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The Online Student’s Guide to Time Management

Online courses can be extremely convenient, but if you’re not careful, you may find yourself wasting valuable academic time. These time management tips can help you identify weaknesses, eliminate time wasters, and optimize your schedule.

Author: Shannon Lee
Editor: STEPS Staff
A diverse group of people sitting at a table with their computers while collaborating together.

You’re enrolled in three online courses this semester. In any given week, that’s two video lectures, five chapters to read, a presentation, and at least on quiz to tackle. All this while trying to balance a part-time job and an active personal life. There’s no way around it, time is hard to come by as an online student, regardless of your major or degree level. That’s why having the ability to effectively manage your time is absolutely key to succeeding as a virtual learner.

From identifying where exactly you’re wasting time to creating a personal schedule and learning to stick to it, this guide will help online students make the most of their valuable time. Keep reading to discover the steps to time management, gather useful resources, and take away time-saving tips and strategies.

Step 1

Identify Your Time-Wasters

The first step to fixing a problem is identifying its cause. In the context of time management, we first need to figure out where the wasted time is going. In many cases, the biggest time-wasters consist of many small activities spread throughout the day that add up to a lot.

To identify these time-wasters, keep track of how you spend every single minute for the next week. This includes how long you sleep, when you’re on social media, how much time is spent lingering over a meal, how much time you spend texting, and so on. After doing this for seven days, make a list of all your activities and add up the time for each, then divide by seven. This will give you an average of how much time you spend each day on that activity.

Do any of these time-wasting activities sound familiar?


Scrolling through social media

We all have an innate drive to look at other people’s lives, and that makes social media quite tempting, especially when we don’t really want to do the things we’re supposed to be doing – like studying.


Playing video games

Now that video games are readily available for smartphones, it’s no wonder that they are such a major distraction from more pressing tasks.


Watching videos

What starts as “just one” on YouTube or TikTok can easily turn into binge watching that takes up an entire evening.



Meetings with little to no clear agenda can meander, turn into different topics, and go well over the allotted time.


Misplacing items

Spending five minutes trying to find the Post-It notes? How about those paperclips? Disorganization can sabotage more time than you think.


Sitting in traffic

Though sometimes this is unavoidable, it can help to adjust your commute by just a few minutes or choose to go to the store only once a week instead of several times.



Any interruption can break your concentration, and it takes a while to get it back. For instance, a two-minute phone call can lead to ten minutes wasted to get back on track with study time.


Checking emails

A quick check of email can quickly lead to a quick check of this, or that, and suddenly thirty minutes has passed. It takes some serious discipline not to look at that inbox multiple times a day!


Too much multi-tasking

Multi-tasking has its place, but sometimes it’s better to focus on just one activity. For instance, don’t try to study for the test while updating your social media… but do study while you’re waiting on the laundry to finish.

5 Tips to Kick Time Wasters to the Curb

Now that you have an idea of where your time vanishes to, you can find ways to better manage it. These tips help prevent time wasters from sabotaging your productivity.


Make it impossible to play on your phone

If you’re like most people, your smartphone is your biggest distraction. There are many apps designed to block or lock specific apps that are distracting. Unlock the fun when the studying is over.


Schedule activities

Whether it’s studying, sleeping, or playing, create a pattern or routine for certain activities. For example, only binge watch on weekends. Or have a special location where you always go to study.


Make meetings more productive

To make the most of your meetings, keep the following tips in mind: have a leader, make a list of objectives, establish a firm ending time, and have any necessary technology (like audio/visual) already tested and set up before the meeting begins.


Limit the use of emails

Set a certain time to read and reply to emails. For some, it might be once in the morning and once in the afternoon. For others, it might be once every other hour. The exact method of creating limits will depend on everyone’s unique situation.


Prevent distractions

Take a two-pronged approach. First, let others know you need to be left alone. Do this by setting up your phone so calls go straight to voicemail, putting up a note on social media, or whatever works for you. Second, take steps to avoid the distractions that make it through the first prong. This might mean turning your smartphone to silent or turning off the Wi-Fi on your computer while you work.

Step 2

Create a Schedule & Stick to It

You’ve freed-up so much new time and now it’s time to structure it. To make the most of your time, you want to not only create a schedule, but follow it! However, that’s often easier said than done, so here are seven rules to help you stick to your new schedule.

Rule #1: Be realistic

Life is inherently unpredictable. Keep this in the forefront of your mind as you create a schedule, and allow yourself some wiggle room. Be ready to change things up if necessary when life throws you that unexpected curveball.

Rule #2: Schedule some fun

We’ve all heard that saying about all work and no play.Simply studying all the time will wear you out. There’s no shame in scheduling an event or activity for yourself to relax, relieve some stress, or engage in self-care.

Rule #3: Identify your productive times

If you’re not a morning person, don’t schedule the bulk of your studying in the morning. If you study best in the evening, don’t schedule a binge watching event at night. Pay attention to what works for you and you’ll eventually find the right routine.

Rule #4: Find the necessary tools for scheduling

When you create a schedule, you need to write it down somewhere. It can be on a scrap sheet of paper, your phone, or your laptop, but it helps to have it somewhere that you can easily access it and add to it as necessary. Find the system that works for you.

Rule #5: Have the right mindset

If your schedule gets blown apart because life happened, don’t get discouraged. You can get right back on track. There’s no need to ruin an entire week’s schedule because of one hiccup on Monday.

Rule #6: Prioritize

Schedule tasks with some sort of hierarchy of priority. You may want to get 10 things done in a day, but you know you don’t have time; so which tasks are more important?

Rule #7: The 80/20 rule

This rule states that most of the time, 80% of your desired results will come from 20% of your work. As applied to scheduling, create a schedule where you get the biggest return on your time investment.

Step 3

Tackle the Small Tasks First

The term “baby steps” is a cliché for a reason. Starting a major project with small, simpler tasks can prevent early discouragement, which can easily lead to distraction and procrastination. Watching the completion of small tasks pile up can make you feel accomplished and encouraged to continue. This puts you in the proper frame of mind to tackle the more challenging or lengthy parts of a project.

Education is a unique endeavor in that you have to do it on your own. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help, especially for tasks in other areas of your life. Learning how to delegate less important tasks to others is a crucial skill. For example, having someone pick up the kids from school, cook, clean, do yard work, or run errands for you can free up time to study.

Step 4

Utilize Time Management Techniques & Strategies

Now it’s time to sharpen your time management techniques and strategies. Keep in mind that these are different from time management skills, in that the latter concerns internal processes. In contrast, strategies and technique refer to external actions and theories to help achieve desired behavior. Let’s breakdown some of the most useful techniques and strategies.


Within the context of improving time management, the term “strategies” refers to rules and laws to help you manage your time. What these rules are will vary for each individual. Not only do we all have our own personalities and quirks, but we are in different working and educational situations. However, these five common strategies are rather universal.

One thing at a time:

Trying to do too much at once can lead to problems. At best, you work less efficiently; at worst, you get completely off track. In many cases, especially when it comes to studying for school, the most efficient use of your time means doing only one task at a given time.

Be flexible, but…:

Things often don’t go as planned. Schedules can change. But don’t use a surprise as an excuse for not getting your work done or a way to rationalize spending extra time on a time-wasting activity.

Take care of yourself:

Your mind is your most important tool. If you don’t treat it and the rest of your body well, it will be hard to effectively manage anything about your life. What this care includes will vary, but can include eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep, relaxing, or finding time for self-care.

Be consistent:

Effective time management that offers long-term success requires the creation of good, strong habits. And the best way to do that is to be consistent in how you do things. For example, if you want to make it a new habit that you always spend time on social media after you finish an item on your to-do list, stick to that rule.


There are a variety of techniques to improve time management skills. The trick is finding which ones work best for you. Let’s look into a few of these techniques and learn more about how they work.


Based on the manufacturing strategy created at Toyota, Kanban includes using a visual board. On this board, there are three or more columns that represent various stages of a task, such as to-do, in progress, and done. Tasks that need to be done are placed in the to-do column and move to the appropriate column as they are worked through and eventually finished.

  • Ideal for those who are visual learners or appreciate accessing information through visual means.
  • Great for those who appreciate physical movement as users can use items, such as sticky notes, to represent tasks and physically move them from one column to another.


This technique involves the use of a calendar and drawing in physical boxes that represent blocks of time to get certain tasks done.

  • Timeboxing helps curb the urge to make something perfect by limiting a task to a certain block of time.
  • This is a very intuitive technique as it allows users to visualize how to prioritize and schedule tasks that must be done.

Pomodoro Technique

This technique revolves around that idea people need breaks to work efficiently. This involves having a work session lasts 25 minutes, followed by a five minute break. After four total work sessions, the break is 15-30 minutes instead of five.

  • This technique works for those who appreciate rewards as positive reinforcement.
  • For those who are tempted to engage in marathon study or work sessions, this is great way to remind yourself to stay fresh by taking much-needed breaks.


S.M.A.R.T. refers to a technique for creating goals and accomplishing tasks in a more efficient manner. Consider the tasks in front of you and make them clearer: S stands for specific, M for measurable, A for achievable, R for relevant, and T for time-bound.

  • This technique is easy to understand and implement.
  • The distinct elements of this technique are easy to measure, so individuals can effectively determine their progress.

The Eisenhower Box

Also known as the Eisenhower Matrix, this helps prioritize tasks. It works by assigning tasks into four possible groups: important + important, not urgent + important, urgent + not important, and not important + not urgent.

  • An inherent aspect of this technique is accepting the idea that you may not be able to complete all your tasks, which makes it easier to curb perfectionist tendencies.
  • The Eisenhower Box requires you to decide if certain tasks are really required. This allows for the opportunity to decide if a task you think you need to do is really necessary.

Time Management Tools & Resources

Time management starts with changing how you think about your responsibilities and getting them accomplished. However, that doesn’t mean a little help wouldn’t be nice. There are plenty of tools and resources available to assist in your efforts including the following.

Resources to Get Organized


1Password: In today’s digital life, passwords are a necessary evil. 1Password helps you securely manage and organize all of them.


Evernote: One of the more well-known notetaking apps, ideal for your smartphone or tablet.


RescueTime: With this app, you can reduce distractions and keep track of how long certain tasks take to complete.


Todoist: This helps you stay organized by making it easier to access and share your task lists with others.


Unroll.me: Do you have an inbox full of emails? Save time by letting this tool quickly unsubscribe to all those unwanted ones.

Resources for Planning


3 in 1 Awesome Calendar: As its name implies, this app is more than just a calendar. Also a notetaking and to-do list app, the integration of these three tools makes planning easy and efficient.


ATracker: Available online or as an app, ATracker helps you plan by calculating time spent on tasks and allowing you to access this information from any device.


MindNode: This app helps with mind mapping, which is a great way to brainstorm ideas, especially when planning you next project.


Pocket: This app allows you to save articles and videos from the internet for later viewing.


ZenDay: This app takes planning with a to-do list to the next level. Users can take advantage of a 3D timeline, color-coded tasks, and automatic task rescheduling.

Resources to Increase Productivity


Boomerang: This online tool works with Google’s Gmail to schedule email follow up reminders or set a later time to send an email that’s best not sent the moment it’s written.


Brain.fm: This special tool finds music that can help you focus and increase productivity.


Cold Turkey: This online tool allows users to lock out distracting websites, apps and games.


focus booster: This tool makes it easier to utilize the Pomodoro Technique and make the most of your 25-minute work periods.


Forest: This is a special motivator app where focusing and being productive allows your virtual tree to grow. Waste time, and your virtual tree will die.

Resources for Creating a Schedule


Any.do: This tool offers a host of ways to help with time management, but its calendar really shines because of its ability to sync with other calendar software and location-based reminders.


Avaza: Avaza really shines in project management, where there are multiple individuals involved. However, it has special tools, such as its Resource Scheduling, which can help you create a more informative and useful personal schedule.


Google Calendar: An easy and free online tool, especially for those with Gmail, where specific events from an email can be easily added to Google Calendar.


Toggl: Trying to create a schedule, but aren’t sure how much time something will take? Toggl is an app that will help you discover how long certain tasks take to complete.


Wunderlist: This app has many uses, from project management to creating to-do lists to scheduling important events.