Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Getting Things Done for College Students: Introduction

July 20th, 2007 · 2 comments

Today I begin a series of posts exploring student time management. The
goal of this series is to come up with an easy-to-apply, realistic,
and, above all, effective scheme that is optimized for the college

Today’s post proceeds in three sections. During the first, I briefly
survey my history researching and writing about student time
management. In the second and third, I describe the specific issues
that this series will explore. As always, I look forward to your
questions and comments.


Student time management is a subject I have long engaged. Five years
ago, I wrote an article for College Bound Magazine, in which I
interviewed two business productivity consultants to help provide some
sound advice for time-challenged undergrads. Later, while researching
my first book, How to Win at College, I interviewed the winners of
top national scholarships — Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, etc. — and
asked every one of them the same question: “How do you manage your
time?” This lead to the inclusion of rules such as:

Chapter 12 — Avoid Daily To-Do Lists
Chapter 23 — Schedule Your Free Time
Chapter 65 — Don’t Take Breaks Between Classes
Chapter 71 — Empty Your Inbox

This was not a self-contained system so much as a series of best
habits that push the student toward a more self-aware relationship
with their schedule. More recently, when researching my second book,
How to Become a Straight-A Student, I got the chance to interrogate
50 well-balanced, straight-A undergraduates about the nitty-gritty
details of their time management habits. This led to an entire chapter
devoted to the subject (Chapter 1.1 — Manage Your Time in Five
Minutes a Day). The system described in this chapter has two main

(1) Capture Your Task Immediately:
Keep a piece of paper and a pen on your person at all times. Whenever
a new to-do or deadline pops into your mind, immediately jot it down
on the scrap paper.

(2) Plan Each Morning:
Each morning take 5 minutes to update your calendar and plan your day.
First, copy the items from the scrap paper you had been carrying
around the previous day onto your calendar. Put the deadlines on the
appropriate date and choose days on which to accomplish the to-dos —
writing each to-do under the day you plan to tackle it. Next, look at
what has been recorded for the current day. Come up with a simple
schedule for when and where you are going to accomplish each of the
obligations. If there are more tasks than you can handle, move the
extras to future dates on your calendar.

Clearly, this system is not fully-featured. Nor was it meant to be.
The idea was to get students doing *some* useful scheduling.
Accordingly, I struggled to come up with, based on my interviews, the
simplest possible system that would still allow the user to experience
the two biggest advantages of any good time management system:

(1) Getting tasks out of your head and into a “trusted system.” This
cuts down stress and prevents deadline creep (e.g., “Oh shit! I have a
paper due tomorrow?”).

(2) Auditing your time. Students are notorious for significantly
over-estimating the amount of time they have available in a given day
to get productive work done. By forcing yourself to map out the time
during which you will be working, ensures that you gain a realistic
sense of how much you can actually get done, and, therefore, how early
you might have to get started.

This system misses several important features. For example, it
provides no guidance on *how* to break-up and schedule your work.
Similarly, it doesn’t help your prioritize and implement work that is
important to you — it treats all tasks the same.

For any student who is new to time management, I highly recommend
getting started with a simplified system such as the one described
above. It will get your mind thinking the right way, and expose you to
the benefits of smart scheduling, hopefully whetting your appetite for

An obvious question, however, remains: What about the student who is
ready for a more heavy-duty time management system? This is exactly
the topic that I hope to tackle over the next few weeks in this series
of posts. Specifically…


Many of the key features of the system I describe in “Straight-A” —
especially the focus on capture — are inspired by David Allen’s
Getting Things Done (GTD) system. Many of the features that I claim
the simple system misses — such as a way to prioritize work — are
also covered elegantly by Mr. Allen. So what is GTD? It is arguably
one of the most popular, effective, and realistic modern time
management systems out there right now. Because it already shares so
much in common with the habits I observe in successful undergraduates,
I believe that it’s a useful place to start for our exploration of a
serious student time management system. Specifically, in the upcoming
series of posts, I hope to explore how we can adapt and apply GTD to
the specific demands of college life. The end result of this
exploration should be a coherent, easy to understand, and effective
system for the student looking to master his or her schedule.


In the next post, we will briefly cover the main tenants of the GTD
system, and then identify where it might have the most trouble
applying to the student lifestyle. Adapting the system to work for
these trouble spots will be the goal of the posts that follow.

2 thoughts on “Getting Things Done for College Students: Introduction

  1. Al says:

    Very useful article, Cal. Thank you.

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