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UIC TA Handbook - Managing Your Time

By Cecilla Downs

Former Academic Skills Specialist
UIC Academic Center for Excellence


Managing your time while in a graduate program may seem next to impossible. You face many more obligations now than you have before. Not only do you need to stay current with your own course work, you also need to grade student assignments and prepare for the classes you teach. Finally, you need to carve out time for long­ term projects -- your thesis or dissertation and the research you are preparing to present or publish.

In addition to balancing all of these obligations, you also face more challenging coursework, never ending reading assignments and an increased commitment to your research. No wonder you're stressed! Read on.

Set Goals and Prioritize

Management guru Stephen Covey says that when man­ aging time we need to "begin with the end in mind" and "put first things first." "First things" are usually important but not urgent goals (for example, the departmental form that's due tomorrow is urgent.) Here are some ways you might use Covey's advice:

  • Think about what you would like to have accomplished by the time you leave UIC. Write out goals for the major areas of your life: personal, research and teaching.
  • Based on your long-term goals, develop specific goals for each semester you plan to be at UIC. To get a better idea of what you'll need to do each semester to achieve your long-term goals, talk with your department's most successful grad students and with recently hired professors. Ask for advice about time management and prioritizing.
  • Post your goals in a place where you'll see them often.
  • Learn to say no. If you try to do everything, you won't have the time to do anything well.

Balancing Teaching and Studying

There are many reasons why quality teaching is so important, including ethical obligations to students and the strong student evaluations which have become so important in finding a job. However, you may worry that your own academic performance will be compromised if you spend too much time on teaching. Talk to your fellow TAs to get ideas about how to streamline your work and try the ideas below:

  • Be prepared for class, but don't research a topic to death. Instead, think about what the students really need to learn and how they can learn it best.
  • Don't reinvent the wheel. Collaborate with other TAs. Share lessons, handouts, assignment sheets, etc.
  • Help students during conferences, but also encourage their independence and save yourself time by sending them to campus resources when appropriate (Honors College tutoring, Writing Center, Math Lab, etc.).

Stop Being a Perfectionist

Yes, you probably got where you are today because you're a bit of a perfectionist. Unfortunately, if you try to continue this in all areas of your life you'll end up frustrated. Also, those important but not urgent tasks such as your research will be put off forever as you focus on perfecting the more urgent tasks.

  • Before reading anything, ask yourself what you want to take away from your reading. Vary your reading speed: read some materials slowly and scan other materials.
  • When grading papers, ask yourself what kinds of feed­ back the student can actually use. Many of us waste a lot of time by marking more on an essay than a student can benefit from. (See Grading of Writing.)
  • You must make some hard decisions, if you're falling behind in your coursework. Perhaps it would be best to aim for the class in your area of concentration, while putting a little less work into another course.
  • Allow yourself to obsess occasionally, when researching a paper. Just make sure you're not continuing to research as a way to avoid writing the paper.

Develop and Use Schedules

People vary widely in their scheduling preferences. Think about how you work best. Do you work well using grids with hour-long blocks of time? Do you prefer the more flexible approach of making "to do" lists? Do you work best by setting task-based goals each time you sit down to study? Do you prefer to work with time-based goals? (I'll read for two hours). Don't fight your nature! Experiment to find the strategy that works best for you.

Some basic steps to follow:

  • At the beginning of the term write up a semester planner, listing all tests and papers, both for the classes you're taking as well as your teaching and research. This will help you plan ahead for the upcoming busy weeks.
  • Every Sunday write up a plan for the coming week, either in the format of time blocks set aside for specific work or as a simple "to do" list of academic tasks for the week.
  • Before finishing your studies each day, you may want to write up tomorrow's "to do" list on a post-it note. Break up items into roughly one-hour tasks (if you have 80 pages to read, break this up into sections.) Do not include errands or personal items on your list or you will be tempted to get those out of the way before starting your studies (and it will suddenly be 2:00p.m. before you being your studies. Don't forget the rewards -- you can use rewards to keep yourself moving through the list: I'll eat lunch after I finish two items. I'll go home after I finish five of the six items.

Create Artificial Deadlines and Pressures

  • During the first week of class, do the reading for the first two weeks; that way you will have a "week in reserve" which you can draw upon later in the semester as unforeseen problems arise.
  • If a class you're taking requires an oral presentation, volunteer for an early date to free up time at the end of the semester when things are busiest.
  • Tell friends your study goal for the week. Promise to treat your friends to pizza on Friday night if you don't achieve your goal.

Get More from Each Hour

  • Find the time of day when your concentration is best and reserve that time for your intellectually most chal­lenging work. For many people, one hour of daytime study is equivalent to one and a half hours of evening study.
  • Refuel your body with plenty of sleep, exercise, nutritious food, and fun. If you don't respect your physical limitations, you may become ill during the busiest weeks of the term. Remind yourself that refueling is not self-indulgence, it's self-preservation. There is no reason to feel guilty!
  • To keep yourself mentally strong, use positive visualization techniques, surround yourself with positive people, post inspirational words and pictures.
  • Think about forming a study group to make some of your study time more lively and to provide yourself with emotional support. Also, decide before you get together what material the group will cover and encourage everyone to come prepared. (This will induce everyone to do the work by the meeting time.)


 People procrastinate for many reasons: fear of being judged, fear of failure, fear of success. Some people procrastinate because they're perfectionists, while others procrastinate because they're having second thoughts about their choice of careers. Occasionally a person will develop a whole identity around being a procrastinator. If procrastination becomes a serious problem for you, consider seeing a psychologist at the Counseling Center -

You may want to try some of the ideas below:

  • Is there temptation in your path?
    • Keep the TV turned off until the day's work is complete.
    • Turn off your telephone while you study.
    • Check your phone and your E-Mail less frequently.
    • Avoid WEB browsing temptations.
    • Analyze the temptations in your own life and think of creative ways to avoid them by taking other routes.
  • Procrastinate with certain tasks: If you find that grading essays (or another task) expands to fill the allotted time procrastinating until you have barely enough time to finish the grading before class.
  • Use rewards: Set up rewards with yourself and with friends or family. Reward yourself at the end of each task, day, and week. You might take a break at the end of a task; you might indulge in a long phone call at the end of a productive day.
  • Break up large tasks into smaller manageable ones: You are much less likely to procrastinate when the task doesn't seem daunting. For example, on your "to do" list, write "find three journal articles" rather than "research and write paper for History 451."


Burka, J.B. and L.M. Yuen (1983) Procrastination. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Covary, S.R. (1989) The seven habits of highly effective people. New York: Fireside.

Pauk, W. (1993) How to study in college. Boston: Houghton

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