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How to Get the Most out of Your Student Schedule: 8 Tips for Organizing Your Planner

College and high school students have been at it for a few weeks now. With classes well underway, the initial good intentions you had about staying organized this semester may be starting to lag. When your scheduling system starts to fall apart and completing assignments and studying for tests the night before becomes more or less of a common occurrence, it’s time to get back on track. Planning your student schedule takes a short amount of time for its payoff, which may mean hours of saved time due to the increase in productivity, not to mention ridding yourself of the stress and anxiety of finishing assignments at the last minute. In fact, the Workforce Management Office of the NOAA claims that for every hour you spend planning, 3 to 4 hours are saved.

To give the best advice we can on organizing your student life, we decided to consult a professional. Marissa Jacobs is a Life Design Coach with a background in professional organizing, who has plenty of tried and true tips and tricks to help you get organized, and stay organized. Get out your planner, whatever that may look like, and start forming these helpful habits today.

1. Find a system that works for you.

The first step is understanding what works for you in terms of a scheduling system. If you like to have a physical copy, cross off lists, and put pen to paper, a paper agenda may be for you. If you’re constantly on the go, carrying your phone and laptop around, an electronic planner that sends you notifications may be more accessible to you.

“It has to be something that makes sense for you, first of all, and a habit that you can build that works in with your lifestyle,” said Jacobs.

Finding your best fit will take some trial and error. You may know you want an electronic planner, but have to play around with a few different versions to find one that you prefer. Or, if you are a paper planner person, you’ll have to find the right amount of writing space as well as a planner size that is practical to carry with you. Whatever you start with doesn’t have to be what you decide on. The most important thing is that you find something you’re able to use on a consistent basis, so play around with it!

“Part of it is trying some different things that show different ways to interact with planning features so you find something that actually works for you. The more you can do that the more likely you are to actually use it, maximize it, and maintain it,” said Jacobs.

Another important component to sticking with a schedule and planning is to keep it simple. While you may think it’s a good idea to use a complex color coding system at the beginning of the year when you have more time, you will probably fall off the wagon halfway through the year.

“The more simple your system, the more likely you are to maintain it,” said Jacobs, “but the more complex you make your system where it becomes burdensome, the less likely you are to stick with it.”

2. Make planning a habit.

Once you’ve honed in your preferred scheduling system, make it a habit. Finding consistency in your system will help you stick with organization and planning. To do this, set aside a small amount of time every day or a chunk of time once a week where you either plan out your day or your week. For example, you may have a set time every morning, say, after getting dressed, where you look over your planner and see what appointments or classes you have that day, what work you need to do, and other plans you may have. You can then make a plan for how you’re going to accomplish these tasks. Additionally, you may have a set time every week, perhaps Sunday or Monday morning, where you input all of these events, classes, appointments, due dates, work hours, etc.

“Find a routine that allows you to really plan out your schedule and your assignments and all of those things so you know what’s coming,” said Jacobs, who stressed the importance of “getting into the habit of [planning] so you just know to do it, and it becomes less of a, ‘I have to remember to do this,’ instead, it’s more innate.”

3. Use batching to make your plans flow.

Knowing where and when to plan are the first steps, but how you plan is equally important. You may know what you need to get done, but it’s easy to become overwhelmed if you don’t have a plan on how you’re going to accomplish this. Jacobs recommends batching your time and focus.

“Our brains just don’t multitask that well even though we multitask all the time. The concept of batching is to focus on one thing at a time in a structured way,” said Jacobs.

Let’s use homework time as an example. Determine how much time per week you need to spend on homework for a certain class, then divy that time up appropriately in compliance with due dates. For example, you have a certain two-hour class, twice per week. Homework for this class usually takes you a total of six hours per week to complete and a weekly assignment is due on Thursdays. You may decide to spend two hours doing homework for this class three times per week, with two to three of those days being before Thursday. Schedule these hours out in your planner so you have a weekly routine for the class workload and don’t fall behind.

Additionally, you may choose to spend Sunday afternoons doing meal prep for the week. Whatever the case is, having a plan in place will keep you on top of your workload and feeling prepared for the day or week ahead.

Jacobs explained that this concept also allows you to be much more productive and “can make you a lot more efficient. You’re just less distracted,” said Jacobs, “so you’re more likely to actually check things off your list completely, versus doing a little bit of everything.”

4. Have a place to record all of your random tasks, and a set time to complete them.

We all have random tasks that come up that we know we need to complete, but they don’t take up much mental energy and can wait a few days or until the end of the week. This may include returning a library book, buying paper towels, or getting the oil changed in your car. Whatever these tasks may be, Jacobs recommends recording them somewhere like the notes section of your planner or phone, and having a set time that you use to check these things off your list. As a student, a day at the end of the week where you don’t have all-day classes or pressing assignments might be a good time to do this. Knowing exactly what needs to be done and having this consistent time to do it allows you to actually do those things in a timely manner.

5. Schedule things beyond just the due date.

“As you’re entering things into your calendar, sometimes it’s not enough to just enter the due date, or the appointment date, or the presentation date because if suddenly all you have is a reminder that you have a 15 page paper due tomorrow and you don’t see it until maybe a day before or that day–[it’s] not going to serve you,” explained Jacobs. “So, backing up your appointments and scheduling things beyond just the due date is another great way to use your planner.”

A way to do this is to put the final due date for a more time-consuming project, assignment, or paper into your planner, but then you put in periodic reminders to complete pieces of the assignment over a manageable amount of time. You may make an outline one day, do research another day, and on until the assignment is complete and you have effectively accounted for the steps needed to accomplish your goal.

“Taking those bigger tasks, assignments, whatever they are, and breaking them into bite-sized pieces that are actionable, but then making sure those are in your planner so you are staying on them is another great way to break down some kind of daunting tasks that may come up,” said Jacobs.

6. Schedule self care and recovery.

Whether you’re organized or not, a busy schedule that doesn’t let up can get you feeling bogged down if you don’t stop to take breaks and take care of yourself. While being disorganized can lead to deadlines that seem to have no end, being on top of those deadlines allows you to feel good about taking some time off and rewarding yourself. Jacobs recommends making this a priority.

“Just like you would schedule a test or an assignment, it’s also really important to prioritize and actually schedule recovery and self-time. It may sound silly but especially when you’re busy, this is the thing that’s easiest to let go of,” said Jacobs.

While a busy schedule makes it feel like there isn’t time for taking care of yourself, this is essential in order to keep your mental and physical health in check, and in the end may actually help you be more productive, clear-headed, and in turn, motivated.

These self care times can be shorter breaks like a walk around the park, exercise, and meditation, while those longer breaks may be one day that you don’t do any homework and instead connect with friends, go for a hike, or read a book.

“If we can schedule in these little bits of time that are nourishing for us it can actually really add to productivity for the rest of our time,” said Jacobs.

7. Incentivize yourself.

Similar to taking care of yourself, incentivizing yourself to do what needs to be done and stay on top of things will help you continue this behavior in the future. Treating yourself when you’ve done what you needed to do will build a positive brain association with productivity. Jacobs explained what this would look like for a student:

“So, I have completed every assignment for the week, I’m ahead on my homework, I’ve already planned out my next week. Because of that, I’m going to let myself watch a certain number of hours of Netflix, or I’m going to go get a massage, or I’m going to go treat myself to that latte at Starbucks that I try not to spend on. A little treat for yourself for being on top of it is conditioning,” said Jacobs.

8. Have accountability partners.

“We are social humans. Having accountability partners and people that are also working towards these goals can be an incredibly inspiring way to stay on track,” said Jacobs.

You can create this through communities you’re already engaged in. If you have roommates, are in Greek life, clubs, whatever your community may be, utilize that to hold each other accountable. You can form study groups and plan times to meet with others who are focusing on the same academic goals as you. Plus, you are a lot less likely to cancel on others if there’s a set plan, while it’s easy to change plans on yourself. You can also have some form of communication with this community like a group text or email chain to check in with each other and hold each other accountable.

While it takes some maintenance and getting used to, keeping your schedule organized will make your academic, extracurricular, and career goals much more attainable. Using organization to increase your productivity will allow you to “do it all” and stay on top of both what you need to do and what you want to do.

To help you get organized, we created a recap of all these tips. Download and enjoy!

Infographic summarizing organizational tips.

Interested in other student life tips? See also: Back to College: 8 Simple Tips to Start Classes off on the Right Foot.

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