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Getting organized

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For many new students one of the most challenging aspects of the transition from school to a college or university environment is learning how to take responsibility for and manage their own time and studies.

Days are less structured and more is expected of undergraduates in terms of working independently, to find and absorb the information they need. And, of course, there are far more distractions than there were back at home...

Can you meet deadlines and still have a social life?

Many new students get so caught up in the whirl of making friends, exploring new places and finding their feet as independent adults that they lose sight of the reason they came to university in the first place: to study! Reality usually comes flooding back with an unpleasant rush when the deadlines for the first written assignments or examinations suddenly loom up close. It's not unusual at these times for whole campuses to become eerily quiet and for students to develop sleeping disorders and stress-related health problems as a result of trying to cram a term or semester's worth of work into a few short days. As well as being an unhealthy and unpleasant way to live, rushed, last minute cramming is less than effective as a learning technique and essays written in the final couple of hours before a deadline tend to be less coherent or well reasoned than those that get composed with plenty of time for reflection and revision.

So should you give up partying and sports activities and spend your Saturday nights slaving in the library instead? Actually not! The years that you spend in Higher Education are as much about all the non-academic aspects of developing yourself as a person as they are about getting good grades and gaining a useful qualification. Socialising, trying out new pastimes and running your own life are important and necessary parts of that experience. Having fun and relaxing are as crucial to health and well being as a balanced diet and adequate sleep. The secret to being able to do it all is to get organized and to learn to manage your time effectively.

For some people time management seems to come easily, almost effortlessly. These lucky few appear to be born with an innate sense of organization and their lives run with such elegant smoothness that we lesser mortals may sometimes feel so painfully chaotic in contrast that we believe we will never be able to master these skills. The truth, though, is that the skills needed are well within the abilities of any sensible person with a degree of self-discipline and any of us can learn to gain a level of control over our lives and our work, which will benefit us for years to come.

There are a few simple techniques you can use that have a major impact on how well organized you can be. With all of these, the trick to making them work for you is to keep practising them. With constant repetition these behaviours will quickly become habits and you will do them without effort.

Diaries and organizers

The most basic idea is that you must plan your time. At the very least, you need a diary that you can use to mark appointments, lectures, seminars, examination times and essay deadlines as well as leisure activities, family commitments, dates, etc. It's important that you put in everything so that you can see straight away what times you're especially busy; when you look overloaded; and when you have space in your schedule. Modern technology like cell phones means that you probably already carry an electronic diary around in your pocket every day without even thinking about it. You may well find that an electronic organizer of some kind, with its alert and reminder facilities is the best way to keep track of events in your life. Alternatively, you may prefer a paper version so that you can highlight different sorts of occurrences in different coloured inks (pink for assignment deadlines, yellow for classes, green for social engagements, etc.). Whatever method you choose, it is an absolute truth that you can't organize your time if you don't know what you're doing with it, so keep a diary and use it daily.

Of course, the mere act of writing things down doesn't mean you've planned your time. That involves looking at the items you've written in the diary and deciding how much preparation time (if any) each of them will require. Thus, a seminar might need you to spend a couple of hours before the class reading background material, answering briefing questions, etc. An essay assignment will need you to spend time gathering relevant information, reading and absorbing a variety of texts, deciding on the approach you are going to take in your writing, assembling and structuring your ideas, as well as putting the required number of words onto paper. Each of these stages takes time and you must allocate time to it. If you believe that you will need two hours in the library, hunting for books, then find a time in your diary when you have a two hour free space and write "Library" in that time slot as an appointment. Reading and understanding academic texts can also be a time-consuming business. Again, make a note of the times you intend to spend reading and allow yourself plenty of time to ensure that you can grasp the subtleties of the text without rushing. Spread your reading time out over several days so that you aren't overloading your mind with too much information in one go and remember that concentration comes in fairly short bursts so build gaps into your timetable when you might arrange to meet a friend for coffee or walk round the block for ten minutes, just to clear your head. Planning the breaks as well as the work in this way will mean that you don't feel guilty and pressured when you do need to take time out. It'll just be part of the routine.

Learning to make intelligent use of your diary is the simplest key to time management. A half hour a week spent mapping out when you are going to perform specific tasks will always repay you handsomely in reduced stress and better organization. Just knowing that you've planned your time to fit in everything you need and want to do will make you feel more efficient and in control of your life. You do, of course, have to stick to your plans...

Keeping a 'To do' list

One easy way of disciplining yourself to stick to the plans you make is to draw up a daily "To Do" list. Every morning, write down everything you intend to accomplish that day. Try to be as specific as possible, breaking up large, vague tasks such as "Research for Marketing essay" into smaller elements like "Read and make notes on chapters 4 and 5 of Kotler"; "Find three articles on this topic that have been published in the last 18 months on Emerald"; etc. Having your work laid out in this level detail enables you to understand fully what you are achieving each day and ticking the items off one by one as you finish them brings an immense sense of satisfaction and empowerment. Imagine how good it feels to be able rattle off a list of your accomplishments for the day, rather than just saying something woolly like: "Oh, I did some reading".

To get the most out of diary planning and "To Do" lists, you need to be honest and realistic about what you can, and will, do in a day. It can be tempting to underestimate the time certain things take, and to add extra items to a list that looks "too short". Finding out how many tasks you can realistically manage in a day is a learning exercise all of its own so don't be too hard on yourself if you don't manage to tick off everything on your list in the early days. With practice, you'll soon discover your own capacity and you'll be able to adjust your lists accordingly. To ensure that you are getting through all the items that you need to (as opposed to those that you enjoy most) from your "To Do" lists, prioritize them. Mark some items as urgent (must be completed that day), some as preferable (best finished that day but could be partially rolled over if needs be) and the others as low priority for the moment (nice to do but not essential in the day). Work through the urgent items first and try to leave the low priority ones until last on the list. Remember that tomorrow, any low priority items left over from today will have moved up the ladder and you should still have plenty of time of finish them off before they become urgent. Ultimately, once you have your lists under control, only unforeseen emergency items should ever be truly urgent.

Setting priorities

A final word about prioritising: it is inevitable that some of the tasks you need to do each day will be less enjoyable than others. It is always advisable to get those tasks done and out of the way sooner rather than later. There is a natural human tendency to put off doing things that are unpleasant or difficult and to focus instead on the things we enjoy or get enthused by. Unfortunately the unpleasant jobs don't just go away if we ignore them so discipline yourself to tackle those first and then reward yourself by having more time to spend on the fun tasks in your day – and without any of that gnawing guilt and anxiety that comes from knowing you still have the horrid stuff to face up to!

Introducing these simple, common sense practices into your daily routine will help you organize your time and get as much as you can from every minute of your life as a student. Enjoy it – it doesn't last long but the skills you learn here will last you a lifetime.