Friday, November 9, 2012

A Dozen and One Tips on Getting Things Done

After a lifetime of being an unorganized, procrastinating mess, I think I’ve finally figured out how to fix myself and be happy about the work I do. At the very least, I’ve begun to manage schoolwork to some extent, and to start loving technology as a way to help me do things instead of distracting me from the things I need to do.

I hope today that I can share some tips with you that will help you get a better grade come exam time. Note, many of these suggestions are made for windows PCs, and Android phone/phablets/tablets. If you find a particular piece of software interesting, I’m sure you can google it and find something you like.


Anxious? Don’t have your assignment for the day done? That guy that sits beside you has bad breath and won’t stop bugging you for gum? It doesn’t matter, you miss out on lessons, assignment details, potential friendships, and more when you skip a class. You’re ALWAYS better off going than not going (unless you’re like, dying or whatever).

Do you work better while listening to music, vacuuming the house, watching presidential debates, and eating pizza at the same time? NO!

You’re just tricking yourself into taking much longer to do the work you actually have to do, into hating the work you have to do, and into doing the work in a much poorer way than you have to. Don’t try to multitask. Although it might be a good idea to listen to (non-verbal) music while studying in the library or the computer labs to drown out the conversation next to you about a tiny sick kittens (how could you NOT listen!), you should generally avoid doing two things at once.

Chances are, your thoughts are most clear in the morning, and early afternoon, so if you don’t have class then, shimmy on down to your favourite place to do work in order to sit down and do it. For most people it’s generally a bad idea to get started on homework in the evening when most of their day’s supply of concentration is already used up. You’d be a lot better off playing video games and watching movies then anyway. Which leads me to my next point.

Seriously, when I get home, go to my room, and sit down after a long day of school, I just wanna read, write poetry for my lovely girlfriend, play video games, browse Facebook, and catch up on Breaking Bad or whatever. The last thing on my mind is the assignment I have to do for tomorrow. I find myself zoning out, spending way too much time looking at the same 10 posts on Facebook, and reading news I don’t really care about when I often try to work from home.

Go to the library, or better yet, leave all the familiarity and distractions of your laptop at home, grab a computer at a computer lab, and let yourself fall into the atmosphere of hard work that embodies our school’s academic corridors. You’ll be less distracted, enjoy your work more, and do it much quicker than you thought you could.

Spend 6-10 hours every weekday at school just studying, even if you don’t have any classes that day. You know what’s better than having a Friday off to go hang out with your friends or sit in your pajamas all day? Not having to spend the entire weekend anxious about your midterm or essays and trying to cram all that study time in between Sunday night and Monday morning.

Even if you don’t have any assignments due the next day, or anything to study for, stick around before or after class in your favourite UTSC workspace to just prepare for what’s ahead.

You can get almost all of your work done this way, and only have to worry about school work when you’re at school. Meaning, you have 6-10 waking hours when assignments and tests are NOT stressing you out at all! You can actually enjoy all your hobbies and modes of entertainment without feeling guilty about them. And you can get more sleep.

Got a lot of school work on your desk due over the next few days and you don’t know what to do with it? Put it away, check your calendar, sit back and think about what’s the most important thing you should do right now. Then go do that.

Is it a huge assignment? Brainstorm/create a mind map of what you have to do, how you’re going to do it, and just allow yourself to think freely about generating ideas for the assignment (eg, a mental map of things that strike you in a story for an English essay).

You can plan out an assignment pretty quickly, and once you do, most of the work is actually done for you, and writing it out will come pretty easily.

Seriously, you need to recharge those batteries, you need to give yourself certain hours every day when you can take a break/nap/WOW break or whatever so you can de-stress yourself for the next task that’s ahead of you. If you try to ignore this you might just end up doing it anyway and exhausting yourself trying to bring your attention back to your school work.


Google, Apple and Microsoft all have their own calendar systems that sync across all their mobile, web-based, and desktop apps, to constantly remind you of what you have to do in the week ahead. I recommend that at the beginning of the semester, you grab all your syllabuses, go through the major due dates and assignments, put them all into your calendar, then have your calendar on display whenever you open up your phone, tablet, internet browser, whatever, so you never get surprised by a major due date over the semester. Heck you can even use one of those old fashioned paper calendars with the pics of cats on 'em.

Plus if you do it all at once, keeping it up to date becomes so easy and painless. Try it.

It’s just as important to keep track of all the work you’ve done as what you need to do. In order to see how productive you actually are and keep your confidence up. You can use something like GTasks for Android that syncs with your Google tasks account, and keep a list for what you need to do for today, and for later. Update it every morning or evening and you can keep track of how productive you’ve been, and how much more work you need to do.

Can you really not resist that urge to check your Facebook even if you know it’ll kill you if you do? Try something like Freedom. This is an app that blocks internet connectivity for a set amount of time allowing you to work without distractions. Often these programs work until the time is up, and restarting your computer or anything will not help you, so be careful. Free alternatives are SelfControl and SelfRestraint.

Setting yourself a timer to work for a fixed period of time will greatly increase your concentration. If you can see the timer at all times, or you can hear it working at any moment, you will know you’re supposed to be working at that moment, that you can take a break and check Facebook or your email after the timer expires, and that you only have a few minutes left to work.

Pomodoro is a great technique to keep focussed. You break your work into chunks that take roughly 25 minutes to finish each, you set yourself up with a 25 minute timer, at the end of those 25 minutes take a 5 minute break, then restart again, and after a few Pomodoros you take a longer break and do whatever you want.

Android iOS and Windows all have their own respective apps for dealing with this, Android has Pomodroido, Windows Mobile and Windows 8 have Task Tomato (it's free look it up in the windows app market), and iOS has Promodoro and similar apps (sorry I don’t know a free alternative, Apple users, I don’t own any Apple products). You can also use a simple online timer. If you can get yourself used to doing these, then you can play with the times and work quicker than you ever though possible.

In order to keep you following these habits every day, you can use The Jerry Seinfeld technique.
Here’s a quote on how it works from Lifehacker:
He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was better than that. He had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself—even when you don't feel like it.

He revealed a unique calendar system he uses to pressure himself to write. Here's how it works.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. ‘After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.’

There’s a great app on Android called Habit Streak that will remind you and ask you about your chain every morning. I use it, for example, to make sure I spend at least a half hour every day cleaning or organizing, or to make sure I get into a regular regime to practice meditation and mindfulness.


Finally, if you can’t cope with doing a full course load, don’t try to do one again next semester. Realize you have mental limitations in things like time management and attention span just like you have physical limitations in how far you can jump and how far you can run. Forgive yourself for those limitations, start from a place you feel comfortable with, and work your way up from there to overcome those limitations.

It’s much easier to motivate yourself to run a marathon by starting at small manageable runs and working your way up, rather than trying and failing to run a marathon over and over again until you succeed.

If you're like me, it can take years to figure it out, but eventually anyone can do it.


  1. Jeez Jakub; if you actually have experience with these tips, you have got to be the most productive person on earth.


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