Super Students are busy people. They have a lot on their plates – classes, lectures, studying, exams, tests, volunteer work, entrepreneurial projects, science projects, research and more. Balancing all of that with a healthy lifestyle and social activities may prove challenging.
The key to being an ambitious, yet balanced, student is to get organized, i.e. to set your own your personal organization system in place. A purpose of such a system is to increase productivity and minimize stress. Besides producing more work and less waste, you’ll also be able to confidently forget about your responsibilities – you’ll be reminded in due time.
There are a lot of different personal organization systems out there. Some are more complex (and powerful) than others. For students, I believe that simplicity is a priority. Our workflows aren’t too complex, so we can get away with something that just gets the job done.
If you read other articles written by me, you’ll find that one of my main messages is that we’re a lucky generation. Technology does most of the heavy lifting and most of the tools available are free. So let’s get organized (or die trying).
Email is a time sink
I get a lot of e-mail for an University student, about 10-20 messages per day. Granted, a lot of CEOs get hundreds of emails per day, but most of them have a secretary to take care of them. For me, dozens of emails per day is a lot.
Email quickly drains a whole afternoon you thought was going to be productive. Social media notifications, newsletters, joke emails and events are low priority messages that dilute your inbox. Suddenly, what’s really important becomes lost in a sea of spam or low-priority emails.
Then, there’s the stress factor. Keeping important emails lying around in your inbox suggests you have a lot to do. You need to answer some of them, act upon others or delegate a few. They quickly pile up until your mental schedule is chaotic.
I use GMail – like most of you, I suppose – so, I had to adapt the GMail inbox to my needs. Here’s how it’s looking right now:
As you can see, there are a couple of differences from a normal GMail inbox:
- The font size is a little bit smaller so that I can accommodate more emails in the same screen size. People who can’t see as well can opt to keep their original font size, of course.
- There are multiple inboxes. The main inbox at the center is the main inbox and, yes, it’s empty. It’s called the inbox zero principle. Basically, you’ll want to keep your inbox empty or almost empty at all times.
- I use labels to categorize emails and to automatically move them to the right folder. My main folders are UCoimbra (my university), TheStudentPower, AJC (an organization I volunteer for), Reference, Learning, Maybe one day and Travel.
- I use different stars to categorize the state of that email. Based on their star, e-mails automatically move to other inboxes with a specific purpose.
- The Needs Action or Reply inbox contains emails that require an urgent/semi-urgent action or answer. As soon as I take care of that, I unstar the email and it returns to its folder. Done!
- The Awaiting for Answer inbox houses emails for which I require an urgent answer. That way, I know exactly whose contact I’m awaiting.
- The To Write or To Do inbox contains emails of article suggestions, university tasks, errands and so on.
- The To Edit or To Change inbox is mainly a TheStudentPower inbox, it hosts emails with editing information for books or articles in the site.
- The Delegated inbox serves as a delegated tasks manager, so that I can remind (or bully) people who were supposed to do something for me.
I’m not suggesting that you copy exactly how I organize my inbox. Depending on your needs, you may come up with your own inbox ideas. Just make sure that they’ll increase your productivity and decrease stress, that’s the whole point of it.
In order to set this up, you’ll need to play with GMail settings. The following images will help you point in the right direction. When looking for answers on how to activate a certain feature, Google is your friend. The hardest part is probably assigning each star to a specific inbox. In the search query section of the Multiple Inboxes tab, type has:<type your desired star> and then the name of the inbox on the next field. The last picture should be self-explanatory.
Integrate GMail and Todoist
Now that we got email out of the way, it’s time to sort out our tasks. The way I like to think about my study/work life is in terms of projects. Everything is a project, even studying for a test/exam.
For an Internal Medicine exam, studying is a project with the following tasks: skim through the book, read Chapter 1 to Chapter n, review, solve clinical cases, final review before exam. In order to write a blog article, I usually go through these steps: research, outline, writing, editing 1, editing 2, design work, publishing/promotion.
All of these small tasks need to be taken care of, categorized, scheduled and remembered. My favorite way to tackle this problem is to use Todoist.
In Todoist, tasks can be categorized into projects and deadlines. This way, you’ll always know what you have to do and when to do it. I was never really attracted by the concept of gamification, but it’s also built into Todoist. The more tasks you accomplish, the more points you’ll win (and even level up).
There are tons of other task management tools out there, but I chose this one because of its simple integration with GMail.
That way, I can transform GMail emails into Todoist tasks. There’s Todoist for Android too, so I can be reminded of stuff even if on the road. It’s a nifty little tool, definitely worth checking out.
Cloud, Documents and Collaboration
There are some other tools you can use as part of your daily workflow. Most of them are already integrated with GMail, so you can just email your stuff away.
- Workflowy is an incredible simple but powerful app to create outlines. That’s it, creating outlines for your projects, articles or whatever you’re working on at the moment. As a huge outline guy, this is one of my favorite apps ever.
- Google Drive is awesome to store your files and access them from anywhere. The cloud is awesome for people who travel or move a lot. Dropbox is a great alternative.
- Google Docs allow collaborative work on spreadsheets, documents or presentations. Extremely useful if you’re running or working in a team.
- Trello is a project management tool. If you’re developing complex projects with large teams, I couldn’t recommend it enough. People can browse what needs to be done and then do it.
Offline? What do you mean offline?
All jokes aside, depending on the type of work, the amount of paperwork one collects may become overwhelming. Of course, managing thousands of pages, notes and images on a computer is much easier, but some people still use the traditional means. Think of artists, for example.
I usually keep a small file system under my desk with handouts, important paperwork, regular mail and written notes. I also keep a notebook to jot down some ideas, drawings and schematics for things I’m working on at the moment.
Anyway, even when we’re AFK, we’re still NTS or Near The Smartphone. So offline is a rare state for the Super Student, you can always bring your work with you, wherever you go.
I hope my organization system served as inspiration to streamline your own workflow. At the end of the day, if it works and increases productivity, try it out. You’ll be surprised by how less stressed you’ll be with a quality system in place. Good luck and organize away!