When I was in the 6th grade, back when the Sony PSP was still the bomb, my mom promised me that she would buy me one if I made the honour roll for my grade.
This meant that I had to have a 95% overall average in all my classes for an entire school year.
Well, I worked hard enough and was on track… Until I hit the mid-term mark.
By this time, I was tired of studying all the time and not having enough time to play… And that Sony PSP seemed like a distant prize.
So I started spending less time studying, and more time on things that mattered more at the moment – like playing Digimon World 2 on my Playstation One.
Needless to say, I never got that Sony PSP.
You’ve probably experienced something similar.
You start out the semester feeling motivated when you’re not juggling a ton of balls, yet. But since the semester is long, your motivation and organization starts to slip, little by little.
Pretty soon though, you start compromising here and there – until you find yourself sitting on the couch watching Korean dramas, when you should have been working on an essay that’s due in a few days.
Ugh. Not again.
So how do you fight back and keep it all up until all of your finals are done?
Here are 3 things I’ve learned that can help you stay ahead of you schoolwork and finish semesters, just as well as you start them.
1. Get Your Task Management System in Order
First, you need a good way to get things into your calendar so that tasks don’t occupy space in your brain, because you need it for other things – like guessing which guy the Bachelorette is going to give the final rose to.
Here are some tips:
Fill Out Your Calendar Completely at the Beginning of the Semester
This means adding any project due dates, quizzes, exams and assignments to your calendar. You can also break down any big projects or exam revisions into smaller chunks that you can work on throughout the semester. (More on that in Tip #2.)
Add Tasks the Moment You Hear About Them
As soon as you hear about a new to-do, say an additional homework problem for your calculus class, add it to your to-do list or app.
I like using Gmail Tasks because it’s simple and shows up on my Google Calendar, but Thomas likes to use To-Doist.
The exact tool isn’t important as long as it lets you add things quickly.
For example, Tom’s friend Martin uses a daily note – a small notebook that he writes down tasks in without fiddling with any due dates.
At the end of the day, he goes through everything he wrote down and schedules them into specific dates, which brings us to…
Have a Weekly Review to Keep Everything Organized
A regular review helps you focus on urgent tasks, while staying aware of any distant due dates that you should start working on. A review can come in many different forms – for example, a retrospective at the end of each week to review what you accomplished and how you can do better.
Personally, I do a daily shutdown ritual and a weekly planning ritual:
- On my weekly planning, which I do either on Monday mornings or Sunday afternoons, I create a daily goal for what I want to get done.
- On my daily shutdown, I move tasks around my schedule and then look at what I have on my plate in the next 2 weeks.
(Check out this podcast episode and this video for more specific details about productivity systems.)
2. Break Things Down into Manageable Chunks and Start Early
According to Parkinson’s Law,
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
You’ve probably experienced this before.
You give yourself an hour to finish a small task, that you’re pretty sure won’t require the entire hour – but it ends up taking the entire time, anyway.
This wastes a lot of time, so here are two tips to help you avoid this.
Break all Assignments down into Smaller Milestones
This tactic helps make the work less intimidating, which means you’ll have less resistance towards starting it.
To do this, firstly, you need to take your assignments and projects, including required readings, and break them down into manageable chunks.
Then, you need to set mini-deadlines so that these chunks are taken care of bit-by-bit, instead of piling them up right before the due date.
Similarly, 2-3 weeks before an exam, you need to sit down and figure out everything that needs to be reviewed, then break that up and spend time each day studying one of those chunks.
Now you may need to come back to certain things several times, but if you’re studying actively and quizzing yourself, you’ll be able to easily determine what your weak points are.
Make the Milestone Due the Same Day You Get the Assignment
This can be a tiny milestone.
For examle, if you’ve just been assigned an essay, it could be a 5-minute brain dump of topics you want to write about and possible sources you can look up.
This way, you’re getting started when you still have a very clear memory of all the requirements so you don’t have to spend any time re-familiarizing yourself with things.
3. Work Every Day
This last tip is where most students falter.
When we’ve let the system get disorganized and messy – papers get put in the wrong place or shoved in our bag, tasks get written down on the back of our hands – we’re starting to rely on your brain to remember things.
Remember that this is something you should minimize so you can spend your brainpower on more important things, like figuring out a math problem, or how to stop Gandhi from nuking your cities in Civilization VI.
To avoid this, whether its maintaining your organization system or doing the work of studying, you need to work every single day.
The novelist Anthony Trollope once said,
“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.”
As Trollope emphasizes in his quote, small but frequent work produces better quality stuff, while being less stressful than if you were to cram it all to the end in a single, herculean effort.
This is because frequency prevents slumps and makes it easier to get into the flow of your work. Cal Newport in How to Win at College said,
“Student slumps occur when you take a long break from work and then find yourself unable to easily pull yourself back into a working rhythm. In order to deny the opportunity for this to occur, you should do some amount of schoolwork every single day.”
As Cal says, to avoid slumps, you should be doing some amount of work every day – even if it’s writing just one sentence for your English essay.
C’mon, you can do just one, right?
The resistance to starting is what prevents a lot of us from getting things done well in advance – we wait until we have barely any time left. At that point, the panic pushes us past that resistance – but it also stresses us out and causes us to do work that’s not up to our full potential.
To combat this and to consistently perform well in school you need to have a good task management system, in addition to honing the habit of working on small chunks every day.
If you focus on getting just a little bit done each day, you’ll find that you’ll power through each semester with significantly less stress, and far better results.
I received a free ClassTracker Planner mentioned in this post. All opinions are 100% mine.
Let’s talk about assignments. I’m pretty sure that every task or obligation related to class I’ve ever had to complete usually involved me complaining about it ad nauseam, but this time, friends, I’m actually here to share some valuable advice with you when it comes to getting your crap done.
In college, assignments can pile up much faster than you might expect. Do your calculus homework suddenly becomes do your calculus homework, read chapters 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 for English class, and write an 8-page extra credit paper to save yourself from flunking. Before you know it, you’re consuming way too many gummy worms and way too much coffee trying to finish everything in time. Unfortunately, there will rarely be a time when you have very little to nothing on your plate, so I’ve come up with these tips to help you manage your tasks a little easier. Plus, I’m sharing a review of one of the most well-known academic planners for students, the ClassTracker Planner, so stick around to hear (read?) my thoughts!
1. Use down time in between classes to work on assignments.
You don’t have to wait until your day is done and you’re back in your dorm room to start cracking open a book. If you’re ever bored during your two-hour break between classes, or if none of your friends are free to hang out then, grab some lunch and sit down with your homework. This is how I get the majority of my work done most of the time. I bring whatever materials I’ll need, and in between classes, I go to my favorite study spot and get right down to it. It makes me feel like I can breathe a little easier even if I only manage to complete one assignment. That’s one less assignment to worry about later on. Plus, in the time that you would’ve spent doing the assignment at night, you can now go out to dinner with friends or attend a club meeting.
2. Get the quick and easy assignments out of the way first.
I like doing the easy stuff first so I don’t feel like I need to rush through the longer, more in-depth assignments. Plus, this is a good way to stay motivated to keep bowling through assignments because you’ll actually be able to cross things off your to-do list. And, honestly, a lot of times it’s the small assignments like these that we often forget about and then have to b.s. at the last possible minute. When you sit down to do homework, always ask yourself: which of these assignments can I finish in an hour or less? And that’s probably the assignment you should tackle first.
3. Pay attention to due dates.
Most professors don’t offer credit for late or missed assignments, so make sure you manage those dates. Set reminders on your phone or laptop if you have to. Write down the due dates on sticky notes and tape them to every wall in your dorm room—whatever works. Not staying on top of important dates is the easiest way for your work load to fall apart. Keeping due dates in mind can also help you prioritize assignments, so you’ll know what you need to get done the earliest, and what you can afford to keep on the back burner for a little while longer.
4. Read your professor’s emails.
Believe it or not, your professors actually don’t sit at home and decide to pull an email from their behinds for craps and giggles. Read those messages in their entirety because they’ll contain information regarding any changing deadlines or assignment expectations that you’ll really need to know. Avoid starring them for later, because chances are you’ll forget you even put a star next to them and you won’t ever read them.
5. Don’t think you’ll “just remember” it.
I’m super guilty of having done this in the past, and it usually comes back to bite me. Never trust that you’ll simply remember which chapters the professor wants you to review for an upcoming exam, or the due date of your next project. Write them all down! This also goes for the small things, like running errands, that you tell yourself you’ll remember and then five minutes later you forget. Planners are the perfect way for you to organize all this information. They’re also way better than grabbing a scrap of looseleaf from your bag and scribbling down reminders. Make sure you invest in one for the school year. And speaking of planners…
I promised I’d share my thoughts on the ClassTracker Planner I recently received, and here they are! As you probably already know, I’m obsessed with planners and organization, and love being able to easily plan things out. And, the coming of a new semester just makes me extra excited for all that. The ClassTracker Planner is meant to be a clean and simple planner that makes organization easy. I chose the color “Teal” to match the aesthetic of my dorm room and most of my school supplies. The planner is very slim, which means it won’t take up much space in your already-heavy backpack. Previously, I had been using the Happy Planner, which I love to death because of how colorful and inspirational and quirky it is, but it is a bit bulky and often added a little extra weight on my shoulders.
The planner I received covers the academic school year for August 2017 to May 2018, and when you flip open the pages, there are three charts for you to write out your semesterly schedule. I like that there are three schedule charts instead of just two because some colleges actually have more than two semesters. Mine doesn’t, but this would be very helpful for the people whose colleges do. There’s also a section for writing down your goals. I divided that box into three columns so I could divide up my goals between different semesters. I added another term just in cade I decide to study abroad again this winter! I personally love setting goals because they help me stay focused and help me understand what steps I need to take in order to get where I want to be. Check out my Fall 2017 goals post if you’re curious about what the rest of my goals are!
Another thing I’m obsessed with is calendars, so I was glad to see the next page incorporated into the planner. I like actually being able to see any events, appointments, and due dates organized in squares next to each other because I’m more of a visual person and this helps me better gauge how much time I have before something important is coming up. As you can see, my August calendar is rather empty right now (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say that again in the coming months, though). And, you can feel free to use the extra space on the sides to jot down any reminders for the month, quotes to keep you going, or even just add fun stickers to the side to really make this planner yours.
The last section of the planner I’m going to share with you is the week by week section where you can actually jot down daily homework assignments and to-do lists. In my previous planner, this section was just seven columns across the page with space to just toss everything in, so I like how these columns are actually organized by assignments, things to remember, activities, and upcoming quizzes/exams. And, in the corner, there’s a section to create a small to-do list. I think this makes it super easy to organize everything you’re tackling that day so you won’t forget a thing.
If the ClassTracker Planner sounds like the answer to all of your college organization prayers, check out their site for more details and to purchase one for yourself (let me know what color you order!)
What are your tips for staying on top of assignments in college?