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5 Steps to Mastering Time Management in Grad School

Whether you’re pursuing a master’s degree as a full-time student or as a busy working professional, odds are you’ve felt the crunch as you juggle all of your commitments. Use this guide to learn about how you can balance the academic demands of graduate school with your other responsibilities, develop productive study habits, and become a master of your time.

Author: Cori Padgett

Editor: Staff Editor

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We get it: When you’re pursuing a master’s degree, there are days when it feels like there aren’t enough hours to complete all the work. But that feeling is the very reason why time management is so crucial — so you can find the balance you need between your life responsibilities and your academic demands.

It’s important to note that you’re not alone in this struggle. According to a study from Middle Tennessee State University, somewhere between 70 and 95% of students procrastinate, with 50% of them doing so on a habitual basis.

Unfortunately, procrastination — habitual or a one-off anomaly — can negatively impact your academic performance and overall well-being. The flip side: Overcoming procrastination can improve your life, helping you to feel less stressed and perform better on assignments and tests. That’s why we’ve created this guide, which offers tools to help you overcome the procrastination habit and improve your ability to manage your time successfully. So read on to equip yourself with critical time-management tools and to empower your healthier, better organized graduate lifestyle.

Step 1 – Stop Procrastinating

Certainly, procrastination is an issue that’s common among students; but with the right mindset and strategies, it can be tackled and at least mitigated — if not eradicated. You’ll need to start with some self-reflection and a willingness to honestly analyze your habits to try to identify the reasons and triggers behind your procrastination. Keep reading as we discuss more about learning to get honest with yourself and how to begin taking steps to make real change in your day-to-day academic career.

A Little Bit of Tough Love

The reality is that overcoming procrastination will be a challenge and will require persistence and effort. Be prepared for that, and be willing to catch yourself when you’re failing to manage your time effectively or to enlist the help of a friend to help hold you accountable. There are always underlying reasons why we procrastinate, and it’s often easier to do this than to face the thing we’re procrastinating to accomplish. It’s time to choose the harder path if you want to reach your career goals.

Get Clear on Your “Why”

It’s important to get to the root of why you are procrastinating so you can begin to identify the benefits of overcoming it. When you can identify the benefits, it can help keep you motivated to make the changes necessary to succeed. Your “why” may not always be obvious, which means finding it will take some real inner reflection. Some common reasons: low confidence that you’ll complete the task satisfactorily, stubbornness (which is often associated with the myth that you “perform better” when you procrastinate) or as a coping mechanism when dealing with conflicting priorities.

Necessary Mindset Shifts

It’s important to acknowledge to yourself that change is in fact possible and to adopt a growth mindset. A growth mindset simply means that you embrace the idea that improving and developing new habits is possible for you, even if it takes some effort.

Be Honest About Your Habits

Evaluate your current daily, weekly, and monthly habits. Begin this process by writing down what you do in a day. It’s a good idea to document everything, because sometimes you don’t even realize where all your time is going — so tracking it for a day or two can be very eye-opening. Once you know where your time is going, you can identify areas to work on improving.

Decide What You Want to Improve in Order of Priority

Once you can identify where your time is going, it becomes much easier to pinpoint which tasks and activities are priorities, and which aren’t. Put them in order of most important to least important, so you can decide where they should fall in your daily or weekly schedule and plan accordingly.

Set Priorities, Intentions, and Goals

Creating measurable, specific, and perhaps more importantly, achievable goals is key to improving your time management skills. You can go a few steps further and make them SMART goals––specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timebound. Before your week begins, write down your intentions and your priorities to help guide your actions and decide where you will commit your time and attention. You get to choose what you give your focus to.

Make a Plan for When You Slip Back into Old Patterns

It’s also necessary to understand that growth is a process, and it’s sometimes normal to backslide. That doesn’t mean you’re failing; it just means you’re still working on this new habit. Come up with some ideas ahead of time to help you recognize when you’re backsliding, which will help you overcome setbacks. This strategy will help you continue to maintain forward momentum.

Step 2 – Get Organized

Once you’ve done the work to identify the root causes of your procrastination habits, you can begin to establish a system to keep you organized and manage your time more efficiently. Below are some tools and strategies to help you get there. Don’t be afraid to experiment, because what works for one person might not work for you. Every individual is unique, so finding what works best for you is key to sticking with it over the long-term.

Get a Good Planner or Calendar

This could be digital or physical, or even a combination of the two. Whatever works for you is what you want to use. Some people even do best with just a simple notebook to jot down to-do lists, dates, and times. Ultimately, the best kind of planner is the one you will use consistently, even if the only consistency is that your planner changes frequently!

Create a Plan: Weekly & Daily

Make planning your time a priority each day, whether it’s the night before or first thing in the morning. You might even prefer to do this weekly and just update as needed. If you opt for a weekly planning session, prioritize daily check-ins so you are aware of each day’s tasks and can tweak them if necessary. Whatever way you do it, planning is the crucial piece of the puzzle to managing your time well. When you know how much time you have each day and what needs doing, you are more likely to stay focused and on task.

Create a Schedule and Stick to It

As you plan your days, be sure to include study time — especially if you have a big exam coming up or something similar each week. You can use a simple technique called time blocking for this and allocate a specific day or time of day just for study sessions each week. That way when you look at your planner, you’ve already factored this time into your schedule.

Plan Ahead for Bigger Projects

It’s also a good idea to plan ahead when you know you’ve got bigger projects on the horizon. You can break down those larger projects into smaller tasks and schedule those tasks ahead of time to avoid last-minute stress and being crunched for time. It also helps reduce feelings of overwhelm, which could trigger procrastination.

Leave Time for Fun

Sure, planning for fun might seem “un-fun” and antithetical to spontaneity and enjoyment, but when you’re trying to manage your time well, scheduling things like “fun time” and “self-care” are necessary until you get a better handle on your new habits. You can still leave space for impromptu beers with your buddies while still prioritizing your to-do list, so you don’t lose precious momentum. Building some flexibility into your schedule is good for creating a habit that lasts — and for your sanity.

Step 3 – Use These Strategies to Maximize Productivity

Now that you’ve gotten a handle on the root of your procrastination and decided how you will plan your time moving forward, you can begin to incorporate different study techniques to help boost your productivity and reduce how much time you spend working and studying. In other words, you can begin implementing ways to work and study smarter, not harder. Below are some of our favorite methods to enhance your time and efficiency.

The Pomodoro Technique

Pomodoro means “tomato” in Italian, and the concept was born when a university student started dividing up his tasks into chunks with the assistance of a tomato-shaped timer. So while it may seem silly that a tomato can inspire you to work more efficiently, those who use this technique swear by it. To do it, you divide your work tasks into time increments called “Pomodoros” with shorter breaks in between. Specifically, you use 25-minute work intervals and 5-minute breaks to help you maintain focus and avoid burnout. After you do four Pomodoros, you take one longer break, and then begin again if needed. You can also adjust the time intervals to suit your own personal style of working.

Active Recall

Active recall is a study technique that involves retrieving information from memory without using or relying on cues. Instead of passively reviewing your study material, you actively test yourself on it to strengthen neural connections. This aids you in retaining the information better and helps you recall the material you’re learning faster.

Spaced Repetition

This is another learning technique that helps you with long-term recall and retention of your study material. To do it, you review the information you are trying to memorize in gradually increasing intervals. By spacing out your review sessions, the technique takes advantage of a psychological spacing effect that reduces the time you need to memorize something and enhances your ability to retain it.

The Feynman Technique

Named after the physicist Richard Feynman, this technique simplifies complex concepts by explaining them in your own words — as if you were teaching someone else, ideally a 12-year-old. Start by identifying gaps in your understanding, review the material, and repeat the process until you can clearly explain the concept. This technique promotes clarity and a deeper understanding of your subject matter and makes it easier to remember over the long-term.

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a visual method for organizing information, which can be particularly useful for brainstorming and problem-solving. To do it, begin by writing your main idea in the center of a piece of paper, then branch out into related sub-topics, connecting your ideas with lines. This study technique not only promotes creativity, but it also improves memory and helps you identify relationships between ideas. You can also use online tools like MindMeister and Scrapple for mind mapping digitally.

The Leitner System

Our final recommendation is the Leitner System. This is a flashcard-based learning technique that uses spaced repetition to enhance memorization. To do it, organize your flashcards into different boxes based on your familiarity with the material. Review the cards in each box at increasing intervals. As you master the content, move cards to boxes with longer review periods, so you can focus on more challenging material.

Step 4 – Ditch All Distractions

Now that you know some tactics, it’s important to avoid distractions — especially those of the digital kind. Whether you’re a student who studies online or attends a class in person, digital distractions today are the norm, not the exception. You’ll need to get both honest and ruthless in your pursuit of overcoming them. The reality is that taking a quick social media “break” can quickly and unintentionally turn into hours of lost time to mindless scrolling. Schedule social media breaks into your calendar and stick to your guns. Or better yet, commit to no social media until the end of your day when all your priorities are completed.

Here are some of the biggest digital distractions and tips to help you do it:

Social Media

Deleting apps from your phone or turning off notifications is a great way to avoid the temptation of social media during study or work hours. Schedule dedicated time for social media to prevent mindless scrolling, and consider using productivity apps to block access during focused work periods. Establishing specific times for checking and engaging on socials helps you stay in control of your schedule and maintain a healthy balance between work and play.

Group Chats

Turn off notifications, and set specific times to respond to group chats if you want to maintain communication with friends and family but avoid constant interruptions. By allotting a dedicated time to engage in group convos, you can stay connected while preventing distractions during critical study or work hours. Inform your friends and colleagues about your preferred communication times to foster mutual understanding and support. Most people will respect your boundaries if you put some in place.

Text Messages

Much like group chats, you should turn off notifications and schedule time for responding to text messages, too. Create a system that works best for you, such as checking messages during scheduled breaks or only responding to urgent texts during periods of focused work. By prioritizing your time and availability to communicate, you can minimize distractions and maintain a productive workflow.

General Notifications

Pausing or disabling non-essential notifications on your devices is an excellent way to help you minimize distractions. Apps, news updates, and other alerts can be disruptive and make it difficult to maintain your focus. Even if they are silent, they can still nag you if you they are in your line of site. Customize your notification settings to only receive essential alerts, and consider using “Do Not Disturb” or similar modes during study or work sessions to create a distraction-free environment.


Setting designated times throughout the day to check and respond to emails can help you manage your inbox more efficiently. Prioritize emails based on urgency, and allocate time limits for handling them. You can even organize your inbox with labels, folders, or categories to streamline this process and avoid getting overwhelmed. Simply by creating a consistent email routine, you can stay on top of your communications without sacrificing productivity.

Step 5 – Reevaluate and Adjust as Needed

Even with the roots of your procrastination addressed, systems and tactics in place, and distractions avoided, the truth is that time management is an ongoing process of trial and error. That’s why it’s important to regularly reevaluate your progress and adjust as needed. Below, we’ll discuss some of the signs that warn you when it’s time to reassess how well you’re managing your schedule, along with a few tips to help you stay on track.

When it Might be Time to Reevaluate…

  • When something just feels off. Listen to your gut. If you feel stressed, overwhelmed, or unproductive, reassess your schedule and habits so you can identify and address the root cause.
  • When you aren’t sticking to your schedule anymore. Consider whether your schedule is flexible, realistic, and aligned with your goals. If not, modify it to accommodate changes in your life and regain control of your time.
  • When you don’t seem to have enough time to do everything on your list. Assess your time management strategies, eliminate non-essential activities, and prioritize your tasks. Whenever possible, streamline your processes and delegate responsibilities.
  • When you have items in your schedule that cause issues for the rest of your day. Identify tasks that may be problematic, and decide whether they can be rescheduled, broken down further, or restructured. Optimize your schedule to minimize disruptions and stay productive.

Efficiency Hacks That Can Help

  • Optimize your best times. Track your energy and focus levels to pinpoint your most productive/highest performance times of day. Leverage these peak times by scheduling vital tasks only during these windows. This can help you maximize your efficiency and capitalize on your natural rhythms, so you can accomplish more in less time and do your most important work when you’re at your best.
  • Eat that frog. We highly recommend this bestselling book for more perspective on this, but the idea is to rank your tasks based on importance and urgency and confront your most challenging tasks first. By knocking out the most demanding tasks early, you feel accomplished, which fuels your motivation, which then empowers you to tackle the rest of your task list with confidence.
  • Give yourself time limits. Allocating specific time frames for tasks and adhering to them enhances your focus and efficiency. By giving yourself self-imposed deadlines, you stay on track, reduce procrastination, and minimize multitasking tendencies. Adjust your time limits as needed to keep your momentum going and ensure you complete everything.
  • Learn to say no. No is a practice in setting boundaries, and it is a complete sentence. Be selective about what tasks you choose to take on, and protect your energy and time by prioritizing those crucial responsibilities. Recognize your limits, avoid overloading your schedule, and cultivate your skill in declining non-essential requests. This can help you maintain optimal productivity levels each day.
  • Get enough sleep. Though recommending more sleep when talking about productivity can seem counterintuitive, sleep is essential for maintaining focus and managing your time well. Studies have shown that the better you sleep, the more efficient and focused you’ll be when you’re awake. Establish a consistent sleep schedule, create an environment conducive to good sleep, and prioritize your rest. Even an extra hour or two a night can pay dividends.

Productivity Resources Everyone Needs

When you’re ready to tackle your procrastination habit and take back your time, there are many resources available that can help you on your journey to managing your time better. Below are ten of our favorites:

  • Cal Newport’s Study Hacks Blog: This is a helpful blog packed full of content, featuring practical advice and strategies for effective learning and time management.
  • College Info Geek: This website is another excellent resource for students that offers tips on studying, productivity, and personal development.
  • Eat That Frog: As noted above, this is a book about fighting procrastination written by Brian Tracy. The premise is to tackle the big hairy task that you don’t want to tackle first. In other words, eat that frog! It makes all the other tasks seem easy by comparison.
  • Getting Things Done: This is a renowned and well-regarded book by David Allen outlining his popular productivity system.
  • How to Become a Straight-A Student: This is a book by Cal Newport that offers you practical tips for academic success you can begin using right away.
  • My Study Life: This is a digital planner designed for students, and you can get started using it for free.
  • RescueTime: If you aren’t sure where your time is going, RescueTime is an excellent time-tracking app that will help you monitor your daily activities.
  • The 5 AM Miracle: If you love listening to a good podcast on your morning jog, this is a great one that discusses productivity tips and strategies for high achievers.
  • The Pomodoro Technique: This helpful resource details the Pomodoro Technique and includes a helpful video to get you started..
  • Todoist: This is a very intuitive task management app that helps you organize and prioritize your tasks so you can keep up and stay on track with your busy schedule.
  • Trello: This is a great tool for so many things, not the least of which is project management. It’s useful for organizing your tasks and collaborating with others if needed.

Interview With a Productivity Expert

Stephanie Jeret

To provide practical input on overcoming procrastination, we interviewed Stephanie Jeret, a speech-language pathologist and the owner of Speak with Stephanie LLC. Stephanie obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the City University of New York. She has practiced speech therapy in several settings, including outpatient rehabilitation, tele practice, skilled nursing facilities, schools, and a private practice. Her experience juggling life, work, and school allowed her to master time management and productivity and she often uses this skillset to enhance the ways she supports her clients.

How can grad students avoid some of the most common productivity pitfalls?

Some common pitfalls that graduate students run into are conflicting priorities, complex or complicated emotions, and lack of focus or procrastination. Conflicting priorities are part of everyday life. A graduate student may have two reports with similar timelines and leave the more complex report undone because of an inability to balance both assignments.

In order to balance important tasks efficiently, one can create a timeline of what needs to be accomplished and when it must be completed. This will reduce the impact of conflicting priorities. A calendar that has a week and/or month at-a-glance also will be helpful in managing conflicts in advance. This will prevent untimely or incomplete submission of work and reports.

Complicated emotions can occur throughout graduate school, which can include anxiety, inadequacy, frustration, and boredom. It is important to label these feelings and learn how to manage them. Practicing mindfulness, taking a much-needed break, or talking to a counselor or friend are some ideas to manage these feelings.

While you may have succeeded in high school with multiple distractions, given the rigor of graduate work, you may need to sharpen your focusing skills. We live in a world filled with distraction which can interrupt or distract us, as well as cause us to procrastinate on important tasks. Establishing a routine of when to focus, preferably without social media around, will assist you in improving focus and decreasing procrastination. Using social media as a reward may also prove helpful.

How can graduate students effectively manage their workload, particularly when balancing coursework, research, and other responsibilities?

Balancing is the ability to juggle the multiple demands we are tasked with. I like to have my clients create three to four main categories that are important for them to balance.

For example, one of my college student clients came up with four categories including self (which included self-care, working out, eating healthy, etc.), schoolwork (which included math, science, history), research, and family (which included grocery shopping, making lunch and/or dinner, attending to a partner or family member, etc.).

We took four pieces of paper out and labeled each paper with a different category. Next, we wrote down different tasks that needed to be completed under each category. Then we prioritized each task in each category. Finally, I had the client complete the most important tasks from each category, thus balancing.

What are some effective strategies for breaking down complex tasks into smaller, more manageable steps?

Imagine you have to complete a report on human personality. That is an overwhelming topic, and just the thought of the task causes you to shudder.

Instead of tackling the task head on, write down all the steps needed to complete this report. For example, step 1, get book A and B from the library; 2, read book A; 3, read book B; 4, interview a psychologist; 5, write an outline for your paper; 6, write an introduction; etc.

Take each step and give yourself a timeline. You can place these timelines in a monthly calendar to ensure you meet these timelines. Breaking up large tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks is an effective strategy for decreasing the overwhelming feelings of a project and will allow you to complete tasks more efficiently.

How can graduate students maintain their motivation and focus over the course of long projects or semesters?

Vision boards are important for maintaining motivation and focus through a long project, semester, or over the course of a graduate degree. I currently work with a student pursuing his doctoral degree in psychology. I had him create a vision board — a board where he drew himself in the future.

This student in particular drew a picture of himself helping his clients, a future he cannot attain without focusing his attention on his present reports and exams. This student placed the vision board in his bedroom so he can always see it.

When he looks at it, he remembers that the test he is studying for right now will help him reach his goal. A vision board does not have to be elaborate, and it can be a board of written goals as well.

What are your dreams for this semester? Next semester? Next year? Create a vision board and place it in an area you frequent. This will help you maintain motivation and focus as your goals will be staring you in the face.

What are some useful tools or apps that can aid in productivity and time management?

There are many simple apps and useful tools that can assist you in time management and productivity. A to-do list on your phone or on paper are helpful in keeping track of what you must accomplish.

Using a paper calendar with a week or month at-a-glance or calendar app can assist you in prioritizing and visualizing conflicts before it is too late. Calendar applications sometimes allow for email reminders, which may be helpful when working on a project. Finally, a timer and/or alarm can be helpful in completing work at time and managing distractibility.

What are some best practices for managing stress and avoiding burnout while working on demanding projects?

Taking breaks and giving yourself rewards are really important for managing stress and burnout. Breaks can be as small as five minutes but can be longer, depending on how much stress you are experiencing. The key is breaking tasks down into manageable pieces and planning effectively and efficiently in order to avoid as much stress as possible.

How can graduate students overcome common roadblocks to productivity, such as procrastination or perfectionism?

Social media outlets create problems for many children and adults because they are so reinforcing. You have access to a lot of friends, people like or respond to your post, and it allows for instant gratification.

Procrastinators have a hard time with outside distractions because the more we have something to do when we procrastinate, the more likely procrastination will happen. Creating strict boundaries and/or routines with yourself can be helpful. (For example, enforcing a rule that you will not use the internet after 5 PM or when you do homework, there will be no access to technology.) Routines take a while to hard wire in the brain; however, once hard-wired, you can abate procrastination.

In 2009, Philippa Lally, et al., concluded that it takes on average 66 days to solidify a new habit. Some took a little longer, and others took a little shorter. Giving yourself the time and being realistic is important.