Are You Making This Simple Time-Management Mistake?

Daniel Willingham
Psychology professor Daniel Willingham’s popular TikTok videos offer students scientifically backed tips for making learning easier and less stressful.
Photo by Sanjay Suchak

If you start each semester or each new school year with a positive attitude only to find yourself stressed out and overwhelmed after just a few weeks, you’re not alone.  But the problem may not be with your motivation, according to Daniel Willingham, a professor in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Psychology who studies human learning and author of the new book, Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy.  In a video Willingham posted to the social-media platform TikTok, he offers practical suggestions that could help you stay ahead of the game and keep you motivated all semester long.


Even if you start your semester with an abundance of energy and enthusiasm, making one simple time-management mistake could undermine even the best of intentions.  The problem, according to Willingham, is probably not with your motivation.  More likely, the problem is in the way you’re planning your time.


Whether you have reading to do, a paper to write or a test to study for, the mistake most of us make is in planning by task.


“People consistently underestimate how long it takes them to complete tasks,” Willingham says. 


Rather than thinking about how long it will take to complete a specific task, Willingham suggests you’ll get better results if you plan by time instead of by task.


Regardless of what’s due in the next day or so, Willingham says, “You want to have a set block of time that is devoted to schoolwork every day.”


If it feels like there’s not enough to do or that you set aside too much time at first, don’t worry, Willingham says.  “This is a mistake you can live with.  All it means is you’re going to get a little bit farther ahead of the game.”


And it’s far better to have too much time now than too little time later.


Focus on getting ahead in your work at first, Willingham explains.  The workload will grow as the semester progresses, and you’ll be ready for it.


The three-minute video posted just two weeks before the start of the spring semester at UVA is just one of a series of videos Willingham has posted for students and for teachers who are interested in what some of the latest research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience says about how to become better learners, how to study and how to stay focused and why some traditional study methods just don’t work.


The video has already had 1.7 million views and was originally just an experiment to help call attention to Willingham’s new book. 


“The book is written for students, and that’s where students are,” Willingham said.  But the response has been so positive, he adds, that he plans to keep going. 


“You never know where your audience is going to be and what’s going to resonate with them.”  And as long as the videos are meeting a need, he adds, “I’m happy to keep doing them.”


Willingham’s book, Outsmart Your Brain¸ book will be published by the Gallery Books imprint of Simon & Schuster Publishing on January 24.