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Time Management for Exams and Deadlines: Top Principles and Techniques

Time management can be an easy skill to implement with the right knowledge and techniques, and is essential for navigating your way through deadlines and upcoming exams. In this article, we’ll discuss the Pareto principle and Parkinson’s Law, and how to implement these time management principles using the Eisenhower Matrix, time blocking, time boxing and task batching.

In 3 Steps for Creating an Effective Revision Plan, we shared tips for organising your revision in a flexible and effective way. From scoping your subject to implementing a retrospective revision timetable, these steps are a great way to prepare for the exam season. However, we still have our busy lives to work around and need to go a step further to implement our revision plans effectively. This is where time management, our ability to organise, plan and utilise time in an optimised way, becomes essential. 

Time management techniques and principles can be beneficial for everyone. Typically, we might think time management is only essential for those of us who are juggling packed schedules, and have little free time to work with. But, having too much time with no time management in place can mean a lot of time is wasted. It can be hard to prioritise what matters and engage in meaningful work without getting distracted. Through simple time management techniques, you can reduce your need for procrastination, and clearly lay out your priorities. You’ll have a better understanding of the tasks that really need your time and attention, and know how to get started on big tasks that seem daunting.

Principles of Time Management 

The Pareto Principle

This principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, proposes that 80% of results come from 20% of the work. This idea can be applied in various ways, for example, 20% of tasks could be causing 80% of the stress you’re experiencing. Alternatively, 20% of your reading time could be contributing to 80% of your knowledge. This highlights that the pareto principle can work for both positive and negative scenarios. The 80/20 rule has been beneficial when applied to problem solving but also for navigating personal time management.

This principle highlights the imbalance between the input and the results, but the good news is, we can focus on 20% of our tasks with full effort. This means prioritising those tasks that are most important, and are usually the hardest to execute because they require our full attention. However, this way, 80% of our end result will be achieved which can reduce the likelihood of stress or procrastination. This is more effective than spending 80% of our time on less important tasks to achieve 20% of our desired result. Likewise, if you find yourself struggling with distractions, or other problems, you can begin to look for the 20% of tasks, habits, or other life factors that might be the cause of 80% of your concerns, and address them accordingly. 

Parkinson’s Law

Have you ever noticed how long a simple task can take? This is usually because there’s no time limit, and that’s exactly what Parkinson’s Law states - work expands to fill the time available for its completion. You might have experienced this for yourself. For example, assignment deadlines that are weeks or months away, might result in procrastination or begin to feel more complicated. It’s harder to be selective when you feel like you have plenty of time to explore, and this can get messy. However, if you have a tighter deadline, or realise the deadline is approaching soon, you find that you’ve completed the assignment in a few hours or days, compared to those weeks and months. 

This highlights the importance of first, ensuring that there is a time frame or restriction on tasks. Especially if there’s no external deadline, as these tasks can begin to drag on much longer than necessary. Second, this presents a way of reducing procrastination and simplifying your tasks. You might spend a long time on a task or deadline without making progress, instead, time is spent worrying or increasing the complexity of the task at hand. By keeping Parkinson’s Law in mind when it comes to time management, you can get work done in a shorter period of time, and claim back that extra time for more meaningful work or tasks.  

Time Management Techniques

Eisenhower Matrix 

To effectively manage our time, and figure out which 20% of our tasks are the most important, we can use the Eisenhower Matrix. This tool is ideal for organising our tasks by urgency and importance. In the Eisenhower Matrix, tasks are divided into four categories: urgent tasks, important tasks, tasks to be delegated and tasks to be deleted. Urgent tasks require your immediate attention, these tasks can't be delayed or need to be done first, no matter what. Important tasks are necessary for long term goals, and should be scheduled. Although not urgent, they still hold high importance and should be prioritised after completing the urgent category. 

Tasks to be delegated need to be completed but it might not necessarily be important for you to finish this task yourself. Finally, tasks to be deleted are leftovers that do not fit into the first three categories, they do not need to be done now, or later, or by someone else. Now, you’ve identified the most urgent and important tasks, you’re working with 20% of tasks that are likely to have the most impact. Urgent tasks will prevent unwanted consequences, such as missing deadlines, and important tasks prioritise your long term goals. You can use this framework for your revision topics, prioritising those areas you struggle with as urgent, and those areas you’re more confident in as important, and schedule them for later. 

Time Blocking, Boxing and Task Batching 

As stated in Parkinson’s Law, our tasks will expand to fill the time we allocate to them or, even the time we do not allocate if we fail to place time restrictions. This can limit how much time we have for prioritising our revision and deadlines, and possibly impact how we work through our revision plans. This is more likely to happen if you’re using an open-ended to-do list and little time management. Techniques such as time blocking, time boxing and task batching can prevent this from happening, allowing you to work more efficiently. These techniques can allow you to allocate time for those 20% of tasks that will produce 80% of the results. 

First, you’ll need to identify all your scheduled time commitments, then you can work around these using time blocking, which can be further refined with the time boxing and task batching techniques. Time blocking encourages deep work, and ability to enter the flow state by limiting task switching. For this technique, the day is divided into blocks of time and each block is assigned to a certain task or activity. In this time block, you will focus solely on that task. This can be implemented as part of daily or weekly routines. For example, everyday from 8-9am, I will complete my morning routine, or from 1-2pm I will review lecture material. 

Time boxing is very similar to time blocking, however, this technique focuses on setting time limits for particular tasks. Instead of blocking out time to work on a task, the time is boxed to encourage you to finish the task. For example, I will work on my group project from 7-8pm vs. I will finish slides 2-4 for my group project from 7-8pm. This sets a time limit for a specific task, rather than allocating some time to work on it. This is a great way for really implementing Parkinson’s Law. Finally, task batching can be used alongside time blocking and boxing to get a handful of related tasks completed in a fixed period of time. As a student, you might block out an hour or two on the weekend to print or save lecture slides for all your classes that week, or two hours in the week to work on the bibliography sections of your assignments. This can save time by grouping similar tasks together, and allows you to avoid task switching so much in a single day. 

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