Time Management



You finally decide to sit down to begin your paper. As your computer warms up, you pick up a journal that has sat in the “to be read” pile for a month. There is an interesting article on innovative research methods in your field, so you decide to take notes. Two hours later, the paper is still untouched when there is a phone call from your advisor. It seems that he was given an opportunity for a sabbatical in Europe, and the date for your proposal has been moved up six months. You immediately shove the books aside (for the paper you thought you would work on), and you begin outlining the proposal. After a few moments, there is a knock at the door. You knew your friend was having a difficult personal time but why did it have to turn into a crisis now? Being the sensitive and available person that you are, you set aside your work to listen and comfort your friend. After several hours, you realize, as your friend is leaving, that you haven’t eaten, you never started on your paper, the proposal is still mainly a collection of ideas in your head; and that you were so preoccupied with the personal pressures you were feeling that you wonder if you really did your friend any good. However, you decide that the urgent things will always push out things you planned so you start to wonder if you should give up planning.

The scenario described is often referred to as “The Tyranny of the Urgent.” There are some things that are out of our control, like a friend with a crisis, but there are some things that are a natural result of poor planning or an inability to say no to things. The critical issue is to not give up on organizing, planning and prioritizing. Some new method or trick may be a key to your becoming more organized, if only you have the emotional energy to try again.

The struggle of time management isn’t simply a case of cutting back or acquiring new skills because the exhaustion and fatigue we feel has impact on so many areas of life–our relationships, disposition, availability, etc. The pressures of deadlines and requirements hit us in different ways. Some of us will withdraw from people and attempt to accomplish everything, while others see that they perform better when they put limits on the amount of time devoted to work with a healthy balance of leisure and distractions.

We are each refreshed and restored in different ways, so it is essential to discover which activities drain and which renew your energy levels. Some like to sit and read while others need athletic or social activity. We need to care for our emotional well-being as we work on our management skills.

One way to assess how you are doing in your planning is to keep a record for one week of how you spent your time. This journal could also be a means to chronicle your thoughts and feelings from a week under pressure. You may gain insights on how to adjust the use of your time and you may discover the best environment and hours for your personal productivity. Over time, a personal journal is a great asset for showing your progress in research, improved time management, and other personal goals (and a source of strokes if your advisor fails to give the feedback you desire).

Initial Suggestions

Make peace with yourself. Find the schedule that fits you best and make it work, whether it means working through the night with a stereo blaring or at 5am in total silence. Schedule your toughest work during your most productive hours. Attempt to have times when you allow no interruptions (don’t even answer the phone) to tackle projects that require intense concentration.

Utilize a schedule (with set activities written in), a planner with sections for different projects (helpful for jotting ideas that pertain to a specific project), and a Things-To-Do-List where you record each item that requires your attention. But most importantly, prioritize your tasks so that you are working on the higher priority issues first.

Lord Chesterfield stated, “If you watch the minutes carefully, the hours will take care of themselves.” It is most productive if you are able to utilize your time twice. This might mean having a journal with you while riding the bus, balancing your checkbook during slow office hours, or listening to tapes during drive time. Ask yourself regularly, “Am I making the most of my time right now?” The 80/20 rule states that we tend to spend 80% of our time on projects that have a 20% return. Concentrate your efforts on the 20% of things that have the highest value to you.

There is great benefit in handling things only once. If it doesn’t require immediate attention but can’t be thrown away, put it out of your sight or off your desk in a file or drawer for later attention. But don’t put off the challenging tasks just because they feel overwhelming. The Swiss Cheese Technique calls for breaking major projects into smaller steps that can be handled in shorter time slots. You may not have five hours to work on a paper but in 20 minutes you can outline a section.

A Step By Step Approach to Time Management

Stephen Covey is the current organization guru that commands $45,000 per speaking engagement. He also earned $90 million last year on books, supplies, and materials. One of Covey’s most basic rules is to begin with the end in mind. This focus on one’s GOALS provides the vision and motivation to see the task through. That is probably the best place to start in our discussion of Time Management. We will first try to understand the crucial importance of goal-setting. Then we’ll look at developing a personal calendar, schedule, and to-do list. Finally, we’ll discuss how to overcome scheduling barriers.

1. Goals
As Covey explains, goals give a framework for motivation. The more important goals one needs to make are those that cover the broad areas of our personal lives. Too often we start with specific goals and hope they will fit into the big picture (i.e., goals for dieting or balancing the budget), when we really need to identify a few broad categories (i.e., career, family, health, finances, intellectual, hobbies, etc.). It might be helpful to write four or five such categories along the top of a piece of paper and make columns for each.

This sort of forethought is actually a great time saver in that it gives a framework to decide what is a primary value and what is not. And yet this sort of planning time is usually neglected. Most executives, for example, feel that the number one problem they face is a lack of planning and think time.

Next, identify three to five goals per category. For example, in the category of “family,” one goal might be to make my relationship with my spouse my highest priority, or to find personal balance, or to impart values to our kids, etc.

Then, using another sheet of paper for the first category, enumerate the goals along the side of the page and make a statement for each goal in that category. These goals should be specific enough to address the real-life issues you are facing. Regarding my goal to make my relationship with my wife my top priority, I’ve written the statement, “If Mom ain’t happy, nobody’s happy! Check with her on this once a week.” Regarding your career planning, you might make the statement, “Get a teaching position by next January.” In other words, these statements make your goals measurable. They should also include a date (deadline), and should be achievable. You should be able to reflect your goals through scheduled activities.

2. Activities
Your next objective is to identify the activities that will help you get to your goal. For imparting values to your kids, you might decide to read a good book with them at dinner or bedtime (i.e., The Book of Virtues by Win. Bennett).

How best does one best turn goals into reality? Try these three steps for starters. First, brainstorm. Create a list of all possible activities that might help you to reach your goal. Second, prioritize your activities. Here it might be helpful to employ the feedback of your spouse or a good friend. If this person both cares about you and yet can remain objective, they might help you to be realistic about which activities will actually work toward desired results and which are simply more enjoyable. Third, attempt to accomplish the activities of higher priority that day. Remember the 80-20 rule — you need to focus 80% of your time on those activities of highest priority. In section 4 are suggestions on how to prepare a schedule that reflects one’s highest values.

3. Using a Calendar
A calendar can stimulate your vision, aid long-term planning, and help measure your personal planning success. One graduate student has created a master calendar for his entire graduate experience, with critical dates factored in. Included in his calendar is a dissertation checklist. We have included that list at the end of these notes.

Also, many students have found a monthly calendar to be quite helpful. It proves to be more portable than a large calendar, and will help you avoid schedule conflicts.

4. Scheduling your Daily Values
According to Peter Drucker, “time is the scarcest resource available.” And yet, as we saw in our opening illustration, many times our highest priorities are not reflected in our actual daily activities. The Barna Research Group, in their 1990 study on graduate students, found that most students considered close personal friendships to be their top personal priority — and yet little time was consistently given to relationship-building activities. Matching one’s activities with one’s values is truly no simple task!

And yet, to be effective in developing a balanced life, this connection is crucial. Here are some suggestions for making that connection:

a. Place in your schedule only the events that actually match the goals on your goal sheets.

b. Plan to plan! In other words, set in your schedule each week a small amount of time to plan for the following week. That fifteen to thirty minutes could be the most valuable activity of your week! (It has been said that every hour in effective planning saves three to four hours in execution and results.)

c. Review your schedule daily. You may want to place your daily goals at the top of your schedule for quick review.

d. Schedule time for flexibility, correspondence, and crisis management. If you can learn- to have “scheduled crises” you will be able to keep them from taking over your personal and family time. Then you should be able to keep an “ideal” work week to about 50 hours per week or less. (A study was done of those who worked 50 or more hours per week, and found that their productivity declined proportionately as their number of work hours increased past 50.)

e. Evaluate your schedule weekly. As I suggested earlier, begin keeping a journal of how time is actually spent. Drucker points out that astute managers constantly assess where their time is going for increased productivity.

f. Manage a to do list. It has been said that the palest ink is better than the best memory. Therefore, I have always recommended writing down EVERYTHING! Once your list is developed, prioritize your activities by placing an H, M, or L (for High, Medium, or Low) in front of each item. This system is so simple and yet can be the key factor in doubling or tripling your output. The idea is to use one’s most productive hours for H items, and other hours for the M and L items. These M and L items will become higher priorities as time goes on.

5. Tips for Effectiveness
Goals, schedules, and to-do lists are incredibly helpful items — but only if we continue to actually USE them. Here are some ideas for staying effective in your time management efforts. First, discover relationships that refresh you (as opposed to always spending time with those who drain you). I highly recommend a support group for every graduate student. Second, when possible, use your time twice. Carry stationary with you to write notes to friends if you ride a bus or are caught waiting outside your advisor’s office. Third, set study times and locations free from interruptions. Fourth, delegate work whenever possible. Fifth, finish a project before picking up the next — even skipping lunch if you have to. This cuts down on the reorienting required to start again. Sixth, keep phone numbers on the “to-do list” of those you’ll need to contact (saves you from repeatedly looking them up). Finally, handle things only once if possible. For example, if you receive an email message, decide NOW if you want to respond or delete it. “Do-it-now workers” always rank highest in efficiency.

6. Barriers to Scheduling
There are several barriers to scheduling you may need to overcome. These barriers are the time wasters. The biggest, or course, is procrastination. The best way to attack procrastination is the “Swiss Cheese Method” I mentioned earlier. Divide your projects into smaller (perhaps 15 minute) chunks or tasks. You may want to set up some rewards for yourself for the completion of each task. The Swiss Cheese Method is designed to help you focus on ONE issue at a time.

The second barrier is interruptions. If you find yourself getting interrupted frequently (phone calls, drops ins, etc.), you may need to simply leave the premises. Instead of allowing your best work hours to be wasted by incoming calls, set certain phone hours in your schedule.

The third barrier is stress. It’s been shown that 75% of all worries never actually happen. But the stress over these fictitious events can waste many hours. Stress can be managed, though. One way is simply to allow flex time in your schedule to deal with demanding issues. Also, you may want to read the article entitled Emotional Fatigue: Coping with Academic Stress. We’d be happy to send that to you.

Perhaps the best way to overcome these barriers and others is simply to create habits of good time management, because this will naturally begin to remove internally generated time wasters When you find yourself in a habit pattern that is continually wasting your time, try these steps:

1. Start strong. Set a workable resolution plan that will attempt to tackle the time-waster. Then begin your plan boldly.

2. No exceptions until habit is firmly rooted. This is the key to beating the habit. You may even need the encouragement and accountability of a friend for your “weak moments.”

3. Act quickly on new resolutions. The idea here is to not procrastinate once you’ve realized what the time waster is otherwise, it will only get more and more deeply entrenched into your daily routine.


Stephen Covey’s seventh habit, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to “Sharpen Your Saw!”

Covey asks you to imagine meeting someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.

“You look exhausted,” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”

“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”

“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”

“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”

To be the most effective person you can be, including being an effective time manager, you will need to be sure to preserve and enhance the greatest asset you have — you. According to Covey, that includes the four dimensions of your nature — physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual:

1. Physical.
This includes regular exercise (at least three hours a week), eating the right kinds of foods (low-fat, high-fruit and-vegetable diet), and getting sufficient rest and relaxation.

2. Mental.
Most grad students do very little reading for pleasure. And yet skimming or reading a good magazine or book (eg., National Geographic, fiction books, etc.) can often be a better mental break than watching TV, because it helps to expand our very focused minds and to integrate academic issues with more practical “real life” ones.

3. Social/Emotional.
Renewing our emotional life also requires exercise. Our emotions are very tied up in both my relationships and in my personal integrity. First, we need to take the time to develop and keep good communication with those closest to us. Second, we need to develop the inner security derived from a life of integrity, where our heart, soul, and mind are all at peace with one another, and our daily habits are reflecting our deepest values.

4. Spiritual.
According to Covey, “renewing the spiritual dimension provides leadership to your life. The spiritual dimension is your core, your center, your commitment to your value system.” But this renewal, like the others, takes an investment of time. Though many grad students intellectually hold to a belief in God, some have put the development of their spiritual lives on hold. Reasons often cited are simply a lack of time or, even more often, that a disparity has developed between personal faith and intellectual reasoning. As one grad recently concluded, “I am currently coming to terms with my religious beliefs and sorting them out from my scientific training, and yet I must admit that this is no easy task!”

Time Management is a discipline that is sometimes accompanied by many failures. But as you begin to take it seriously, I think you’ll find that the reward is worth the effort. Remember what the great European leader Winston Churchill said in his shortest, yet most famous speech: “Never give up! Never, never, never, never, never give up!”


Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1989).

Dissertation News. Incline Village, NV: Association for Support of Graduate Students. Address: 585 Fallen Leaf Way, Incline Village, NV 89451. (702) 831-1399.

Robert L. Peters, Ph.D. Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or a Ph.D. (New York: Noonday Press, 1992).

Nick Repak is the founder of Grad Resources, a faith based service organization addressing the needs of graduate students. He is also the founder of the National Grad Crisis-Line (877.GRAD.HLP).