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Study Skills

Wolfson College Academic Skills: Time management

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

So much to do, so little time?

As 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.

The above video is aimed at those managing their time while working remotely but the principles apply to all. It summarises most of what is on this page, for those who prefer to listen than read.

What do you need to do?

Before attending to the first thing that springs to mind, ask yourself: what has to be done now and what can wait?  One way to prioritise work is to put all that you have to do into the Eisenhower matrix (named after the former President of the United States of America):

Eisenhower matrix




Are they urgent and important and so need doing now? Or are they important but non-urgent, and can you reschedule them for later? As a student, you're unlikely to be able to delegate (though if you are involved in a club or society this might be possible). Instead think of the urgent but unimportant things as distractions from your work, and again probably fall into the 'do later' category. While things that are neither urgent nor important can be deleted from your lists, politely declined or at least significantly delayed.

Here is a template for you to fill in. Remember, things can move around the matrix. What is can wait this week, may be urgent in two weeks' time. It is a process you need to go through regularly. If you complete it with tasks for the day,  you will need to complete the template every day. If you complete it with a week's worth of tasks, you'll need to fill in a new template once a week.

Once you have decided where your tasks fit into this matrix, don't put them in a single to-do list but instead divide tasks into a number of different timescales:
  • short term (morning, afternoon, daily)
  • medium term (week)
  • long term (monthly, termly or longer if dealing with a dissertation, project or thesis).

Input the activities into your diary (paper or online) to block out time in the day to get them done or, for long-term goals, so that you know when they are due.

Or try out some of these resources, adapted from Oregon State University:

When do you need to do it?

Rank your lists or colour-code them so you can easily see what needs to be done first. Be strict and stick to it. Try to complete one task at a time. It is more satisfying to have one thing ticked off than several, half-finished jobs.

How are you going to do it?

Break your tasks down into manageable chunks. Putting ‘Write essay’ or ‘Read book’ on a to-do list isn’t very helpful. Instead, make your objectives SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

By taking this approach, the above tasks become: ‘Draft essay introduction on Monday between 9 and 11am in Wolfson Library’ or ‘Read chapters 3 & 4 between 5 and 6pm on Tuesday evening and make 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.

Where are you going to do it?

Think about your study space. Will you be more productive at  your desk in your room so that everything is to hand? Or are there too many distractions at home and will you benefit from working in the library, with others? Wherever you are based, make sure it is comfy, well-lit and organised.

If you need inspiration have a look at Spacefinder, which covers libraries, cafes and outdoor spaces in Cambridge, tagged to help you find a place to meet your needs.

If you are tempted to spend too much time browsing the web or on social media, there are apps such as StayFocusd for Chrome or Self-control for macOS that will lock you out of websites for a limited period. You decide which sites and for how long but beware, you can’t override them!

Time on Task analysis

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.


Post-its are fine to remind you to do things but they do rely on you being in one place to see them. Consider using technology to help you, wherever you are. and Trello specialise in  this area. They are project-based and work especially well for longer-term goals. Notion describes itself as an all-in-one workspace for notes, organisation, tasks and projects and to create spreadsheets and databases. 

If you are particularly attached to post-its, try Googlekeep. As well as taking notes free-hand you can attach images and audio. It syncs with Google Calendar to remind you to do something.

Notetaking software such as OneNote and Evernote lets you set up alerts from their notebook approach for ‘to-do’ lists. While Roam Research is aimed at connecting your thoughts through notes and a writing tool, with an advanced diary function.

Organise your files

This means online and physically. You will save yourself lots of time if you can find things straight away.

If you work on paper, label and number your notes, include titles and dates. Use colour or different notebooks to demarcate different topics. File loose handouts in an orderly  fashion in A4 wallets, box files or ring binders.

Your computer needs even more attention. Don’t use your desktop as a dumping ground for everything you download. Create a clear file structure and anticipate what you might create. 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. Nest folders to keep each level of storage to a minimum; having 50 folders on your desktop is just as confusing as having 50 documents.

Within a folder consider a file naming convention such as this:
prefix (for document type e.g. report, notes, essay)_meaningful document title_version_yymmdd


There will be times when you are uninspired or struggle with work.
To maintain motivation  think about:

  • Reasons for studying
  • Manageable goals
  • Successes
  • Sources of help and support

Difficulties are challenges that you will overcome and learn from.

Too many distractions?

If you find that you are often distracted when online, look at our page on Digital Wellbeing. There are lots of tools and tips to help you focus when you're trying to work.

Reward Yourself

Time management is as much about resting as working and you should take breaks whether you have completed your task or not. It is important for your eyes and back, plus it will help you stay focused so that you can return with renewed interest and energy. For short breaks set up EyeLeo or Stretchly to force you to look away from the screen. Every hour, you should timetable in a cup of tea, the chance to check your phone or take a 5 minute walk.

During longer breaks, make sure you are still doing things you enjoy; find time to socialise, exercise and relax. If you have timetabled these into your week then you don’t need to feel guilty when taking a break. Instead, look forward to them and hopefully you’ll be more productive knowing that you have to finish at a certain time.

Download our Academic Skills Time Management Guide (pdf)

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