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Start and Stay Organized

Practical tips for staying on track.

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Now that the newness of the second semester has worn off, it’s time to create an organizational plan that works best for your particular brain. One of the most common problems I see among college students (and older high school students, too) is the struggle to come up with a simple, effective system for keeping up with their work and staying on track. Far too often, students begin the term with promises to themselves that this year will be different but they struggle to figure out and follow through with a program that transforms their desire into reality.

What you need is a visual map that gives you an overview of your semester and a specific picture for each day. Think of this as a two-sided map to a challenging hike. On the front, you have a wide view of your starting point and then your final goal—the glorious view from the top. On the other side, you have the step-by-step guide of where the trail actually goes. This combination helps you move forward effectively.

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To start this process, you’re going to have to do some preliminary work that may well seem annoying and boring. There’s no way around this. The key lies in translating all of the activities of your life—classes, assignments, work shifts, appointments, study times, extracurricular activities—into visual blocks of time. I suggest that you begin with a calendar on your phone like the simple example below for the outline of your life. Remember to set alerts for each event to help you arrive on time. Assign different colors to each repeating event.

Next, purchase yourself a paper planner has the month laid out first, followed by weekly pages that have each day listed. On the monthly page, re-enter your repeating schedule, adding due dates for projects, tests and papers next to each class. If you want the consistency, you can use the same color-coding system from your phone. Add your planned study times to this calendar and highlight them. This is your wide-view map.

For the step-by-step guide, go to the weekly pages with the Monday through Sunday breakdowns. Write the specific weekly assignments for each class as well as the longer projects, tests and papers. Connect these tasks to study time blocks. Now you have the details of the trail.

While it may seem like all of this structure constricts your spontaneity, it’s actually offering you a road to freedom. When the ‘have-to’ elements of your life are planned realistically and clearly, you’ll have more time for the fun stuff, the 'want-to's, without feeling guilty or pressured by last minute deadlines. Instead of avoidance procrastination, waiting until the eleventh hour, perfectionism procrastination, delaying until something is just right, you can start projects in small enough chunks that makes them manageable.

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Yes, it’s not easy, you’ll need to make adjustments along the way and you'll probably stumble a bit. That's okay: This is how you learn to make a study program that best meets your needs. The goal is to reduce your overall stress so you're more capable of staying on top of your game!

More from Sharon Saline Psy.D.
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