By Lindsay Richardson, Instructor, Department of Psychology & e-Learning Designer, EDC
As instructors, one of the best pieces of advice we offer our students is to stay organized. Many of us have begun to include a Lecture 0 type module at the beginning of our courses that is meant to help students prepare for the upcoming course. For my most recent course, I included three modules in Lecture 0: Welcome, Logistics, and Tips and Tricks to University Success. While Welcome and Logistics was meant to orient students to that particular course, the Tips and Tricks module could be applied to post-secondary more generally.
One of the main components to the Tips and Tricks module was an entire section on organization. In fact, I presented research that demonstrated that students who spend more time organizing their semesters have higher GPAs (Dickenson & O’Connel, 1990). I also know, from chatting with my colleagues, that I’m not alone in including “staying organized” as part of this type of module. More informally, I’ve heard instructors offer this type of advice during office hours or through email correspondence as well. If this is the type of advice we are giving students on how to be successful, then why do we oftentimes find ourselves in unorganized chaos? Why does it feel as though a giant boulder is chasing us while we’re teaching our courses?
Just like students, our lives comprise a multitude of – let’s call them – projects. From maintaining a household to taking care of ourselves to teaching our students, we have an, oftentimes, outrageous number of plates spinning on sticks waiting to come crashing down at any moment. Unfortunately, keeping all of these projects in working memory can take up an unreasonable amount of precious headspace.
The best way to keep track of all of life’s projects (e.g. teach my course, do the groceries, file my taxes) is to get them out of our heads! To accomplish this, there are a few steps that we need to take to make sure we don’t forget to file our taxes, for example. It’s likely that we are aware of the best practices when it comes to general organization. We have all been undergraduate, and even graduate, students at some point in our lives. However, perhaps we have forgotten how to implement these best practices. So, here are some reminders that will hopefully help fellow instructors stay on top of the many aspects of their lives, including teaching.
Break Down Projects into Smaller Components
I don’t know about you but thinking about the task “write dissertation” makes my head want to spin off. Even “complete experiment 1” seems to make me want to binge watch Netflix instead. That’s because it’s hard to be motivated to stay on task when the task seems unmanageable. The good news is there is a way to amend this negative affect toward unruly projects; that is, break the larger projects down into smaller and more manageable components.
One concrete example that comes to mind is “create lecture 3.” Well, there’s a lot that goes into such a project, such as “devise lesson plan” or “create pre-test questions” or even “format slide stack.” The latter is my favorite type of task because I can get away with using it as active procrastination; that is, I’ll spend my time formatting my lecture slides to make them pretty instead of accomplishing much more difficult tasks when I’m cognitively drained or feeling unmotivated. The point is, however, that these tasks seem much more manageable than “create lecture 3.”
Differentiate Between Projects, Goals, Habits and Tasks
One of the reasons smaller tasks seem more manageable than larger-order tasks is because they are not the same task type. What I mean by this is that “create lecture 3” is not as much of a task as it is a project. You might sit here and think “that’s just semantics” and you’re not wrong. However, organizing your workload becomes a lot more efficient when you can conceptualize the difference between tasks, projects, goals and habits. Whereas create lecture 3 is a project, format slide stack is a task and the latter is far more manageable than the former. Similarly, if one is to attempt to accomplish the task “become a better teacher,” there isn’t much in terms of tangible task-type material there. In fact, how does one become a better teacher? This is because becoming a better teacher is not a task – it is a goal. Just like projects, goals need to be broken down into smaller and actionable components.
Oftentimes, one’s ability to achieve goals depends on habit formation. Habits are a little bit trickier than tasks. This is because, at first, habits are tasks. Let’s imagine that you’d like to become a person who exercises every day. Well, at first you might set a recurring reminder to exercise each day. At a certain point, though, you’ll find yourself not needing the reminder. That is because the habit is formed, so you no longer find yourself exercising as a task – it’s a habit – and you don’t need to be reminded. Has anyone reminded you to tie your shoes lately? Once you differentiate between higher-order goals and projects and lower-order tasks and even habits, managing your time becomes a lot easier. Part of this is knowing which tasks to put where and when you need to be reminded of what.
Centralize your Task Lists
From due dates to smaller tasks, offloading working memory is the goal. What I mean by this is that everything needs to be outsourced to something that is not your mind. Once you’ve offloaded working memory, you no longer need to keep bringing reminders into the forefront of your mind. In fact, when you’re confident in your organization, those thoughts will come to you and you can dismiss them confidently. When you feel organized, you reduce stress levels, which increases your cognitive capacity and opens you up to get more done in a day. But, if you’ve got reminders going off in one cellphone application and then you’ve got a planner over in the living room and your to-do lists are located all around the house depending on what they’re for, you’re essentially defeating the purpose. That’s because now you need to remember where all the different task managers are and what needs to be cross-pollinated with what. As you can imagine, this can get messy fast!
My advice is to centralize your task lists. One method to accomplish this is to keep a list of all the lists. Now I know what you’re thinking, and I promise this is not insane. All I mean by a list of lists is to create some sort of task manager. There are applications for doing so: Remember the Milk, Omni-Focus, Notion, Accelo and the list goes on. My favourite so far is Remember the Milk. But, I could find you a handful of organizational professionals who would argue for an application I’ve not even included. The point is not which application is best, but rather which application is best suited for you. The only way to find out is to try them.
These applications typically help you (1) break your projects down into more manageable components, (2) prioritize different tasks, (3) set reminders to complete tasks, (4) give you positive reinforcement for completing tasks, (5) colour code tasks and projects, and (6) plan your days and weeks. All of this can be accomplished with a pen and paper as well. So, if you’re someone who’d rather put pen to paper, by all means start writing.
The point is this: however you decide to organize yourself, remember that the goal is offloading working memory. Ultimately, you want to feel confident that you’ll meet deadlines and due dates because you’ve created a list of daily, weekly and monthly tasks that will help you achieve your goals and accomplish your projects. You’ll receive positive reinforcement for accomplishing the most trivial of tasks that help you get your projects complete. This means your motivation shouldn’t drop when you’re met with a large project like “teach course X” because you know that it’s just a bunch of smaller to-do items and you can start getting reinforced for getting closer to the end goal immediately. You just need to format your lecture slides.
Dickinson, D. J., & O’Connell, D. Q. (1990). Effect of quality and quantity of study on student grades. The Journal of Educational Research, 83(4), 227–231. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.1990.10885960
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