How To Be a Productive Beast In College
Minimizing the lame, maximizing the awesome.
Time is the most valuable asset you have in life.
Unlike capital, technology, goods, or people, you can’t create any more of it. As such, it’s important that you learn to manage it effectively.
While the skill of managing your time will help you in college, it will also help you in nearly every facet life. Want more free time at school so you can actually start going for runs and not tell yourself you will? Feel like you are being called to serve your community more but don’t think you have the time on the weekends to make that happen? Increasing productivity can help you get there.
I should point out though, there is a distinct difference between needing to increase productivity and just needing to not be lazy. If you already have 5 free hours on your Saturday morning, you don’t need a way to be more productive, you just need to get off your butt and go do whatever it is you “want” to do.
But for those who are feeling trapped under a bunch of work or feel like they over-committed during the upcoming year, hopefully these tips will be able to help you.
So here we go, let’s get started.
First step: know yourself
When most people click a link on how to be more productive, many will probably expect tips like how to make your inbox sort itself, or how to use password managers or something of the sort. While all of those things are well and good, and I will even touch on some things like that later, in my experience, those really aren’t all that powerful when it comes to increasing productivity.
In my experience (which I admit, is limited), the way to increase productivity more significantly is to make changes in yourself by changing how you think about and manage your time.
To do this, you must know yourself. This is where everything begins. If you don’t know yourself, your habits, the way your mind and brain work, there is no possible way you will be able to be productive in any true sense.
So, how do you come to know yourself? Well, you become an introspective person. You consciously act (as opposed to react) and understand what comes of your actions. Once you understand the consequences of your actions, it is rather easy to switch things up and make yourself more productive.
So, to do this, carry on with your normal activities for a day, a few days, or maybe even a week. But instead of just going through the motions, think and consider things intentionally as you do them. Here are a few things to consider as you go about your week.
Figure out where you work most effectively. This sounds simple, but many don’t think about this. Your work environment influences how you work in a major way so it is important to find out where you work most effectively. Some people work best sitting in the library, some work better in their room, some work better in the Student Union. There isn’t necessarily a right answer here but in the end, it has to be somewhere where you can focus. So no, I’m sorry, you don’t work most effectively sitting out on the quad half talking to friends, half throwing a disc, and doing work every few minutes.
Figure out how you work most effectively. Along with where you work, the nature of your work is also very important. This can take many different forms. For example, do you work better with a computer or writing and using hand written notes? Do you work better listening to music or working in silence? Figure this out. It might also be the case that it actually depends on the type of work you are doing. For instance, maybe when you do mindless tasks like sort through emails, it helps to listen to music but once you crack open a book you need complete silence.
Figure out when you work most effectively. Along with the two above suggestions, also consider what time of day you are most productive. I hate to break it to many students, but 2am usually isn’t most people’s peak productive hour. Start experimenting with new ways of doing things. Consider waking up early and getting a jump start on all of the things you have to do for the day.
Now that you’ve thought through all of that, it’s time to use this information! Combine all three of these and find your productive happy place: the location, time, and circumstances where you are at your maximum capacity for productivity.
Is your most productive combination in the library at 7am with dead silence all around? Or is it in the student union with background noise in the middle of the day? It’s almost like playing Clue with your study habits.
Once you know when, how, and where you are most productive, to take it to the next level, apply that knowledge with how you schedule your time. Match up your most important and concentration-intensive tasks to your most productive hours. This is really the most important step. It doesn’t really do you any good if you spend your most productive hours doing something mindless like organizing your inbox or taking Buzzfeed quizzes.
Do you have a big term paper that you need to focus on and spend a large chunk of time with? Then mentally schedule that for your most productive hours of the day — don’t work on it 5 minutes here and 5 minutes there; you won’t be able to get anything substantive done.
On the other hand, if you know there are certain hours where you just can’t be productive, say, between two classes in the middle of the day, use that time to do those random things like email and other menial tasks.
Simply put: learn to 1) mentally think ahead to consider all of the tasks you have to do for the day and order them from most demanding to least demanding 2) understand and rank your hours of the day from most productive to least productive, then 3) match up everything accordingly.
Another tip: pay attention to the time you spend among friends. It is truly amazing how many hours are wasted in the student union with friends talking and “working” on homework at the same time. While there is something to be said for working through your trials in the presence of your friends, there’s also something to be said for splitting up, banging out that work, and meeting up to do something actually enjoyable instead of sitting in a chair loathing your life.
It makes be cringe to think that our social lives as students have become sitting around staring at our respective screens, half working and half complaining how much the work sucks. Instead of this, let’s put all of our attention into our work at one time so we can go out and do things that make our lives more enjoyable, challenging, or fulfilling.
Now that most of your productive potential has already been unlocked by being introspective and doing all of the above things, it’s time for something easy: using technology to ramp up your productive potential.
There are so many small and easy ways you can improve your productive capacity by using technology. While these are all very small and simple suggestions, you’d be surprised at how quickly they add up.
First things first, buy a mouse. This is so simple but it really helps one be more productive. Using your laptop trackpad might be useful in certain circumstances, but you’d be amazed at how much faster you can do just about anything if you use a mouse instead of the trackpad. Do yourself a favor and buy one.
In terms of other hardware, another thing you can consider is buying a monitor. Although they are more expensive than mice, the extra screen real estate makes a huge difference so you don’t have to constantly be opening and closing windows. You can find them for dirt cheap now too. Check Craigslist or Amazon.
Second, learn to master email. Email is something people waste so much time on, especially in college. But in all honesty, there’s no need to waste so much time with it. With a few tips and tricks, it’s a pretty easy beast to manage.
There are a lot of things I could talk about when it comes to email but I’ll try to keep things simple so here are a few notes in passing.
- Use folders. It’s amazing how many people only have one huge inbox of emails. Stop this. Stop now. Use folders, and folders in folders. Folders can really help you keep your inbox clean and organized. Although they are helpful, make sure you don’t get carried away. I know a few people who actually waste more time managing their folders than it helps them. So keep it simple. One other point I’ll mention about this is that you can effectively use your inbox as, what a friend of mine has named, a “pseudo-task list.” Or in other words, you can know that everything still in your inbox is something that needs your attention. This is effectively how I use my inbox.
- Use rules. Rules are assignments that tell your email client what to do with emails once they come into your inbox. They are fairly easy to set up and can save a lot of time that you would otherwise use sorting through emails. Have someone that only emails you about a certain topic? Like teachers, faculty, or coaches? You can set up a rule which will dump all of their emails into a folder called “sports” or “classes.” Or maybe you have a group on campus who refuses to take your name off an email list? You can easily set up a rule that throws all of their stuff right into the spam folder. This sounds really simple but it keeps things very well organized if you use it effectively.
- Use automation. Have tasks that you repeatedly do? There are ways to automate those tasks with most email clients. In Microsoft Outlook, they have something called “quick steps” which allow you to do tasks that you would do over and over again very quickly. So for instance, when I email our investment society, instead of clicking “new email” then adding the SIS group in the “to” line and cc’ing other people who need to see it, I can automatically, with one click, have an email already drafted to everyone I need to send it to. This suggestion is really simple but there are so many different ways you can use this automation capability to speed up different processes.
- Unsubscribe. Many students give out their email address to random websites to get a good deal online or to subscribe to a newsletter they thought would be interesting but really just turned out to be annoying. If you find yourself in this position, unsubscribe from the emails! Don’t just let them come in then delete them. Get to the root of the problem and unsubscribe. It might take an hour or two to unsubscribe from all the junk but it will be worth it once you don’t have to manage all of it.
- Archive. This isn’t so much a productivity tip as it is a good email practice. In college, you usually have a very small amount of email space available, so archiving your emails becomes very important. Archiving takes all of your emails off the server at the school and stores them locally on your computer. This frees up your space on the server so you don’t get an email telling you have low storage space every 4 hours.
Third, make keyboard shortcuts your friend. Once you get the hang of these you will wonder how you ever lived without them. Most of the simple tasks that you do for web browsing or text editing have simple keystrokes that can help you do things more quickly.
Need to open a new tab in Chrome? CTRL + T. Need to close that same tab? CTRL + W. Need to get to the next tab quickly? CTRL + TAB. How about back one tab? CTRL + SHIFT + TAB. Go ahead, try it.
How about shortcuts in Word? Use the SHIFT and CTRL keys to select and navigate through paragraphs easier. Know all of the easy ones like CTRL + B, CTRL + I, CTRL + U, then start looking more in-depth. Use the ALT key to bring up a bunch of different options for anything you want to do. I wouldn’t suggest memorizing everything but if there is a task you do over and over again, use this to make your life easier. Need to put in a picture? ALT + N + P. Need to center text? ALT + H + AC.
Next up, master the calendar and scheduling. I already touched on time management earlier but here are a few tips for managing your calendar in general. Find a good way to schedule your events and block off time to work on different tasks. This doesn’t need to be on something like Outlook as this can be done very effectively with a pen and paper.
First of all you should already be scheduling properly, as in the most important tasks during the most concentration and productive times, so once you have that done, it can also be helpful to be diligent in blocking off time in your schedule for different activities and holding yourself accountable to the times you block off. This is key.
If you know you need to read 35 pages in your biology textbook, sit down and say “okay I’m going to read this well and take 1 hour to do so.” Obviously, don’t give yourself impossible deadlines that will make yourself speed through something without giving it any thought but give yourself a good amount of time, something that will challenge you yet also allow you to take your time and understand everything well.
Parkinson’s Law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”
If you don’t hold yourself to your allotted amounts, you will easily use all the time in your night / morning / day. This is known as Parkinson’s Law, the idea that work expands to fill the time allotted.
And while I am on the topic, this is just as relevant to meetings as it is to personal scheduling. Remember this the next time you work on a group project. If you come into the meeting with no set game plan or agenda, I can guarantee you that you will be there much longer than if you come in prepared with a list of things to work through. There is a lot that can be said on how to have effective group meetings but that is a writing topic for another day.
Lastly, basic file management. If you cringed as you read that, you are the one with the problem.
Don’t be the guy with 849 icons on your desktop and no folders in sight — this will absolutely kill your productivity. Not having your computer’s file system organized can be a real hassle when you need to find things quickly. So find a good way to organize everything.
Personally, I have all of my important documents on Dropbox. Within Dropbox, I have folders for each of the important parts of my life. I then subdivide these down further.
For instance: Dropbox > Grove City College > Classes > Senior Year
Or: Dropbox > Personal > Job Search > Resumes
This system with Dropbox helps me not only keep organized but also gives me safety in the event of a computer crash. Because all of my important documents are in the cloud, if my computer exploded as I typed this, it really wouldn’t matter because I am able to access everything I need from any computer in the world.
But anyway, just like everything else I’ve talked about, don’t get too crazy with the file systems. You can definitely get into overkill territory pretty quickly if you get folder happy. Generally speaking though, if you have 10–20 unrelated files hanging out without a folder, you can usually condense them and organize things better.
If you’re interested in these cloud based services, I would suggest either Dropbox (ref), OneDrive, or Google Drive. In the end, file management is all about finding the best system that works for you so you might want to try a few different services and see what you like best.
Hopefully somewhere in the ramblings of the past 29 hundred words, you found something that will help you become a more productive person. If you did, I’m glad — this was a success. If not, I am sorry for wasting the last 12 minutes of your life.