We explained in that post that there was one key question you need to be able to answer: how much structure do I need to keep me on task as a student?
We’re sticking to that. The degree to which you need to plan is really as simple as knowing the amount of structure necessary to keep you effective.
Too much structure turns students into “plan-aholics.” These people spend half their time trying to make sure their life matches the plans. When things get off track, they get stressed. When new things happen that weren’t in the plans, they have to go back and add them to the calendar. If this is you, don’t deny it. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem (Note: We’re only joking. We love planners. It’s just likely if you are one of those people, you aren’t reading this article, thus we get to pick on you).
Too little structure turns students into … well, non-students. Grades take the hit when plans aren’t in order. Students across the nation lose massive points every week simply because they didn’t have their assignments in on time. Successful students don’t lose points from late work. The student success baseline is turning assignments in on time.
Naturally, we believe this leads to an obvious next question: if you aren’t a planner, how do you quickly and simply put that minimum level of structure in place to ensure success? What if we told you all it took was 15 minutes per week to be an effective planner as a student?
While you don’t have to do it the same way we do, these 4 simple steps will help you plan in less time and keep from over-planning. (DISCLAIMER: This is more than a 3-minute article. But the subject just requires more information than we can give in 3 minutes. We think this will still be worth it though. Enjoy, and we’d love to hear your comments!)
1. Make a weekly planning appointment with yourself.
Schedule this appointment. Do not break the schedule. Keep it every single week. If for some reason you miss your weekly appointment (which we know you won’t – but hypothetically speaking…), immediately find time to make up that planning appointment, and then don’t miss your next week’s scheduled time.
Many students’ planning attempts get derailed simply because they haven’t planned when they’ll plan. It’s one of those, “Sure, I’ll plan my week, whenever I get around to it.”
Don’t plan that way. Trust me. I’ve planned that way. Something always slips through the cracks, and you have to simply pray that it isn’t your wife’s birthday. Even if forgetting __________ (fill in the blank with whatever it is you forgot to do/turn in) isn’t as bad as forgetting your wife’s birthday, you will pay for it somehow. Frequently your grades feel the loss, so help them out. Pick a time to plan, and stick to your time to plan.
As a final note on this, I’ll recommend two potential times for this: Friday afternoon or Sunday evening. This is not necessarily a requirement to use one of these times, but each has several Benefits.
Friday Afternoon Planning
First, Friday’s are great because you can know for sure what work you need to finish by Monday. If you use the time well, you don’t have to be stressed all weekend by projects that are hanging over your head.
Next, sandwiching a planning time between school and your Friday night activities will help provide motivation to finish planning. You may find that you are a more motivated and focused planner in that 15-30 minute block of time than at any other period all week.
Finally, on Friday’s the most important calendar items will still be fresh. You are less likely to miss things at this point in the week.
Sunday Evening Planning
Sunday’s could also be a good option for two reasons. First, some people prefer finishing their weeks on Friday afternoon and not thinking about the stresses of school until Sunday. That is a valid option. Planning on Friday tends to extend your week by a bit.
Second, planning for the week can work well to hit the proverbial “Reset” button. If you gather your thoughts and schedules on Sunday night, you can start Monday morning with a bang. The downside is that you don’t have the motivating factor of an eventful Friday night helping move your planning along.
Keep these ideas in mind as you plan, but ultimately the decision as to when you should plan depends on what you know about yourself. If you aren’t sure, try a couple of different times and see what works best.
2. Record Due Dates
Once you’ve set your planning appointment, the next step is to actually plan. Your first order of business each week is recording upcoming assignment due dates. Mark these on the calendar dates that they are due (which makes sense, right? Simple). For this to work effectively, know what time periods you have open for your homework. Then prepare to fill those periods with some projects.
If you have a smart phone or want to use technology to plan, I recommend using Google Calendar as a calendar software. You can make a single calendar for all assignment due dates and choose a color for that calendar- red, for example – which helps to keep due dates marked off and distinct. Google gets the recommendation because it’s easy, it’s accessible, it’s free, and it interacts readily on most technology. There are several other calendar software options available, like Apple’s iCalendar, but from my experience Google’s is the most usable with all technology.
If you prefer to use a paper planner, that can be just as effective (possibly more effective, depending on your personality). If that’s the case, consider writing all assignment due dates in red pen or highlight them so they are distinct.
It’s also important to note that there are 2 distinct types of due-dates that students need to recognize: repeating and one-time due dates.
Repeating Due Dates
These assignments recur every week. For example, you may know before hand that every Tuesday you’ll have a vocabulary test in Spanish. If that’s the case, you can go ahead and record those events for the rest of the semester at your first planning appointment.
Again, for those using paper planners, make sure you can tell it’s an assignment that is coming due. If you are using Google Calendar, you can simply set the event to be a repeating event for the rest of the semester with a couple of clicks. Whichever planner you use, by recording repeating due dates early in the semester, you can knock out a significant part of your weekly planning in just a few minutes.
One-time Due Dates
Some assignments are larger projects or more randomly assigned homework projects. These should be added during your weekly planning period for as far as your teacher makes it know to you. If they tell you one week in advance, record one week in advance. If they tell you two days in advance, you may not have time to wait until your planning appointment to put it on your schedule. If that’s the case, you can either add it immediately or keep an additional assignments folder with you at all times. The key is to find a system that works well for you on the fly.
Before we move on to the next step, don’t miss this significant key study skill: ask your teacher for a syllabus.
Many teachers will already give you one for the semester. If so, put that information on your calendar. This will make your semester planning significantly easier.
If your teacher doesn’t have a syllabus, it’s fine. You’ve set yourself apart as a motivated, hard-working, and organized student just by asking that question. Your teacher will also (most likely) work on planning out things further in advance to help smart, motivated, successful students like you, and you’ll get a boost in the brownie-points grading scale. If you think that doesn’t matter, think again. If the end of the semester comes around and you have an 89.45%, your asking for a syllabus may be the difference in rounding to an “A-” or “B+.”
3. Record To-Do Dates
After recording assignment due dates, record what we call “to-do dates”. Do this as an entirely separate step. Again, use another calendar color on Google Calendar, or a different distinction in your paper planner.
For some people treating this as a separate step may not seem natural. After all, the previous step was spending time planning out when everything is due, which seems like a natural part of actually doing the work. In reality, however, these are separate activities.
A project’s due-date has little to do with when you will work on the project. Size, scope, difficulty, and familiarity with the topic should have more influence on when and for how long you work on your assignment. All of your due dates should fall into one of two different categories: daily to-do, and one-time to-do dates.
Daily To-Do Dates
Some projects are extremely long-term and require daily effort. Things like research papers, final exams, or science projects need several days worth of work to finish well. Procrastinating until the night before is a sure way to bomb a major exam or project. Put these events on several days’ worth of “To-Do” dates. It’s a good idea to consider setting up smaller due dates along the way as well. For more on this, check out our up-coming post on how to manage projects.
Other assignments simply require daily work to keep up with them. Almost all language learning is this way. If you want to learn
Spanish well, you need to spend a time each day reviewing the material. French, German, Greek, or Pig Latin are the same way. This doesn’t necessarily require a significant amount of effort, but it does require daily effort. Put these types of assignments on your To-Do calendar on several days during each week.
One-Time To-Do Dates
Every week is sure to involve working on projects that you can do in one night. They just need some time, but they can be done in one or two sittings. Most homework fits in this category of To-Do tasks.
These types of tasks are typically easier to finish. There are still two important elements to consider, though. The first is to make sure every task gets finished. If this seems fairly straightforward, you’re reading well. It’s simple. Make sure your tasks get finished, which may get more complicated as you add more classes, but should still be fairly simple.
Next, it’s easiest to spread your tasks out among different days so that tasks don’t pile up too much. A few tasks each day will help you perform much better than trying to fill one or two days with all your tasks.
4. Do Work
This is the point of planning. After you’ve planned, do the work. At this point in the process, this is a simple task of looking at your calendar, noticing what is due the next day, and then working through your “To-Do” list for the evening. Just do the next most important task until you are finished or run out of time during that session.
That’s it. If you follow these steps, when it comes time to execute, it’s fairly brainless. Just do whatever is next on your list.
- Set a planning appointment
- Record Due Dates
- Record To-Do Dates
- Do Work
Planning effectively doesn’t have to be difficult. It does require some set-up, consistency, and a system to simplify the process, but don’t complicate what is essentially a simple task. You really can plan in 15 minutes a week. If you have any other tips along this journey of becoming an effective planner, please share with us in the comments. And, for those of us who hate planning, the simpler the better.