Learn how to build
a study plan
How long will each task take?
sIn almost everything you do in your college life, you know exactly how long things are going to take. Breakfast is from 7:00 to 7:30, your economics class is from 9:00 to 10:00, soccer practice is from 3:00 to 5:30 p.m. You always start and end at specific times. The clock decides. It’s easy to plan around those.
Now think about these:
‘Read chapters 3 and 4.’
‘Do Problem Set #7’
‘Write a 20 page paper.’
‘Study for the midterm exam.’
How long do those take? You have no idea.
Know how long tasks will take
Imagine trying to plan anything without having any idea of how long it might take. That would be chaos.
Your college tasks are the single most important things you have to do, yet most students don’t have a clue about how long any of them is going to take.
Worse yet, there are hundreds of these tasks in multiple classes—readings, papers, projects, problem sets, and a dozen quizzes and exams.
It is impossible to build an accurate study plan without some idea of how much time you need to do them.
The good news is that you can estimate time to a reasonable degree of accuracy and keep improving those estimates as you learn.
For simplicity, we will say that a typical college has three main categories: Readings, Tests, and Assignments (papers, projects, problem sets, etc.)
Estimating time for readings
You’re going to have hundreds of different readings in college. Those will come from textbooks, PDFs, or other online readings—what we call reading sources. Every syllabus will provide a list of the textbooks or other books you will need to have.
Each textbook has a certain formatting and level of difficulty and will read at a different rate. Novels will read faster than Physics. Economics slower than History.
The two most important times in college
Every time you do a task, know these:
The time you started. The time you finished. It’s that simple.
Your goal is to make an estimate of the average reading time per page of each reading source.
Here’s the 5 second exercise I did when I was in college.
Before I started reading I looked at my watch and wrote the current time in the upper corner of the page.
I carefully read the assigned pages. When I finished I wrote the current time on the page again.
How many pages did I read?
How many minutes did it take me to read those pages?
That was the average time per page.
Next time you have a reading in that book, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how long it will take.
Was that hard? It took about 10 seconds total.
So grab your textbook and try it. Read enough pages to get a fair average, let’s say 20 pages.
Just make sure you do this first.
Quality over speed
I may be getting a little ahead of myself, but let’s define exactly what “reading” really means.
You’re going to spend a lot of time reading in college. You don’t want to duplicate effort later on, so try to do it right the first time through. One of the benefits of knowing your time is that you don’t have to rush it. You know that you have time to get it done.
Make sure that when you read your textbook, that you understand it and prepare it for review so it’s easy to study for a test when it’s time. I’ll cover each in more detail, but just know that when you are timing each reading, make sure you allow time for these as well.
1. Read each page slowly and thoroughly.
2. Carefully highlight to isolate and summarize the key points you think might be on the exam.
3. Stop to look up any words or concepts you don’t understand. Make note of things you’ll need to ask the professor about later.
4. Write possible test questions in the margin or in a notebook.
Now THAT’S reading. You’ve read it, understood it, and it’s ready for review. Again, we’ll go into a lot more detail later.
The point here is to not rush it. This isn’t about seeing how fast you can finish. It’s just the opposite. It’s about doing it right the first time to save time later when it really matters.
Be honest with yourself when you read. Do you take breaks? Do you look at your phone? Try to do things exactly as you would do them normally to get a very accurate idea of the time it takes to really do each reading.
The benefits of timing
All of this may sound anal, but timing every reading literally takes seconds and the benefits are many.
First of all, the act of timing brings focus to your studies. You won’t be as tempted by distractions. When you have yourself on a clock, it becomes kind of a competition. You want accurate information. You want to try to improve your speed and accuracy. Timing does that.
You’ll improve your estimates with experience. Each new reading will give you a new and more accurate estimate of the time things take. As the material gets harder and takes longer, you’ll KNOW how much longer on average the next readings are going to take.
Now when you look in your syllabus and see the next two or three readings you have to do, just look at the table of contents and see how many pages each of them are. Do the math. How long are they going to take? Before you were only guessing.
NOW you can make a plan.
Want to know when you should start on that next reading? Can you go to that party tonight and still have time to get it done tomorrow? You’ll now have a pretty good idea if you can. No more guessing.
Will you be wrong on any of this? Of course you will. That’s OK. Learn, adjust, and estimate better next time. To be safe, just round your time estimates up a minute or so. It’s always best to err on the safe side if you aren’t sure.
Use the Shovel study planner
In Shovel, you can enter all of your reading sources and set up estimated times once and it does all of the calculations for you automatically.
As things change, just change them in one place and they’ll be reflected in every reading going forward.
Estimating time for bigger assignments
Readings are pretty easy, but what about timing things like essays and projects? How long does it take to write a paper or do a problem set?
Obviously these things are harder to estimate, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Time yourself, learn, adapt, learn again.
Talk to the professor about how long papers normally take. It may be easier to break each large assignment down into component parts and estimate a time for each.
For example, before you start working on a paper, you can get an idea of how long it takes you to research, make an outline, write a first draft, do the final edit, etc. Put a timer on everything. Use it for future reference. Next time you do a paper, you’ll have a pretty good idea.
Have a start and end time on everything you do. Know how long it takes to do a problem set or a set of questions at the end of a chapter.
You’ll start developing a sense of time in everything you do. You’ll know how long it takes to get things done instinctively.
Again, Shovel will help you decide how much time you need and when you need to get started. It can look ahead and let you know if you are going to have time to get things done.
Estimating time for studying for exams
Tests are no different. Studying for quizzes may only take an hour or two. A midterm might require 8 hours. A final 20 hours or more. Each class will be different, but you’ll learn as you go. We’ll show you how to spend way less time than you think you’ll need studying for exams later in this site.
Develop A Time Mindset
Everything you do in college is affected by time. When you have a handle on how long things take, you can make better decisions about when and where to do them, or how safe it is to put them off until later. Stop guessing.
Some things will take longer that you planned. Expect that and always have time in reserve. Develop a sense of urgency about getting things done. Minutes matter in college. The more you think about time, the less likely you are to waste it.
Time is one of the biggest causes of anxiety in college. With a good plan, all of that worrying about getting things done on time will start to disappear. You will be in control of your time, it will not be in control of you.
Guessing is stressing. Know how long things take to do.
It’s simple. Just try it or let Shovel do it for you.