This article looks at the importance of organizing and managing your time effectively as a student. It explores some of the challenges autistic students can experience in this area, and offers some guidance on how to improve your own time management and organization.
Lots of students find organizing themselves and managing their time effectively to be challenging. This is especially true for some students with autism, and it is important to recognize this is nothing to do with laziness or a lack of effort. Instead there may differences in the way an autistic person processes information, or how they conceptualize time ( for example, finding it difficult to judge how much time an task may take).
If you are interested in finding out more about the potential differences a person with autism may have in this area this article about execution function is a good introduction.
Some (but by no means all) autistic students find that they have no difficulties with the actual academic content of their course but instead find it difficult to manage the different competing demands of being a student. If you tend towards perfectionism, you will need to recognize there may be times that you simply cannot do absolutely everything to a very high standard, so you will need to learn how to prioritize as well.
The good news is there is lots of support out there for helping you to develop your organization and time management skills. Becoming more organized is a process – not something you can learn in a day – but it is a skill you can develop with practice and trying different strategies. Start with the basics (like a simple daily routine) – and build from there!
How could this affect me?
Getting organized is actually quite a complex process when you start to think about what is involved. If you are autistic, you may find you need to actively understand and develop some of the skills needed to organize yourself and manage your time. It may not come naturally, but you can still work to improve them!
Here is a list of some of the concepts that are helpful to understand:
Organization is about putting a logical structure in place to manage your resources (such as your physical belongings or digital files, for example).
Prioritizing is the act of deciding how important a task or action is and focusing on them in order of importance (i.e. focusing on the most important tasks first).
Time management is the process of allocating your time to different activities. By allocating specific amounts of time to different activities you can be more effective in your use of time and therefore become more productive. It may seem counter-intuitive to spend time learning about time management as a student instead of just getting stuck into all your work, but it is a worthwhile investment of your time.
It is generally a positive thing to want to achieve high marks and good results in your course but it is important to recognize that you cannot expect perfect results. This is especially true in arts and humanities-type subjects where a mark of 80% or over is very rarely awarded.
You must also remember you generally need to achieve pass marks across all of your modules so focusing on one assignment to make it as good as possible to the detriment of another is not the wisest approach. You may find yourself enjoying one assignment more than another and spend more time on it – this is okay. Completely ignoring one assignment (and subsequently failing) because you are fixating on getting the best mark possible in another assignment is not okay!
Finally, perhaps the most disabling trait that people (autistic or not) can have is a tendency towards procrastination.
Procrastination is essentially putting off a task until the very last minute, even if you want to or need to do it. It is not laziness. Procrastinating can make you feel anxious and guilty, which then makes you more likely to avoid doing the task you need to do, which makes you feel even more anxious and guilty, and continues the cycle of procrastination.
What to do next?
Start simple - identify key tasks or actions you need to complete daily and weekly.
Keep track of your day – what are the tasks you have to do every day or every week? Try to simplify these and approach them the same way each time – this will make it a habit. These will then require less time and mental energy, leaving you with more resources for less regular or one-off tasks.
Creating a routine
- Having a realistic routine can help you feel more in control of your situation. Make sure your routine includes non-study activities, such as mealtimes, exercise/leisure time and rest time. It might be useful to make a visual timetable for quick reference, perhaps by using colour-coding, symbols or pictures.
- Ask a friend or family member to look at your timetable. Do they think it covers everything? Do they think it is realistic? You cannot work every hour of every day – this is counter-productive. Taking them to rest and relax will help you work and study more effectively in the time you do set aside for these activities.
- Remember that your routine may need to change if your circumstances change. It is okay to adapt it as needed.
Using apps and software to stay organized
- Mindmapping is a very useful tool, especially for ‘visual thinkers‘. Computer programmes such as XMind are free and help you organize your thoughts in a more visual way.
- Google Calendar (and other electronic calendars) can be set up to send reminders to your phone.
- Use any restful skills you have learned, meditation, breathing, exercise, think about what calms you most and add time slots in for this to your timetable.
- ‘Eat the frog!’ This may sound bizarre, but it is actually a quote about dealing with procrastination. The ‘frog’ is the difficult task you keep putting off. ‘Eating the frog’ means doing that task first, so you don’t spend the rest of your day worrying about it.
- Another approach is to chose the simplest task on your list and complete that first. This can give you as sense of accomplishment that can be motivating and propel you to complete more of the tasks on your ‘to-do list’.
- It may help to focus on one piece of work at a time, if this works best for you. You may be receiving multiple pieces of work in a short time frame; if it is difficult to work on multiple pieces of work at once, you can talk with your course team about how to balance your work better.
- You can also set a timer for 5, 10 or 15 minutes and commit to working for just that amount of time. Often starting is the most difficult aspect of a task so once you have started you may well keeping working far beyond the initial amount of time. Worst case scenario, if you finish after the set amount of time you will still have more work completed than if you had done nothing at all.
If you are finding it difficult to manage your workload, you may become overwhelmed or stressed. Taking the time and space to decompress can be useful if it’s all getting to be too much. You may have calming mechanisms such as engaging in a favourite activity or something which is physically comforting. These can be meaningful, and you should not feel that you need to stop them, especially during challenging times (being a college student during a pandemic).
Questions to think about
- Have I made sure my timetable is correct and there are no clashes?
- Have I made sure I know where my lectures and tutorials are taking place (on campus or online)?
- Have I created a routine that suits me and makes sure I am taking care of both my studies and my own wellbeing?
- Do I know what resources there are for helping me get organized? (Hint: Keep an eye out for the ‘Survive and Thrive’ workshops offered by the DSS!)
- Have I acknowledge I cannot expect perfection in my work and it is important to find a balance between working hard and looking after myself (such as taking time to relax and recharge)?
Additional information and links
Resources for managing your time