Adulthood 101: Staying on top of your work this semester

Conquering your work is easier than it sounds!

Illustration credit, Tiffany Chan

By: Vivien Ying Qi Li, SFU Student

Having started the new semester, students are slowly getting back into the swing of things — meaning that all-nighters and last-minute cramming sessions are just around the corner. Although stress is an inevitable part of university life, it can be greatly minimized through careful planning and organization. With that in mind, here are some tips and tricks to help you stay on top of your work and make this semester as bearable as possible. 

Write down everything you have to do. 

Trying to remember everything you need to get done is a stressor that everyone can live without. Over the years, I have developed the habit of writing down important deadlines, events, and tasks I have to complete. I find that sticky notes are the most valuable, especially for particularly important deadlines. You can write the things you need to get done on these sticky notes and stick them where you’ll constantly see them: on your wall, your desk, laptop, hell, even your mirror works! Writing everything down can be more reliable than memory alone. You can refer back to a visual overview of the things you need to finish, making staying on top of your work much easier. 

How Peak employees follow Vivien’s advice:

I really like using a paper planner because I think the physical act of writing tasks down, as opposed to putting a reminder on my phone, helps me remember what I need to do more effectively. I check my planner every morning to set goals, and then check them off throughout the day! It’s really nice to have something that can physically show the things that I’ve gotten done throughout the day, especially when my work can be very digital. — KC

REMINDERS ARE MY SAVIOUR! The Reminders app on my iPhone (I’m sure there’s a similar kind of app available on Android) literally keeps me from forgetting all of the little, or big, tasks that I have to complete. It’s literally just a digital notepad that can give you a notification about a task, sync to your other devices, and keep your head from swirling with all of the things you need to do. Despite its simplicity, it’s a vital part of my attempt to be an adult. MC

Develop a routine.

Granted, it’s impossible to stick to a routine 100% of the time; however, that doesn’t make them useless. Creating a general weekly schedule that details when you’ll be studying, when you’ll have free time (this is important), and when you’ll be working, provides a helpful guideline that keeps you on track. Planners and Google Calendars are quite popular and are both good tools for planning out your week. Personally, I use a dry-erase weekly schedule. I have one on the wall in front of my desk that details each day by the hour. Having my schedule right in front of me is useful, as it serves as a constant reminder of what I should be doing at what time. By creating set times for each of these activities, I find it easier to stay on top of my work, while maintaining a balanced lifestyle. 

How Peak employees follow Vivien’s advice:

When I had trouble with school because of a concussion, routines kept me and my poor bruised brain functional. What helped the most wasn’t working in short blocks of time, but creating bigger patterns so that I didn’t get overwhelmed if something wasn’t done in an allocated 2-hour span, or if something came up. I would physically get up and go to a coffee shop near Nanaimo and Hastings when I needed to get something written; I would sit at my desk at work if I was going to have to analyze documents; most of my honours work happens at a spare desk in our living room; I would pick a day to get through my readings in as long bursts as I could manage to say “I will work on this today” instead of saying “this has to be done today”… It meant that my routine had room for me to fail and flounder, which made it safe and easier to stick to. Building patterns about when your brain should do the thing helps your brain do the thing. — GM

Building patterns about when your brain should do the thing helps your brain do the thing, and that’s what the Pomodoro technique is based off of. All Pomodoro really does is set you up to work for a set period of time, take a short break, work more, take another break, work more, and then take a longer break. By creating clear “work” periods and clear “rest” periods, it creates a miniature routine for your brain and attention to follow. You can find timers built for Pomodoro online. — GM

Make goals for what you want to get done.

This is probably the technique I utilize the most. Every night I like to plan out what I want to get done the following day. These goals by no means have to be crazy; the purpose of goal setting is really just to make sure you’re completing what you need to get done to minimize those 2 a.m. caffeine-driven work sessions. 

How Peak employees follow Vivien’s advice:

The Student Learning Commons (SLC) at SFU has a handy tool online called the Assignment Calculator. Basically, it helps you break down an assignment into tasks and create a schedule to finish it once you punch in start and due dates for it. — GM

I use the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-based) technique to make goals. This way, I end up being more productive in the day. For example, my goal would be to review chapter two for an hour’ instead of ‘study for the midterm.’  — LM

I start every week by creating a checklist of all the tasks I need to complete for that week alone. Ordering them chronologically (from the earliest to the latest deadline), I can keep track of which one to prioritize first. A bonus to this method is the motivation you gain to complete the list as soon as you slowly check off each task. — KR

Learn to say no. 

I’ll admit it: this is definitely one of the things that I struggle with the most. I find it terribly difficult to say no when people tell me to help them edit their papers, have lunch, or take that extra shift at work. This is true even when I have 50 exams to study for, 60 chapters to read for my accounting class, and three J.K. Rowling-length novels to write. It makes me feel bad when I say no. I feel like I’m being a big Debbie Downer or an unhelpful friend when in reality I’m just an adult with commitments.

We’re only human and have only 24 hours in a day, we can’t expect ourselves to be able to do everything. Learning your limits and exercising your right to say no can tremendously reduce the chances of getting overwhelmed. Plus, if you really think about it, it’s better to say no to someone than to accept the task and end up doing a shitty job in the end. 

How Peak employees follow Vivien’s advice:

I used to be terrible at saying no. If someone needed help and I technically had free space in my schedule, shouldn’t I have been available for them? But the reality is, it’s not just time and energy that’s involved in doing things for other people, but also emotional labour. If I’m not in a good place emotionally or mentally — either because I have too much on my plate, or too much on my mind — regardless of how much “free time I have” I’m not going to be much of a help to someone else. Plus, I’m definitely not improving my situation either. When in doubt, fall back on airplane wisdom: in case of emergency, don your own oxygen mask before assisting others. — NM

Put your devices away. 

Put down your phone. Stop binging your Netflix show. Close your laptop, Park Jimin can wait. If you really think about it, a lot of the stress you experience (for my friends and I, at least), comes from having to finish a task last minute. We lead busy lives, so when we have some downtime, rather than spending all of it binge-watching Friends, try to get some of your work done so you don’t get overwhelmed when your life gets extra busy. Starting early not only ensures you’ll get everything done on time, but also makes the task less taxing, and allows you to do a better job, too. 

How Peak employees follow Vivien’s advice:

I have a free app on my phone (and a Chrome extension on my computer) called Forest. The app/program that lets you set a timer and, until your time’s up, you can’t leave the screen you were working on or the Forest app. If you outlast your timer, Forest plants a tiny tree in a digital forest for you — which provides cute virtual motivation and literally forces you not to goof around with your electronics. — GM 

I use a free app called Cold Turkey. You can set the websites that you go to when you procrastinate — I usually put down Twitter and Facebook here —  and then the app blocks you from being able to access them. I can also set a timer for how long I want to work. This is very helpful because I do much of my work on my computer, so I can still type and do research on it without being distracted. — KC