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Study Skills

Wolfson College Academic Skills: Time management

Help with finding, managing and using information from the Wolfson Library Team.

timerAs an independent learner you will have discovered how important it is to manage your time effectively. However, that is easier said than done, so here are some tips to help you keep on top of things.

Top tips

  1. What are you managing? - make a list and be as specific as possible so that you tick off smaller tasks as you go. It is also much easier to know when you have completed something specific e.g. read two chapters and make notes from 9:00-11:00, than something general e.g. reading.
  2. How will you achieve these tasks? - think about what you need to get the task done. Can you just turn up and start working on it, do you have the resources to hand? Or do you need to add another task to the list, which involves going the Library to borrow the book in the first place?
  3. Why are you doing this? - be clear what you want to achieve. If you are reading the book to get some background information, you might need to skim read the introduction and conclusion. If you just want to cite the author, you may only need to read a small section to select an appropriate quotation.
  4. When will you do this? - prioritisation is the key to time management. We all have too much to do and too little time. What needs doing now should be both urgent and important. If it is non-urgent but important, do it later. If it is urgent but not important, this is a distraction and you might need to think about whether you need to do this at all. And if it is not urgent nor important then you should probably remove it from your list. But remember: sleeping, eating, exercise and socialising are all important and you need to schedule them into your day to to stay productive.
  5. Where will you do it? - having a tidy space to work, whether online or physcially, can make you more efficient and effective. If you waste time every day trying to find what it is you are working on or if a messy work environment means you get distracted, then you need to get the space sorted before you tackle anything on the list!

Watch these short videos to find out about specific aspects of time management. You can the practise these by having a go at the tasks and worksheets below.

How to

  • First and foremost, get yourself a calendar, such as Google Calendar or Outlook (part of Office365). Make sure that you record all your commitments such as supervisions, lectures and extra curricular activities. Then use another layer in the same calendar to record things you would like to work on, but which are more flexible; so if you plan to work in the library for 3 hours and read certain books, block out that time. It might be helpful to have another layer to your calendar for things like washing your clothes or going shopping. It helps you see how busy your day will be.
  • Use another tool for things that can't be achieved in one go, such as writing an essay or a dissertation. Tools such as Trello or Microsoft Tasks (in Teams) can help by listing all the things that need doing, you can set due dates, rank tasks and add contextual information. Trello is particularly good if you are working with other people e.g. when organising a conference or writing a joint report as you can allocate tasks.

Try it out - worksheets and tasks to help you put what you've learned into practice

When you feel overwhelmed by the amount you have to do, you need to prioritise. This matrix can help you decide what needs doing first by dividing tasks up. Write a list of everything you have to do today or this week. This includes everyday activities like contacting family and friends, putting on a clothes wash, going shopping etc. If you struggle to plan ahead, look back on the past week and fill in the Time Log under the Time Management Templates section. Then fill in this template, writing each item in one of the four boxes. Those that you decide are both urgent and important are those to tackle first. Remember that eating, sleeping, exercising are all important! When planning your day (see the Time Management Templates), start with these so that they don't get squeezed out. 

Watch the video on Prioritisation in the section above to find out more.

Break your tasks down into manageable chunks. Putting ‘Read book’ on a to-do list isn’t very helpful. This is your aim. You need to identify the steps that will get you there. These are objectives and you should make them SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

By taking this approach, the above task becomes: ‘Read chapters 3 & 4 between 5 and 6pm on Tuesday evening to learn the details of the case studies used by the author. Make brief notes in Zotero’. That way, you know exactly what needs doing, are more likely to be able to get the job done and know what remains  to do if you run out of time.
Write out some SMART objectives for tomorrow.  Revisit the 'How to' video for more information.

How do you know how long something will take you to do? This is one of the biggest problems when scheduling time for something on your 'to-do' list. It can be dispiriting if you are constantly taking longer to do something than planned. The best way to find out how long you need to block out in your diary, is to keep track using a grid or an app:

  • Input the type of task (be specific, make them SMART)
  • Record the start and stop time
  • Quantify the work by recording the number of words written or pages read.

This will give you baseline data to allow for good, bad and ugly days! Keep recording it for a few days/weeks (depending on the intensity of the task). This will allow for variation:

  • Optimistic Estimate – your best recorded time (To)
  • Most Likely Estimate – your most commonly recorded time (Tm)
  • Pessimistic Estimate – your worst recorded time (Tp)

Then, to estimate length of task that accommodates variation, plug these numbers in the formula below:

  • (To + 4Tm + Tp) / 6 =  time estimate

This way, you are less likely to underestimate how long something will take and block out the appropriate amount of time in your calendar. But remember that sometimes things do take longer than planned and that is OK. Build an hour into the end of the day as a buffer so that it doesn't matter if you overrun a bit.

Create a clear file structure online or on paper. Anticipate what you might create.


  • Created top level folders and then subfolders. Having a empty folder is less of an issue than putting everything in one long list and planning to put it in order later. 
  • Rename downloaded files straight away and use dates where practicable to divide up work.
  • Come up with a naming convention so you spot files easily e.g. prefix for document type e.g. report, notes, essay_meaningful document title_version_yymmdd
  • Version control is particularly important now that Microsoft Office automatically saves everything. If you know that you are about to embark on a major set of revisions, save a new version before you start working on it.

On paper

  • Try to have different notebooks for different tasks or elements of your course e.g. one for each paper you are taking or one specifically for meetings with you supervisor. Alternatively get a notebook with built-in dividers.
  • Use the first pages of each notebook to create a contents page
  • Number every page in your notebook
  • Date everything and give it a clear title
  • Enter these into the contents pages as you fill up the notebook
  • If you use loose-leaf, then take a similar approach to your folders.

find out more

Read some of the books in our skills and wellbeing collections (a little bit of time invested in this may save you lots more in the future!) for example:


Unless otherwise stated, this work is licenced under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence by Wolfson College Cambridge.

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