This last week, I had conversations with two of my students who were discussing the problems they were having keeping up and keeping organized. One of them told me how he was struggling with procrastination. The lure of being social in the dorms, at the library, and between classes was keeping him from working on projects, leaving him to pull all nighters at the last minute. The other told me that she was taking extra credit hours and in an attempt to keep everything organized had created what she termed a “master syllabus,” a massive, color coded document a la Hermione Granger.
As we move farther into the semester, the pressure to keep up and keep organized can become more and more stressful. Here’s the advice I gave my students. Hopefully it’ll help you too.
Often, the problem that you face when you find yourself procrastinating is that you know you have a lot to do, but none of it is due immediately. It’s a catch 22: if you don’t start now, you won’t finish, but the deadline doesn’t seem pressing yet–you feel like you’ve got plenty of time. So, you put it off and put it off, and put it off. And then all of a sudden, you’ve got 24 hours and a 10 page paper due. Not ideal. So what’s the solution? Many students I’ve talked to have told me that it’s not that they don’t want to start. They do. And it’s not that they don’t know they need to start to get done. They do. The issue is getting started and keeping it manageable.
The solution is to break down the big projects and assignments into smaller, shorter tasks. When you break big tasks down, they seem more manageable. You don’t have to write a 10 page paper today, you just have to pick your question. You don’t have to do all the research for your paper, today you just have to find 5 articles.
Tackling a smaller task can help you overcome the psychological challenge of getting started. The project is now a small task that can be done in time to go to the club meeting or to watch the newest episode of Game of Thrones.
When you break down the project into smaller pieces, you can also plot out what you need to get done each day so that between the time you get the assignment and the time it’s due, you’ve gotten it all done and it hasn’t seemed too overwhelming to begin.
Another of the tactics I used to use when I was in school was to plan it out so that I would finish a paper the day before it was due, giving me enough time to read through it one last time. Adding in a buffer also lets gives you time to deal with any last minute emergencies, like the library hours changing without you knowing, or the internet going down.
Even if you aren’t prone to procrastination, having a lot on your plate can leave you feeling overwhelmed and burnt out. In semesters where you have a lot on your plate, there are a few things that you can do to keep you on task and feeling like you are conquering the world.
First, invest in a good planner and use it. Whether its digital or paper, having a planner is essential if you have a lot on your plate. Your brain (no matter how brilliant you are) is not good at storing all the information you need in your short term memory. Writing it down allows you to focus more clearly on the really important things on your schedule. It also means you are less likely to forget items on your to do list.
Second, make sure that you plan in some fun time and some down time. Working really hard at academics is just like being a hard core athlete: you need recovery time. It’s tempting to think that because we are studying and not working physically we shouldn’t get tired, but that’s definitely not the case. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up burnt out and doing poorly on tasks that should be easy. Get enough sleep, remember to hit the gym (or spend time outdoors) and do something fun at least once a week.
Third, know when you’ve reached your limit. Don’t sink your GPA just because you *should* be able to do this schedule or you *should* be able to pass this class. It’s one thing to push yourself hard and it’s another to end up failing a class. It’s far better to drop a class you’re going to fail and have a W on your transcript than an F.
Good luck, study hard, and be sure to share your study hacks in the comments below!