

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