*Note: All images are my own.
I’m an organization and efficiency junkie. I’ve been trying to perfect a system for keeping track of my life and getting things done in the best possible way for years now. As a senior in college, I think I might have developed that perfect system. It consists of three levels: OneNote, Google Calendar, and bullet journaling. With these three tools, I’ve been able to organize almost all aspects of my life, but especially academics and extracurriculars (like writing and editing for The Prospect!).
OneNote is the best. I downloaded it for free on my computer, phone, and family iPad, and it is so worth it. I have one notebook in the program for each class and a personal notebook for, well, personal use. In this personal notebook that ON affectionately named after me (Alicia’s Notebook), I have a “To Do” section. This section serves as a massive academic syllabus including due dates for readings, assignments, presentations, tests, and papers, all in one place.
I have one text box per week. I refer to the week as Monday to Sunday as a personal preference, but you can start your week on any day that best suits your schedule. In Heading 1, I type the month and dates for that week span: SEPT 21-27. I type the individual days and date in Heading 2: MONDAY, SEPT 21. The assignments and such go in a two-column table. The left column is for the class title or any abbreviation. Personally, I usually use the just the course number because most of my classes are in psychology with long titles: 492 is “Senior Collaborative Research: Reproductive and Sexual Health”, and 220 is “Development Across the Lifespan”. Use any short title that you know you’ll be able to understand.
The right column is a brief assignment description. For example: for empirical articles, I just type the article author and publication date; I only use one textbook in 220, so I only need to type “Ch 6”; I type just the name of a website to explore. Do not try to write the entire title or assignment instructions: “Read Chrisler et. al, 2014. Complete one discussion question and one idea for future research. Submit on Canvas [school system for managing class files].” The description is prompt for you to remember or look up what the actual assignment entails. Any more details than a prompt would make the table look cluttered, which would not be conducive to an enjoyable organizational experience. Don’t get caught up on spelling or proper capitalization, either. If you know what you mean when you type it, you’ll know what you mean when you refer to it later.
Pro-tip: For items that require reading certain files, websites, or other pages in ON, hyperlink the item text to that file/website/page. This is especially useful for items that will take more than one session to complete. For example, I linked “Moss-racusin et al 2010” to the actual PDF I have saved on my computer. This way, when I decide to do that reading, I can click straight to the PDF and start reading, rather than taking the tile to look up the file and wonder, “Did I save it as the author name or article title?”
The symbols next to the items are ON ‘tags’. I personally use six different tags to signify the progress I’ve made in planning and completing items. You can add, change, or leave out any as you see fit.
- Not planned (blue triangle) means the item has been entered into ON (obviously) but I haven’t entered it into Google Calendar (if necessary, explained below) or scheduled when I want to complete it in my bullet journal (explained below). As indicated by the blue triangle, I haven’t completed “Sanday, Socio-cultural context” due on September 22, and I don’t know when I’m going to do it yet.
- Planned (empty box) means the item has been entered into ON and I’ve scheduled it in my bullet journal. As indicated by the empty box, I haven’t completed “Hw 5” due on September 30, but I know what day I plan on doing it.
- Done (checked box) is self-explanatory; I prefer to mark the item as done, rather than erasing it because I like to see my progress in completing items over a span of time.
- Delayed (star) means a due date has been changed and I’m awaiting information about a new due date.
- Not necessary (question mark) means the item is not of great importance that I need to prioritize getting it done. I shouldn’t address the item until absolutely everything else is done.
- In progress (starred box) means I’ve put substantial effort into starting the item (and not just opening a file and reading the title). I prefer signifying ‘in progress’, rather than leaving it as ‘planned’ so even if I didn’t finish the item, it doesn’t look like I didn’t accomplish anything. I update the tags accordingly, as I make progress with the item.
Finally, I grey out the entire table for the day as it passes. I choose to do this, rather than erase the day, because again I like seeing my progress. I keep a separate section (see top bar) for extracurricular activities. I’m on the executive board for the Filipino club at my school, Barkada, and I write for The Prospect (TP, obviously) and Her Culture (HC). Those sections are organized differently and less intensely than my academic to-do list, but they’re still to-do lists with tags to mark progress.
Google Calendar (GC)
This is my baby. I have calendars for every aspect of my life:
- Personal – family commitments, school breaks, holidays, birthdays, relationship milestones, grocery shopping, parties
- Barkada – general board meetings (and the topic of the meeting), executive board meetings, large events, fundraisers, collaboration meetings
- Class – four classes (all in the same color so it’s not too visually distracting, and I perceive all class times as important rather than easily being able to distinguish which are ‘less important’ than others), lab hours, meetings with professors, meetings with other students, research sessions I’m conducting, presentations, exams, papers, office hours (if I plan on attending that week)
- Extracurricular (not organized/co-organized by Barkada) – general board meetings/fundraisers for other Asian clubs (which are usually the only ones I go to)
- Her Culture/The Prospect – topic submissions, article submissions, pitch deadlines
- Office hours – When I get a syllabus, I add office hours for all professors; I don’t display this calendar unless I’m actively looking for a time to attend because it looks too cluttered.
- Tinikling – I’m leader of a dance group for Barkada. I input our progress goals (‘Finish choreo’, ‘Mix music’) and practice sessions.
- Study – This calendar shows all the work I plan on doing for the day and the estimated time I’m planning to do it all. I enter the event with the class code (492, 331, 220, WGS) and the item prompt from ON. I try to gauge the ideal time it will take for me to finish an item (say one hour to read an article), and I enter 1.25-1.5x that amount of time as a realistic estimate (one hour and 30 minutes). This gives me buffer time in my schedule for small interruptions (buying coffee, friend stops by to talk). If it’s going to take more than two hours for a single item, I split it up into one-hour or two-hour blocks so I don’t burn out on a subject.
I like to set an event as “All day” AND for a specific time for events that will take up a significant investment of my time on that day (4+ hours for hosting a variety show for Barkada, or volunteering at an apple orchard as a fundraiser). This way, the event doesn’t get lost within the daily schedule as a ‘normal’ task; I know the specific time commitment, but I also see that it’s a significant commitment.
After items go into my ON, I enter major assignments as an all-day event on GC, and I only set the tag as ‘Planned’ when I have made a study/project goal schedule in my bullet journal. This way, I’m never blindsided by a huge presentation when I flip a page in my bullet journal because I can see it slowly creeping up on me with smaller tasks as the day approaches (‘Annotate X amount of articles’ on Monday, ‘Outline paper’ on Friday, etc.).
Bullet Journal (Bullet)
Bullet journaling is a very popular planner/organization system, especially in the studyblr community. Everything looks visually organized and aesthetic, so it fits my meticulous personality perfectly. It works like a normal planner but with more ‘interactivity’.
I personally schedule which items to do on which day by asking myself certain questions related to the nature of the item and the logistics of my day:
Will I be walking around a lot on this day? Then I shouldn’t do my “Trull 412-428” reading for 331 because I’ll have to carry the textbook in my hand since it doesn’t fit in my backpack. Think about if you’ll physically be able to complete that item.
Will I prefer to use dual screens for this item? Then I should plan to complete it on a day that I’ll be able to stay in my dorm for some time. (I have a 19-inch monitor from an old desktop computer in my dorm. It’s extremely helpful for looking at multiple windows simultaneously when writing papers, typing notes off of a PDF, or taking a Netflix and Tumblr break from studying.)
Will I be able to sit and focus for more than an hour this day? On days when I’m organizing/attending large events, I’ll be mentally or physically running around and I find myself unable to commit energy to focusing on readings or assignments. But I don’t write the day off as a lost cause. I put ‘busywork’ or micro-managing tasks on that day, anything that doesn’t require my strict focus: sorting email, doing laundry, cleaning my apartment, or managing my ON, GC, and Bullet. This way I’m able to make use of all of my time.
So the items are written on the days I want to do them. But I also want to be able to do the following: distinguish which aspect of my life the items are for, track how much work I’ll be doing for The Prospect or tinikling this week, see if I missed a reading for my 492 class. I want to be able to ask: What absolutely needs to get done this week? What don’t I need to do? For these tasks and more, I have a legend. I have:
- A colored square for each class
- Black shapes for non-academic responsibilities
- A red asterisk that would go next to a shape to signify that the item must be done that day
- A red X through an entire shape to signify that the item was cancelled or is now irrelevant
- A half-filled/filled shape to signify progress on the item
- A migrate arrow: leaving the shape means I’ve moved it to a future date, pointing to the shape means it’s been moved from a previous date
As each item changes status from ‘Planned’ to ‘In progress’ to ‘Done’, I go back into ON and change the tag for the item accordingly. It helps to create a separate post-it or index card with the tags and their meanings as a portable insert in your Bullet. This way you can keep the tags in front of you when doing a mass-plan, and don’t have to flip to a legend on the first page as many bullet journal users do. (Ignore Wednesday, September 23; I forgot my colored pens in my dorm that day. But let this serve as a lesson: Don’t forget your pens, or else you’ll have one very dull-looking Wednesday right in the middle of your bright and colorfully organized week.)
The above 2000 words may seem intimidating. It’s taken me years to develop, refine, and streamline a system that works for me. The key to my not getting overwhelmed with this intense three-tier system is this: I do all the inputting in one chunk of time. When I got my class syllabi at the beginning of the semester, I entered all readings, assignments, presentations, exams, and projects into ON, and major assignments as all-day events on GC. Every couple days or each week, I take about ten minutes to assign individual items to each day in my Bullet. The night before or morning of, I schedule the items in my day on GC. It’s a lot of maintenance, but I’ve found that outsourcing to a system helps in the long-term. I don’t spend mental resources trying to remember what’s due tomorrow every night, or suddenly realizing an exam is coming up because I didn’t check the syllabus. I can reliably check my system and know that I’m comfortably on track and responsible.