I received this question from a friend of mine who just started their first year in university this year. Here’s what he said:
First, I sent him to this post, but I wanted to elaborate a bit more. If you can relate to him or if you’ve fallen behind, here are some tips that will help a lot:
1. Focus on the Important-Urgent first, then on the Important-Not Urgent
This chart is from Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
We usually play around Quadrant I and IV, but we’ll never work on truly meaningful work and get ahead if we stay there. The goal is to move to Quadrant II. Quadrant II is when you work on things well in advance, instead of cramming things in last minute.
So if you’re in QI and QIV now, how do you get to Q II?
Break the Cycle
To stop cycling between Quadrant 1, 3 and 4, finish your Quadrant 1 tasks for the day, then making progress on at least one Quadrant 2 task. Eventually, you’ll come to a point where you’re working on more Quadrant 2 stuff than Quadrant 1.
We’ll talk more about this in Tip #3 below, but the people who hardly every procrastinate day-to-day have this going for them: momentum.
As you work on Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 stuff, you’ll still fall into the other time-wasting and distracting tasks from time-to-time, but keep at it. (I tend to procrastinate most in the afternoon when I’m tired or after lunch. The itis is just too real.) As you persist, you’ll find that you’ll want to spend more time doing work that matters – and that persistence will help build unassailable momentum.
2. Block Out Your Time Every day
In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey illustrates why scheduling each day is so important:
Imagine a jar in front of you that you need to fill with a bunch of big rocks, medium rocks, pebbles and sand. If you start by putting in all of the sand or the pebbles, there probably won’t be any room for all of the big and medium rocks. But if you start by putting in the big rocks first, followed by the medium ones, the pebbles, then the sand, you’ll find that you can fit a lot more – the pebbles and sand can fill in the spaces between the rocks when you pour it in.
Now, think of the rocks and pebbles as the tasks you have to do for the day: the big rocks are for the most important tasks, the medium ones for tasks you need to do but aren’t super important, and the pebbles and sand are the ones that would be nice to do.
Too often, we spend the majority of our day on pebbles-and-sand tasks, like keeping up with email, responding to Facebook messages or catching up on Lilly Singh YouTube videos, and procrastinating on the big, important tasks.
That’s why you need to schedule your day – because blocking out your time helps you stay focused and on-task, while giving you peace of mind because you know that you’ll have enough time to work on the other stuff later.
On top of this, for most of our schedules are constantly changing. We tend to have a lot of things going on at the same time all the time – assignments, projects, quizzes, exams, clubs, student groups, part-time jobs. By scheduling your day, you’ll figure out quickly if you have time to go for that pizza run with your friend, or if you really, really have to stay in the library to study.
But then this begs the question…
How Do You Know What Your Big Rocks Are?
Here’s what I suggest: take a page from Tim Ferriss’ book and ask this: “If this were the only thing I got done today, would I be satisfied?”, then go do that thing. After you’re done that thing, ask the question again, then do the next thing. And the next thing. And the next thing.
You can also check out this post on how I prioritize my days.
3. Do Quality Work Every Day
Consistency and frequency are key to become a productivity beast, even if it’s doing just one thing. (Remember our good friend, momentum?) Now, if you’re just beginning to get organized, you probably won’t have enough hours in the day to get through all your work; you might not feel especially inclined to do the work either.
But you just have to start.
I can’t tell you how many days in a week I wake up and think, “I don’t feel like working today.” How I would overcome this is when I (eventually) do sit down to work, I would tell myself, “OK, this is fine. Let’s just do this one thing that’s been bothering me. After that, we can chill and do whatever we want for the rest of the day.” And I mean that 100% – if I only get that one easy thing done, maybe it’s brain dump for an essay, reading the requirements for a project or sending an email, I’d take the rest of the day off.
But more often than not, I end up building momentum and powering through the day once I’d started.
(Tangent: I just realized that I referred to myself in the second person. That is so freaky. #Golem #Smeagol)
4. Get Quality Rest Everyday
If you’re just getting started, you might have to pull a few late nights, all-nighters, or have to work through the weekends to get everything in control. That’s OK, but always be working towards reducing your hours.
For one, it’s not sustainable and just not a whole lot of fun to be pulling all-nighters – even if it seems like they’re a requisite for good grades. (Trust me – they’re not.)
Plus, remember why you want to get organized in the first place – so you can do stuff that’s fun but might not necessarily productive. I mean, if you’ve done everything on your schedule, be okay switching off! Switching off is crucial if you want to sustain this productivity throughout the semester.
It’s going to be hard, especially in the beginning. But trust the process, do a bit every day and keep at it.