How Long Will It Take?

22 min read

So it’s great that you have the syllabus to give you the list of everything you need to do. But now ask yourself – how much time is it going to take you to do it all? Do you know? Until you can compare how much time you HAVE with how much time you NEED to get things done each day, you’ll always be in a state of uncertainty.

Students always tell me that they don’t have enough time to get things done. In most cases they’re wrong. They have plenty of time—or should I say, they had plenty of time. The problem is that they let it all get behind them.

Underestimation, Not Procrastination

People constantly tell me that the reason that students don’t get things done on time is that they procrastinate. That’s partially true, but the real problem is not procrastination, it’s underestimation.

Students honestly think they have enough time to get tasks done, but they are almost always wrong. Why? They don’t estimate in advance and they don’t learn from past experience.

Think back to that construction project. There is one very big difference between a project manager and a student in college. While they both may know exactly WHAT they need to do, only the project manager puts effort into estimating HOW LONG it’s going to take to do it.

Does a project manager just pull an estimated time of completion out of a hat? Of course not. They know from experience. They break things down into the smallest possible steps and time how long each step of a specific task will take. To figure out something big they time a small part of it and then multiply the time by how many more parts they have.

That’s not to say they’re always right, because they aren’t. But they learn each time and adjust their estimates accordingly on future estimates.

If a contractor can estimate how long it takes to build a skyscraper, why don’t you think you can estimate the time it takes to do a history reading?

You Can Estimate Time

Think about it. In 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 a.m., your economics class is from 9:00 to 10:00 a.m., soccer practice is from 3:00 to 6:00 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.”

“Write a 20 page paper.”

“Study for the midterm exam.”

How long do they take?

When do they start and when do they end? You don’t know. The clock doesn’t decide. It might take an hour or it might take ten.

Who knows?

Isn’t it kind of ironic? These are the single most important things you have to do and you don’t have a clue how long any of them is going to take. Really, you don’t. And worse yet, you have hundreds of these things in multiple classes—readings, papers, projects, problem sets, and a dozen quizzes and exams—and not a single clue of how long any of it is going to take.

How can you possibly plan around that?

Most students don’t even try. There’s no point. The result is a continuous state of being behind and stressed out.

Students think they can get it done, but how can they know? It’s no surprise when they struggle. Quality is low, stress is high. Bad grades follow.

And yet students do this again and again and again. Imagine if a project manager operated like this. They’d be out of work after one job.

If you’re going to wait until the last minute to do something, isn’t it a good idea to know when the last minute is?

Estimating Your Time In College

You can estimate the time it takes to get things done in college with a high level of accuracy, and you’ll get even better at estimating over time.

When it comes to college work, I hate surprises. There is nothing worse than looking at the next item in your syllabus and seeing that it is both long, difficult, and you know it’s going to take a long time. How long? Probably longer than you the time you have..

There is simply no reason for you to underestimate the time it takes to do things.

Each and every task listed on a syllabus is going to take a certain amount of time to complete. All you need to do is make a reasonably accurate estimate of what that time is going to be—and even though it might seem impossible, it isn’t that hard to do.

As you’ll recall, we grouped your college workload into three main categories: Readings, Assignments, and Tests. We’ll show you how to estimate the time it will take to do all of them.

Reading Sources

You’re going to do a lot of reading in college. It will be the foundation of everything else you do, and it will take up the majority of your time. It’s also the easiest task to estimate.

Let’s say you see this in your syllabus:

“Read Chapters 3 and 4 from the textbook Intro to Economics.”

How long will it take you to read those two chapters? You don’t have a clue because you don’t have enough information. You don’t know how many pages there are in chapters 3 and 4. You don’t know how long it takes you to read one page in Intro to Economics.

But millions of students subconsciously make estimates every single day—they glance at the syllabus and say “I’ll read that tomorrow afternoon,” or “I’ll have time after practice.”

Or, more often, they’ll just start the reading sometime before it’s due and assume that they’ll get it done.

Every class will have assigned readings. Those will come from textbooks, PDFs, or online readings—what we call reading sources.

Each of those has a certain formatting and level of difficulty. Each will read at a different rate. Novels will probably read faster than Physics. Economics slower than History. Something from the sixteenth century will take longer than something written in the twenty-first.

Just like a contractor, you’re going to do rough estimates of what those times are. This is someone you do at the beginning of the semester.

Know Your TIME PER PAGE for Every Reading Source

We divide reading sources into two main types: Books and PDFs.

BOOKS are your textbooks, novels, etc. Some classes assign one book. Others assign ten. Each will have a different time per page.

PDFs have two main formats: Single Spaced and Double Spaced. Single Spaced PDFs take twice as much time as Double Spaced PDFs (because they have twice as much content) so you better know what format each PDF is.

I’ve seen syllabi with over 50 PDF readings, but every one of those readings fit into those 2 formats. Just know which format each one falls into so that your time estimates are accurate.

This is also one of the reasons that we tell you to print out every PDF. No surprises.

How To Time A Reading

Ok. So how you do you go about knowing your time per page? Easy. Take each book and each PDF type from every class, read one random page in each, and time it. You can use the timer in the Shovel app, located under the logo.

If you want to get even more accurate, pick five random pages instead of one.

Ready. Set. Go.

Start reading.


Before you start, let’s define exactly what “reading” really means.

You’re about to spend a bunch of time reading things. You don’t want to duplicate effort later on. You need to make sure that when you read your textbook, you understand it, prepare it for review, and make it easy to study for a test when it’s time. I’ll cover each in more detail in Step 4. Just know that when you time each reading, you’ll want to make sure your total time includes whatever it takes to do the following:

  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. And don’t worry, we’ll go into a lot more detail on how to read effectively in Step 4.

When you’re timing yourself, the key 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. And be honest with yourself about how you really operate when you read. Do you take breaks? Do you look at your phone? Try to do things exactly as you would do them to get a very accurate idea of how long it takes to read, highlight, and prepare each reading.

Estimate The Time Of Every Reading

Now that you know the time per page of every Reading Source and you have a pile of all your readings in front of you, it’s going to be super easy to estimate the time that each assigned reading is going to take. Simply multiply the time per page by the number of pages you need to read. Write that time next to the task in your syllabus.

Simple, but even easier if you just let Shovel App do it for you.

Set up all your readings in the Shovel app and it will calculate how long each reading assignment will take, so you’ll never run out of time to finish.

Here’s a tip for PDFs that you printed off. Study tip: If the reading you just added is a PDF, grab your hard copy and write the Total Estimated Time from the Shovel app on the top corner. When you grab it off of your pile to read, you’ll know how long it will take. It’s a simple step, and it will enforce your time mindset.

Timing Assignments and Exams

Readings are easy, but what about timing things like essays and projects? How long does it take to write a paper?

Obviously these things are harder to estimate, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Talk to the professor about how long papers normally take. See if you can get some samples of others that students did.

It may be easier to break each large assignment down into component parts and estimate a time for each.

When 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.

Again, put every assignment from each syllabus into the Shovel app. You can set when you want to start working on each assignment and the app will estimate how long each will take.

Timing and Adding Tests

Tests are no different. Studying for quizzes may only take an hour or two. A midterm might require 8 hours. A final 20 hours. Each class will be different, but you’ll learn as you go. As you study for exams, you’ll also find out that the time you spent preparing for them in advance saves you a mountain of study time before the test. (More on that later)

Develop A Time Mindset

Everything you do in college is affected by time. When you start making good estimates of how long assignments 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 and give yourself half a chance. It’s easy to do.

Start building a time mindset. It helps you develop a sense of urgency about getting things done and prioritizing your day. Minutes matter in college. Know your time and you’ll stop getting caught with too much to do and not enough time to do it.

And you can use the Shovel app as the tool to keep you on top of your time, in real time. It will keep you organized and on track. You just have to use it.

Everything Changes

The time it takes to do something will change over the semester. The first chapters of a book are sometimes easier that those that follow. You may slow down as you start moving into harder content that takes longer. Then again, you might also get faster as your study habits improve.

As you move through your semester, just keep time on your mind. Always think about how long something takes to finish. If you sense that something is taking longer, then start planning accordingly. In the Shovel app, you can easily adjust your numbers and see how it affects your entire semester.

You’ll be surprised how much you’re getting done—and at a much faster pace.

Again, I know it sounds like OCD, but the more you think about time, the less likely you are to waste it. Soon you’ll automatically think about how long things take. When you realize how quickly you can knock off those small bites, you’ll stop putting things off and you’ll start getting them done right away.

The thing you’ll notice the most is how your stress vanishes. All of that worrying about getting things done on time will disappear.

You know what you need to do. You know how long it takes to do it.

Ask your classmates sometime how long it took them to read the same assignments. Ask them how long they think they will need to read the next one.

I guarantee you they don’t have a clue. But you do.

You are already way ahead of everyone else. You’ll get small bites done each day. You’ll know how much time you need to do them. You’ll never underestimate how long it takes. You’ll never let yourself have too much to do in too little time.

Rocket science? Hardly. Simple yet powerful—and the Shovel app does it for you.

The biggest cause of stress in college is the horrible feeling of being behind and not knowing whether you can get everything done.

It’s a feeling of uncertainty. You’re constantly wondering what’s coming up and how long it’s going to take. You wait too long so you’re always playing catch up. You’re never in control.

You know your tasks. You know how to estimate how long they take. You have the plan. All that’s left now to set it up day one. Stop guessing what you are going to do next and how long it’s going to take.

Invest the time now and you’ll have less stress all semester.

Here’s how.

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