Organization Strategies for Students
One of the best ways for students to reduce stress in college is to organize their time and workloads. In this article, you’ll find tips for your students to help them organize their time, declutter their physical and digital workspaces, sort through their email inboxes, and establish a clear and consistent note-taking system.
By being organized, your students will have more time to go to class, do the homework, answer emails, and take good notes—rather than panicking about how they’ll get everything done.
The tips below are written addressing students directly.
Create a plan for the quarter
Why this works: The 10-week quarter goes by quickly, and it’s easy to fall behind if you don’t plan ahead. By anticipating the ebb and flow of your workload, you can reduce the amount of “cramming” you have to do in a single week—and reduce the anxiety that comes with it. For instance, if you know you’ll have multiple projects due in week 6, you can front-load some of that work earlier in the quarter.
How to do this: At the beginning of the quarter, make note of important deadlines and exam dates using the Quarter-at-a-Glance sheet. Remember: almost everyone falls behind at some point, so don’t panic if this happens. Instead, make a plan for when and how you will catch up using the weekly calendar below. You can also meet with an Academic Coach for help.
Create a realistic weekly schedule
Why this works: Writing things down on a digital or paper calendar helps free up your attention for learning by eliminating the worry of having to remember them. Planning for a full week rather than one day at a time gives you more time to work with, so you can create a more realistic schedule for yourself.
How to do this: Pick a calendaring tool that lets you plan by the hour. Include your classes and other fixed obligations like meetings, appointments, practices, and so on. Include when you’re going to eat, sleep, and exercise. Take 30 minutes each weekend to plan the upcoming week, looking at what work you need to do and scheduling time for specific assignments.
Put all of your event details in one place
Why this works: Having everything in one place saves time and reduces stress by not requiring you to check multiple sources for information or relevant links. This can be especially helpful during a remote quarter, when you’re required to use specific Zoom links to access your online classes.
How to do this: Consider integrating your different calendars. For information on how to connect your Canvas calendar (complete with Zoom links) to another calendar, check out this game-changing tip for remote classes. To connect your Outlook calendar (which automatically inputs events from your Stanford email) to your Google Calendar, read our post on digital calendaring.
Close or minimize browser tabs you don’t need
Why this works: Minimizing distractions is key to increasing your focus. Eliminating visual cues that are not directly related to what you’re working on makes it easier to concentrate on the task at hand.
How to do this: Simply close the browser tab or window, or use the minimize button to hide it from view. You can also use the multiple desktops feature on a Mac or PC to organize your windows by course or topic.
Organize the browser tabs you need so you can easily find them later
Why this works: Having large numbers of tabs open makes it much more difficult to find the right one. It can also impact your efficiency by slowing down your computer.
How to do this: If you have tabs open that you plan to access later, you can either bookmark the important ones (ideally organizing them into folders if you have many), or use a tool like OneTab to help you keep track of them. If you’re doing research, try using a research management tool like Mendeley, Zotero, or EndNote. You can learn more about these tools on the Stanford Libraries Website.
Store everything in one place
Why this works: Saving all of your files in one place makes it faster and easier to find what you’re looking for.
How to do this: Pick a platform you like and that you can access easily, and stick with it. For instance, all Stanford students are given access to Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive.
Create folders to organize your files
Why this works: Imagine if you had a big binder filled with important assignments and notes, but no binder tabs to help you organize it. Folders are the digital equivalent of a binder tab, helping you to locate the exact file you’re looking for.
How to do this: Think about the types of digital files you generally use and what system you will use to organize them. For instance, you might create a folder for each of your courses, which you can further organize by quarter and academic school year.
Make it a habit to organize new files right away
Why this works: Having a system is all well and good, but it only works if you use it. Taking a few seconds to put a file in the proper place now saves many minutes of searching for that file later on.
How to do this: The moment you get or create a new file, decide what folder it fits into and save it there. If it doesn’t fit into any of the folders you created, determine if you need to create a new one.
Check in to make sure your system is still in working order
Why this works: Even the most organized people with the best intentions can sometimes get off track. Setting aside some time to go through your file system will help ensure it stays in order. It’s also a great opportunity to reflect on whether the system is still working for you.
How to do this: At the end of every quarter, go through your file system. If anything is out of place, put it in the right spot. Reflect on what was helpful about the system and what wasn’t, so you can adjust accordingly for next quarter.
Reduce the number of emails you receive
Why this works: We’ve all had the feeling of being buried beneath an avalanche of emails. Rather than trying to get through them all, consider which emails you really need, and which ones you can do without.
How to do this: Unsubscribe from email lists that no longer feel relevant to you. For any Stanford email lists you do decide to stay on, try turning on Digest Mode, which reduces the total number of emails you receive. You can update all of your email settings using the University IT Mailman Tools.
Create email folders and filters
Why this works: Email filters allow you to automate the organization process, and folders make it easy to find your most important emails quickly.
How to do this: Take into account the kinds of emails you receive and how you might want to organize them. For example, you might create separate folders for different classes, organizations you’re a part of, or specific senders. (Pro Tip: Don’t overthink it. The idea is to develop an effective system, not a perfect one.)
Block off time on your calendar for reading and responding to emails
Why this works: Do you ever sit down to work, only to be interrupted by an email notification? Turning off notifications is certainly helpful, but at the end of the day, you still have certain emails you need to answer. Blocking off a specific time for them ensures you get them done in the least disruptive way possible.
How to do this: Decide how much time you need to dedicate to emails, and when. For instance, you might block off a half hour every morning and an hour every night. Write it in your calendar. Try following this plan for a week to see how it goes, and make adjustments as needed. (Pro Tip: We recommend reserving the times of day you’re most alert for more demanding tasks.)
Find a note-taking system that works for you
Why this works: When it comes to taking notes, you have many styles and formats to choose from. A solid note-taking approach is one that will make it easier for you to retain important information and connect course concepts.
How to do this: For guidance on how to take notes and specific methods to try, read our note-taking guide. Remember to consider what works best for you. For example, do you prefer the increased engagement and retention that comes from taking notes by hand, or is it more important that you have the ability to search for specific terms when reviewing your notes? How you take notes might also vary from one class to another.
Try to be consistent in how you take notes for a single class
Why this works: Note-taking styles can vary from course to course, but varying your style too much for a single course requires you to reorient yourself each time you review your notes, which can slow you down. It can also make it harder to draw connections between different readings or lectures.
How to do this: Once you find a method that works for you, try to stick with it. If you decide to use the Cornell method, for instance, continue to use it throughout the quarter. Once the quarter ends, you can evaluate your note-taking system to determine if there’s anything you want to change for next time.
Store your notes in a place where you are likely to look often
Why this works: Research shows that reviewing your notes within 24 hours of taking them helps you retain 40% more information than if you wait a week or more.
How to do this: Whether you take notes by hand or on a digital device, make sure to put them in a place where you can easily find them, and where you tend to look often. This will likely require you to create labels or folders for your notes. For digital notes, see our suggestions for organizing digital files.
Create a workspace where you only go to study
Why this works: Your brain picks up cues from your environment, so creating a neat, dedicated workspace will help you get into work mode.
How to do this: Find a comfortable spot, preferably at a desk or table, where you’re unlikely to be interrupted. If possible, refrain from using this space for anything other than studying. Make sure you have access to all the resources you need to be productive, and remove anything from your desk (and your desktop) not related to the task at hand. For more suggestions, see how to design your workspace for focused productivity.
Organize the materials in your workspace
Why this works: A cluttered workspace can make it harder to focus, so it’s important to keep it tidy. Keeping similar items together, like writing utensils, also makes them much easier to find when you need them.
How to do this: If you have access to a desk with drawers, consider putting your most used or most important items in the top drawer. If you don’t have access to this, keep your most important work items on a specific shelf or in a backpack. Ideally, everything should have a place. You can organize your things by item type (e.g., textbooks with other textbooks) or by course (e.g., all chemistry materials together).
Display a calendar on your wall
Why this works: A physical calendar posted where you’ll see it every day can be a great, tangible reminder of what you’ve accomplished and what’s coming up next.
How to do this: Post your calendar in a space where you can easily see it. We recommend using the Quarter-at-a-Glance sheet to help you get a “big picture” view of your time. You can even cross off days as they pass for a little motivation boost. If a physical calendar isn’t an option for you, no problem. You can still download a digital version of the quarter-at-a-glance sheet, or use a different digital calendaring tool.