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I am in university, and have been challenged in keeping on top of assignments and studying. It's tricky to juggle work coming from multiple directions, and things tend to get forgotten or pushed aside in the process. It hasn't become a problem for me yet, but I'd like to nip it in the bud before it gets there.

Are there techniques or tools that are particularly relevant to university students for keeping on top of studying and working on assignments?

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How do you currently handle your assignments and studies? – Renan Jul 12 '11 at 17:51
And I assume that current situation isn't giving you the best result? The reason I'm clarifying is because in the university situation I always found myself performing a lot better when I worked to a tight deadline even though I could have done things in advance. – Dmitry Selitskiy Jul 13 '11 at 13:13
@Renan I work off my memory, such as it is, which is part of the problem. I sometimes forget things or mix them up, leading to a panic-mode push to finish an assignment or study for a test. – Grant Palin Jul 13 '11 at 14:47
@Dmitry Things are kind of getting done, though sometimes poorly. My current situation is somewhat stressful, as I'm putting things off, or forgetting them. I'd like this to change so that I'm more in control. – Grant Palin Jul 13 '11 at 14:50
Good comment @Grant. Just clarifying the question. – Dmitry Selitskiy Jul 13 '11 at 15:05
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Lists are absolutely the best way to stay on top of everything. Lists give you a visual, tangible idea of where you have been (assignments-wise) and where you are going. Do your best to prioritize as much as possible; it will keep you aware of what needs to be done now and what can wait until later, tomorrow, the weekend, or 5 minutes before class.

That said, there are other tips to keep yourself organized:

  1. Invest in a planner. - Day planners (or the cheapie kind that your University probably sells at the bookstore) are absolutely clutch. Copy out assignments from the syllabus, take notes on reading changes the professor mentions in class, and write in giant, capital letters the due dates for papers, tests, and projects into your calendar! For example, if you have an Orgo test on April 18th, then on April 18th, write in all caps, "ORGO MIDTERM!" Also copy out meeting times and meet-up plans when you make them so that you're never late or forget you've made plans. Finally, what always helped me was highlighting assignments that had been completed; whatever wasn't yellow still needed to be done.
  2. Use your Google products! - My university had a Google Enterprise contract, so all university students had Google products as part of their IT package. That meant we had Gmail accounts with associated Google Docs and Calendars. Even if you don't have Google accounts for your university, you probably have them for personal use, or your email client should support something similar. (Outlook 2010, if you're using it, has a Calendar built in, for example.) I would check my email before heading to class every morning, so I took to having my Google Calendar schedule emailed to me every morning at like 5:30am. It helped me remember meetings I might have agreed to via my email but didn't copy into my planner, and it helped me schedule out time for doing my homework, hanging out with friends, and sleep. Google Docs, meanwhile, is essentially a hard drive in the sky. Instead of emailing yourself your term paper at every edit, you can track edits in GDocs itself, allowing you to revert back to older copies. Google Docs also autosaves to The Cloud, meaning a freak hard drive crash isn't the end of your 30-page final due tomorrow. Finally, you can work on your paper anywhere. Suddenly find yourself with 45 minutes in the library? Take advantage of that time to make progress on your paper.
  3. Folders are your friends. -- I kept folders for each of my classes. I rarely if ever lost track of papers or handouts, and everything ended up essentially in reverse chronological order. I say folders (brads, two pockets) because these are lighter, cheaper, and easier to keep in satchels/tote bags/purses/smaller packs than binders. They also lie flatter than binders, so you can press them against a laptop in a computer bag, if need be.
  4. Color coding can save you time -- If you choose to keep a big desk or wall calendar, then consider color coding. At a glance, you'll be able to see what's dominating your time, what's the most time-consuming activity you have going, and where you have/can make time for other things you may wish to do. However, I don't suggest color coding in a planner; it can get cramped, colorful, and meaningless very fast.

I think, ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that work is only part of the college experience. Don't get me wrong; you want to succeed and do awesome in your major and your classes. However, do make sure to take time to go to the gym, hang out with your friends/floor, to check out all of the myriad amazing, cool, and found-nowhere-else activities and offerings that your campus has. Balance (and rest!) are the most important part of succeeding in university.

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Great answer, I think I'll try using color coding. Though I can't really see its value in Google Calendar (which has colors on calendars), I think it'll work better with post-it notes. Thanks – tomeduarte Jul 21 '11 at 20:44

In my experience, procrastination never simply occurs magically on it's own. What I mean by this is that if we legitimately want something done, it gets done. When we procrastinate, it is because there is an unusual incentive avoiding work until the last possible minute.

One common example of this is in the form of something called self-handicapping. Essentially what happens is a person holds a fear of failure. More than anything else they don't want to see proof that they are a failure at life. As a result, when they get an assignment they are not confident on, they will subconsciously push it off until the very last minute. The idea being that if they do poorly on the assignment, it will be because they did not have enough time, rather than their skills were not up to par.

For procrastination, my experience is that the best process is to identify, understand, substitute, and reinforce:

Identify: What belief or fear could be encouraging you to procrastinate. What do you gain by putting off tasks until last minute. When you physically muster all the willpower you can into doing an assignment on time, what worries, fears, or tendencies pop up? Eventually, you ideally want to come to a conclusion like the one above, where the base fear is "I'm a failure". Don't be afraid to also ask people close to you for feedback as to what they notice being motivators for your behavior.

Understand: Understand exactly how your current coping mechanism of procrastination both helps and hurts you. In the above example and probably in your own, it would be hurting you because it is obviously affecting your grades, productivity, and maybe even your ability to enjoy yourself. The way it helps in the above example, is it protects the person's self esteem. By at least not failing unintentionally, the person can feel that to some degree they aren't the failure could see themselves being.

Substitute: Once you understand the situation inside and out, find a new way of being that both fulfills your current need for productivity, good grades, etc. and your old need (in this example feeling like not a failure). An example of a new way of being would be to believe something like that you are a successful person as long as you are putting your full heart into what you are doing, and the reason for this is because success come from falling off the horse and getting back on it, not from never riding the horse in the first place.

Reinforce: Whatever new belief or way of being is, it will sound very appealing to you to hypothetically believe, but will sound like a load of absolute hogwash to you. We don't just magically believe new things, so you'll need to slowly reinforce your new way of being. You do this by finding small goals of little things that are of minimal effort to reinforce this new belief. An example would be as simple as finding evidence of people who had to fail to succeed such as Michael Jordon not making his high school basketball team, or Einstein being considered mentally handicapped as a child due to not talking until he was four.

The whole above process is very long and very slow, taking easily months to years depending on the difficulty, but it's incredibly worthwhile. I recommend making smart goals and pacing yourself, otherwise the process can get aggravating.

More on smart goals here.

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I made an edit to the formatting of your answer, to make this easier to read - just a suggestion. Maybe consider also adding sections to it, in order to separate the process from the background analysis? – tomeduarte Jul 21 '11 at 20:54
thanks, I'll consider doing that sometime, when I have some time on my hands. – Hearts_Journey_Coaching Jul 31 '11 at 3:05

First: Read Getting Things Done, The 7 Habits, or any of them. Dont implement their systems just yet. Sit and think.

I recently graduated from my University, and picked up a few things that really worked for me.

  1. As soon as you find out about a date that is important (due date, test, etc), put it on a calendar.
  2. As soon as you are assigned something, put it on a task list.
  3. Make time regularly to review these, and use these to make a smaller list for your current needs i.e. if you are devoting time to studying, make a list of what you need to study.
  4. Break up bigger projects into smaller ones - dont put the entire term paper on the list as one item. Smaller items allow you to track progress and generate less stress.

How you make and track these lists are up to you - I usually use something electronic, but when it comes to crunch time, I often resort to a whiteboard. It is hard to beat the tactile thrill of obliterating an item off the list.

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Here's my simple solution when I am feeling in a rut or like there's too much going on:

1) Make a list of everything you want/need to do and prioritize them according to urgency.

2) Make an inventory of all the things you absolutely have to do each day. i.e. work, class, eat, cook, sleep, etc. and determine how much time per day that will take up.

3) Take the remaining time and commit at least 3 or 4 hours per day to working on the items in step 1.

4) (Optional) I advise you take an hour per day where you just veg. Sit on the couch, watch youtube, read a book,...just zone out.

This always seems to work for me when I have tons of crap that needs to get done. Also, I cannot understate the necessity for SLEEP! If you can't commit to 8 hours of sleep each night, you will inevitably hit a wall and come up with lots of reasons to procrastinate and/or be very forgetful.

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Making a list is probably the best thing to do before starting to work with productivity systems and tools. Here goes a few suggestions:

  • Get a copy of Getting Things Done or The Pomodoro Technique.
  • Grab a piece of paper and start feeding it with the tasks you can do today.
  • Every task must be specific to an action.
  • Complex actions must be split in smaller tasks.

Once your list is too big to be handled on a paper or a Word document, start implementing one of the systems you've read about according to what currently fits you best.

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The interface of OneNote is good for taking notes of classes/ideas and sorting your classes as if it was a bindle. You're still gonna need a system to organize your studies though.

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When I was in university, I found that the best way to solve this problem was to do the work the day it was assigned. I found I was almost always able to get all the work done the night before it was due, so I just told myself it was due the next day. It helped a lot, and reduced the need to keep track of everything.

If you are taking more than 4 classes per week, then perhaps take the advice other people suggested.

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