Top 10 time management skills for college students from a Stanford entrepreneur

Today, I’ll share some of the time management skills I used and learned as a college and graduate student. When I was pursuing my PhD at Stanford University, I had an insane amount of work juggling between TA-ship, coursework, research, consulting and pursuing my side projects (which became the company I co-founded). Having been through this, I’ll suggest some time management tips that I think every college students should have. I want to do 2 things:

  1. Provide actionable time management tips for college students
  2. Describe how to use the software tool Priority Matrix to manage your priorities

Here are some general thing that I did while studying engineering:

  1. Be organized. It saves you time to find information for a class. Create data repositories for each of your class. This could be as simple as creating a folder for each class, and then putting any information related to that class in that folder.
  2. Make friends. No matter how good your notes-taking skill is, or how well you understand a class, you will always have questions. You should have a friend in the class who may have a different take on the same class materials as you do. Together you will both have a better understanding of the materials.
  3. Focus on purpose, not procedure. Think about why you are learning the materials, and how it may apply to real life work, as opposed to just blindly learning the  course material.
  4. Don’t just read, think. The best courses I took were the ones where I genuinely thought about the subject. One of my favorite subjects was basic chemistry, simply because I spent as much time working on coursework as thinking about how amazing and beautiful chemistry works in real life. Your passion, of course, can be on a different subject.
  5. Understand the basic things. I also believe class work is all about foundational understanding. Let’s make the analogy that education is a building, and tests as earthquakes; a building with weak foundation (not understanding the basics) can fall at the weakest earthquakes (a midterm). You can, in fact, build the buildings specifically for certain kinds of earthquakes (studying only the materials that is relevant for a test). This is both unsustainable and can bite you later. There were a couple of times where I was able to derive the necessary equations from my basic understanding to an engineering test when I had forgotten how to solve the problem.
  6. Prioritizing your coursework, especially if you are on a tight deadline and can’t finish your work in time. It’s absolutely important that you decide to work on the things that have the biggest impact (perhaps to your grade), and not because it’s easy!
  7. Work on things that are important and, again, not because they’re easy. This is truly about short term rewards versus long term gains. Yes, doing that easy thing will make you feel good about yourself, but if it’s not relevant to your overall work, you’re doing it wrong. How do you determine whether it’s important? Well, you have to tie your tasks to your guiding metrics. For school, one of those metrics is your grade. (I know that grade isn’t the only thing you should concern yourself with, and you can extrapolate from my statement).
  8. During tests, work on the highest return on investment. Make sure you read all the problems ahead of time. Find the one that has the highest points per allotted amount of work and do that first. In this case, you’re directly managing your resource (limited time) to value (the number of points you get for each question). Undoubtedly, I’ve scored well on hard tests for precisely this reason. The professors who want to exhaustively test students create tests that are never meant to be finished! Therefore, if you work on the highest ROI, then you maximize your scores.
  9. Don’t study all the time. First, it doesn’t work because you’re probably overloading yourself with useless information. Second, you’ll miss out some of the best part of college, which is more about the experience than the grade. Remember the make friends part? It applies to a broader scope as well, because friends can give you a different perspective on everything.
  10. Lastly, write everything you have to do down, especially if you are thinking about it. The worst thing that you can do on a daily basis is use your active brain to think about small irrelevant things. It destroys your focus and makes it impossible to enjoy the moment.

That’s the top 10 time management strategies that came to my mind thinking about what I’ve gone through in college. Now, most of the tips are about your state of mind in which no tool can solve. However, there are a few techniques that a software tool, or a piece of paper, can be useful.

I’ll now explain how Priority Matrix can help you with some of your time management needs while you’re in college.

  1. Create a different project for each of your classes
  2. For every assignment that you have, or every single thing you have to do, write it down into the Uncategorized (Quadrant #4) quadrant of your Priority Matrix
  3. As you find out which assignments are important and due soon, move it into the upper left high priority quadrant (Quadrant #1)
  4. Use the Master List to determine what you have to do today and this week across all your classes.
  5. The strategy is to write everything you have to do down into the 4th quadrant in order to clear your mind. Then move the most critical things to the top left. So the number of high priority tasks you have should always be much much less than the total number of tasks.
  6. If you work in a team, share a matrix with one another. This allows everyone to be aligned in their priorities. Additionally (or alternatively), use the email reporting feature to send updates to your teammates. Also, use it as a repository for information that’s categorized and organized.
  7. Use Priority Matrix on your mobile devices so you can update things easily, and then make changes on the desktop apps when it’s convenient.
  8. For tests, prepare a project just for the subject and list all the topics you have to study for. (Maybe share this with people in the class so that you understand the scope of your studies). You can then mark things off when you are done studying for them, or at least understand your priorities.

That should get you started. I would love to expand this into a discussion.

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  1. I have other GTD apps like Apples reminder app, Omnigroups and iStudiez Pro. I’d there a way I can export taske from these apps and import them into Priority Matrix ?

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  5. Dear Mr. Nguyen,
    I was very impressed with your 10 time management skills after having read much literature on the topic. I was wondering if I would be able to share your tips with the college students I will be working with this Fall (I’m an Instructional Support Specialist/Academic Coach). I’m looking to simply put the information you wrote in this article into a Word Doc & PDF and give it to students to improve their time management skills.

    Please let me know if you would allow such a document to be created and distributed.



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