In the spring of 2021, I thought I had everything under control. I had just updated my organization and I had never been more put together. I tracked all of my tasks in Trello, scheduled all of my meetings in Google Calendar, and planned my day using a time block planner. I even made checklists for every assignment. Everything was going great.
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And then things started to slip. I forgot some meetings with friends and professors. I missed some due dates. I started to feel more and more tired and stressed than ever. Nothing catastrophic, but I was working too damn hard to feel this scattered and perform this poorly. What was wrong? It took a month of thinking (and my girlfriend’s gentle scorn) to realize the obvious: my organization was $#!%.
Organization—how you track and manage your time, tasks, energy, and deadlines—is critical to students. Your most precious resources in life are time and energy. How you deploy them in large part determines your success. Good organization allows you to use your time and energy in the smartest possible way to get the best grades in the least amount of time and with the least stress. I’m a busy student—I run a club, write professionally, and regularly drown up to my ears in pre-med courses and philosophy seminars. But because I organize well—start assignments early, plan my day, plan my week, keep track of all pending tasks—I rarely have to work later than 5:30 pm. You can, too. All you need to do is organize yourself well.
But there’s a big misconception around organization. People think of it as a task—something that you do, something that is easy and just has to get done—but it’s not. Organizing is a skill. It’s something you have to practice, something you get better at, something that’s hard at first but gets easier over time. Some people are naturally talented at organizing, but most of us aren’t. I am no exception. I’m organized in some ways (I’ve always kept my room pretty neat), but not in my work life. I constantly forget deadlines, appointments, and everything else more than a week away. It took me years of practice, trial and error, and mistakes to go from a bit of a mess to very organized. It was worth it, but it wasn’t a smooth journey.
Perhaps the most embarrassing part of that process was spring 2021. I was so convinced that I had my $#!% together, but, in reality, I was over-organized and creating a mountain of unnecessary work for myself. It took a few months, but, after a lot of experimentation, I figured out how to manage my tasks and time in a way that made me more effective and not just busier. Here’s the story of how I went from unorganized to actually organized. It all began with a planner . . .
When I realized that something was wrong with my organization, I couldn’t believe it at first. How the hell could that be true? I was so damn on top of everything, with my three apps, and my daily planner, and my calendar . . . Then I took a step back. The whole point of organizing your time, tasks, and energy is to do more work on time, faster, and at a higher quality. Organization is supposed to make you more effective. Mine was making me less. It was so complicated that it slowed me down and gave me a headache.
Take just my Trello board. I tracked all of my assignments on it. Each assignment was assigned a little card that went on a board for the day of the week. The “Monday” board would have cards like “Spanish Homework” and “Philosophy Readings.” Simple enough, right? Not exactly. On any given day, I would have around ten assignments I needed to do. Then I would also have to add in my special events or notes from my Google Calendar. Then I would take all of those tasks and write them in my daily plan. If any of my tasks or events changed, I would have to update them on Trello, Google Calendar, and my daily planner. It was a massive hassle. On top of that, I would add checklists to my tasks in Trello. Each task had between five and 10 checkboxes. So on any given day, I would have to organize my Trello, my calendar, my daily planner, and 75 stupid checkboxes. No wonder I was burned. I was doing so much extra work that I had just made up.
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“What you need,” my girlfriend told me, “is a radical simplification.” Forget the Trello boards, the special daily planner, the G-Cal, and go back to square one. She convinced me to try her super simple but effective system of organization. It has just two parts, a paper planner and sticky notes. My girlfriend writes all of her tasks in her calendar. Then, in the evening, she writes the next day’s tasks on her sticky note in the order she wants to do them. Throughout the day, she works through each task until it’s done, then crosses it off her sticky note and in her planner. Whatever she doesn’t get to gets rescheduled. Simple enough, right? She convinced me to give it a try. That afternoon, we drove to Target and bought a yearly planner and some sticky notes. I was skeptical the whole way through, but, if it works for her, it should work for me, right?
Alas, I am not her. While the sticky note/planner system worked great for her, it really didn’t work for me. The reason was that my girlfriend, by nature, loves flexibility in her day. She likes to work on something when she can and keep working on it until she’s done. If it takes a few hours, so be it. I do not work that way. I like to schedule individual tasks for certain times because I need time pressure to work efficiently. Unless I write “do 400 flashcards in 60 minutes from 5-6 pm,” I’ll procrastinate it or half-ass it. The sticky-note/planner method was kinda like my worst nightmare because it let me slack off all day. It was simpler than my last approach, but it was too simple for me because I lacked the structure I needed to push myself to get more done.
It took me a few months to realize that the sticky-note/planner system wasn’t for me. I was working in a lab and taking a summer course. I arrived early at the lab and planned my day, but I just never felt organized. My notes were separate from my daily plan which was separate from my calendar. I kept track of all of my assignments and deadlines, but I wasn’t focused throughout the day because I didn’t have that time pressure. I could follow my to-dos, but I was slow to do them. Intuitively, I felt something was wrong, so I made some minor corrections to the system. But nothing clicked.
Then, in August, I got an idea. What if I kept the calendar but traded my sticky notes for just a plain text document? I had been taking notes for my classes and my lab on the Apple Notes app—what if I just planned my day using that? That would collapse my daily plan and my notes into one spot. I could also assign tasks for any given time in my day, creating that time pressure I needed. And a plain text document is flexible enough to modify throughout my day when something inevitably goes wrong. It fit all my criteria. Check, check, and check.
This new system of using a planner for appointments and events and using the Notes app for notes and a daily plan works perfectly for me. It has enough flexibility to change at any given moment but enough structure to keep me focused and hard at work. It’s still what I use today, though I’ve made many updates. I now have what I call a “Master Sheet,” one document that tracks everything that I may need to look at in a day, everything from my finances, to new habits I’m trying out, to projects and future to-dos. I have never been more organized or effective than I am now.
Lessons from This Story
What can we learn from my year of organizational hell? Having lived it, here is what I found most valuable about my adventure:
- Start simple: I organize to make my life easier, not harder. It was a mistake to use a system that covers every conceivable problem or task because it was too complicated. Juggling Trello, Google Calendar, my school notes, and a daily planner slowed me down. I should have started with a simple system, sticky notes/planner, and worked up from there to a system that met all of my needs. Start simple, then build up.
- Iterate, iterate, iterate: Once I had adopted my sticky notes/planner system, I kept tweaking it to meet my needs. Eventually, I had to scrap and replace the whole thing, but the principle is the same: constantly update what you have to meet your current demands. To this day, I make edits to my system all the time (I actually have a task to change one thing about my organization every day). It keeps the system fresh and ensures that I’m always addressing the problems in front of me.
- Tailor your system to your needs and personality: I am not a Google Calendar person. Nor am I a sticky note man. Both are too small and constrained for me. I like the flexibility and adaptability of a blank note in the Notes app. You will almost certainly be different! There is no “right” way to organize. Just do what works for you and what meets the problems in front of you.
- Centralize: One of the (many) reasons that my first setup failed was because it was scattered. My tasks were separate from my plan, which was separate from my notes, etc. The planner was a step in the right direction because it condensed all of my obligations down to one spot, but it was a little too simple for me. What I have now is still super centralized, with all my tasks in one place, but it’s still flexible for me. Condense your responsibilities, plans, projects, and everything else down to as few spaces as possible.
Remember, the goal of organization is to become more effective—work faster, better, easier. Above all, design a system that works for you to make you better at whatever it is you do. Start simple (I would recommend with sticky notes and a planner) and update your system every day to make yourself a little better at what you do. Solve the problem in front of you, do what works for you, and centralize your system as much as possible. It’s a lengthy process, but the payoff is worth it.