Increased focus while you study + A plan you can easily tackle
If you aren’t using a to-do list for college, you have to start now. Finish reading this article, and then get started!
I am that passionate about it!
If you have tried using a to-do list for college and felt it didn’t help, then you probably were not using a to-do list the right way. Never fear! I am about to teach you the right way to use a to-do list and why you can’t survive your online courses without one.
The goal of having a solid to-do list is to dump all of the thoughts swirling around your head in one place, then set it and forget it (I’m picturing a great infomercial in my head—anyone else remember it?). By pairing a solid calendar system with a terrific to-do system, you are going to be a productivity powerhouse.
An awesome to-do list system for college helps to:
- increase your focus while studying
- create a plan for your big exams
- detail step-by-step how to complete every assignment
- break down major goals
- organize everything you need to remember for your online courses (and life)
- map out dates to get things done
How a to-do list increases focus While Studying
Your brain can only manage so many thoughts at one time. It’s a supercomputer, but like any computer, it has limited processing power. When you are trying to hold everything in memory you are burning up a lot of power that isn’t going towards your studies.
Have you ever been reading your course material and find you can’t remember the last two paragraphs? Your brain wandered. You started thinking about something else and your brain switched to focus on what you need to get from the grocery store instead of your textbook.
Not so great for our grades!
It’s really hard to try and force your brain to focus on the textbook and forget about everything else. Your brain needs to take action in order to let it go and get back to studying. An easy way to take action is to write it down. You might even think of this as your procrastination list! You’re not going to the store right now, but are putting it into a system you know will be used to remember and deal with it later.
Immediately this allows your mind to relax and get back to focus.
If you find you can’t turn your brain off because you keep thinking of one million things to do, buy, call, send, etc. instead of studying, it is time to put a to-do list to work. (If you’re struggling to make progress right now, read the #1 way to beat procrastination)
First, the rules.
1. Only One System
The first rule of to-do lists is to have only one system in place. This system may look like this:
- a notebook you write things down in
- a bullet journal (these things are hella popular right now)
- an app on your computer
- an app on your phone
To decide what your system should look like, ask yourself these questions:
What would I have with me at all times?
Do you always have a notebook in your purse, ladies? Do you always have your phone with you? Maybe you constantly have your laptop with you for work?
What would be easiest for me to use?
Do you love embracing technology and find it easy to work with? Does technology make you want to smash things into tiny pieces?
I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer here, so long as you create one place to keep everything you need to remember.
As an online student, you are likely connected to your laptop, phone, and tablet. You may find a digital system integrates really well with your online studies.
I love technology and always have my smartphone with me when I am out of the house, and a computer nearby when I am at home. The solution I choose is an app that syncs with my computer and phone. I’ve tried a lot and what I use for my top productivity tool is ToDoist.
2. Transfer everything to your to-do list for college
OK, so you have a system and are ready to get started. Awesome! Start by dumping everything in your mind in there. Just start typing/writing everything you need to remember. It might be a really big deadline or just something to pick up at the store. The importance doesn’t matter at this point.
Make notes of items with hard deadlines, but don’t worry about deadlines yet for non-time-sensitive ones yet. The goal at this point is to get it out of your brain and into your list.
Your brain can only actively manage so many thoughts at one time. It’s a supercomputer, but like any computer, it has limited processing power. When trying to hold all of these things in memory you are burning up a lot of power that isn’t going towards your studying.
Have you ever been reading a textbook and find you can’t remember the last two paragraphs you read? Your brain wandered somewhere else. You were thinking about something else and your brain switched to focus on the other thing and not your textbook.
It is hard to stop this process without dealing with the other thing on your mind. Your brain needs to take some action in order to let it go. I find an easy way to take some action is to write it down on my to-do list. I’m not actually completing it, but I am putting it into a system I know will be used to deal with it later.
Immediately this allows my mind to relax and get back to studying. No more worrying about forgetting to pick up the poster board for my kid’s school project tomorrow. (Because that’s more important than studying for a college degree, right? **sarcasm implied**) Then I can focus on my textbook and get a lot done in a short amount of time.
3. Apply some Organization
Once you have dumped everything on your list it is time to make sense of everything. We need to apply some basic organization in order for our brain to think about managing it.
Start by separating things into multiple lists. Here are a few you may want to consider:
- Work – these are goals for your day job
- Courses – specific tasks for individual courses (create a list for each course)
- Personal Goals – both specifics and bigger dreams you want to achieve
- Shopping List – get ready to go to the grocery store
- Errands – things you need to get done
- Monthly Planning – keep a list of holidays, traditions, goals, etc for each month
- Packing – jot down everything you need to pack for an upcoming trip
You have to customize this for yourself. After you do your brain dump, look at what you’ve written down and then sort it out into a few big categories. Don’t go nuts here, and please don’t build a super-complex organization system that you will not maintain.
Simple can be maintained and used!
4. Find Your Balance & Get things done
Now you have things organized and it is time to take this further and map out a plan to actually get these things done. This is the crux of making a to-do list for college work for you. You need to have a regular routine allowing you to mark things off the list.
The reason everyone has dreams and few achieve them is that only a few set a specific plan. We must have a plan and set a deadline in order to make our dreams a reality.
But you also have to be careful about the plan you create. One way to easily burn out and give up on a to-do list is to try and accomplish everything today. It’s not gonna happen.
I love marking things off my list and I have tried this approach. Here is what happens: you are not able to mark everything off so you feel disappointed and frustrated and don’t want to work on it at all. It is literally setting you up for failure.
You need to give yourself realistic limits in order to accomplish what you set out for the day, feel good about making progress, and keep the good times rolling!
I’ve heard some say you should only have 3 goals for a day, and it may be a great place to start. I like to think of time estimates instead of a number of goals. Three goals that in total take 30 minutes aren’t the same as three goals that in total take 120 minutes.
I set a goal of no more than 90 minutes of work per day for these types of items. This might look like two goals at 30-min each + three goals at 10-min each. Here’s an example from today:
- Write a blog post (60 min)
- Call and pay a bill (10 min)
- Plan meals for the upcoming week (20 min)
If I can do those three things, I feel awesome about the day.
And I can do those three things today.
I like to try and estimate times with at least a 25% margin over the quickest time I think I can do it in. I can probably call and pay a bill in about 5 minutes. But what if I have to wait on hold? What if their system is down and I have to call back? These things happen, so I buffer them in. By giving myself 10 minutes I feel confident I can get the task done today.
On days where things do go quickly and I only use five minutes of the ten I allowed, I use the power of working ahead. Look for another 5-10 minute task to do as well. I don’t spend any extra time today, and I take a task off of another day this week.
Here are some quick tips for maximizing your to-do list for college:
- Set daily limits of what is reasonable to achieve
- Create routines for maintenance tasks run on autopilot
- Use recurring dates in your app to automate tasks for you
As you plan these items in your day, think of when specifically you will work on them.
5. Review, Revise, & Prioritize
The final and most important piece of managing a to-do list is regularly reviewing and revising the list. You do not have to do this every day, or even every month. I find a quarterly schedule works really well for me.
You do need to go through your list of to-dos and goals and re-evaluate them. Just because you think of something to do, it doesn’t mean you should do it. It may even be a really good thing to do that just doesn’t fit your current priorities. It is OK to say goodbye to the idea or even have a list of “someday” ideas—things you hope to do someday but aren’t committing to today.
This is especially important for college students. You are being pulled in so many directions with school, work, family, etc. You have to be very clear about what your priorities are and how these goals fit in.
You may even want to keep a “someday goals” list where you put things you really want to do in your life but aren’t a priority right now. Things like learning to play guitar or training for a marathon may be really important life goals but are they realistic while you are also working towards your college degree? Some of you may say yes! Awesome.
But if you can’t manage regular study and your other long-term goals, you have to make a choice.
Choose your best future. What helps you most in 5 or 10 years?
Think about yourself in 10 years and what you would be most proud of. What goal would move you in the direction you really want to be going?
Answer those two questions and prioritizing your goals becomes a no-brainer.
Try It Yourself: 30-minute Challenge
- Decide on a to-do list system for college to fit your needs. Will you use a paper system or a digital app? If digital, create an account.
- Spend 10 minutes and do a brain dump to put everything into your new system.
- Spend 3 minutes and create a simple organization system. Think of the major categories you want to manage.
- Spend 10 minutes and move your tasks into the correct category.
- Finally, make a plan for tomorrow. Which items can you get done and mark off of the list tomorrow? Then just take it one day at a time.
I am partial to Todoist for my to-do list management. Leave a comment and let me know which to-do list for college app or system you love the best!