The no-burnout guide to busy

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We all start the semester with noble intentions and big ideas about self-discipline—yet within weeks, many of us are pleading for extra time on assignments or skipping sleep and workouts in the dash to make a deadline. Time management is one of the most challenging and important skills required of college students. Here’s the good news: Managing your time comes from good habits, not willpower.

This daily outline is a general framework based on behavioral science. It does not incorporate classes, jobs, varying internal body clocks, and so on. Click on the links and adapt the underlying principles to suit your own schedule.

Waking up

Start with purpose
As soon as you’re up (whenever that is), do a small, productive task.

How early tasks help

  • Keep a list of small tasks that feel valuable and productive to you (e.g., a mindfulness routine, a laundry run, making your bed, sun salutations).
  • This may be a not-totally-terrible time to check social media—if you can avoid getting sucked in.
  • Don’t forget breakfast (think eggs, not eclairs).

Making your bed
Making your bed is the most popular quick fix among fans of the Happiness Project, an ongoing exploration of how to improve your life. Making the bed can help us start the day feeling “efficient, productive, and disciplined,” says Gretchen Rubin, happiness guru.

Social media
Soon after waking is a good time to check social media, a 2010 study suggests. An analysis of 509 million tweets revealed that around 8–9 a.m., posts are more upbeat and enthusiastic than they are later in the day. Checking social media now may help you resist squandering your peak hours on Instagram and Facebook.

After breakfast

Plan your day
Claim the day for your own goals—or the modern world will steal it from you.

Make your plan more effective

“Not having a plan, goals, or a system in today’s world is dangerous because the default isn’t neutral,” writes Eric Barker in Barking Up the Wrong Tree—a science-based site on “how to be awesome at life.” In other words, our world is so full of distractions that it’s working against us.

  • Always plan your day, listing a small number of key tasks to get done.
  • Share your tasks and larger goals with a buddy or mentor each week.

Keep it brief
List your tasks for the day—but be selective. Having too many high-priority tasks feels daunting and unmanageable, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Share your plan
People who wrote down their goals, shared them with someone else, and sent that person weekly updates were on average 33 percent more successful in accomplishing their goals than were those who only devised them, according to a study at Dominican University, California.


Focus on demanding tasks
When are you most productive each day? Dedicate this time to high-brainpower projects.

Why & how to get rid of distractions

Our window of peak productivity varies from person to person. For many of us, starting about 2 hours after we wake up, we get 2½ hours to be a human dynamo, says Dr. Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and developer of the time-management app, Timeful. For example, if you get up at 8:30, your dynamo window may be 10:30–1:00. Your own body clock may be different; do the math. “If we could salvage those precious hours, most of us would be much more successful in accomplishing what we truly want,” said Dr. Ariely on Reddit (2014).

  • Use your most productive time of day for tasks requiring memory, concentration, and alertness—(e.g., assignments).
  • Work in a low-distraction environment, such as the library (if it’s not a social hang-out).
  • Turn off gadgets and avoid internet use that’s not related to your goal task.

Focus is about eliminating distractions
Many experiments have shown that distractions break concentration and increase the time you require to finish tasks. In a 2013 study of first-year college women, reading magazines and social networking were associated with lower GPAs.

Eliminating distractions is about controlling your environment
Social science has demonstrated robustly that our actions are influenced much more by our environment and much less than our conscious decisions than we like to think.

After lunch

Get energized
Slumping? Schedule fun and energizing activities for the early afternoon.

Happify your downtime

Be social. Have fun. Get moving. Identifying the projects and people that energize us is essential for using our time in ways that make us happier, says Dr. Jennifer Aaker, a professor of marketing at Stanford University, California. “There is often a gap between where people say they want to spend their time and how they actually spend their time,” she told Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

  • Identify the people, projects, and activities that put a spring in your step.
  • Take an inventory of how you spend your time.
  • Schedule the energizing activities on your calendar.

Get moving
In a 2008 study, people who were physically active during the workday reported improved mood and performance. Physical performance tends to peak 3 pm–6 pm, says Michael Smolensky, co-author of The Body Clock Guide to Better Health (Henry Holt & Co., 2000).

Get it on the calendar
“When you put something on a calendar, you’re more likely to actually do that activity,” says Dr. Aaker.

Late afternoon

Break it down & move it along
Do something every day, no matter how small, for each assignment.

Take control of deadlines

“‘Consistent forward progression’ means doing something every day, no matter how small, to complete the assignment,” says Amy Baldwin, Director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas.

  • Breaking your assignments into chunks makes them more manageable and rewarding.
  • Commit to doing something every day for each assignment, even if it’s minor.
  • Adjust your deadlines strategically.

Play with your sense of time
We do better with deadlines when we deliberately play with our sense of time, studies suggest. Deadlines within the current month feel closer than do deadlines that fall outside it, even if the time frame is the same, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Step 1 
Instead of the due date, focus on the number of days to get there. This way, the task seems more current, motivating you to get started and work on it consistently.

Step 2 
On your calendar, color-code the timeframe for each project (e.g., a blue band spanning from the date the history paper was assigned to the date that it’s due). In a study, this simple technique helped people meet their deadlines.


The evening can be well suited to certain tasks.

What works well when you’re tired

Depending on your body clock and schedule, the evening can work well for certain tasks.

  • Consider classes and projects in which mind-wandering is an asset, such as in art or creative writing.
  • Return to problems that have previously stumped you.
  • Reflect on your day. Learning from experience is a key component of emotional resilience—the ability to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Also…don’t forget to relax.

Insight may come easier
For certain challenges, tiredness may make us more open to alternative solutions. These are the tasks that psychologists call “insight” problems—the stuff we wrestle with and then resolve with a beautiful “aha!” That’s according to a 2011 study in Thinking & Reasoning. Evenings may be a good time for classes and projects that require an open, creative mind-set.

The value of reflection
Learning from experience is a key component of emotional resilience. Reflection “involves thinking about how you think and coming to terms with how you learn,” writes Laura Stack, a writer and speaker on productivity and performance. This means identifying what’s working for you (or not), integrating new knowledge, and preparing for future challenges.

The science of productivity in 3 minutes (video)

Students’ strategies

“I give myself some sort of mental rest throughout the day. Sometimes it’s meditating for 3–10 minutes or doing a mindful body scan. Sometimes it’s yoga for 30 minutes to an hour. Giving my brain a rest helps me get on with my day.”
—Rusty B., third-year undergraduate, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

“I’ll devise a list of assignments/goals/projects, rank them in order of urgency, then work on each object entirely without any breaks or rest. Motivation is fleeting and unreliable, if fruitful, while discipline guarantees results.”
—Candice H., second-year undergraduate, University of Memphis, Tennessee

“I look at the week ahead of time and write down all the things I have to do on Wunderlist so I’ll be able to budget time effectively.”        
—Nadia S., fourth-year undergraduate, Stanford University, California

+ Wunderlist

“I have someone else I know and trust change my social media password, like a parent. This way, especially during finals week, I can’t get distracted away from my assignments.”
—Ryan B., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Identify your peak productivity window

Dr. Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, and co-developer of the app Timeful, talked to Student Health 101 about identifying our peak time of day for in-depth work.

“We started by asking people [in our study] what is their peak productivity window. We helped people think about when were they alert and most able to produce, most able to get into a state of flow, focus on something for a long time, and not have to fight attentional distractions.

“It’s not always the same time—sometimes there are weekends and vacations or you didn’t sleep well the night before—but mostly people can recognize it. We found that, for most people at working age who participated in our study, it was very consistently in the morning. Of course, it could be a combination of their natural [state] and what’s happening in the world; we can’t tell those apart.

“And then the question is, how do you work around it so that they basically commit to doing the right things during their peak productivity time?

“To start with, figure out what’s the natural time for the students. If it’s in a very unreasonable hour, like 2:00–4:00 a.m., I would try to figure out [whether] we can shift it. If it’s not at a terrible hour, try to think about how to take advantage of that productivity window.”

The perils of procrastination (video)

App review: Timeful

by Timeful, Inc.

Danelle Cloutier
Journalism and communications graduate of Red River College and the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba; writer for SH101.

“Timeful helps you form the habits you need for world domination—or at least make your deadlines. This combined calendar app and to-do app is based in behavioral science. Timeful has you input tasks and activities and helps you get them done.”

Yes, for those willing to use their iOS device as an agenda planner.
Rating: 4 / 5

Makes scheduling more of a game than a task. Plus: Feel good for getting stuff done.
Rating: 4 / 5

Understands your needs—but doesn’t write your papers for you.
Rating: 3 / 5

+ Download on the AppStore

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