3 Steps to Better Time Management for Graduate Students and Young Professionals

Jan 07, 2021

By Jonathan Cantarero 

In a world filled with deadlines, due dates, and competing responsibilities, few skills are more important than time management. Good time management is all about organizing and planning to help you work smarter instead of harder. In other words, it’s about getting more done in less time without compromising the quality of your work. In this article, I’ll walk you through three steps to better time management. 

1.     Identify Your Problem Area(s) 

 Time management doesn’t look the same for everyone. In fact, practicing good time management depends a lot on your particular needs and specific obstacles. For example, most of us can name at least one habit or practice that gets in the way of our productivity. If you’re having trouble identifying what’s holding you back, ask yourself whether you struggle with any of the following:    

  • Starting an assignment – Do you forget about a task soon after it’s been assigned? Do you constantly postpone assignments for the last minute and end up scrambling to finish them before a deadline? 
  • Planning out a project – Do you struggle with figuring out how to approach a project and, as a result, spend more time overthinking it instead of actually doing it?  
  • Multitasking – When working on multiple projects, do you find it hard to plan out when to work on what? Do you feel overwhelmed by having to finish several assignments in a short period of time?  
  • Working efficiently – Do you usually encounter obstacles (e.g., access to a workspace, computer, or library) and distractions (e.g., family and social life) when working on an assignment, which costs you valuable time? 

Most of us can identify with at least one of these reasons in thinking through what really hinders us from working efficiently and productively. For instance, a friend recently asked me to help her with her time management as a student. We talked about her “problem areas” and agreed that she struggled with starting and planning out her assignments. Notably, her problem wasn’t that she didn’t care about her work—it was that she agonized over every detail. As a result, she shied away from researching and writing and unsurprisingly postponed those tasks for the last minute.  

2.     Use Practical Tools to Meet Your Goals 

On the surface, the solution to many of these problems seems obvious. If you struggle with planning out a project, then the easy answer is to take the time to actually plan out a project. But this really doesn’t get to the root of the issue. What you need might be a specific tool to help get you started and—probably more importantly—stay on track. Here are a few tools I have found useful in dealing with common time management hurdles: 

  • Daily Planner – Whether in print or on your phone and computer, a daily planner can be a huge help in making sure you get the most out of your day. When I was in law school, I used a seven-day planner that told me exactly what to do during specific blocks of time. I broke down the blocks into five specific categories, which should work for most students: (1) class instruction; (2) assignments; (3) studying; (4) extracurriculars; and (5) downtime. Of all five categories, planning out my downtime was probably the most helpful because it helped ensure that one hour of relaxation didn’t turn into three or four hours of procrastination. Taking the time to map out your daily schedule will make you feel more accountable to your time.
  • Calendar (with Alerts and Reminders) – If you have trouble starting an assignment or meeting deadlines, online calendars can be a game-changer. Plug in dates to start and finish an assignment (and maybe some milestone dates to make sure you’re making progress toward your goals) and get notifications to keep you on track. These types of calendars are also great if you have trouble keeping track of multiple deadlines. If you use Outlook or Google calendars, make sure to sync those accounts to your cell phone for extra support. I can personally recall several times where a calendar reminder sent to my phone saved me from turning in an assignment past the due date. 
  • Apps and Software – There are literally hundreds of time-management apps for android, iOS phones, and computers that help you accomplish everything from large-scale projects to small scale assignments. For example, Pomofocus is a web-based timer with a pause feature that helps you work productivity by integrating short breaks into your schedule. For example, if you decide to set aside two hours for research, with one 15 minute break in between, you’re much more likely to stick to that timeframe with a pre-set timer in front of you. If social media is your problem, then consider something more involved like a content-blocker that temporarily blocks pre-designated sites while you work.

3.     Reach Out and Get Support

While everything we’ve talked about so far can be done alone, there is no substitute for a group of friends that help keep you accountable for your work. If you’re a student, consider starting or joining a study group. If you have a fellowship or internship, connect with a potential mentor that can check up on you when you need extra support. If you can’t find someone within your own network, reach out to your school’s career or academic success center and see if they can pair you with an alumnus.  

As a final example, after my friend and I discussed her issues with time management, I offered to help her put her plan into practice. First, I asked her to work on her next assignment immediately, which happened to be a reflection on an online article. When I didn’t hear back after a day or so, I followed up with a phone call and text message. Once she actually read the article, I talked her through her response. Through this process, she discovered that being able to talk through her responses with a friend rather than alone eliminated her urge to “overthink” what she eventually wrote down. The result? She ended up turning in that assignment faster than any other for that particular course. The moral of the story? Sometimes, all we need is a good friend to push us in the right direction to help us get the most out of ourselves. But whether it’s a friend or an app, time management is first and foremost about identifying your problem areas and tackling them strategically. These three steps will bring you one step closer to that goal. Good luck! 

Jonathan Cantarero is an attorney based in New York City. He is a former Graduate Fellow at the City University of New York School of Law (2013-16) and Schulte, Roth, and Zabel Fellow for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (2014-15). Whenever he is not reading legal briefs or posting on ProFellow, Jonathan, who is also a seminary student, enjoys writing on the intersection of law and religion. 

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