In a previous post, I went through the story of how I went from disorganized, to hyper-organized, then to plain-old well-organized. In this piece, I want to outline the nitty gritty of what my process for making a student schedule looks like now. If the last piece described how I started, this piece details where I ended up.
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A lot of students I’ve talked to about organization are pretty hesitant. They think they’re “not that kind of person,” after all. I don’t think they realize how powerful good organization can be. As I mentioned in the last post, I took on a lot of work during college but rarely worked past 5:30pm. It wasn’t easy—I had to be at the top of my game all day—but it’s 100% possible to excel in your academics and have a life outside of school, and organizing is the key to making it all work. Here’s what I do on any given day to make that all possible.
Most students in either college or high school have three basic kinds of tasks:
- Deadlines or events: These are tasks that occur or are due at a specific time and often require a lot of work leading up to them. Tests, essays, projects, meetings, events, or one-off meetings all count. Anything you have to schedule falls under this umbrella.
- Recurring tasks: These are any tasks that happen regularly. Math homework that’s due every Friday is a prime example. They’re usually smaller and due every one or weeks. This category encapsulates most of the homework students have to do because most of it is recurring.
- Administrative work: These are all the small tasks that aren’t regular without a clear deadline but just have to get done. Filling out forms and responding to emails are good examples. I also extend this category to small personal tasks like laundry and calling my family because they function the same way: they take 10 minutes and should be done kinda soon.
By and large, these three categories cover the vast majority of your school work. From here, just follow three simple rules to figure out what to do:
- Deadlines go into a calendar. I use a simple paper calendar, but a school planner or Google Calendar would work fine as well.
- Recurring tasks go into a fixed weekly plan. This is a concept I’m stealing directly from Cal Newport. The idea is simple: for every work day of the week, write out a pre-set schedule for what you have to do when. For example, if I have a biochemistry problem set due every Friday, I block off Wednesday 4–5pm and Thursday 10am–12pm every week to just work on that. When Thursday comes around, I take my fixed plan for that day and follow it to the letter. Fixed weekly plans relieve a ton of stress because they take 80% of your workload (recurring tasks) and set them on autopilot. It also eliminates procrastination because I know I only have this block of time to finish something, so I feel pressure to get it done. (Pro-tip: Make sure to schedule in time in your fixed plans for small tasks that come up and longer-term project work, like writing an intro to a paper. Having that time blocked off in advance ensures that you can finish both your big looming projects and your normal weekly work.)
- Small tasks go into a small task list. This is a list I keep on Apple Notes for all of the small things I have to get done. I set aside some time in my student schedule to knock some out and keep up with all the little things. Nothing special, just a short list.
In reality, my system is more complicated than just these three things, but this is the bare bones of it. You can and probably should expand on this division of three tasks, but I think you need at least this in order to have a functioning organizational system. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it just has to get the job done. Now that I’ve laid out the basics, let’s see an example of what a system looks like in action.
Real-World Example: Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Here’s an actual example of what I do to organize on a daily basis. Don’t worry if this seems like a lot—it is. I try to be as organized as I can to get the most out of my work time. Pick and choose what works for you and just do that.
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Every morning (after my morning coffee and book) I sit down at my desk to plan my day. I make a new note in the Apple Notes app and title it with the date. My first task is to catch up on everything I did the previous day, so I check the previous day’s notes for 1) any unfinished tasks that I was supposed to do that day or 2) any incoming tasks that I have to do later. On June 20th, the previous day, I didn’t finish my “Anki 100 new [cards]” when I was supposed to, and I had a bunch of small tasks come up like “cut hair” and “trim beard.” I also have an event (“Friday drink with boiz”) and a new project (“Log books”) that I have to process. No problem: I move all of the small tasks to a “small tasks” list that I keep in a separate note. I added the Friday event to my paper calendar. And I add the “Log books” to a list of projects I have planned for this summer.
Again, this may seem like a lot, but it really isn’t. In 90 seconds in the morning, I’ve sorted everything that I have to do, including small items that easily fall through the cracks.
Once I’m done catching up on yesterday, I move on to planning today. First, I copy and paste a “daily template” from my fixed weekly student schedule into a new note for that day. Today is Tuesday, June 21, so I copy over my Tuesday template and write “June 21” at the top.
Next, I check my calendar for any events I have planned for that day. Once those are added, I add in any small tasks from my small task list that I want to get done. Today is a bit of an exception because I don’t really have any calendar events or chores, so I leave the template as is. As I go through my day, I check off what I accomplish and write down any future tasks at the bottom under “Tasks.”
What happens when my written student schedule doesn’t match my actual day? What happens if I can’t finish everything? This doesn’t happen that often because I’ve fine-tuned my student schedule to be quite accurate and flexible. When it does happen, I just readjust my student schedule to match what I want to get done. For example, let’s say it’s 4pm (“16” on the planner) and I haven’t finished my blog writing (which, never, EVER happens).
I look over the rest of my day, determine what’s most important, and adjust accordingly. Since my article deadline is approaching, I decide to put off my flashcards for tomorrow and make room for writing at 5pm (“17” on the planner). I bolded the changes I made to make them more visible.
There’s a fair bit more that happens behind the scenes. I also have a weekly and quarterly plan that help me build my daily plan, but the core is a system of calendar, daily templates, time-block planning, and a small tasks list. It’s still in the works and probably always will be, but I hope that this helps you understand a little more of what goes into a tightly-organized student schedule.
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