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The Unsinkable Student Organization System

August 25th, 2009 · 21 comments

Back to BasicsFiling

As the back to school season transitions from looming to present, it’s time I turned our attention back to the technical details of becoming an outstanding student. In this post, I want to tackle a topic that’s relevant on the very first day of your new semester: staying organized.

Here’s the thing about student organization: what seems like a smart, comprehensive system to today you, will be later seen as a terrible prison that blackens your heart and steals your freedom by the future you mired in the middle of the semester. As you might have guessed, this future you will abandon your smart system and fall back into unorganized chaos.

I want to help you avoid this fate.

Below I describe a dead simple student organization system. It’s a collection of the three basic rules that I’ve used for the past nine years to keep on top of the information in my student life.

Unsinkable Student Organization

This organization system consists of the following three rules…

Rule #1: One Class = One Notebook + One Folder.

Fans of the red book have heard this mantra before: The simplest way to organize your class materials is to have exactly one notebook and one folder for each subject. Every piece of paper handed out in class goes into the corresponding folder. All notes, study plans, administrative information, or any other original thought relevant to the course goes in the corresponding notebook.

(Note: If the professor allows you to take notes on your laptop, you should still buy a physical notebook to capture study plans, etc. Also, a physical notebook allows you to use the notebook method, which is perhaps my favorite study techniques of all time.)

Rule #2: Settle for Bare Naked Filing

For everything that doesn’t belong in a course folder — from your cell phone contract to the research for a major project — use the bare naked filing system that I introduced in this previous post. The core idea of this system to keep a big box of manila folders next to your desk. Every piece of paper you receive has to go into some folder. If an appropriate folder doesn’t already exist for the paper in question, label a new folder and stick it in. There’s no need to file these folders with some fancy scheme. Instead, do what I do: keep them in a pile. You’re a student, not a dentist’s office — you don’t need complicated filing cabinets to find what you need.

Rule #3: Use a Calendar Backup Notebook.

As I’ve pleaded many times before, you must keep a calendar that you check at the same time every day. (I like Google’s calendar, but anything works.) This simple addition to your student life will save you significant stress.

In addition to this calendar, however, my unsinkable organization system asks that you keep a small spiral-bound notebook with you at all times. When you encounter a date, appointment, or deadline, record it in this notebook. When you next review your calendar, add the dates from your notebook. (If you use a time management system like GTDCS, this can be the same notebook you use for task capture.) This ensures that you’re never scratching your head to remember what you’re responsible for and when.

21 thoughts on “The Unsinkable Student Organization System

  1. Jay says:

    I used to do the one class = on notebook, etc. but lately I’ve switched to the SmartPen and to just putting all classes’ papers in one binder and tagging them with post it notes.

    Here’s a true study hack I’ve been using to reduce how many papers/books I carry around: I use my cell phone to quickly take pictures of my reading materials/books/handouts/whatever and then download them to my computer, and read them from there. It works for me, but of course your camera’s resolution must be high enough to capture everything suitably for you.

  2. Porter says:

    I absolutely love desk calendars as a physical means of recording dates. Anytime I get an e-mail, text, or phone call, the event can be transcribed immediately without any worry. Better yet, each date has enough room for me to write down appropriate time blocks when it comes to time-blocking the day. It is a convenience for desk rats such as myself.

    Building on that manila-folder idea, I adopted this system with a slight modification. Same general concept of putting the paper in and labeling the folder, but after labeling the outside of the folder, I have three trays labeled “A-G”, “H-P”, and “Q-Z” which I place the folders into. It is not too much of a complication, and if you are like me and have over 500 folders circulating at once (not an exaggeration), it beats running around the place or shuffling through a 500 folder file for one piece of paper. Plus, it keeps my desk cleaner and more organized, which just makes me less worrisome at my workplace for when I have to focus on work.

    I tend to keep all my notes in one physical notebook, due to a lack of confidence in my laptop not crashing on me. I did type faster than I write, but I remedied that with one quick fix, shorthand. Now, I actually transcribe key points in the lectures faster than I can type them, plus, I have no worry of formatting whatsoever. I’m used to writing and reading in shorthand, so I do not have trouble reading my notes (I read them at the same speed I would read a book). It does require time to learn a shorthand system (I prefer Teeline), but once mastery is achieved, taking notes during lectures and keeping up with the professor is not an arduous task. It is a convenient physical alternative than a laptop.

  3. vtamethodman says:

    Great post, a note on your third suggestion. On top of a daily calender I keep a four month semester white board. The VERY first day that I have all my major course dates together I put them all on the white board and put it in my office. It is an absolutely excellent way to see your semester snapshot.

  4. Eddie says:

    Would you say that a regular school daily planner works as well as a calendar? It has a lot of lines per day for recording but you can’t see all of your entries over a month. Also, I think a single sheet of paper for date jotting is better for most people (small pockets you know). But I think you said that in your red book.

  5. Brian says:

    Some students might be interested in a slight variation on the disorganized pile of folders, called the Noguchi filing system. The heart of this: every time you add a new file or return a file to the pile, it goes on the left. That way your most used files drift to the left, least used drift to the right of the pile. For more detail, check http://www.askunclemark.com/2007/01/time-sort-noguchi-filing-system.html

  6. Study Hacks says:

    Here’s a true study hack I’ve been using to reduce how many papers/books I carry around: I use my cell phone to quickly take pictures of my reading materials/books/handouts/whatever and then download them to my computer, and read them from there.

    Is this really easier than just carrying a few books with you to the library? Of course, I’m quite the luddite when it comes to my study system — it takes a mountain of advantages to pry me away from simple strategies to something more technologically savvy.

    I have three trays labeled “A-G”, “H-P”, and “Q-Z” which I place the folders into. It is not too much of a complication, and if you are like me and have over 500 folders circulating at once (not an exaggeration), it beats running around the place or shuffling through a 500 folder file for one piece of paper.

    This is a cool variation for people with a lot of information to organized.

    The heart of this: every time you add a new file or return a file to the pile, it goes on the left.

    This is also a cool variation.

    Would you say that a regular school daily planner works as well as a calendar? It has a lot of lines per day for recording but you can’t see all of your entries over a month. Also, I think a single sheet of paper for date jotting is better for most people (small pockets you know).

    Sure, school planners work fine. Using sheets of paper as the calender backup is also fine. As you mentioned, it’s what I reoommended in the red book and what I had been doing until recently. The notebook I switched to is very small, and fits easily in my pocket. I found it slightly easier than using a new sheet of paper each day, but to each their own.

  7. 60naranja says:

    I thought I would share some quick experiences/cautionary tales about filing:

    At work, I have a system of hanging folders labeled A-Z. Since I mostly file research articles that I’ve read for future reference (I’m a graduate student), I have been filing them by the first author’s last name. So, a paper by “Quisp et al.” would go under “Q”.

    Actually, this was a terrible idea! It turns out that I generally only remember the first author for papers I’m already very familiar with. In contrast, if I want to do something useful, like look up all the papers I’ve ever read about plant development, I basically have to re-find them on Google Scholar. Here, using bare-naked filing would probably have encouraged me to pick more natural groupings, such as by topic or project.

    At home, I have the same A-Z setup, but here it works much better: I have more diverse materials to file and they lend themselves well to alphabetization (e.g., Verizon bill goes under “V”; PSE&G bill goes under “P”). I have also evolved an extra detail where if I have a lot of related things, such as stuff for my taxes, they all get filed in a manila folder that then gets alphabetized. This is somewhat convergent to Porter’s three-tray system above. Plus, it allows me to use one of my favorite pieces of furniture, a bright yellow filing cabinet with wheels from IKEA. (Don’t judge me.)

    I guess what I would recommend for someone just starting out is to just use bare-naked filing as you describe it. If he or she were to get annoyed at having to routinely rummage around for the one folder they needed, it might then be time to alphabetize the folders. This way, the system would keep pace with one’s needs. It also saves one from having “organized” but actually useless files like the ones I described above.

  8. Eric says:

    1. You suggested having one notebook and one folder for each course. But what if a course is entirely based on handouts (i.e. The prof posts powerpoint lecture notes and that’s all that we go through in every lecture)? Then would the notebook not be necessary?

    2. By notebook and folder, do you mean the ones without rings? Do you recommend any specific brands?

    3. You said to record study plans, etc. on the notebook. But if lecture notes are based entirely on writing down from the overhead, then how do you organize your notebook (How do you separate the study plans, etc. from the lecture notes in the notebook)? Also, would a folder still be necessary for this type of course (even if there is almost no handout given)?

    4. During the school year, I normally use one big binder (3-ringed) and use it for all my courses, which are separated by dividers inside the one binder. I found this convenient because it brings together all the course materials. But do you think one notebook+one folder method is superior to one 3-ringed binder? I haven’t tried your suggestion, but I’m willing to experiment this method next semester.

  9. Jay says:

    Is this really easier than just carrying a few books with you to the library? Of course, I’m quite the luddite when it comes to my study system — it takes a mountain of advantages to pry me away from simple strategies to something more technologically savvy.

    It sounds a little ridiculous but I have a much easier time reading from the computer screen. It feels like so much less reading and seems to go so much faster if I don’t have to lug the whole book around. I can’t bring myself to clip out the pages (can’t sell them back that way), so the next best thing I could think of was to digitize them, that way I can always have them with me to read anywhere (That’s why I go for the e-textbooks whenever I can get them.) It’s not much different from photocopying or scanning, except it’s a bit faster and cheaper.

    BTW I’m definitely one of the most hi-tech dudes I know for miles and miles around, so that might have something to do with why I do it :)

  10. jinap says:

    This is just what I needed! I want to get organised for the new school year and this is really helpful.

    I have a question for you Cal – from what I remember the first two to three weeks of the new year are pretty slow, content wise. Most of the course content covered during this time doesn’t show up on tests, assignments aren’t due yet and things move pretty slowly.

    What can I do during this point of the school year that will really pay off once things start to pile up later (apart from being organised)? Study-strategy wise that is.

    All I can think of is building up a good automatic schedule to manage my time well, but I wanted to know if there’s any tips you could offer with regards to course content and studying during this time.

    I’m an Economics Major with Minors in Math and Stats, if that helps. I’ll also be taking a ‘fun’ course unrelated to my program.

  11. Mary says:

    It is much better to leave the unimportant papers floating around your room. This creates a sense of freedom and inspires you when you happen upon something by chance. Tip: Throw away everything but the essentials. Keep happy, interesting documents, poems, photos around in random places.

  12. Audrey says:

    Question. In humanities grad seminars, I have professors who send whole books as .pdfs: my print outs for one course for one semester would require two four-inch binders, not one folder. How would you adjust this system to handle a huge volume of paper or .pdfs?

  13. Audrey says:

    Maybe Porter’s tray system would be a good solution to my question, above: print off the article or book, throw it in a manila file, shove it in a tray labeled by course.

  14. Matt says:

    Thanks; this will come in handy. I have a question: what do you think about using an iPod Touch for recording homework assignments?

  15. Iqra says:

    i have recently started reading ur blogs, next year i will be a senior, i need to pull my socks and start working efficiently….the problem is i dont know where to start

  16. Cassie says:

    For powerpoint slides I usually keep them in display folders in lecture order, with only one subject per folder. For subjects with minimal handouts I keep those in a flat file. It’s smaller and easier than a folder. The only annoying problem is when water leaks through my bag.

  17. Sara Carbone says:

    I love your insight: “what seems like a smart, comprehensive system to today you, will be later seen as a terrible prison that blackens your heart and steals your freedom by the future you.” I am an academic tutor and find this to be the case, particularly for my students who have learning difficulties. For some of them, creating and then maintaining an organizational system feels like a straight jacket they want to avoid like the plague. It sometimes takes me months to even gain access to their book bag. I like the simplicity of your suggestions, as they will work for teens who starts to tune out after anything with more than, say, two steps. schoolnuggets.com

  18. Darya says:

    I am in love with your blog. I feel like I have slight OCD when it comes to organization however I do tend to procrastinate quite often. Therefore, the tips and ideas you have provided regarding time management are fantastic! I am so glad I came across your blog and I will definitely invest into your books that you have written! :)

    Having said that, I would like to add a tip that I often use. In the beginning of the semester (usually throughout the first few days) I open up each subject’s outline (usually posted online) that has all of the due dates for projects, assigned readings, tests, etc. Then I create a calendar in MS Word (a month per page) where I input all of the due dates for that particular subject. As I end up with all of my calendar pages ready (4 months/pages per subject), I print them off and tape/glue each page on the inside of that subject’s notebook or binder. So, for example: I will attach a September calendar page into the appropriate binder or notebook per each subject. (The sequential months are put away into a specified manila folder on the side of my desk!). This way I am able to view my entire subject schedule at a quick glance for the month, for each subject, several times a day – therefore, leaving almost no room for any mistakes I may make regarding any due dates and homework.

    Again, thank you for your wonderful time efforts that you put into this blog and the fact that you are able to provide us with your vast knowledge without having a “free-trial” first that would exclude a big chunk of this insightful information :)

  19. Tessa says:

    Thank you so much. I’m 18 and have been out of school for 2 years. After asserting my passion for being on my feet and making a significant social or environmental impact, I decided it was time to go back to school in order to make that happen. My major block was spending WAY too much time in HS on my schoolwork, despite my A’s. I’ve been called stubborn and lazy for refusing to believe that other successful students are as pressed as I am on time just to make the grade. Your website is mental paradise for me. I’ve been observing/asking questions of people I consider successful for a long time and I have come to many of the same conclusions as you.

    I started with this article, so it only seems fitting to say thanks here.

    I am working on the time management thing, and the implementing Einstein’s principle.

    I’m excited to start school with a much easier way of going about things in February.

    Thanks
    Tessa

    P.S. There are a variety of self-help books right now on Renaisssance personalities – people who pursue many passions or facets of the same subject from different angles. DaVinci is an example since he was an anatomist, philosopher, artist, etc. I think this idea fits with Einstein.

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