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Monday Master Class: How to Start Down the Long Road from Chaos to Efficiency

Restarting is Hard to DoTired Student

Something that surprised me last fall, when I began to work more closely with individual students on productivity issues, was the difficulty of transitioning from chaos to control. It’s one thing to learn the type of systems used by the most efficient students, it’s quite another thing, however, to put these systems into practice. More often than not, my experience has been: the more productivity habits you start at the same time the higher the probability that you’ll abandon them all. It just becomes too overwhelming.

In this post, I want to talk about getting started from scratch. How to ease into that transition from a chaotic student lifestyle to relaxed efficiency; making changes that will stick…

Getting Started on the Road to Efficiency

Below I have described five small habits. If you’re new to student productivity, I would recommend that you stick to these five, and only these five, until at least midterms of the first semester in which you deploy them. If all goes fine, then you can consider adding some of the more advanced techniques discussed on this blog and elsewhere. (For a good example, read this article, which describes the collection of systems and habits I use regularly as a student).

From my experience, these changes are easy enough — and have a big enough positive impact — that they shouldn’t overwhelm your self-discipline. Once you get used to having some control you’ll be able to start moving toward mastery. Remember: start small. Keep improving…

  1. Setup a Google Calendar.
    Keep your appointments, classes, office hours, meetings, and deadlines on Google calendar. The advantage of a web-based calendar, of course, is that you can check it from any computer on campus. The specific advantage of Google’s offering is the quick add feature, which lets you quickly type in new appointments in natural language (i.e., “midterm next Thursday” or “econ group meeting Friday from 1 to 3”). This is easy enough that you’ll actually probably keep the calendar up to speed. Especially if you use the browser plug-in version of the feature; keeping calendar updates just a few keystrokes away.
  2. Choose your courses carefully.
    For your first term as a new and improved student, you need to avoid a killer schedule. Mix class types. Don’t have too many science courses or too many writing-heavy courses scheduled all at once. Don’t be afraid to schedule in a course that seems interesting but may have a reputation as being, well, not too hard. You need to practice having control over your workload, and this means starting with a load that’s easier to control.
  3. Take an activity vacation.
    This piece of advice, first spelled out in this article, is tough for some to stomach. But I recommend it highly. Take a break from your extracurriculars. As I mentioned in the original article, this is college, not the Olympics, no one is going to fault you if you say “I need to take a semester break to refocus on my grades.” Your various club memberships and volunteer gigs will be waiting for you when you return. As with the last piece of advice, you need breathing room to start getting comfortable with being an efficient, organized student. Killing your activities — for just a semester — gives you the space needed to get comfortable with being in control.
  4. Insist on a study plan for every problem set, test, and paper.
    When you’re first starting your student overhaul, it’s overwhelming to deploy too many complicated study rules; especially if they all demand stringent behavior controls. You need some flexibility in the earlier stages; some time to help you get used to having a plan and discovering what type of things work best for you. To accommodate this reality, follow this simple advice: have some plan for everything major assignment. For now, I don’t care what the plan says. Just have something, decided in advanced. that spells out, roughly, how you are going to complete the assignment (i.e., what specific actions…you’re not allowed to used ambiguous terms like “study”), and how you’re going to break up the work.
  5. Establish a Sunday Ritual.
    I covered this advice in both a previous post and in How to Win at College. There’s a reason it keeps coming up: it’s simple yet yields tremendous results. The basic idea of the ritual is to transition from the debauchery of Friday and Saturday into the new workweek. I recommend it consists of the following: (1) eat a big breakfast, read something interesting, drink (lots) of coffee, and clear your head; (2) get your calendar and task lists up to speed, integrate in the loose stuff that gathered in the week; (3) go to the most deserted library on campus, and spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon working; and (4) conclude by setting up a schedule for Monday. You can vary this as you see fit, so long as you retain the basic structure of clearing your head, fleeing civilization, and getting stuff done.

Baby Steps

These initial changes omit most of the super-detailed strategy we love to dissect here on Study Hacks. Notice, there is no complicated time management system or advanced scheduling tactics or complicated note-taking formats. These are all tools that will eventually enter your student arsenal. But if you’re new to efficiency, resist their allure for now. Get used to having a basic plan, and knowing your schedule, and clearing your head on weekends. Do this during a semester with a light course load and no activities. Experience the rush of being in control of your obligations. Once you’ve scored that high, you’ll never want to lose it again.

Then you can move on to the fun stuff…

(Photo courtesy of the contented)

11 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: How to Start Down the Long Road from Chaos to Efficiency”

  1. This is great advice Cal, I will print it out and keep it with me as I head into my second semester next week (I’m in Australia).

  2. People who know me well enough to see me in action have a warped impression of me–they all seem to think I’m some ridiculously organized girl with a streamlined and well-controlled day. I’ve tried to convince them that my life is just as insane as their lives are, but this falls on deaf ears.

    You’re right that having an organization plan is key–I stripped my system down and built it back up very slowly through trial and error. It’s very simple and streamlined and it works.

    It’s not that I’m better at controlling the chaotic moments that come at me from left field, it’s that I’ve stripped all unnecessary bits from my day/week/month so I know I’ll get the essential items accomplished and have the time and space to deal with unforeseen circumstances. I say ‘no’ to anything extra and not mandatory if it doesn’t fit into my schedule.

    In a given week, I manage to get all imperative work, play and family time accomplished. It’s taken me years to perfect my system, but it was worth it to avoid the craziness of a cluttered and disorganized life.

  3. Good article. Just one minor quibble: GTD, referenced at the end of the article as a “complicated time management system”, is neither complicated nor is it a time management system. In fact the essence of GTD is to remove complication from the way we manage our “stuff”. Read the linked article, or read David Allen’s book on the subject.

  4. For #1, I’ve been looking into Mozilla Sunbird, an offline application? Have you used it? Would you recommend Google Calendar over it?

  5. For #1, I’ve been looking into Mozilla Sunbird, an offline application? Have you used it? Would you recommend Google Calendar over it?

    I don’t think it matters. I slightly prefer Google Calendar because its “Quick Add” feature makes things just easy enough that I’m more likely to add things to it right away.


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