Author:  Huong Tran

Having a super organised mum, my elder sister was born with the perfect sense of being neat and tidy. Yet I was the total opposite. I was well-known for leaving my things on the floor. This mess eventually evolved into a pile and even worse — hours of cleaning up and reorganising.

When I turned eighteen, going away to university was the first time I found myself navigating the world on my own, away from my mum’s tender love and care, expected to be truly independent. Amidst classes, assignments and co-curricular activities, the thought of getting my closet, my bed and table organised even felt exhausting. Every weekend, I told myself: “I’m going to do this.” But usually, I just gave up after an hour or less since I’d rather be outside socialising, or I’d rather catch up on assignments. Sounds familiar?

The more time I spent procrastinating, the more mess built up, and the more my life felt chaotic. If you’ve ever felt the same, read on for how I managed to stay organised at university. And if you’re already an organising expert, chances are, you would like to read about others’ organisational systems. I hope you could pick up some new ideas to try out next time.

stay organised at university

Plan Ahead

When we think of university life, there is rarely a time when we learn so much, meet so many people, and experience so many new things at one time. But when studies were mixed with culture shock, homesickness, and social life, it was overwhelming for me to say the least. And that was how I realised the importance of planning.

You might wonder why planning ahead still matters in this fast-paced world where everything is changing so quickly. Alan Lakein had nicely summarised the reason in one short and sweet statement, “Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.” And the more I can do something about it now, the calmer and more organised I feel about my life. It’s truly the quickest and easiest way to get better organised and ready to handle a heavy workload.

Now, when it comes to planning, everyone has his or her own preference. My best friend loves writing everything out with different colour codes. And because she is super visual, she loves those planners that are not only functional but also aesthetically engaging. On the contrary, me being me, one of the most absent-minded people in the world, the risk of losing the physical planner is pretty high. Therefore, I opt for Google Calendar to have a single view of what’s going on with my time on the go. I also have a default alert set up for every important event based on the following simple rules:

  • Exams: 2-week heads-up
  • Assignments: 1-week heads-up
  • Events (such as interviews group meetings, appointments): 1-hour heads-up, but if the event is happening first thing in the morning, I find 12-hour alert is the best way to notify the night before and make sure to get enough sleep.

For you, what should you choose? Up to you, whatever works for you, as long as you have a single location to jot down all the deadlines which are looming and all the exams you have coming up. So do spend some time to play around and find what works best for you. It’s well worth the effort, I promise!

Have an effective daily to-do list

I still remember the first time I tried to get organised, the first thing I did was to take out a piece of paper and pen to create a “to-do” list, hoping to tackle my intangible mess and disorganised life. The more thing I wrote, the worse I felt. Instead of gaining clarity on what I needed to get done, I was overwhelmed just by looking at all the things I need to do. And I just didn’t know where to start or how to execute the list effectively. It took me a while to discover my golden rules for making “to-do” lists. Since sharing is caring, below is a few useful bits and pieces that I am using every single day.

  • Less is more: Let’s be honest! No one wants to look at a mile-long to-do list. And realistically, it’s impossible to get that much stuff done in 24 hours anyway. My rule of thumb is no more than 10 items on the daily to-do list, and all remaining tasks should be prioritised to another day.
  • Importance is different from urgency: If you ever feel almost every task has to be dealt with immediately, perhaps you might be confused between the important and the urgent ones. Remember most of the time, the urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent. So here is my quick guide to distinguishing the two.
    • The important means:
      • It will affect many people or projects if incomplete
      • Other tasks depending on its completion
      • It contributes significantly to my ability to achieve long-term goals
      • It’s low effort-high results (80/20 principle)
    • The urgent means:
      • It is either overdue or due today
      • It demands immediate attention
      • The consequences of not doing it are immediate
    • Prioritising is key: This is the best piece of advice I picked up from a time management workshop. If you are keen on exploring more time management tips for students, do check out this article. To prioritise my tasks, all I have to do is to simply slot all of them into 4 quadrants like below, and I immediately know exactly what to do next.

priority is key in universtiy

  1. Important and urgent: do it now, so I don’t end up spending 3 hours doing laundry instead of finishing a project report due tomorrow.
  2. Not urgent but important: do it right after finishing tasks in the first box, or at least, decide when and how to do it. Based on my personal experience, these not urgent but important tasks today are likely to become important and urgent sooner than I think. Hence it’s never too early to face these items head-on.
  3. Not important but urgent: delegate it or never spend more than 30 minutes to complete it.
  4. Not important or urgent: delete it. Life is too short for these items which neither important nor urgent for me.

Have a filing system

For me, filing is something I have to do to make it easier to find things when it comes to revision or looking up information to help with my coursework. But I never really enjoy doing it up to now. Therefore, I try to keep my filing system super simple including sorting papers in physical folders, files on your laptop and even emails in Outlook.

  • One master folder per module
  • In each folder, divide into 4 sub-folders:
    • Course Overview: Course syllabus, tutor contacts, important dates & list of assignments
    • Individual assignments or quizzes
    • Group projects
    • Learning materials: materials for each week go to separate sub-folders

15-minute Tidy Up Routine

Getting organised is difficult, but staying organised is even more challenging. And I am a huge advocate of this simple trick as a way to stay organised, and things don’t start to become a pile of stuff everywhere again!

All you need to do is to pick some point in the evening and set a timer for 10 minutes. This first 10-minute is all about checking through your to-do list for today, evaluate the progress, look at your plan and pen down the to-do list for tomorrow. Once you are done, or 10-minute is up, set another alarm for 5 minutes. Then race around tidying your closet, or your table, or your bed as much as you can until the timer goes off. This will have the effect of re-setting not only your mind but also your home so that you can wake up the next morning feeling great knowing that you have your day planned and ready to tackle the day without trying to catch up work from yesterday. Sounds good, right?

Remember to exercise, eat well and sleep well, everyone!

For any university student, there is always work to be done. But I have learned over the years that it’s just as important to maintain a personal routine to stay sane and balanced. Being a morning person, I’m usually up every weekday at 6 AM for a quick morning jog before heading to class. And if I feel really lazy on a random day, some gentle morning stretches for 15 minutes works just fine to energise me for the day. On the contrary, some of my friends prefer to join a sports club for students for some great bonding time over a netball match or a basketball game. Whatever types of exercises you feel comfortable or enjoy, make time for it and stick with it so that you can launch yourself into something energetic and healthy regularly.

Apart from exercising, be mindful about your eating and sleeping habits. I find simply drinking enough water is the cheapest and most effective way to avoid overeating, so don’t hesitate to bring your own water bottle with you. Also, learning how to control your portion and consume more fruits and veggies is key for a healthier and happier you. Also, don’t forget to get your beauty sleep because the human body isn’t really designed to pull all-nighters, especially right before quizzes or exams.

Learning to stay organised didn’t happen to me after one night, or one week, or one month. It’s really a journey full of experimenting, and I have to admit that staying organised at all times is still an impossible task for me. But I have learned when everything becomes messy, just spend some time reorganise them and move forward. For those of you who might get started like me a few years ago, you might not even get everything right in the first place, and that’s okay! What’s more important is to keep trying so that you understand what works or doesn’t work for you. That’s how we all learn new things or cultivate new habits. So just do it! Thousands of booksellers - millions of books.

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