Summary: An article about managing time in the sixth form, with plenty of advice on how to fit everything in

I’ve yet to meet the student who reaches the end of his or her A Level course and says “I wish I’d done less work” and I’ve met plenty who wish they’d worked harder. So what are the secrets of managing to do enough work? After all, every student gets given the same amount of time each week and no-one’s 168 hours are longer or shorter than anyone else’s.

Learning in the sixth-form is very different from learning at GCSE, where every lesson of the week was filled, and where your homework obligations were in bite-sized and neatly time-packaged portions. One of the challenges at A Level, and one of its most important learning opportunities, is coping with the amount of unstructured time in a sixth-form timetable.

In the sixth-form you probably have fewer than 20 hours of lessons per week. That’s perhaps only 2/3 of the time that you spent in class for GCSE. However, you’ll rapidly find that you’ve rather more work to do overall than in Year 11. That's because the balance has shifted towards private study. Your class lessons take you through new material, introduce you to skills and provide you with feedback on the work you produce, but the real learning happens in the work you do on your own.

Not only will you be expected to do more on your own, but you are also expected to organise yourself, rather than just go with the flow. And to cap it all, the work will be more complex, and take longer than anything you’ve had to do before.

Sometimes it will seem impossible to fit in everything, and this can lead to stress, failure to achieve your goals and ultimately to regret when you look back at missed opportunities or missed grades and missed university places. Let’s consider what to do about it.

What skills do you need for effective time management?

Key sixth-form time management skills include setting clear goals, breaking large tasks down into discrete smaller stages, and reviewing progress towards your goals, prioritising urgent and important tasks, organising your schedule, keeping reminder lists, sticking at your task and avoiding procrastination. Obvious? Perhaps, but not easy to put into practice.

Whatever your personality and whatever the task, here are time-management strategies that work:

1.  Make a “to do” list

You must get used to keeping a list of the things you have to do: the one thing you can’t do reliably is remember everything. How to do this? I’m a big fan of both paper and technology. They both have their place for me, but choose whatever works for you. Some of the best organised people I know carry a small notepad throughout their working day and note down everything – as my Uncle Joe used to say "bad handwriting beats even a good memory every time!". However you record it, your list will mean you

  • focus your mind on important objectives
  • won’t forget
  • can order your thoughts
  • can decide on priorities: the most important and the most urgent
  • are less likely to become side-tracked
  • will feel more in control
  • get the reward of seeing progress as you complete things on the list
  • and always know what needs working on

2.  Break tasks down into smaller steps

This is a key skill for the more tricky challenges found at A Level. When assignments are longer and more complex - even if it’s just a lengthy set of maths problems that will take a few days to complete - it’s worth breaking the task down into components so that you can accomplish them one step at a time.

  • Write these steps down. Things that don’t get written down probably don’t get done either. Remember the advantages of a list.
  • be as specific as you can - so not “do 45 minutes maths”, but “attempt all the questions in section A”
  • be realistic – you’ll get better with practice at knowing whether 45 minutes will be enough for all of section A in the above example
  • Try to complete one task before you go on to the next – it’s great for your morale to tick off something on the list
  • Reward yourself for achieving these goals to maintain your enthusiasm – but remember that a small amount of “time off” is a big reward! Two hours off for ten minutes successful work is not the idea!

3.  Prioritise

To be effective, you need to decide what tasks are urgent and important and to focus on these. In other words, prioritise them. To avoid the natural tendency to concentrate on the simple, easy tasks and to allow too many interruptions to your work, do the following:

  • list the tasks in order of priority
  • devote most time to the most important tasks
  • highlight important tasks
  • start important tasks well before the deadline
  • don’t be fooled by things which look urgent – urgent things are not always the most important. Ask what happens if you don’t do the urgent job, but do one of the important ones instead.

4.  Organise your time

Recognise where time might be being wasted. We are all creatures of habit, so it is a real advantage to develop a regular work routine. A tidy work space helps you work efficiently - it's hard to work effectively if you keep losing things under a pile of paper. I have taught one or two supremely effective poorly-organised students, but most poorly-organised students do badly and most well-organised ones succeed. Play the averages - be well-organised.

Scheduling your prioritised tasks will help you meet deadlines in good time. It’s hopeless to leave things until the last minute. If you have a difficult essay to write, begin by drafting an outline - this will get you started. A really useful way to track how you actually use your time is to record what you do on an electronic calendar. This is so easy – make sure you account for how you spend each half hour and you’ll rapidly see where time goes. It’s brilliant for scheduling your work too as you realise that you mustn’t delete tasks you haven’t done, but need to decide where else they will fit in the week. Your calendar won’t let you pretend that the week has somehow got more hours in it!

5.  Just get started!

Putting things off is a very bad idea. We all know that delay generally makes things worse, but most of us are guilty of putting off an awkward task. You shouldn’t beat yourself up about not feeling like getting started, but you should nevertheless just get started anyway!

Making a start is itself a psychologically rewarding thing to do and that makes it easier to do some more (this is quite a long article, but it seemed shorter once I’d started writing it!). It’s also why it helps to break things down into smaller steps, as each successfully achieved step gives us a boost and encourages us to continue. A task put off can become an increasing source of dread, making it hard to focus and leaving you at the risk of attempting it when there's not enough time left.

6.  Persevere

Things will not always run smoothly but when things are not working out, you need to persevere and learn how to take a positive attitude towards frustration and failure. If something goes wrong, it's really important to ask yourself 'why did that happen?' If the fault was yours, own up to it, and next time you'll probably get it right.

Mistakes are a crucial part of learning and each is a lesson leading you forwards. Fear of making mistakes is a major handicap to taking effective action. It is said that the people who have achieved the most have made the most mistakes!

…and finally, a few hints

How much time is needed to do something useful? Actually, even 5 minutes is enough – revise some definitions, or an equation, learn a few words of vocabulary, learn a quotation. Don’t waste time.

What about using travel time? Time on the bus or train is always long enough to be useful. Even if you are standing up, have your revision card with equations or vocabulary or quotations. You might not be able to write standing up, but you can certainly read.

Help each other - boost your efforts on all the points in this article by working with a study-buddy. Motivate each other to plan time and help by revising and testing each other.

Learn from someone who’s good at using time. I call this “slipstreaming” – just tuck in behind someone who is good at planning their time and copy them! When they go off to study, go too. If they are already in the library, go there too.

This article was written by Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies

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Article updated: 30th June 2021

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