When a new student comes to us with concerns about managing his or her time, one of my first questions is usually about their calendaring system. What type of planner do you use? Do you have any kind of system for keeping yourself accountable? What happens if you skip over something or miss an item on your to-do list? As I’ve mentioned before, it is actually pretty surprising how many law students don’t really manage their time at all.
Sure, they show up in class and do the readings. They learn their class schedule and just fill in the blanks hours with as much “studying” as possible. That’s fine, but it probably won’t get you the results you want.
Let’s face it, just going to class and studying in an undirected, unplanned way is the bare minimum in law school. It’s not going to get you the As. The problem with this method is three-fold:
- Winging it with your time doesn’t help you see where your time is actually being spent,
- It doesn’t give you any kind of accountability,
- It won’t do a very good job of helping you prioritize. So what’s a better way?
Use a calendar that shows you visually what you need to do and how long it will take.
Your e-mail, laptop and phone likely have calendar programs that will let you block off time for various activities. Take advantage of these! Start by putting in your classes, then designate half an hour after each class to go through and review your notes. Perhaps spend half an hour before each lecture refreshing your recollection about the cases assigned for that day. Be specific. Put in some longer, separate blocks of time on the weekends for outlining, memorizing, and writing hypos. Jotting down a linear to-do list or just moving haphazardly from one activity to the next likely won’t allow you to accomplish the same level of productivity. Why not? Even quick activities like coffee breaks, checking your e-mail, and making phone calls, when unplanned, can end up taking a lot more time than you intend. It’s really easy to let the whole day get away from you.
So, how does this kind of calendaring help you stay focused? Say you have blocked off half an hour for lunch, a study group from 2-3pm, three hours of Con. Law reading from 4-7pm and dinner with friends at 8pm. You are probably more likely get all of this done since you know exactly what time each activity needs to start and end if you’re going to stay on track to go to dinner tonight. You can still grab coffee and check your e-mail, but do it on break time, or extend your calendar blocks to account for variation. See below. Additionally, if you know you have six hours of outlining tomorrow starting at 9am, chances are you will try extra hard to stay on track today so you don’t have to stay up late studying.
Block out time for everything in your life—dinner before dessert.
Spontaneity can be fantastic. Having a completely unplanned Saturday afternoon is great. However, when you’re trying to do well in law school, the way to get there is structure. Try to schedule almost everything. I’m not saying this because you need more busy work to do, or because I think you won’t eat lunch or work out if it isn’t on your schedule (although, you might not!) I’m telling you this because seeing what time you have and do not have will probably make you more efficient now so you can actually make some space for free, unscheduled time later.
Staying within the guidelines you set for yourself is much easier if you can see clearly what those boundaries are. And, I’m all for indulging in a free day here and there, or making time for activities and people that are not related to school—so long as you actually finish what is on your plate first. It’s sort of like eating your vegetables before you can have your cake. The point is, map out your time now so you can more efficiently use it later. That way, you will actually have time to do the things you enjoy (because your reading and outlining will be finished!).
Mark your final exams and count backwards.
Do you know what days your finals fall on? How many weekends of outlining and practice do you actually have between now and then? Knowing what kind of time crunch you’re up against can help you stay focused today so the work won’t pile up at the end of the semester. A lot of students find it beneficial to count from their first final exam backwards to present so they know exactly the number of weeks (and more importantly, weekends) remaining. Once you get into reading week, you should also think about mapping out what time you will spend studying for each exam based on your testing schedule, how many units each class is, and what you still need to do to prepare.
Keep a system of checks and balances for the inevitable adjustments that will need to be made.
The idea here is not to be so rigid that you can’t make time for any unplanned activity. There will always be surprise visits from friends, snow days, the occasional flu, and other events that are hard to foresee. However, having a firm schedule can make it easier to make adjustments when needed. Maybe you have two hours of memorizing to do on Sunday morning, but end up at brunch or sleeping in instead, and only one hour actually gets accomplished. What do you do? If you had a regular to-do list, you might be tempted to count the one hour, cross it off, and move on.
However, if you’re using a calendar with time blocks, since you know you intended to put in two hours, and very clearly blocked off two hours, you can re-allocate your time elsewhere for that unaccounted hour. I’m not saying you can’t do this with a regular planner or list too, it’s just harder. With a program that marks off your time, you can just move that block to a different date or hour if you need to. It’s important to note, there’s nothing a calendar can do if you’re not going to hold yourself to it. Think of each item as a commitment to yourself and don’t break it. If you need help with that part, get help. See below.
If holding yourself accountable is the problem, bring in back-up.
I have various methods set up with various students for reminding them, checking in, and helping them stay accountable to themselves—day by day and week to week. If what you’re struggling with is the discipline aspect of managing your time, this is something you need to work on now. I guarantee your time in the future will never be easier to manage than when you are in law school. You don’t have your co-workers counting on you, no bosses are waiting on your assignments, and if you miss a deadline, it’s not going to hurt your client or be grounds for malpractice. Being a lawyer involves a lot more external pressure! Right now, though, your time is pretty much your own. For that reason, if you struggle with managing your time, you might not the best person to be your own planner and enforcer.
If you think you need help, reach out!
Enlist someone who is not in law school to help out. Ask a tutor or friend, someone who cares about your success as much as you do! I have a bar student who shares her google calendar with her best friend each week and they check in every night via text to make sure she did what she was supposed to do. There are a lot of options for improving in this area. You don’t have to do it alone!
Reward yourself for each productive day.
Staying on top of the never-ending workload in law school is tough. However, it’s amazing how far a dollar or even a gold star can go. Let me explain. If you finish everything on your calendar for the day in the way that you planned and feel good about your progress, go ahead and reward yourself (or have your enlisted help reward you). Set up a system whereby a star every day for a week equals a movie on Sunday with your significant other, or each good day equates to a dollar toward a purchase you want to make. Use something that will motivate you!
Be your own boss—bill your hours.
Do you ever wonder how much of your time you’re actually using to your full potential? Try running a stopwatch online or on your phone whenever you’re engaged in a study activity on your calendar. If you’re supposed to be outlining and you stop to answer a text, pause the clock. If you take a break for any reason, stop the clock. You’ll soon see that it might take you four hours to do three hours of real, earnest, outlining. Why does this matter? Well, first, it will tell you that you need to be blocking off four hours in your calendar instead of three in order to be realistic. Second, it will show you the kinds of unaccounted for time-sucks that might be wrecking your productivity. Is social media? TV? Food? Classmates? It’s hard to solve a problem if you don’t know what that problem is or why it exists.
The first step in being more efficient is taking stock of the things that contribute to your inefficiency. Imagine you are the boss and the time you’re tracking is for someone else who is your employee. If you have to pay that person for each minute and hour billed, you’ll probably be a whole lot more strict with what you’re doing when the clock is running. Make sure the time you’re counting is real work time.
I understand it takes quite a bit of discipline to hold yourself to the goals you set. At the end of the day, no amount of calendaring will work if you’re not doing your part to make yourself stay accountable. My point with this advice is that sticking to what you want to accomplish is a whole lot easier when you know more than just your end goal of “doing well in law school.”
Making a calendar like the one discussed above can help you see each and every incremental step required to get from where you are now to where you want to be. Set a more tangible goal and then set smaller benchmarks along the way. Being more conscious of what you’re actually spending your time on, how much time you have, and what your real priorities are will help you get there!
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And check out these helpful posts:
- A New Time Management Technique I am Trying
- Pay Attention in Class – It Can Save You Time
- Study Tools That Just May Change Your Life
- Dealing With Law School Time Regret
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