You don't need perfect systems, you just need something that works when you need it to.
Whether you’re starting classes, or have someone in your life who is, the start of school is the academic version of New Year’s Day, inspiring many to make resolutions for the year. We pledge to be more organized, get homework done on time (and before the last minute!), and keep our work areas clean. We hope that having a more organized year will make for a more relaxing year. With a few steps and a commitment to changing our patterns in small ways, we can reduce the effort required on a week-to-week basis, making for smooth sailing throughout the academic year.
Choose your style
Everyone has different organizational styles, and it’s important to learn what works best for you. We’re often deceived into thinking the more elaborate the organizational system is, the more successful we’ll be. However, more complexity often means more steps. We may start out with several binders of dedicated tabs, ensuring a place for everything. For the organizationally challenged, we may notice that by the beginning October we’ve defaulted to indiscriminately stuffing every new paper into the side flaps of a binder, or even allowing them to float freely throughout our bag.
If you have a tendency to struggle with organization, go with a simpler method. Use two folders or plastic envelopes. The first one is for papers you absolutely need this week, such as homework assignments, information extracurriculars, or papers you will need to reference. The second folder will hold everything else. Of course, it will take some time to find a paper in the “everything else” folder, but it will ensure that you have what you need for this week, and be able to find it quickly. It reduces the steps of organization, while allowing you to you keep track of what’s most important.
It’s important to regularly sort the “everything else folder,” and no matter your system, it can be helpful to periodically file papers at home, offloading them from your bag or backpack. Gathering papers at school, and then sorting at home can help keep a system in place. This allows for a smaller bag, with fewer things to organize. It’s often helpful to carry as little with you as is reasonable, making sustained organization much more likely.
Clear your space
A clear workspace provides both supports for organization and staying on task. A desk is ideal, but a dining room table will work, as long as it’s free of distractions and clutter. Smaller surface areas tend to attract less clutter, and actually can support better organization. If you only have enough space for a few items, you will arrange and organize more often, by necessity.
Create a station for supplies, such as pens, paper, rulers, and even power cords. This could be a permanent station or a basket that can be moved to and from wherever you are doing homework. By ensuring you have all you need, your concentration will be less likely to be interrupted by seeking needed items or tools. Having a dedicated, clear space for homework helps with focus, and reduces procrastination. It allows us to put other aspects of life on hold, in order to attend to one single task.
Create a routine of organization
Organizational plans are sustained best when they are developed with a routine in mind. Choose a daily time to organize, whether it’s before beginning homework, or when packing up for tomorrow. Many of my clients will set a daily alarm on their phones reminding them to check that they have what they need for the following day, and that all their homework is in its place.
Spend time once a week to purge unnecessary paperwork, returning various items of tupperware, and digging out anything that has been living in the bottom of your bag. Just as you clean your room periodically, doing so with your bag will keep your system running smoothly, as well as maintain cleanliness.
Use color coding
Whether you’re a meticulous organizer, or choose to keep most of your homework at the bottom of your bag, color coding saves time and reduces stress. It creates a system in which papers are instantly recognizable. For some, using color-coded folders works best, choosing a color for each class. However, even if you are taking a simple approach to organization, such as the two-folder system mentioned above, you can benefit from color coding.
We’ve all had the experience of searching for one essential piece of paper amid a sea of black and white pages. By using colored page tab stickers, we can exponentially reduce search time. It can be helpful to reserve these tabs exclusively for finished homework assignments. This makes locating and turning them an easier process, and allows for a quick check that you have all the assignments you need.
You can use color coordination for your planner as well, turning a list of items into a visual map of your current assignments and projects. This increases processing time during organization and planning, and correlates with the rest of your organizational system. If you’re using a digital planner or calendar, which is recommended, make sure that you are able to control the color of events and due dates.
Outsource your organization
CEOs and politicians don’t keep track of their daily schedule, what they will eat for lunch, or remembering that they need to pick up milk on the way home. They have assistants to manage those aspects, so that they can use their focus and mental energy for doing important work and making critical decisions. With today’s technology, you can do the same.
Physical planners can easily be forgotten, but most of us have our phones on our person most, if not all day. By making a habit of using your phone to keep track of your tasks, assignments and schedules, you don’t need to hold that information in your mind. Your phone can even remind you that a task is coming up. By using location-based reminders, you can get a reminder when you walk into your front door, just like a personal assistant.
It can take some practice, but by setting a daily reminder (or enlisting a family member to help you remember), you can check your planner at least once a day to ensure you’re aware of upcoming assignments and events. Many people adopt the mantra, “if it’s not in my phone, it doesn’t exist.” As long as we remain diligent to do the upfront work of entering the information into digital planners, we can relax and focus on the present.
Effective organization doesn’t have to look like the cover of a magazine, it just has to work when you need it to. By learning what works for you, committing to periodically maintaining organization, and relying on systems like digital planners and color-coding, you can have a smoother, more organized school-year.