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Organizational Tools

Learn more about different organizational tools you can use to help keep track of your time and plan your commitments.

There are many types of goals we can set for ourselves! As a student, you probably have many academic goals. While this section will focus primarily on academic pursuits, we can apply the techniques discussed here to any kind of goal.

It is essential to learn how to set goals and create an action plan to reach those goals. 

SMART goals

To maximize our time and energy resources, we should use the SMARTER goals system to define our goals. Watch the video below for the SMARTER goals breakdown.

A few other tips for reaching your goals:

  • Keep your goals visible!
    • Don’t just write your goals out once and never look at them again! Refer back to them frequently! 
    • Have weekly check-ins for your short-term goals and monthly check-ins to reflect on your longer-term goals.
  • Tell someone else about your goal.
    • This can help increase your accountability to deliver on your promise.
  • Frame your goals positively.
    • When we frame our goals in positive language, it makes our goals feel less like a punishment and more like a reward. 
  • When you struggle to reach your goals, develop self-compassion and use mistakes as motivation to learn.
    • It is okay to make mistakes along the way! Practice forgiveness and learn to move on.
    • Talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend. 
    • Reassess your goals and determine how you can learn from your mistakes.
  • Use the “if-then” strategy
    • If you struggle with changing your habits and behaviours to reach your goals, create little compromises for yourself. Tell yourself what you will do to remedy the situation if something goes unexpectedly.
    • This strategy gives you a plan for overcoming the unexpected stuff. 
  • Create habits and incorporate smaller goals into your long-term goals.
    • It is easier for us to make small changes to our habits rather than trying to change our behaviours all at once, start small and build. Continue reading this section for some tips on developing more positive habits.

If you need help figuring out how to write out your own SMARTER goals, use this tip sheet.

You can also check out the following handout you can use to help keep track of your current SMARTER goals and develop an action plan to reach your goals:

What Are Habits and How Can We Develop More Productive Ones?

Habits are settled tendencies or regular practices.

Our habits can become so ingrained that they may feel involuntary. Understanding and reflecting on our habits is essential because habits form the basis of what we can achieve.

Fortunately, there are strategies we can use to work on changing our bad habits and forming more productive ones.

The Power of Habit author, Charles Duhigg, provides a step-by-step process to change your habits:

  1. We must recognize that we can change our habits, and we must know that we do not need to continue engaging in the same repetitive behaviours. 
  2. We need to understand that every habit is based on a simple loop: cue, reward, routine. 
  3. We need to determine the cue. The cue is the trigger that shifts your brain into autopilot and initiates you into your routine. 
  4. We need to observe the routine. The routine is the manifestation of the habit – it is what we actually do.
  5. We must determine the reward or the satisfaction we obtain from the habit.
  6. We need to change the routine. This becomes easier once we know our cue and reward. Insert a new routine triggered by the cue. Ensure this new routine satisfies your current reward or provides a new reward.
  7. Write it down and create a new action plan: “When (cue), I will (routine) because it provides me with (reward).”
  8. Work with intention and follow the plan you have set up. Doing this enough times will eventually make the new habit feel automatic. 
  9. Reflect. If the habit is not sticking, consider why. You may need to adjust your new routine to make it stick.
  10. Move on to another habit.

Watch Duhigg’s video “How to Break a Habit,” which shows an example of this process:

For more in-depth content, you can also check out the College Info Geek Podcast. In particular, you may want to listen to Episode 214, “How to Build Strong Habits” and Episode 208 on “Morning Routines.”

At the start of the term semester, it’s a good idea to establish a big-picture overview of everything you need to do for the term. 

Refer to your course syllabi and put all of the following onto a calendar:

  • All assignment due dates
  • All test, quiz, and midterm dates
  • All exam period dates

Not all deadlines will be available yet, but start with the ones that you know, and add in other deadlines as the term progresses.

The key is to have your deadlines in one place. Make sure that you review your calendar frequently, so you aren’t surprised by any upcoming due dates.

It can be helpful to colour-code different courses or assignment types. Include the assignment weightings to know how much the assignment is worth. 

Having your deadlines laid out on a calendar can help you see how you will need to pace out your time. 

You may also wish to keep all of your assignment dates and deadlines in a spreadsheet. This way, you can sort your assignments by the type of task, the due date, the time the assignment is due, the percentage it is worth, and the location.
Being able to colour-code and sort the spreadsheet can help us stay organized and on top of all our different deadlines. 



Once you have your term schedule completed, start planning when you might find time to fit in studying.

It is good to spend at least one to three hours working on your courses for every hour of class time. This will help you pace yourself and keep up with your work.

A study plan involves laying out all of your study times weekly to build a consistent routine. You will first need to determine how much time you have available to study.

A fixed commitment is something that takes place at the same time each week

Once we put together our fixed commitments, we can see when we have time to get our independent work done

Adding Study Time

Many students stop their scheduling after creating their fixed commitment schedules. However, we must also include scheduled time for independent study and assignments. 

Developing a consistent routine is essential. Continuous reinforcement of behaviours strengthens our commitments and leads to more productive habits. Using a study plan consistently helps us keep studying a priority.

Study planning tips

  • Use consistent colour-coding.
  • Once you develop a colour-coding system, you will have an easy, visual short-hand to make sense of your schedule.
  • Activities, such as commute time, recreational activities, personal commitments, and outside work or volunteering, can each have their own colour.
  • Study time can be colour-coded as its own colour or can match the course colour. Colour-coding can help things stand out, making it much easier to figure out what we have to do.

Create a contingency plan and include “flex” study time.

  • It can always be helpful to include a contingency plan if you do not meet all of your study goals for the week.

Squeeze in a review session of the previous week’s material before the start of each lecture. 

  • Reviewing before the lecture will help keep the material fresh in your mind and help you learn the content (see Spaced Practice for an explanation of why regular review makes studying more effective).

Be realistic and don’t overcommit.

  • If the idea of creating a routine study plan stresses you out, start small! Also, don’t overcommit, and avoid overscheduling. 
  • If we feel overwhelmed, we are likely to procrastinate or give up on our schedules entirely. Stick to something you find manageable and realistic and adjust accordingly. 
  • We must gain a more realistic understanding of our time. One way to do this is to time how long it actually takes you to complete these different tasks.

Use blocked time to stay focused and avoid multitasking.

  • Use your study plan to define your time into blocks. To help you stay focused and to prevent being overwhelmed, you may want to define your time by breaking it down and concentrating on one chunk at a time. 
  • Focus on what you have planned for each block of time, and do not multitask. Multitasking works against effective time use. When you schedule time to work on a specific task, commit to working on just that task.
  • Designate specific hours for school, work, family, friends, and self-care. Seek a balance, don’t let your social life interfere with your work or vice versa.

Keep some flexibility in your schedule.

  • If you struggle with a rigid schedule, keep part of the schedule flexible. 
  • If your schedule is constantly changing and you have an inconsistent routine, you may want to set daily study goals rather than blocking off specific hours. 

Build-in breaks and buffer zones.

  • When scheduling independent study time, it can be helpful to give yourself a buffer zone – say, 15 to 30 minutes before and after each significant task, rather than scheduling everything back-to-back. Having a buffer gives us the mental and physical time we need to transition from one activity to another.
  • Also, schedule a mix of shorter and longer breaks regularly and be sure to take them! 
    Breaks are essential to studying effectively. Taking breaks raises our motivation levels, without them we get overwhelmed and burned out.

Know when you work best.

  • Pay attention to the times of the day when you have the most energy.
    Work on more demanding tasks when you feel the most mentally focused.
  • Try not to schedule more than one very demanding task per day.
    Adjust your plan if you routinely skip out on a demanding task you have scheduled.

Schedule asynchronous classes on your study plan as though they are fixed commitments.

When juggling a hybrid schedule, note which classes are in-person and which ones are online.

Add PASS sessions (peer-assisted study sessions) to your study plan, when relevant.

  • If you are taking a historically challenging course that offers PASS sessions, you can schedule these on your calendar as fixed commitments.

Reflect and adjust as needed.

  • Try to stick to your study plan, but don't worry if you don’t follow it 100 per cent of the time. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself! Don’t give up if you don’t always make your commitments.
  • However, if you are consistently not meeting your commitments, you might want to rethink and revise your study plan., and you may want to reach out for some support. 
  • Remember that self-discipline is an important life skill. The more you hold yourself accountable to your commitments now, the easier it will be for you to do so in the future. 
  • Also, remember that it takes a while to adapt to new routines, so reflect on how it is going and, adjust as needed!
  • Every day: Spend 10 minutes reviewing how things went and adjusting your schedule accordingly. 
  • Every week: At the start of the week, look ahead on your calendar and create an action plan for that week.
  • As you reflect, ask yourself:
    Did I attend all of my fixed commitments? If not, why?
    Did I work on my independent studying and coursework when I said I would? If not, why?
    Did I have enough time to complete the task I set out to achieve during the time I set aside? If not, why?
    How will I catch up If I did not finish what I intended to complete?
    What else do I need to accomplish this coming week? 
  • Depending on the answers to these questions, you may want to consider tweaking your plan going forward.


To-do lists are essential to helping you stay focused on what is necessary. When you use them effectively, you will be much better organized and more reliable. 

Brain dumps and task lists

Creating a proper to-do list will help you determine what needs to be done and in what order you need to do it.

Before you begin, try to declutter your brain and write down absolutely everything you need to do. Working through this process can help you free up some mental energy to process and organize what you need to do.

Here are the steps for completing a good brain dump:

  • Decide on your time parameters. Are you trying to figure out what needs to be done today? This week? This month? This semester? 
  • Then, write down whatever comes to mind in no particular order. Use bullet points or short sentences. 
  • After that, look at your course syllabi, to make sure you don’t forget anything. You may also want to review your Term Schedule to ensure you have it all down on the page. 
  • Then, take a short break and return to your list with a fresh perspective, and add any new items.
  • As you review the list, see if any items can be deleted, delegated to someone else, or postponed for later.

 Now, start organizing your brain dump to create your to-do list:

  • It can be helpful to colour-code the list and group related items together. 
  • Decide if you want to create just one list or have a few themed lists.
  • Also, batch your tasks. This means that you should group similar activities. Different tasks require you to switch your thought processes, so organizing tasks by similarity allows us to focus on one thing at a time.
  • Remember to be specific when outlining your tasks. If items on your list are too vague, now is the time to be more specific.
  • Break down your larger projects into smaller tasks. See Assignment and Exam Task Lists below for examples of how to do this.
  • Prioritize your list! Prioritization is essential. Check out the Prioritization Systems section for tips on deciding how to start tackling the items on your list.
  • Set reasonable goals based on your time parameters. Outline a manageable list of things to do, give yourself flexibility, pace your tasks over time, and allot time to the things you enjoy as rewards for work completed. Consider using both a weekly task list and a daily one.

Assignment and exam task lists and trackers

If you have a large project that you need to work on, you want to break it down into smaller, more manageable components

Here is an example of what this could look like for an assignment:


an example of an assignment tracker

When preparing your task list, you should just add the specific components that you need to complete for that particular day or week.

By breaking things down this way, you can get started on your assignments earlier in the term because you just have to do a little bit at a time.

The next step is to estimate the time you want to devote to each little task. Set a realistic time limit for yourself and try to stick to it.

  • If you aren’t sure how much time you should prioritize for each component, you may want to discuss this with your TA or professor during office hours or work with a writing specialist in the Writing Room. Writing appointments are 45 minutes and can be very helpful for figuring out the writing process.
  • You may also want to check out our Assignment Planning Calculator to help you plan and pace your projects.
  • Note: The times shared on the assignment calculator are just estimates, and you may need to adjust your plan according to your specific assignment.
  • Create a buffer zone as a contingency plan. It can be helpful to increase your estimated times to allow for unforeseen circumstances.
  • If you have a pretty good idea of how long it will take you to complete each step, multiply this time by around fifteen to twenty percent. If you are not sure how long each step should take, you may want to even double your time estimates.
  • Allow at least one day between the assignment due date and the day you plan to finish it. This space is helpful if you encounter problems or simply do not schedule enough time.
  • It is also helpful to track how long you actually spend on your tasks.
  • There are some awesome automatic time tracker apps that you can use to help us keep track of this. 
  • Work backward from the due date and set stepped deadlines. Determine how much time you need to complete each task. For example:


assignment tracker

You can use the same technique when it comes to planning midterms and final exams; break down the different components you need to review and estimate how long it will take to complete.

Integrating the task list and study plan

Once you have an estimate of how long the entire assignment or project will take, plot this out on your study plan:
  • Consider how many hours you have set aside on your study plan each week to devote to independent work for that course. 
  • Consider how many hours you anticipate it will take for you to finish the entire assignment.
  • Consider how long you have before your assignment is due.
  • Consider if you have any other work you will need to complete for this course, such as readings, additional assignments, studying, etcetera.
  • Consider having a contingency plan.

Now it is time to figure out the best way to pace your work.

If you do not have enough time scheduled to complete your assignment, you must make a decision:

  • You can create additional time blocks on your study plan to accommodate the extra time. 
  • You can reflect on your time estimates for your assignment.
  • You can consider reducing the hours you intend to spend on the other course tasks.
  • You can determine if your contingency plan is realistic or needs to be adjusted.

This process might take a bit of upfront planning and reflection, but it is essential to managing your time effectively. 

Remember, it is a lot easier to squeeze in an extra hour or two each week to work on your projects than it is to find several hours at the end of the term to try to get everything done!

Creating a to-do list of tasks is helpful, but it is much more effective when you learn how to prioritize the different tasks on your list.

Length and difficulty of task

  • Guess how long each task will take. This will help you stay on track and decide what to prioritize first. Try your best to stick to your set times.
  • Try to make a good dent in a project or assignment that you expect will take a long time to complete. You don’t have to complete the entire project all at once. Break it down into more manageable components and work on it a little bit at a time.
  • Knock off some quick and easy tasks so that you can get them out of the way; that way, they won’t distract you from the more significant tasks.
  • Pick a scary task you have been trying to ignore and get it out of the way, so it doesn’t worry or distract you.

Urgency and importance

  • When you think you might be spending too much time on an activity, step back and evaluate its importance. Reflect on what tasks are urgent and what tasks are important.
  • Urgent tasks demand immediate attention. We tend to concentrate on these tasks because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate. 
  • Important tasks have an outcome that leads to us achieving our goals.
When we divide tasks into what is urgent and important, we will end up with four categories:
  • Tasks that are urgent and important
  • Tasks that are important but not urgent
  • Tasks that are urgent but not important
  • Tasks that are neither urgent nor important

This is called the “urgency-importance matrix”, also known as the “Eisenhower matrix”.

Here is an example of how you can create your own urgency-importance matrix:

The ABCDE Method

To use your list, simply work your way through it in order, dealing with “A” tasks first, then “Bs,” and “Cs,” and so on. As you complete your tasks, tick them off or strike them through. It can be helpful to spend a few minutes at the end of the day organizing tasks on your list for the next day and add to the list, as needed.

Here is an example of how you can create your own ABCDE method:


The DDADD Approach

The DDADD approach is similar to the urgency-importance matrix and the ABCDE method. It stands for Do, Delay, Automate, Delegate, and Delete. It is essentially a decision-making framework to help you choose what tasks to work on. To learn more, watch the following video by Thomas Frank at the College Info Geek:

A bullet journal can be used as an agenda, daily task list, habit tracker, mood tracker, meal planner, and budget planner; the options are endless!  

For an overview of why bullet journaling is so helpful for university students, check out our video by our Peer Tutor, Alyssa:

Also, check out Alyssa’s instructional video on how to bullet journal:

For more information on bullet journaling, check out our Bullet Journaling tipsheet.

You can also review Roxine Kee’s article, “How the Bullet Journal Can Make You a More Productive Student”.


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