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Personal Productivity for Students

To focus on your studies, it's important to stay organized. But high schools don't really help with this. This page contains hints and tips for students to stay organized.

I also maintain a list of links relating to personal productivity, and a part of my off-campus blog is dedicated to personal productivity.

Under Construction This page is a recent addition to my site and is still growing.

If you have a question that pertains to task management and personal productivity in University, feel free to email me.

notetaking.jpgFig. 1: Hints for note-taking


Some people think that only obsessive-compulsive people manage their tasks carefully and precisely. Well, I'm living proof to the opposite: I'm incredibly lazy. I want to spend as much time as possible doing nothing at all. That means that, when I do have stuff to do, I have to be both effective and efficient. And believe me, being well-organized is a great way to make sure you have as much free time as possible.

But being organized requires some effort. This is effort well invested, because for every minute you spend staying organized, you'll likely save yourself five minutes or more of grief. Not to mention getting your assignments done on time and so tending to get higher marks.

This page is meant to help students get organized.

Forget Marks; Just Do Better

The single most important thing to remember is that good learning causes good grades. You can try to cheat your way to good grades without learning (and, yes, the only way to get good marks without cheating is to actually learn), but it won't help you in the long run. You may pass your current courses, but you will suffer miserably in future courses because they build on what you're supposed to learn now. You will also suck at your job and will get fired eventually. Along the way, it's that much more likely that you'll make some terrible mistake due to incompetence that will cause others harm or even kill them.

Stop worrying about whether you “deserve” a 66% or a 67%. Worry instead about figuring out the mistakes you made and how to not make those mistakes again.

So forget about your marks. Just learn. Learn as much as you can, as well as you can. If you're a C student, then aim for a C+ next semester by learning more, better, and deeper. Once you get to C+, then aim for a B-. Just keep going like that, and you are pretty much guaranteed to reach the best you can possibly be. It may not be an A+, but who cares? You can only do as well as you possibly can. There is just as much honour and pride to be had in getting a “legitimate” B as there is in a legitimate A.

Constantly improve your study habits

Learning how to study is something that you should do for the rest of your life. Take every chance you get to reflect on how you studied, and how you can change your study habits for the better.

There's a separate collection of tips for better studying.

Make time to save time

The better organized you are, the more time you'll have to get things done - and, also, the more time you'll have to rest and enjoy yourself. But this means you have to invest time to get organized. Every minute you spend organizing yourself will lead to, in my estimation, at least two minutes of free time later on. So it really is in your best interest to try to stay organized.

Staying organized isn't a one-off task; you can't just spend an hour getting organized and expect it to all work out forever. You need to set aside some time every day to review what you got done, what you need to do in the future, and laying out your time to make sure you're meeting all your deadlines in a timely way.

I personally do this at the end of the day - not just before bed (I'm too tired), but usually after dinner so I can look back over my day critically and yet have enough energy and attention to plan my next day well. Other people prefer to do this first thing in the morning. It doesn't matter when you do it, but you should make this a habit: do your daily planning at the same time every day.

Find what you love to do

Recent research suggests strongly that the odds you'll succeed improve if you're intrinsically motivated; that means you want to do something for its own sake, because you feel a deep desire to do it. Extrinsic motivation - wanting to do something for some other, external reason (e.g., better salary, fame, etc.) - can actually impede your success.

What this means is: the odds of succeeding in University increase if you really just want to be here, and not if you're just here as a stepping stone to a career.

The same can be said about engineering. If you don't really just want to get an engineering degree, then you're better off finding a degree you really do want.

Get and use an agenda

You can get an agenda for only a few dollars. If you're so inclined, you are easily make your own too. Depending on how much you like to write things down, you can get an agenda that has a full week on a single page, a full week on two (facing) pages, or even a single day per page (if you write things down a lot).

If this will be your first agenda, I suggest getting one that has a week on two pages. Try that for a year; if you find you're wasting lots of paper, you can trade down the next year for a week on a page format and if you notice it's jammed with writing, try a day on a page format next year.

Know what you've got to work with

You can't plan your day if you don't know how much time you'll have on a given day to get things done. I have written elsewhere about how much time the average engineering undergraduate student should spend outside class on schoolwork. I think the average student should spend 4-5 hours each week on each subject.

Fill in the stuff you know first

The question remains: when, over a week, should you schedule that extra time? This is why agendas are so useful. Once you've added your classes to your agenda, you'll have a better sense of which days are best for which subjects. If you've got a particularly heavy day on, say, Tuesdays, then you shouldn't force yourself to work too much on Tuesdays - distribute the time to other days.

Once you've marked down all those non-scholastic, but important, activities (e.g., sleeping, meals, commuting to/from school, housework), now you can start assigning that extra work time that you will need to do your schoolwork.

Spread the work as evenly as possible

You should try to focus on one course at a time. Try to schedule at least in two-hour blocks, to make sure that you can get into the right headspace to work productively.

Don't jam three 2-hour blocks together, back to back. Your brain will melt. Make sure you take breaks, especially when you switch from one subject to another. If you can, take a walk or do some other kind of light physical activity (including housework - yes, that's activity too). You'll be surprised how much better you'll feel after a little exercise. Give yourself at least 15 minutes between two-hour work sessions to re-energize.

Learn to take notes

Most of you have nevered learned that there are good ways (and bad ways) to take notes.

Remember, though, no note-taking method will replace hard work, and actual studying. It can, however, significantly improve your ability to learn and retain information.

And know this: paper beats plastic. Research has shown (e.g., here, here and here) that taking notes on paper is far better than doing it with a laptop. And for crying out loud, stop taking videos of your instructors; you may as well not even be in the room for all the learning that will happen then.

There is also strong evidence that externalizing your thoughts by writing them down helps you reflect on them and analyze them more deeply because they're “outside” your mind now and can be focussed on analytically - something you can't do well if you're also trying to keep the thought in active memory [GK06].

If you like to take notes digitally, consider these apps:

  • Evernote is an excellent all-around text-oriented tool. You can sync your notes across multiple devices; you can organize them into notebooks; you can use tags to highlight individual notes. Free version available.
  • LectureNotes is a great Android app for stylus tablets. You can organize handwritten notes into notebooks, copy/paste PDF files (e.g., instructors' notes) on which you can add your own annotations, and export your notebooks to PDF.
  • If you use a Microsoft Surface, OneNote is recommended for stylus use.

Salustri's method

Here's how I learned to take notes, by trial and error, over the last 30+ years.

Say you have been assigned to summarize an article from a journal, or you want to create your own abbreviated notes based on the textbook in some course.

  • Remember that each paragraph is supposed to represent a “thought”.
  • You start by reading each paragraph and summarising the paragraph as a single sentence, which captures in your own words the essential thought behind that paragraph.
    • Obviously, there are exceptions.
      • What do you do with paragraphs that are only one sentence long?
      • What if the original author was a bad writer and used multiple paragraphs for single thoughts, or wrote realllllly long paragraphs with many thoughts in each one?
      • You will have to adapt to those situations.
  • Then combine all the sentences for each section of the original paper into a single paragraph
    • You end up with one paragraph of summary for each section of the original paper. And there you have it!

Here's an example. Say you have to make a note on the following paragraph.

“Traditional design methodology is a sequential, multidisciplinary process, and as such, has several disadvantages. Often, one subsystem cannot be designed until the results from another subsystem are available. Communication of design data from one subsystem specialist to another can be complex and time-consuming. Thus, due to the time required to complete a design iteration, the number of iterations that can be performed is very limited.”

One possible note might be:

“Because of coupling between design tasks, information transfer is complex and iterations are long, so only a few iterations can be performed typically.”

Bullets rule” gives a bit more information about this method.

Cornell notes

Another famous method to take notes is the Cornell Notes method.

It is well-described here, here, and here. There's even a 5 minute YouTube video explaining them.

There is actual evidence that the Cornell Notes method works.

Don't multi-task

Multi-tasking is for computers, not humans.

A simple Google search will bring up millions of hits explaining why multi-tasking is a bad idea.

This is why having an agenda and a todo list is so important. These tools let you organize your time so that you can set aside the time to do only one thing at a time and avoid multi-tasking.

Try to work in 30-minute blocks, where you actually work (and work hard) for 25 minutes and then take a 5 minute break. During that break, don't read your facebook or play a computer game. Do something that will help your mind and body relax. Go for a short walk, or do some stretching exercises. Have an apple or some carrots. This happens to be a well-known productivity method called the Pomodoro method.

Work before fun

Fun things are… fun. They're things you want to do, and that you could possibly do all day and not notice.

School isn't often fun. School can be a complete drag, it can be challenging, and hectic, and the source of all kinds of cognitive and psychological pressure.

It's easy to be tempted by fun things, and easy to put off school work. The problem is that those fun things will fill your time, leaving little or none of it for studying. And that's bad.

So when you're planning your time, make sure you lay out all the time you need to get your studies in order and do you homework. If there's any time left for fun, then pencil that in too. Make sure you put an “end time” for fun to make sure you can get enough sleep.

If you're not having as much fun as you would like… tough. It's hard to learn engineering, and it's hard to be an engineer. If you want to be an engineer, you'll have to put off having fun till later.

(If you're very lucky, you find engineering fun - in which case, you can ignore this section.)

Exercise your body as well as your mind

Engineering is a mental exercise. It requires lots and lots of thinking, but very little physical activity. That's a problem, because it's been known at least since the ancient Romans that a healthy mind goes hand in hand with a healthy body. “Mens sana in corpore sano.”

Exercising is a great way to clear your mind and de-stress after a particularly nasty homework assignment. It can invigorate you so that you can do the next assignment well.

“Exercise” doesn't mean an hour in the gym or running a marathon. It just means 15 minutes of light to moderate physical activity. Go for a walk or a swim. Do some yoga. Housework is also good exercise, and it helps make sure you're not living like a pig.

Task Management Software

A full web/Android/iOS implementation of a very complex task management system called Getting Things Done (GTD). Fortunately, you can decide which bits of GTD you'll use and can trim it down to not much more than an automated calendar. Learning this is best left to the summer, or the Christmas break, or Reading Week; you don't want to jump into this mid-semester.
Evernote is a note-taking application that can handle rudimentary task management; it's one of the most well-known cross-platform apps ever. It works on phones and tablets too, and it can automatically sync selective “notebooks” across all your devices. Surprisingly powerful, especially if you tend to take “digital notes.”
In some ways, even more powerful than Evernote, Notion has minimal styling options but emphasizes an extensive range of functionality. And the “Personal Plan” is free for students and educators.
This is a text-based note-taking app that saves to local files (or your Google Drive or Dropbox to give you access from multiple devices. It's new, but quite powerful, and quite easy to use. Especially useful for developing richly interconnected collections of notes. Free.

Really Useful Webapps

Ryerson Student Guide
If you haven't read the Student Guide cover to cover before starting your first week of first-year classes, you're doing it wrong. Read it, and bookmark pages that you find particularly significant or interesting.
Fantastic app for web, desktop, and mobile that lets you quickly save and tag web links for later. Found a great web site but haven't got time to deal with it now? Put it in your pocket, for later.
A much better grammar & composition checker than what MS Word offers, and it's free. Provides native apps for major platforms, plugins for Chrome, and (if you must use crappy Microsoft products) plugins for Word. An alternative to Grammarly (though not as powerful) is grammark.
Text Blaze
A free Chrome extension “text expander” that lets you create your own abbreviations that expand to often-used text fragments. Works in Google Docs too.
This app lets you copy and paste a sample of text that you've written, analyzes it's readability and composition, and makes suggestions on how to rewrite it better.
Similar to the HemingwayApp, this resource measures how ornate your written language is; the more ornate, the less understandable.
Free online app to create a print-out of small pages (on 8.5×11 paper) that can be used as an agenda, notebook, planner, etc. Has templates for commonly used sheets, and the user can choose what to include. Prints 8 pages to a sheet, and has instructions for folding the sheet into a small notebook. Top shelf site and product.

Summary & cheat sheet

Here's everything summarized as bullet points.

  • Write down what you have to do, so you can safely forget it.
  • Use an agenda.
  • Update your agenda every day.
  • Start by putting hard deadlines (classes, tests, assignments) in the agenda.
  • Spread your work as evenly throughout the week as possible.
  • Don't hesitate to rework your agenda if you see it's not working for you.
  • Make sure you allow for sleeping, eating, and a little relaxation every day.
  • Always follow the agenda, except for emergencies.
  • Learn to take notes properly and make sure they're as good as you can make them.
  • Don't multitask.
  • Work before fun.
  • Physical exercise helps keep your mind sharp.

See Also

  • See figure 1: an infographic summarizing some good note-taking techniques (source).


GK06. a J.S. Gero and U. Kannengiesser. 2006. The situated function-behaviour-structure framework. Design Studies, 25:373-391.
teaching/personal_productivity_for_students.txt · Last modified: 2021.06.27 19:55 by Fil Salustri