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It’s about time! 5 effective time management strategies for working adult students

At a glance

  • Setting goals and deadlines can help you break down your to-do list into manageable timelines.
  • Consider how the Pomodoro Technique, which emphasizes time blocking and work sprints, can boost your time management skills and overall productivity.
  • Learn how to say “no” to things that aren’t on your to-do list. This frees up time and mental space to focus on important tasks.
  • With a strong time management strategy, discover how you can achieve your educational and professional goals. University of Phoenix offers more than 100 degree and certificate options for busy adult students!

How you can improve your time management

Throughout my career as an HR professional and executive career coach, I’ve worked with thousands of people passionate about enhancing their careers. Some have focused on climbing the corporate ladder. Others have prioritized education and upskilling. Some do both.

I myself was a working adult student when I was studying for my Senior Professional in HR (SPHR) certification. Hours and days seem to fly by when we’re juggling multiple priorities, but this precious resource is finite.

If you’re a working adult contemplating going back to school, we can help! (At least with the time management piece.) Time management is a critical aspect of adult education — especially when juggling work, family and other responsibilities. Sometimes it can seem overwhelming, but with the right time management skills, anything is achievable! 

Explore University of Phoenix’s faculty-supported, self-paced learning to earn your degree faster.

5 time management strategies to conquer your to-do list

Time management is often overlooked. For a lot of people, getting more done means multitasking, but that can be a trap. Doing a little of everything means finishing all of nothing. So what do you do? Many of us have wondered where the workday or weekend went when it’s all said and done. Ever wished for more hours in the day? Who hasn’t? While that’s not possible, better time management is and it can help you be more effective in reaching your personal and professional goals.

Here, we’ll explore five key time management strategies to get through everything on your to-do list, increase productivity and improve your work-study-life balance.

1. Set SMART goals

Mastering the art of setting goals and accurately estimating time is a game changer in your academic, career and personal life. By setting SMART goals (more on that in a second) and establishing clear deadlines, you gain a powerful framework to align your actions with your priorities and achieve remarkable success. Multitasking can be the killer of productivity, so focus on getting better at project management and time management to get more of the right things done. 

SMART goals

  • Review or recalibrate your goals and objectives at the beginning of each class or term, and make them SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound.
  •  Break down each goal into bite-sized, actionable steps, and assign realistic deadlines to each task. I personally like to use a reminder app on my phone or directly input these tasks into my calendar so that I’m motivated to meet each deadline.

Of course, creating deadlines hinges on your ability to estimate how long you’ll need to complete each task or activity. This project management skill empowers you to allocate your time like a pro, avoiding the pitfalls of underestimation or being spread too thin.

What do you do when you don’t yet know how much time a task will take? Start by overestimating. Give yourself a buffer of time, and then evaluate how long you really needed. Do that enough times, and you’ll gain a clearer understanding of how quickly you work.

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2. Set clear deadlines

Setting clear deadlines and prioritizing your important tasks based on when they’re due is the foundation of effective time management. Due dates enable you to allocate your resources wisely, stay organized and make significant progress toward reaching your goals and meeting your responsibilities.

  • Begin by identifying when your current tasks and assignments are due.
  • Break tasks down into smaller, manageable steps.
  • Assign specific deadlines for each step.

How does this work in reality? Let’s say you have a research paper due in a week. Here’s a time management strategy to help you get this done:

  • Establish a due date for an outline early in the week, and dedicate time ahead of that deadline to conduct research and organize your paper.
  • Establish a due date in the middle of week for the first draft, and dedicate time ahead of that deadline for writing.
  • Establish a deadline toward the end of the week for revisions, and set aside time to do them.
  • Set aside time for a final review.

By breaking down the ultimate goal (a paper) into smaller steps, and by implementing a series of smaller, flexible deadlines, you can maintain focus, prevent procrastination and achieve your goal.

This type of project management process not only saves you time in the long run, but it also makes you feel more organized and accomplished. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of checking off steps as you progress toward your goals.

3. Create a time-blocking schedule

Setting aside time to do research, write or other work is only part of effective time management. The other part is actually sitting down and doing it when we’re multitasking or surrounded by distractions. (Email! Social media! Text messages! Amazon deliveries!)

One powerful time management technique is time blocking, which involves allocating specific time blocks for various tasks. This eliminates the urge to multitask and helps make sure you get work done. Each block should be designated for one activity. For instance, you may have a block of time dedicated solely to studying, one for responding to communications, one for scheduled work shifts, one for class and one for personal time.

To start your time block schedule, take a look at the deadlines and goals you’ve set for the week. Estimate the time needed for each activity, create blocks of time in your calendar and label those blocks for that specific activity.

When estimating time, keep the following in mind:

  • Be realistic, overestimate and add buffer time to allow for delays or bumps in the road. This especially applies to new tasks
  • Schedule regular breaks to prevent burnout (and scratch your itch to check social media)
  • Stay flexible and adaptable
  • Factor in travel time

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4. Use the Pomodoro Technique

Once you’ve established your time blocks, make the most of them by eliminating distractions. Turn off notifications, settle into a comfortable environment and bring some water.

From there, you might consider implementing the Pomodoro Technique. This time management strategy involves working in focused bursts that typically last 20 to 25 minutes. These are followed by five-minute breaks.

After completing four of these cycles in about two hours, reward yourself with a longer break of 15 to 20 minutes.

By harnessing the power of these concentrated work bursts and mindful breaks, you can improve your time management skills and maintain motivation and focus, which ultimately boosts your efficiency.

5. Learn to say no and delegate

As a working adult student, it’s crucial to acknowledge your limits and feel empowered to say no to non-essential commitments. This is a time to prioritize, which means focusing on what pays the bills and what gets you to graduation.

If you’re a caregiver or parent and those pesky sign-up sheets start circulating the school grounds, sign up for a task with a smaller time commitment. Remember, there’s no shame in getting involved in the post-event cleanup or in donating supplies. Your willingness to contribute shows dedication and support for your child’s education, regardless of the task’s time commitment.

Also, consider delegating tasks whenever possible. You can involve family members or roommates in household chores. You can also consider outsourcing or automating tasks when possible. Think landscaping or bill paying. It’s OK to ask for help.

A growth mindset can help improve time management

As an adult student managing multiple responsibilities, it’s important to cultivate a growth mindset and embrace challenges as opportunities. This can not only help you grow as a professional and a person, but it can also be an important step forward in improving your time management. Recognize that setbacks and obstacles are inevitable, but they don’t define you, and they don’t dictate your journey.

Instead of getting discouraged, approach each challenge with curiosity and a willingness to learn. Reflect on your experiences, identify areas for improvement and seek feedback from professors, mentors or peers.

Each challenge, after all, is a chance to develop new skills and resilience. By reframing setbacks as stepping stones, you’ll cultivate a mindset that empowers you to thrive in the face of adversity — and that just helps you save time too.

Taken together, these five strategies can help you improve your time management, empowering you to navigate the demands of adult student life with grace, confidence and commitment to your success.


Kara Dennison is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), an executive career and leadership coach and a Forbes contributor. She’s the CEO of Optimized Career Solutions. Her dream job is helping high achievers and leaders live authentic lives, starting with their careers. When she’s not writing for University of Phoenix or coaching high achievers and leaders, you can find her hanging out with her husband and two black cats or swinging in the hammock out back in her small, remote town in Tennessee.


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