New Nurse Guide: How to Master Time Management in Nursing School

The skill of time management is absolutely essential when you begin your career as a nurse. Thankfully, the demands of nursing school give you ample opportunities to refine your skills. This guide will help nursing students learn the foundations of time management with tips that can be put into practice today.

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Ellery Weil

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Ellery Weil is a historian and writer. She holds degrees from the University of Michigan and University College London, and has worked in education, nonprofits, and the arts.

Expert Contributor

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Melissa Capps

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Melissa Capps graduated from nursing school with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Saint Louis University in 2007. She obtained a Master's of Science in Nursing with an educator focus from Webster University in 2016. Melissa worked in an acute care hospital with adults on a neuro-tele floor as a staff nurse, charge nurse, and preceptor full time for 11 years. During that time, she also mentored/coached, precepted, and was involved in the onboarding orientation process and training of the new graduate nurses on two telemetry floors in the nursing residency program. She currently works as a full-time nursing instructor at a college, where she has been teaching for the past four years.

last updated

09/20/2022

When you’re working 10- or 12-hour nursing shifts and delivering care to several patients, being able to organize and manage your time will enable you to maintain a high level of efficiency and give your patients the attention they deserve. Time management is an essential skill for nurses, but it’s also incredibly helpful for nursing students. If you can learn to effectively manage your time while in nursing school, you will be well prepared to enter the workforce.

According to a study of nursing and midwifery students, time management skills are correlated with reduced anxiety in nursing students. To be successful in school and avoid burnout, it is important that you budget your time for work and recreation. Our guide provides you with everything you need to become a time-management pro, including time management tips, steps for dealing with feelings of overwhelm, resources to get started, and advice from a nursing expert.

Our 10 Best Time Management Tips

Some people love organization and procedures to boost efficiency, while others feel constricted by them. Regardless of which camp you fall in, or even if you’re somewhere in the middle, these time management tips can help you refine your current strategies or give you a great place to get started. Even if you’ve struggled with time management in the past, start using these practical and actionable steps today and see what a difference they can make.

1. Prioritize Your Work in Order of Importance

Practice splitting your to-do list into prioritized groupings. One common method for nurses, according to Hackett and Bigott, is to use the A, B, C, D method. You can prioritize your list into:

  • Absolute musts
  • Better to be done soon
  • Can waits
  • Delegated items and tasks

Learning to order your tasks in this way can help prepare you for success as a nurse.

Get in the habit of looking forward into your week or month for the absolute musts. You’ll feel more prepared for that big exam if you make it a must to study a little bit each day for two weeks in advance rather than waiting until the day before the test to make it an absolute must.

Delegating tasks may feel hard while in nursing school, but maybe it really is your roommate’s turn to clean the sink and toilet.

2. Be Prepared

Being prepared for the day sets you up for success. Make your to-do list the night before work or school so you can allot an appropriate amount of time for your tasks. You will also be more successful if you prepare to care for yourself. Eat a nutritious breakfast. Arrive to class a few minutes early. Bring a bottle of water. Make sure you have all of your supplies.

Being prepared reduces feelings of anxiety and creates pockets of space where you can breathe.

3. Tackle the Easy Stuff First

Getting a few easy tasks checked off the to-do list quickly can boost productivity and increase feelings of accomplishment. Tackle several simple tasks right away to take advantage of this positive boost and use that increased motivation to propel you forward into the more difficult or time-consuming tasks on the list.

You can set aside the first small segment of time each day for these tasks and follow that up with a longer block of time to work on more in-depth items.

4. Avoid Distractions

You already know this, but it bears repeating: Put down the phone. Use the focus setting on your smart phone to stop notifications from distracting you while you work and study. Use your computer rather than your phone to look up needed information, and you’ll be less likely to get sucked in by the latest social media notification.

You can also avoid distractions by carefully choosing your work space. If your messy room is making it hard to focus, walk to the library or a local coffee shop. Reducing the number of possible tasks, you could complete with a change in environment can increase your focus.

5. Stay Organized

In addition to your daily to-do lists, build in a time at the beginning of each week to plan out your schedule. Set aside blocks of time for specific tasks, such as class, studying, or errands. Don’t forget to schedule extracurricular or recreational time as well. During the day, check in on your to-do list periodically and reprioritize tasks if necessary. Stick to the blocks of time you have determined as best you can, and move on if you’ve reached the time limit on an ongoing task – such as studying.

6. Schedule Breaks to Avoid Burnout

The Pomodoro method (named for a tomato shaped timer) is a productivity strategy where you work for a set amount of time and then break for a set amount of time. The standard allotment is 25 minutes of work and a 5-minute break, followed by a longer break of 10-15 minutes after four work periods. The timer releases you from keeping track of the time mentally and also gives your work session a feeling of urgency.

Even if you aren’t a fan of timers, you should still schedule breaks for yourself. Set a reasonable goal, and after you meet it, take a break. Make these breaks meaningful rather than mindless. Meditate, get a snack, take a drink, do some quick physical activity. These will refresh you more thoroughly than scrolling through Instagram or playing a video game.

7. Anticipate Roadblocks and Deal with Them Before They Cause a Problem

Roadblocks will happen, and while you can’t plan for every setback that will occur, you may be able to anticipate some of them. When a task doesn’t get completed because of a roadblock, don’t let it derail you. Instead, do the following:

  • Move incomplete tasks to tomorrow’s list, and reprioritize them if necessary.
  • Have a plan to deal with emergent situations.
  • Know professors’ absentee policies.
  • Communicate proactively as soon as the situation arises.
  • Be flexible and honest with what you can complete.

8. Work With Your Team & Delegate if Needed

While no one can study for you, people in your life can help with other necessary tasks. Whether your team consists of family or friends, ask for help with tasks like meals, errands, groceries, or cleaning.

You can also delegate spaces. Use your bed for sleeping, only, and use your desk for studying. Get creative and help your brain associate certain locations with certain activities by keeping them separated.

9. Set Goals to Stay Motivated

Similar to how to-do lists help keep you feeling productive, goals will also help you stay motivated. Set goals in multiple areas and work to have a growth mindset. Write your goals down, with timelines attached, and track your progress using a simple graph or some other visual way to track how far you’ve come. Even if you don’t perfectly attain the goal by the timeline you had set, remember that you are closer than you were when you set the goal. Academic goals are wonderful, but so are relational and personal achievements.

10. Be Flexible

Allow yourself the flexibility to find what works for you. Try several different approaches to scheduling and task tracking. Even once you find a system that works, be flexible in how you view and implement it.

One helpful strategy to remain flexible is to create routines rather than rigid checklists intended to be completed in the same order each day. Establish a rhythm for set chunks of time, such as morning, lunchtime, afternoon, and evening. Prioritize your needs and essential tasks in each period of time. And be willing to reflect on what is working and what isn’t. As seasons in life change, so will your routines.

Pitfalls of Poor Time Management

Poor time management can tax your emotional energy bank and prevent you from enjoying your life. It also may stop you from achieving goals because of low motivation. The inability to manage time can negatively impact your studies and your nursing career. As you read through this list, evaluate if you are experiencing any of these pitfalls. If so, it’s a sure sign that you could benefit from strengthening your time management skills and procedures.

Stress & Overwhelm

Poor time management can have a negative impact on your mental health. Without a plan to move forward and a road map to implement your plan, stress can take over and prevent you from moving out of the space of being overwhelmed. When you become overwhelmed, you may become irritable, withdrawn, and unable to perform even simple tasks. If you are constantly feeling overwhelmed and stressed, you may want to look at your time management practices more closely.

Low Morale

Prolonged periods of stress reduce your overall well-being. This can lead to low morale and a lack of motivation when it comes to your studies or career. Poor time management is more likely to leave you feeling helpless and unsure how you will accomplish everything. Low morale can lead to more serious feelings of burnout or hopelessness, so if you find yourself feeling this way, there are steps you can take to counter it. See the next section for ideas.

Low Productivity

Mismanaging time almost always leads to inefficiency. You really do want to work smarter, not harder. Jumping around to disparate tasks or trying to multitask severely reduces your productivity. Multitasking is a myth. Choosing to take time to develop a plan and prioritize boosts your productivity and actually ends up giving you more time to complete tasks because you are completing them more quickly or without wasted time. Low productivity compounds time management challenges and can contribute to feeling stressed.

Dropping the Ball

If you aren’t prioritizing your tasks by urgency, you may end up missing something important that needs to be done today. In nursing school, this may have difficult repercussions on your academic or social life, but for practicing nurses, dropping the ball can have further reaching implications, such as a patient’s health. Ordering tasks by importance and making detailed checklists will train you to prioritize patient health while on the job.

Increased Anxiety and Depression

If you live in a state of feeling stressed or overwhelmed for too long, it can lead to the development of anxiety or depression. Untreated, these conditions can have long term effects on your overall well-being. If you are finding yourself lacking enjoyment in daily tasks or regularly experiencing heightened responses to normal life situations, do not hesitate to seek help. See our tips below or seek more immediate help by dialing 988 to contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Less Time for Self-care

Poor time management can set off a vicious cycle of reduced productivity and reduced time to practice self-care as a result. As you become more overwhelmed or stressed, your productivity drops and tasks begin to take longer or you end up taking more frequent, but unproductive and unrefreshing, breaks. At this point, you have even less time to spend on the type of genuine self-care that will help you recharge and revitalize. Planning ahead for self-care and making it a priority can greatly benefit both productivity levels and your well-being.

Overcommitment

We all want to be liked and to please other people. If you don’t have an accurate idea of how much time you have or how much time you need to complete the tasks you have already committed to, it can be easy to overcommit. Overcommitment is a time management nightmare because it cannot be solved simply by better planning. Learn to say no. Practice applying this to both the professional and personal areas of your life.

What to Do When You Get Overwhelmed

While you can’t control outside circumstances, you can be prepared to deal with the stress they may cause in a healthy way. Instead of dwelling on shortcomings or feelings of stress, take action to combat them.

First, give yourself permission to feel your emotions rather than stuffing them away. Then, try to reset and take stock of the situation in order to move forward. The list below provides some concrete steps you can take to deal with feelings of stress or overwhelm.

Take a Break

Breathe deeply, take a walk, do something to clear your head. Unless you’re in the middle of a critical situation, it is okay (and beneficial) to walk away for a short period of time. Give yourself space to calm your body through a walk, deep breathing exercises, meditation, prayer, or other calming activity. Recenter yourself and try to identify irrational or untrue thoughts that are adding to your feelings of being overwhelmed. Reach out to a trusted person to listen if you need to process your feelings out loud.

Make a To-do List

Make a list of everything that you can possibly think of that is weighing on you and making you feel overwhelmed. Then, flex your prioritizing and delegating muscles and organize that list by how urgent the items are and who can help you complete tasks. This tactic, sometimes called a brain dump, removes the need for you to hold all of the items on your mind in your mind. You can also create to-do lists for different areas of life (i.e., academic, household, personal) that can help you prioritize and balance how you are spending your time.

Ask for Help From your Support Team

Help can look like asking for people to complete tasks on your list for you, but it can also take other forms. Maybe a friend is willing to cook a slightly larger meal so you can share it or throw a load of your laundry in with theirs. You can seek out accountability from your study group for your weekly time management planning sessions or daily study blocks. Think about what would help you be consistent in your time management, and find someone who can aid you in that way.

Practice Self-reflection

Try journaling about what you are experiencing. Leave any highly stimulating environment or stressful situation and find somewhere peaceful. Ask yourself, “What do I notice right now in my body?” You can reflect on emotions, thoughts, sensations, and even memories. This may help you better understand what is triggering your feelings of stress and give insight into how to combat them.

Evaluate your Current State of Mental Health

If you’re struggling with your mental health, be honest and proactive. There are concrete actions you can take to manage your mental health as a nursing student. Nursing school and the profession of nursing can be difficult and demanding, but knowing what to do when life and work get overwhelming will get you over the hump. If stress and overwhelmed feelings have become a significant barrier to your mental health, please seek help. Counseling is likely available through your university’s counseling center. Finding the right mental health professional and getting help will alleviate stress at home and in your studies and work as a nurse.

Conduct a Time Audit

If you find yourself feeling unmotivated or helpless, try doing a time audit and evaluate how you can use your time more effectively. Write down everything you did in a set period of time (a morning, a school day, a shift) and how long it took you. Then break down actions into categories of planned and unplanned and by priority level. Be sure to record the times when you are scrolling through your social media accounts and texting. Look for inefficiencies and wasted time. One huge benefit of a time audit is it can help you see where you are taking mindless breaks instead of intentional ones. Don’t let this shame you, let it motivate you to use that time more wisely. You can still scroll and text, but build that time into your schedule.

Prioritize Self-care

Take care of your body and mind. Plan intentional rest in your day and in your week. Prioritize healthy eating and getting enough sleep. If your body is rested and well-fueled, you will feel better physically and emotionally. Incorporate regular exercise into your daily rhythms. Set boundaries (such as bedtime and wake up time) and stick to them. Check your sleep hygiene habits and put away screens at least an hour before bed. Establishing rhythms helps your body and mind function well.

Time Management Resources for Nursing Students

Each person develops systems and procedures in a unique way. Below are some resources to help you develop an effective time management system that is sustainable.

Organize your Life with a Planner

Having a set location where to-do lists and schedules live can take a lot of mental weight off you. A planner is a great solution. You can use it to keep track of assignments, work schedules, appointments, and social events. Erin Condren is a favorite for many planner-lovers, including nurses.

Play the Nurse Time Management Game

Robin Hackett and Veronica Bigott developed a game that simulates time management on the nursing floor. This game allows nursing students to practice budgeting their time and accumulate more time to be the winner.

Learn to Meal Prep

Meal prepping is an important component of healthy eating and can be a lifesaver in nursing school and once you are working. It can save you a lot of time and help you make healthier and more intentional choices about your nutrition. Well-planned menus also lead to saving money and time in the grocery store. this article

Try a Kanban Board to Establish a Routine

Several companies with Kanban board capabilities offer free accounts, including Monday and Asana. A Kanban board lets you move tasks around so you can get a visual representation of what needs to be done, what can wait, and what you’ve managed to accomplish. If you are unsure what type of system would be beneficial for you, try out one for a week or two. If it doesn’t work, try another. Don’t be afraid to tweak systems to make them work for you.

Keep a To-do List

If you like to have your to-do list with you at all times, there are many apps available to help you achieve that. Commonly praised ones include Notion, Todoist, 135 (which helps you prioritize tasks), MyLifeOrganized, Habitica, and TickTick.

Use your Time Wisely

If you have to-do lists down pat but need help staying on task, check out apps designed to help you focus and maximize your time. Rize, Forest, Serene, and [email protected] can all help you improve the way you use your time.

Bullet Journals

If you want a more low-tech version, you can start a bullet journal. The designer of the bullet journal calls it a way to “track the past, organize the present, and plan for the future.” Bullet journals are more flexible and customizable than planners, but they require a bit more setup on your part.

Habit Trackers

Habit trackers can be low or high tech. You can create one in a journal, on a sticky not on your laptop, or use an app like Habitify. Tracking habits can be a simple way to start reflecting on how you use your time. They can also help you prioritize self-care by reminding you to move your body, drink water, and take breaks throughout the day. If you want to read more on time management, there are several well-known books on the subject. Entrepreneur has put together a list of 15 of the best time-management and productivity books of all time.

Interview with a Nurse

Melissa Capps graduated from nursing school with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Saint Louis University in 2007. She obtained a Master’s of Science in Nursing with an educator focus from Webster University in 2016. Melissa worked in an acute care hospital with adults on a neuro-tele floor as a staff nurse, charge nurse, and preceptor full time for 11 years. During that time, she also mentored/coached, precepted, and was involved in the onboarding orientation process and training of the new graduate nurses on two telemetry floors in the nursing residency program. She currently works as a full-time nursing instructor at a college, where she has been teaching for the past four years.

Q1. In your experience, how important is time management as a skill for nurses?

A. Time management is extremely important and an essential skill for nurses. Having good time management skills can lead to many positive outcomes. A nurse that is organized can prioritize care, manage time appropriately, and will be more productive and efficient. If a nurse is not managing time well, this can lead to getting behind on scheduled interventions that need to be completed, the nurse feeling stressed or overwhelmed, which could then lead to errors being made.

Being more organized and managing time well can increase job satisfaction, productivity, and patient satisfaction.

Q2. With what aspects of time management do newly graduated nurses or nurses new to a floor most struggle?

A. New nurses often struggle with how to prioritize tasks as well as delegating, which are important in managing time.

One of the biggest barriers from transitioning from student to graduate nurse is not having the experience of providing care and having to prioritize and manage time for multiple patients. In the clinical setting for nursing students, the student may have the opportunity to provide nursing care to 1-2 patients, but the opportunity may be limited in which they are providing and managing the care for 5-6 patients, as they would be on a floor as the primary nurse.

Another limitation which affects time management as nursing students transition to practice, is lack of certain types of experience that they don’t receive in nursing school. For example, the goal for the student nurse is to provide patient care and learn how to complete physical assessments, documentation, administer medications, and complete interventions/procedures, among other things. However, there are several other “behind the scenes” things that the primary RN still has to complete and manage with the team even when a student nurse is assigned to those patients.

The primary RN is still overseeing the care. He/she is the one calling the physician and entering in the physician orders, and the primary RN is collaborating with multidisciplinary teams such as admissions and discharges and many other things that the student nurse isn’t managing. The student nurse may be involved and observing these events, but the primary RN is leading the care. The student nurse during clinicals, depending on experience, may not have had the opportunity to care for multiple patients as the leader and manage all aspects of the care. Having 5-6 patients independently is a change from the student nurse role in the clinical setting, but this will be the expectation for the newly graduated nurse on the floor.

Q3. What are some of the best time management practices a nursing student can develop that translate directly into working as a nurse?

A. Utilize an organizational tool or checklist which includes all of the standard things that need to be completed each day for each patient. Check items off the list, once completed. Don’t procrastinate, spread tasks out throughout the day. Learn that it is ok to delegate when appropriate.

Learn how to prioritize the most important tasks; ask yourself, “what do I need to do right now, what should I do next, and what can wait and be put on the “to do list” for the shift.”

Try to anticipate patients’ needs. When in a patient’s room completing a task, attempt to get one step ahead and ensure that all basic care and comfort needs are met. Ensuring they have water, asking if they need to use the restroom, assessing pain and comfort, and always asking if there is anything else that they need could potentially decrease the chances that the patient will have to call the nurse which could result in multiple trips back and forth to the room. Try to cluster the care, bring in everything you would potentially need, and address all needs while in the patient’s room for that given time. Remember to always work smarter, not harder.

Q4. What are some signs you look for to know that a nurse is not managing time well?

Q4. What are some signs you look for to know that a nurse is not managing time well?

A. The nurse may appear to look flustered or overwhelmed as he/she is getting behind on scheduled tasks. Other signs include:

  • Tasks not being completed
  • Errors being made because of rushing.
  • Not taking breaks or eating lunch.

Clocking out late to stay over to finish charting.

Q5. Are there any common myths or misconceptions about time management and nursing that you would like to address?

A. Being able to manage time well, especially as a new nurse, is not something that just happens. It is a skill that has to be developed over time and will improve with experience.