Falling behind on our studies happens to the best of us. From unexpected life events to chronic procrastination, there are many reasons that we might find ourselves struggling to stay on track. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed as the mental to-do lists continue to grow and upcoming deadlines draw near. This can feel particularly daunting if your classes are ongoing, how can you catch up if the workload continues to increase? Despite how impossible and endless the situation feels, you can catch up using a few simple and focused steps to break down your deadlines and to-do’s into manageable chunks.
How to Externalise Tasks and Worries
In order to catch-up on your studies and meet upcoming deadlines, it’s important to take a step back and look at everything that needs doing. This will be overwhelming at first but you can only begin to organise, categorise and prioritise your tasks when they’re clearly laid out in front of you. First, create a master calendar to visualise upcoming deadlines, key dates, classes and other commitments. Alongside this, begin a master list and separate to-dos by subject. This process can be messy and that’s okay. The idea is to externalise all the pending to-dos that are on your mind so that you can begin to address them in a systematic way. Alternatively, you can skip the master calendar and instead mark key deadlines within your subject lists.
During the process, you can also list your worries, or brain dump any persistent thoughts. You might feel nervous about an assignment. Or, find yourself feeling distressed thinking about managing your time and focus. Instead of letting these thoughts and feelings circle, it can help to write them down and clear your mind. By taking the time to sit with your worries, you can move towards a more relaxed state of mind. This is important because it’s hard to work well and feel good when persistent negative thoughts cloud our minds. Journaling is a great way to relieve stress, and can be a tool for decluttering a busy mind. This way, when organising your tasks, you can also attempt to address your worries.
For example, planning to work in short focused bursts on the most important tasks can reduce worries about managing time. Or, breaking work into manageable microtasks that are clear can make tackling an unfamiliar assignment easier. It’s also a good time to consider whether reaching out for support can help you. You could seek out support in terms of study skills or guidance but also, apply for extensions. Make use of your academic institutions support system to give yourself the best chance.
How to Prioritise Tasks and Create an Action Plan
Next, it’s time to work with your master calendar and list. Before breaking tasks down into manageable and actionable steps, you need to prioritise. To categorise tasks, it can be useful to identify past and current work that needs to be completed. Current work would be upcoming deadlines or class work to prevent you falling further behind. Past work might be catching up on lecture material or readings for an exam that’s further away. Once you’ve categorised tasks, you can go through and mark tasks based on priority level. A good question to ask yourself is, which tasks would you prioritise if you only had 24 hours? Most likely, this will focus on current work tasks with upcoming deadlines but this doesn’t mean past work is neglected, just that you will be working through your list in an efficient way.
After you’ve categorised and organised tasks based on their priority level, it’s ideal to break down these tasks into microtasks that are actionable. Having small steps for each task will make it easier to slot these to-dos into your days or week. This sets out a clean plan of action required for each task, allowing you to get started on high priority tasks quickly. In addition, it can be useful to go through your microtasks and identify how much energy each requires. Gathering reading material for an essay might be a low energy task compared to writing the first essay draft.
If we try to do high energy tasks when we’re feeling low energy, this can cause procrastination. By marking tasks as high, medium or low energy, you can slot them into your day accordingly. For example, if you’re a morning person, high energy tasks can be tackled in the morning. This is especially important for high energy tasks that might be off-putting. You can take an ‘eat the frog’ approach and tackle them when your energy is highest. Alternatively, you might be a night owl, who prefers to complete high energy tasks at night and low energy tasks during the day. Find what works for you.
Finally, to balance out current and past work tasks, you can divide your time in a few ways. First, you take a few days to complete current work and then, take the remaining days after this to focus on past work. This means you’ve met important deadlines and can then begin catching up before more deadlines approach. Alternatively, if deadlines are less pressing, you can divide your days or weeks for current work and past work to be worked on simultaneously. This means you’re working towards upcoming deadlines and managing ongoing classes but still leaving some time to tackle past work. If you have any upcoming holidays, this would be an ideal time to focus on past work without falling further behind.
How to Visualise and Track Your Progress
To hold yourself accountable and stick to your plans, it's best to visualise and track your progress. One way of doing this is by keeping a digital or analog diary with monthly, weekly and daily to-do lists that you review regularly. A simple system for implementing this is the bullet journal method by Ryder Carroll. This analog journaling method is task focused, allowing you to take your monthly plans and work through them on a weekly or daily basis. Tasks are marked with bullets and can be marked as completed, migrated or scheduled. This allows you to move tasks around as needed and leave nothing behind. You can find out more about the minimal and effective bullet journal system here.
Alternatively, kanban boards are a brilliant way to visualise your progress on tasks. These boards have three columns: to-do, in progress and done. Tasks can be moved through the columns, allowing you to see upcoming tasks alongside the progress you’re currently making. You can modify this process and organise the to-do section with tags, colours and so on based on the tasks priority level and amount of energy required. Digital tools, such as Trello or Notion, make kanban boards easy to build and work through. However, you can also take some sticky notes, organised onto a white board or wall and follow the same 3 column approach, moving tasks accordingly. This can be a satisfying and visual way to monitor your progress.