How to stay productive and organised at university

Is your study bag full of messy papers, leftover food, and random pens? Of course, this won’t directly affect your study, but all play a part in your organization and productiveness.

Getting set up to be organised is the easy part, it’s maintaining this throughout each semester and your time at college is the real key. You will work out your own way, but using calendar apps, notebooks, or paper journals are just a few ways to start getting organised!

Reasons for staying organised at university

“Your brain is for having ideas, not storing them” — David Allen, Getting Things Done

Of course, it will appear that many people can get by on caffeine and barely any sleep, but they won’t be getting by very well, or in a very productive way. They will be in a low state of stress because of these influences. It doesn’t mean they are working any harder as they appear to have more workload or be more frantic, instead it will be because of their disorganisation.

During class, they will appear somewhat alert and able to listen, learn and study effectively at the right times, but they could be living a far better quality of life and learning and living in a more productive way.

Learning to be organised and productive will drastically help bring down your levels of stress, whether visible or underlying stress.

People will always perform better when they are less stressed, this is physically as well as academically. Having less stress allows people to feel more in control and able to enjoy their personal time in social and extracurricular activities. A more pleasant vibe is given by the person who is in control and less stressed.

Of course, it is not automatic that by decreasing your stress level and becoming more productive that you will automatically increase your GPA. The studying still has to happen, assignments have to be completed, lectures have to be attended, the material has to be studied, and you still have to seek help if you need it.

For those areas of study that need more focus, time, and attention, if you’re organised you should be able to find the time to ensure you enjoy your social and extracurricular activities and still be able to build in time for those areas which require more focused study.

4 important points for getting organised

In order to help you get organised, take a look at the below aspects of your life to help get you off on the right foot, and help you succeed. Once you have understood the real value of getting organised, then it is time to put some ideas into place.

1. The calendar

A calendar is an integral part of most people’s lives, implementing and using it in the best way is another part of the challenge. So many professionals use a calendar, but by not keeping it up to date, it really isn’t serving it’s best purpose.

The idea of a calendar is to free up space in your head, remove the need for scrap bits of paper, post-it notes and just having to remember appointments or deadlines in your own head. A calendar gives you a one-stop-shop to keep everything that’s going on in your life written down and in one place, in an organised, convenient way. Of course, mobile devices give the opportunity to store everything digitally and enable reminders to be set so that nothing gets forgotten or mislaid.

There are so many options of digital calendars to use, whether it’s the app already set on your phone, a downloaded app or through your email provider. Some people may prefer a paper planner, and being creative and personal with it, but of course, this cannot provide reminders.

Brain dumping is a great technique to try when you’ve decided on the calendar you will use. Pick out all the key moments in time, events, and deadlines that are coming up and put them straight into the calendar. Make sure you consider academic aspects:

  • Important assignment deadlines
  • Meeting with tutors or mentors
  • Class times

Consider personal aspects:

  • Payment deadlines for rent, credit cards, phone bills, etc.
  • Dorm move-in / move out dates
  • Your part-time work (if you have it)
  • Exercise classes or times to do exercise
  • Meetings for social reasons or extracurricular clubs

Keeping track of all these things needs to be monitored on a daily and weekly basis to ensure you stay organised and achieve what you need to, as well as what you’d like to. A To-Do List can help with this.

2. How to use a to-do list

Having control of a To-Do list is the ultimate in organization and productivity. Of course, a calendar or diary can show you so much, but a To-Do list will take it to the next level.

Control of a to-do list is important, as if you have too many items on your list, it can become overwhelming and you may start to feel disorganised very quickly.

A calendar and a to-do list should be used for two different things:

  • A calendar keeps track of events that are happening on a certain day or a time that requires you to actually go somewhere and takes up a longer amount of time. Examples such as meeting with a tutor, a sports match you have to attend, or a specific class you have to go to.
  • A to-do list enables you to handle specific tasks that need to be carried out, but where you don’t need to actually be somewhere or take up a whole day. Examples such as spending some time learning a musical instrument, drafting a specific assignment, completing a certain task such as returning a library book.

So events stay in the calendar, and tasks stay in the to-do list.

In order to set up a to-do list, there are a few choices you should consider depending on whether you like pen and paper, or a digital version.

When using a pen and paper option, it’s worth researching the bullet journal method on YouTube as there are so many ideas that you can adapt for yourself. You can merge this with a digital system if you want.

If you want to use a digital system then do your research on apps such as Todoist, which is a free and easy one.

It’s down to you to work out what works personally, it could be chalk and a blackboard or a graffiti wall of post-its if you like! It’s just important that you keep an updated list of tasks you need to achieve as well as actually carrying them out!

Same as with a calendar, start with a brain dump of all the tasks you need to do, either on a regular basis or as a priority now. Then put them into your to-do list. Examples might be grocery shopping, cleaning your house/apartment, exercise, or any other extracurricular activities you do in your own time. Remember that for regularly occurring tasks, in a digital to-do list, you can set these as recurring, weekly, monthly, etc., and even in a paper to-do list, you can put these in, in advance.

3. Taking care of your study notes

In any lectures or other forms of learning where notes need to be taken, the ability to take effective notes is key to learning and retaining that information.

Notes need to be organised in order for them to be effective and for you to get the most value out of them, then and in the future. Just taking notes in a non-organised way is never effective enough.

There are so many ways of organising your notes, from digitalization to handwritten notes. Of course separate notebooks for each subject can be a start, but of course when you have huge amounts of notes to get through when it comes to the end of term and revision and exams this isn’t always the best option. Of course, you know where to look when referring back for future studies, but it can take a long time to find the information required, therefore not being productive.

Digitalization is a way of being more productive and organised. Using systems such as Microsoft OneNote or Evernote are just two examples of ways to keep notes digitally, and you can still keep separate files for each subject.

This of course lends itself to those who are comfortable using digitized notes, whereas those who like pen and paper will always turn to this (there are studies that say writing down can help your brain process information better). There is the opportunity to convert these to a digital program, just be sure to try and do this as soon after the class as possible, to keep organised. Evernote is a system that can help with this and enables a search to be carried out to find certain aspects, a much faster process than flicking through multiple physical pages.

4. Digital and physical class documents and files

Usually, you will receive many handouts, documents and presentations during your study time. These are in addition to all the notes you personally take, all of which need to be organised so you can review and look back at them at any particular time. You will get work returned to you that has been graded, which is equally as important for review.

You may be able to access most of the documentation online, and the trusty internet is a very useful tool. However, for those materials that are handed to you for various subjects and syllabuses need to be kept organised in case you do need to refer back. Keeping them in a physical folder, or as a digitized version is vital to be able to look back effectively.

Google Drive, as an example, is a great place to store files in an organised manner, or Dropbox is another service. Do your research and work out what’s best for you.

Plan to be productive and review this plan

By following the previous aspects discussed, there should be a way you can start to create a process for keeping yourself, and your studies organised. Identifying and creating this system appears simple, the difficulty comes in implementing the system.

There are a few key aspects that will keep you and your organisational system on track. Two that can be named: weekly reviews and weekly planning. They do not need to take you long, perhaps maximum 30 minutes but will have a huge impact on your organizational skills and maintaining them.

  • Weekly reviews
    Once you’ve put your organizational system into place, you should begin to feel positive and motivated about it.
    However, it may become apparent that your lists and calendar aren’t as tidy and accurate as you first expect them to be. There will always be aspects of life that crop up that will affect your plans, whether that be personally or through your studies. The most effective thing to do when this comes up is to try and adjust and correct to come back in line.
  • Weekly planning
    Planning for the week ahead is the next habit to create. Weekly planning is vital once you are able to review the previous week. By reviewing and adjusting what you have learned you are on the right track. A few steps to help support weekly planning.

Step 1 – The calendar and your to-do list need a weekly cleanse

By the end of the week, you will find there are events that aren’t relevant, or didn’t happen, as well as aspects that need to be rescheduled for the following week. There will be tasks that you didn’t get to do from your to-do list or managed to forget about.

Make sure you clear all of these out before planning the following week.

Make a note of any rescheduled events, and plan them in. Find new, realistic timelines and deadlines for tasks that you didn’t get to last week. Ensure all your loose papers and notes, whether pen and paper or digitised, are organised as you have set out.

Step 2 – Plan for the following week

Focus on the following week once you have cleansed through the previous week. Again, make a brain dump of all tasks you have coming up, personal or with regards to study. You can begin to plan in advance by looking at your online systems which have your syllabus and other class details on and transferring these into your to-do list system. Check any impending due dates and check your work schedule to make it as accurate as possible. Make sure you review your calendar to ensure everything planned in your head is noted down somewhere.

Organising your backpack at the start of the week will put you in good stead for the week to come. Get ready for tomorrow and try to cover all bases to ensure you keep stress levels low and don’t forget anything.

These two processes may appear time-consuming on first view, but as mentioned, really should take no longer than around 30 minutes. If you begin to do it every week, it will become routine and a habit and will take less time. Try and block out time for these processes to start with, so you can create the habit eventually.

Key aspects for quick review:

  • Calendar apps will help you with your organization
  • To-do list systems, either pen, and paper or digital are of benefit
  • Class materials need to be kept organised either physically or digitally
  • Organize your backpack as well as possible the night before
  • Each week, allow yourself a maximum of 30 minutes to review and plan
  • But ultimately, don’t let the organisational system get in the way of you accomplishing the things you really want to

Everything mentioned is to help you to focus on the work that needs to be done, and to achieve well. An organizational system that you set out for yourself will help you to keep stress down and manage effectively. This is your chance to achieve something great, so go for it!


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