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Organised Chaos – Keeping Everything Together

Man sitting at messy desk

Here at Survive Law, we’re yet to meet a genuinely organised student. The problem with student life is that study seems to consistently get in the way of a good time. Although you could easily avoid that stressful last-minute scramble to complete your constitutional law essay, you’re about as likely to plan ahead and stick to that plan as you are to be hit by a hovercraft.

Planning ahead and allowing time to study/research/write/etc does yield better marks. If we all spent a little bit more time studying and a little bit less time at the pub we’d probably all have glowing academic transcripts. Despite learning this through an occasional bout of self-discipline (brought on by a moment of guilt) most of us have failed to become consistently organised in the long term.

The majority of law students tend to prefer the mantra “why do today something that you could put off until tomorrow?” The problem is that once you’ve exhausted all the fun activities, that assignment is still there and now the deadline is closer. Even if you manage to cobble together an acceptable piece of work to turn in, you can feel your sanity eroding one frantic last-minute assignment at a time.

Regardless of whether you’re an organisational sinner or saint (and we’re certainly not holier than thou) here are a few pointers to get you obsessively organised...

1. Get a calendar or diary

Thank you, Captain Obvious. I know it's a basic step, but it's seriously helpful for getting on top of things. Take a moment to have a quick read of all your subject outlines and write all the key assessment dates in your calendar or diary. At the very least this will help you to remember deadlines.

On the other hand, this sort of “getting organised” activity is also a fantastic way of procrastinating when you should be working. Remember, colour-coding calendar entries for each of your different subjects is a great way to avoid actual study.

2. What’s involved?

Read and re-read assessment advice for each subject and make a note of what tasks you will have to do for each assignment. It is much easier to get that assessment done when it is broken into smaller, more manageable tasks.

Once you know the tasks you have to do, set a deadline for completing each of these.

3. An exercise in self-deception

You know you will probably fail to meet some/ all of these mini-deadlines you’ve created. The thing to do now is to bring all of these deadlines forward by at least a few days and popping those dates in your diary.

By taking your procrastination tendencies into account, you have now created a buffer zone so that you don’t run out of time for pesky things like checking footnotes, grammar, spelling and filling out a cover sheet. The added bonus of this is that the guilt of an approaching and hitherto neglected deadline will probably spur you on to complete the assignment before the real life due date. Lucky!

4. Prioritisation

Not doing assignments is usually far more enjoyable than doing assignments, and it seems that procrastination is just about the most fun you can have.

Years ago my dad gave me a copy of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey. As the title suggests, it was the sort of book parents bought for their kids, rather than a book that a teenager would buy for themselves and then read of their own free will. One thing did stick with me though. There was a section about prioritisation that included a table like this:

I’ve found this table to be a useful way of prioritising the things that I do, particularly around assessment time. For example, watching re-runs of Friends on TV would probably fall into the Not Important and Not Urgent box. My media law essay that is due in a few days would come under the Important and Urgent category. The numbers in each section of the table denote the order of priority. When you have lots of things on your plate, this table is a handy way of working out what comes first. And it has the added bonus of making you feel guilty for doing something that falls under 4 when you have things on your list in category 1.

In lieu of a better, purer form of motivation, most of us will happily accept guilt as a means of achieving what has to be done.

5. Bigger picture

So you know when your assignment is due and what you have to do by when. Unfortunately, most planning for completion of assessments is done in a sort of social vacuum. Most of us forget to look at the bigger picture. We typically fail to take other activities such as work, social activities, eating, sleeping and even assessments for other uni subjects into account.

Any timetable for completing assessments should be made with a healthy dose or realism. Keeping a to-do list usually will not help you to adequately assess what other demands there will be on your time around an assessment due date. Diaries in a day to a page format can also be deceptive when it comes to planning your time. The one planning tool that has helped me to realistically manage competing demands is this table:

This is just a sample but I have found it works really well. The first column indicates the weeks of the semester. All subsequent columns represent different commitments. There is one column for each uni subject and you can also have columns for work, social and extra-curricular commitments.

I keep this table to one page and I am completely dependent on it during semester. It really helps me to predict when the quiet and busy times will be and allows me to plan ahead for these.

When it comes to getting organised, the best tip is to find what works for you and go with it. Your system won’t be perfect, let alone procrastination proof, but even if it is only half-effective your sanity will thank you for it.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story was first published on Survive Law on 1 March 2010.

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