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Managing Your Time As an Online Student

Time management is the ability to organize responsibilities and allocate the appropriate time to complete tasks. When you’re effective at managing your time, you’re able to meet deadlines, increase your productivity, combat procrastination and reduce stress. As a student and professional, time management also helps you produce higher-quality work more consistently and make progress toward reaching your goals.

Getting your GIS graduate degree or certificate online provides you flexibility to complete your coursework on your own time. But the open-ended nature of the graduate GIS programs at USC can become a source of worry for new students. Maybe, for example, you’re not yet sure when you’ll have time for readings and assignments between personal obligations and work. We’ve been there.

Use these tips to help you boost your time management skills and balance your schoolwork with other priorities.

9 Tips for Time Management:

  • Have a Planner or To-Do List.
  • Stick to a Schedule.
  • Block Out Time for Different Tasks.
  • Start Your Assignments Early.
  • Break Complex Tasks Into Smaller Chunks.
  • Make Your Workspace Distraction-Free.
  • Avoid Multitasking.
  • Try the Pomodoro Technique.
  • Ask for Help — USC Is Here for You.

Have a Planner or To-Do List

Planners are a time-management pro’s best friend. Get a standard notebook planner or a digital planner to access on your phone or tablet. Then, use the calendar to write down every deadline, exam and meeting for each class, and use the weekly or daily layout pages to make to-do lists for each day. Both a planner and to-do list can help you visualize your workload, prioritize your tasks and stay organized.

Stick to a Schedule

Create a schedule that accounts for lectures, time to complete assignments, and opportunities to collaborate with classmates, and follow it week to week. This is key to staying engaged in your studies and getting the most from the program.

“Treat school like it is your job,” says Jocelyn Ward, one of USC’s Student Success Advisors. “This is an investment in you and your future, so make sure you are making the time to be successful.”

Here’s an example of how you might structure your week as an online student at USC. Be sure to adjust for any live or synchronous activities:

  • Mondays and Tuesdays: Focus on doing the readings, viewing media and recorded lectures, and taking notes.
  • Wednesdays and Thursdays: Post on class forums, start your assignments and begin replying to your classmates’ posts. Check in with your professors during virtual office hours to ask questions about the material or your assignments.
  • Fridays and Saturdays: Keep replying to classmates’ posts and chipping away at your assignments.
  • Sundays: Finish up your assignments and turn them in. Then, review the agenda for next week.

Creating a regular schedule also helps you plan other parts of your life. For example, if you work a full-time job like many other online grad students, a set school schedule enables you to make time for friends, family and yourself.

Ward reminds us that no two online students’ schedules are the same.

“A schedule that works for you may not work for another, so take the time to figure out what is best for your success.”

Block Out Time for Different Tasks

Let’s say you have a work shift from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or a live lecture from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Block out time to work on your assignments the same way. Combine this strategy with your set schedule so you always have, for instance, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays to finish up all assignments, or spend 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays working solely on assignments for your Spatial Data Science class.

Use your planner or free tools like Google Calendar, iCalendar or Outlook Calendar to block out your week’s schedule. In addition, set a timer when you start your “shift” of coursework to alert you when you’ve hit your time limit.

The key to making this strategy work is to set aside multiple blocks over the course of a few days for a single task before it’s due. By staggering time allocated to a single task, you can manage your day in such a way that other responsibilities are still addressed.

Start Your Assignments Early

Procrastination is a huge challenge for every student, but especially for those in grad school. Even if a project isn’t due for two weeks, you should start it as soon as possible so that you can complete it in chunks alongside other assignments. This approach lets you spread out complex tasks and avoid a time crunch.

Starting assignments early also leaves you enough time to ask your professor questions, collaborate with classmates, do thorough research and put forth your best possible work.

Dedicate smaller time frames, like 30 minutes to an hour, throughout the week for assignments due later, and schedule longer blocks for assignments with fast-approaching deadlines.

Break Complex Tasks Into Smaller Chunks

As a GIS student, you’ll have the opportunity to design, develop and execute your own GIS projects to demonstrate your understanding of GIS principles and your problem-solving skills. Once you get a big project, start breaking it down into smaller tasks. For instance, your first few tasks may be to review the project brief, go over questions with your professor, and do preliminary research.

Make a plan that outlines each small step you must take to complete the full project. Estimate how long each stage should take you and when you should reach certain milestones, like completing your first draft. Then, assign yourself those smaller tasks over multiple days by blocking out time in your set schedule.

Project management is one of the top GIS skills that employers look for in GIS analysts and other GIS professionals. If you’re able to improve your project planning skills during the program, you’ll be more effective when it’s part of your job.

Make Your Workspace Distraction-Free

Distractions break our focus, and we need focus to get things done. If you can, set up a dedicated workspace that’s just for you. If not, find a space that is as quiet and distraction-free as possible during your scheduled schoolwork time.

Then, put away your cell phone and turn off notifications. Turn off the TV, and, if necessary, only put on music that will help you get in the productivity zone. Consider also downloading an app or browser extension that prevents you from visiting social media and other potentially distracting sites. These tools can help you stay focused and make the most of your time.

Avoid Multitasking

Contrary to popular belief, multitasking can make it harder to get tasks done in a reasonable time. When your attention is divided, you pay a “switch cost” — a reduction in your ability to focus on a task or do it correctly — each time you end one task and start another.

A schedule that tells you when you should be focused on a certain class assignment or studying can help you avoid the temptation of multitasking.

Try the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro technique is a time-management strategy that breaks down a large slot of time into manageable, focused work sessions called pomodoros. A single pomodoro can last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, after which you can take a short break to walk around, stretch, get some coffee or water, use the restroom, browse social media or decompress.

This time management method is great for those who need breaks more often or who get easily distracted. It’s also a good method for working on tasks that don’t have deadlines, like studying or conducting research.

What’s more, you can still use the Pomodoro Technique if you use the time-blocking method, too. You just work in short spurts during your longer “shift.”

Ask for Help — USC Is Here for You

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Balancing life, school, work and personal time is a normal challenge for all students, but especially online students. The faculty and staff at USC are here to support you by providing the advice and resources you need to succeed.

“Be patient with yourself — it is going to take some time to get adjusted,” Ward says. “But once you find your groove, it is going to make things so much easier. Set a schedule, use a to-do list and make sure to arrange your tasks in order of importance!”

You can reach out to Jocelyn Ward to get extra help balancing your GIS workload or ask questions about other aspects of being an online student. Email her at jw_097@usc.edu or call her at 213-235-2129.


About USC’s Online GIS Graduate Programs

The University of Southern California offers a comprehensive selection of online GIS programs, including GIS master’s degrees and GIS graduate certificates. This gives our students the ultimate flexibility in tailoring their education for their career goals. Click on the programs below to learn about our leading geographic information science education.

Online GIS Master’s Degrees

Master of Science in Geographic Information Science and Technology
Master of Science in Human Security and Geospatial Intelligence

Online GIS Graduate Certificates

Graduate Certificate in Geographic Information Science and Technology
Graduate Certificate in Geospatial Intelligence
Graduate Certificate in Geospatial Leadership
Graduate Certificate in Remote Sensing for Earth Observation