As students get ready to head back to college, they’re excited by what’s ahead—after all, the start of a new school year signals that they’ll be learning new ideas, meeting new people, and coming one step closer to the achievement of their academic goals.

But once classes start, and once they start making note of all the due dates and deadlines for their coursework, they may become more and more concerned about how they’ll get all their schoolwork (along with their other responsibilities) done.

In our Spring 2015 Student Engagement Insights survey, we asked college students: “Do you struggle with managing your time?”

78% of the three thousand respondents said that this is “sometimes” an issue, and 9% said that it’s “always” a challenge. (Only 17% said that it’s “never” a problem.) So overall, it’s a fairly significant issue that the majority of students will need to address to some degree.

In order to address these issues, it can help us (and them) to take a look at, and evaluate, the factors that form their biggest barriers to effective time management. In this same survey, we asked students to tell us what they believed were their biggest hurdles to managing their time well. Below, we’ll explore what they had to say, and offer some tips that can help them overcome those hurdles.

College students and time management: What are their biggest barriers to efficiency and success?

College students' top barriers to effective time management - Cengage Learning

Procrastination. More than half (59%) of the responding students said that “procrastination” posed the biggest barrier to effective use of their time. Though it’s always tempting to put things off for later, students may do well to remember Charles Dickens’ words: “Procrastination is the thief of time.” After all, none of us knows what’s coming tomorrow… so it’s best to do what we can, when we can, and make progress on that long to-do list. It also pays to consider: at the end of the day, would you rather be reflecting with confidence on all you did accomplish, or with regret on all you didn’t get done (but should have)?

Distractions. Of our respondents, 43% admitted that “being influenced or distracted by friends and family” caused them to use their time in a less-than-effective manner. Of course it’s important to make time for our important relationships! But when students allow the interests of others to direct their schedules, then they run the serious risk of forgoing all that they themselves need to get done for school, their jobs, and other commitments.

Poor planning. A lack of thoughtful planning and prioritization causes problems for many students as well. However, this issue may manifest itself in a variety of ways.

Some students could benefit from the practical step of making a schedule. Slightly more than a quarter (26%) told us that “neglecting to create a schedule for their time” caused them problems. Given that “failing to ‘plan’ for disruptions, accidents, etc.” poses a challenge to 31% of our respondents, these schedules should also account, in some way, for the unknown; no one can predict when an illness or injury, a conflict at work, or even car troubles might throw a wrench into your day (or week).

Time-management issues also arise out of a lack of foresight. “Spending too much time on non-essential activities” causes problems for 42% of students, and “not paying attention to how long activities actually take” is a problem for 33% of the students. In both cases, there’s a clear need for students to give serious thought to how they spend their time, as well as how long tasks actually take.

For 23% of the respondents, “misplaced priorities” pose a barrier to effective time management. This pitfall can have serious consequences. For these students, it’s critical to begin re-focusing on their academic goals and taking action steps to live those out on a regular basis.

But not all time-management problems have to do with wasting time. “Over-scheduling or over-committing their time” proves problematic for 41%, indicating that large groups of students recognize that they have many important responsibilities, yet they are not yet able to prioritize or make decisions about the best or most appropriate use of their day.

None of these challenges are insurmountable. So how can students begin to overcome these barriers and see greater academic success?

Three key skills that will help students overcome their barriers to effective time management

Planning ahead. When working on their schedules, students can take a few important steps to make a plan that works for them. One key step is learning how to estimate how long things will take; this may be a “trial-and-error” process, but being honest with yourself about the time you really need for your commute, your errands, and your studies will, ultimately, make you a better “planner.” Another helpful step: build in some “buffer time” into the schedule, to allow for delays, interruptions, and mechanical breakdowns. (As an example: don’t schedule a doctor’s appointment for fifteen minutes after the end of class; take potential issues such as traffic, parking issues, or delayed public transportation into account.)

Making priorities that align more closely to your goals and values. Focus on what you absolutely must do for the day and the week; once you’ve made your decisions, hold yourself accountable to them. As you plan your daily and weekly goals, keep the big picture in mind; confirm that those “smaller” goals connect to your broader long-term personal and professional goals. Another tip for staying on track: If you’re asked to join a group, team, or social organization, don’t immediately say “yes”; pause before agreeing to get involved with another project, organization, or activity.

Avoiding distractions. Something or someone is always vying for your attention. Some of these unplanned interruptions are pressing (as an example, you’re not likely to ignore the needs of a sick or injured family member). However, many distractions (such as constant monitoring of texts and social-media accounts) can become convenient excuses for putting off more important work. When you’re in college—and indeed, throughout your life—practicing the principle of delayed gratification will serve you well. Remain committed to completing your more important activities, and save the “fun stuff” for later. This is not to say that fun is bad; in fact, it’s a good idea to build time for rest and socialization into your schedule, so that you have something to look forward to. If you know your roommates all watch sports on Monday nights and you want to join them, or if your spouse enjoys going out to dinner once a week, build that into your schedule!

What are your top time-management tips for students? Share them in the comments.