The 10 best time management tips and tools for college students going back to school online

Going back to school is a stressful time for anyone. But with most college students trading leafy campuses for laptop screens, this year has brought an entirely new layer of uncertainty.

Online learning requires an entirely new set of skills, tools, and habits. And the most important of those is time management for college students.

According to a study published in The Washington Post, the average completion rate of online courses is often lower than 10%. However, more recent research found that with the right support and structure, students actually excelled at learning online.  

While we already published one of the most definitive guides on time management for students, what we missed were the key digital tools, strategies, and habits that help students succeed with online learning. 

If you’re taking any classes online, this guide will help you keep track of your time and build the support systems you need to excel at online learning.

10 time management tips for college students learning online

  1. Set up your “school” environment for focus (both physical and digital)
  2. Use a time tracker to understand how you spend your time online (and what gets in the way or studying)
  3. Set up a distraction blocker to limit social media, games, and other distractions
  4. Create a daily schedule that takes advantage of your peak study hours
  5. Break large projects down into manageable chunks with SMART daily goals
  6. Use this right note-taking strategy to get the most out of online lectures
  7. Prioritize your most important projects each day with the Ivy Lee Method
  8. Focus on one thing at a time (i.e don’t try to multitask–it doesn’t work)
  9. Set reminders to take breaks (and stay energized throughout the day)
  10. Ask for extra help (and take advantage of it when it’s offered)

Why time management is so important for online learning

On the surface, online learning shouldn’t be that much different from going to class. Most of us are staring at a laptop all day anyway, so why does it matter where we stare at it from?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Online learning requires a total re-evaluation of how you spend your time and energy. Here are just a few points to consider:

  1. Learning online requires more self-motivation. Without the structure of a class schedule and campus life, it’s up to you to manage your time, fight procrastination, ignore distractions, and actually get things done. 
  2. Being online all day means you’re constantly staring at a distraction machine. Your class videos are only one click away from social media, Netflix, games, and anything else that threatens your focus. 
  3. Online classes are harder to stay engaged with. In many cases, only ⅓ to ½ of students even show up for online lectures
  4. Finally, there’s just the basic fact that you’ll also need to learn how to learn online. The tools and expectations will change from class to class. Some professors will be better at communicating while others will struggle as much as you are. 

What all these challenges share is that they threaten to take your time away from the most important thing: learning. 

But with the right time management tips for college students, you’ll be able to balance the challenges of this new normal with your own education. Let’s dive in.

The 10 best time management tips for college students studying online

Online learning isn’t anything new. But up until recently, it’s been the exception, not the rule. 

Here’s how to give yourself the support and structure you need to be successful this school year.

1. Set up your “school” environment for focus (both physical and digital)

Before you can even think about how you’re going to spend your time, you need to fix where you’re spending it.  

That’s because your environment–both physical and digital–is the “invisible hand” that guides your ability to focus and get things done. 

Think about this: Ever since your first days in kindergarten, you’ve been training your brain to go into “school mode” when you enter a classroom. Our brains love routines like these. But now, suddenly you’re asking it to go into school mode at home. 

Physically going into a classroom is a powerful motivator and commitment device. It’s harder to procrastinate or fall behind when you have to prepare for and go to a class.

Classrooms also provide a “level playing field.” Everyone’s there for a reason and you’re not fighting off distractions or blocking the noise of your home. 

So what can you do to create the best home environment for studying? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Choose a dedicated workspace (even if it’s just a specific chair at the kitchen table). Replace the routine of going to school by creating a “study space” in your home. Ideally, this is a room you can close off, but any dedicated space can do.  
  2. Clear out the clutter. Whatever is in your line of sight will compete for your attention. Clear out physical clutter like textbooks or notes you’re not using as well as digital clutter like open browser tabs or your desktop.  
  3. Don’t ignore the power of fresh air and natural light. A study cave might seem appealing, but studies on the optimal work environment show that natural light, plants, and fresh air increase productivity, make it easier to focus, and can even help with sleep. 
  4. Get your technology ready and available. Make sure you have everything you need to attend classes ready and tested. This means headphones, your webcam, notes, and whatever other tools you need to use.  

2. Use a time tracker to understand how you spend your time online (and what gets in the way or studying)

Few students realize just how scarce their time is each day. Yes, we all have the same 24 hours. But only a fraction of that time is actually productive. 

According to most research, we only have about 3 hours of truly focused time each day.

That means you need to be especially careful about wasting your best hours on low-priority work or distractions. 

A tool like RescueTime acts like a personal trainer for your time and energy each day.  

RescueTime tracks every minute you spend on apps, websites, and even specific projects so you can set goals, track your progress, and identify where you’re losing focus. 

RescueTime Weekly Report for College Students
The RescueTime dashboard gives you a quick view of exactly how you spend your time online.

Here’s what Ph. D student Jonathan told us about using RescueTime at college:  

“RescueTime has made me 100% more aware of my productivity. It’s the best tool I’ve found for recording how you’re spending your time, digging into the details, and building better habits.”

You can even set daily goals and get real-time alerts when you hit (or miss) them. And block distractions like social media, entertainment, YouTube, and anything else using FocusTime

Goals and Alerts track your progress while FocusTime keeps you accountable by blocking distractions.

Thousands of students from around the world–from undergrads to Ph. Ds–use RescueTime to help them understand where they spend their time online, block distractions, and hit their daily goals.

Learn more and get started with a 2-week free trial here.

3. Set up a distraction blocker to limit social media, games, and other distractions

Your online learning environment is full of distractions (and no one around to call you out and keep you accountable!)

Instead of relying on your limited willpower to stay focused, a distraction blocker is a powerful way to stay focused on your classes and studying. 

In fact, a study by Cornell researcher Richard Patterson found that students who use a distraction blocker like RescueTime received higher grades, experienced a 24% increase in time spent studying, and were 40% more likely to complete all aspects of their courses.  

Using FocusTime for a study session

Here’s a quick guide on how to set up RescueTime and other distraction blockers on your laptop and phone

4. Create a daily schedule that takes advantage of your peak study hours

One of the big advantages of taking online classes is that it gives you more flexibility around how you spend your time. But all that flexibility can also be a huge downside if you’re not prepared for it. 

As Joe Freidhoff, vice president of Michigan Virtual–a non-profit that offers online college-level courses, explains: 

“We find that if students have support and a schedule they tend to do better than just turning in here and there.”

There are tons of strategies for how to create a daily schedule that works for you. But here are a few of the core elements you need to include: 

  1. Schedule your most important work during your peak hours. Remember, you only have a few good hours each day. Make sure you use them for the right things. 
  2. Create a “bookend” template for your day. Create a morning routine to get you into “school mode” as well as an evening routine to help you wind down and disconnect. 
  3. Set aside time for “deep” work (like studying and writing papers) and “shallow” work (like planning projects, answering emails, and updating your calendar).
  4. Batch similar tasks together. The longer you can focus on the same types of tasks, like reviewing your daily notes or studying for an exam, the better off you’ll be. 

5. Break large projects down into manageable chunks with SMART daily goals

You can be more effective with your studying time if you know exactly what you need to get done (and have a way to measure your progress). This is called setting SMART goals.

In a nutshell, SMART goals are:

  • Specific: You know exactly what needs to get done and can articulate it clearly.
  • Measurable: You have a meaningful and motivating way to track your progress and know when you’re done.
  • Achievable: You can realistically achieve it.
  • Relevant: You’re working towards something that is worthwhile and timely (like studying for an exam tomorrow)
  • Time-bound: You know when you’re going to start and stop working towards it.

Here’s an example. Instead of saying “I’m going to study for my economics exam on Friday.” A SMART goal would be:

“Every day this week, I will study a full chapter from my economics class from 8:30 – 10:30 am without interruption.” 

Not only does this goal tell you exactly what needs to be done during that time. But it also gives you a way to measure success (by completing a chapter each morning).

As research has found, setting small, achievable goals like this is much more motivating than making large, vague ones. 

time management tips for college students: Set daily goals for studying or writing

If you’re using RescueTime to track your time, you can set SMART goals right in it. For example, ask RescueTime to track your time spent writing or on specific sites and set a daily goal. 

6. Use this right note-taking strategy to get the most out of online lectures

One of the main issues with online learning is the format. Staring at a screen can be exhausting both mentally and physically. And it’s easy to zone out or gloss over important facts. 

What’s even more frustrating is that studies have found that taking notes on your laptop is one of the worst ways to remember information. 

Instead, students do much better when they take notes by hand. Of course, the downside is that writing out notes like this takes up a ton of time. So you’ll want to make sure you have a system in place to capture only the main ideas and important points. 

One option is called the Cornell System. This is where you split your paper up into 3 sections: Two columns on the top for taking notes and capturing key terms and then a section at the bottom to summarize.

Key terms and ideasNote-taking area




Summaries (1-2 sentences for each page)

7. Prioritize your most important projects each day with the Ivy Lee Method

Let’s keep going with some practical time management tips for college students. 

If you’re balancing a ton of classes at once, it can be hard to know exactly what deserves your attention at any given time. But a core part of time management is spending more time on the right things

Again, there are plenty of strategies for helping you learn how to prioritize your tasks. But one of the best ways to do this is a century-old method called The Ivy Lee Method. Here’s how it works: 

  1. At the end of each day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
  2. Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
  3. When you start tomorrow, only work on the first task until it’s done.
  4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. 
  5. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks.
  6. Repeat.

What’s great about this system is that it forces you to focus on one thing at a time instead of getting overwhelmed and trying to multitask. It also forces you to ask a very important question: what truly deserves my attention today? 

8. Focus on one thing at a time (i.e don’t try to multitask–it doesn’t work)

improve focus burnout lead

Speaking of focusing on one thing at a time…

We all have a bad tendency to try to multitask. Whether it’s jumping in between projects or having 47 browser tabs open at once.  

But let’s keep this simple. Multitasking doesn’t work. 

Studies show that switching between different tasks can eat up 20-80% of your productive time. Whereas focusing on one thing at a time can be up to 500% more productive. 

Not only that but “single-tasking” lowers stress levels and can even make you happier. 

So close those extra browser tabs, put away the books you’re not using, and turn on your distraction blocker for an hour or two. 

9. Set reminders to take breaks (and stay energized throughout the day) 

When your schedule is full and you’ve got deadlines looming, it can be hard to step back and take a break. But breaks, sleep, and self-care are essential parts of time management for all college students. 

Especially when you’re taking online classes, you need to be able to disconnect from your school work and recharge.

time management tips for college students: Use Alerts to take breaks
This RescueTime Alert will tell you when you’ve spent too long online and need to take a break!

Try setting a reminder later in the day or when you hit too much screen time to take a break. 

10. Ask for extra help (and take advantage of it when it’s offered) 

In economics, there’s a theory called the Pareto Principle, which states that for many events, 80% of the results come from 20% of the actions

In other words, there are usually a small number of time management tips or activities you can do that will bring you the biggest return. Now, the problem isn’t in knowing what these activities are. It’s actually prioritizing them in your busy school week. 

Recent research has found that while digital tools can help with online learning, it’s largely the nondigital measures that give you the best chance of success.

Things like taking advantage of a professor’s office hours or reaching out when you’re confused and need help are the 20% of tasks that bring about the largest return on your time spent studying. 

Think of asking for help as a time multiplier–an activity that actually gives you more time in the future

Half an hour spent in office hours could save you hours trying to learn something on your own (plus, it shows professors that you’re eager to learn).  

Don’t let online learning get you off track

The worst thing you can do when you’re learning online is to assume you need to do everything on your own.

Time management isn’t about managing what you do each hour. It’s about being efficient with your time and setting yourself up for success in the long-term. 

Are you a student taking online classes this year? Sign up for a 2-week trial of RescueTime and take control of your days.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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