Opinion: The secret to an academic year full of success

Whether you are a freshman ready to tackle the challenges of higher education or a senior who is about to conclude their arduous journey to a bachelor’s degree, the beginning of an academic year is vital to your success. Fall quarter can dictate how the rest of your school year will go. Start strong and full of determination, and you’ll be more likely to keep the momentum going until the next summer break. Conversely, if you are currently plagued with bad habits — and don’t do anything to change them — don’t be surprised if you feel increasingly lost as the months keep passing you by.

To become a great student (and not merely a decent one), many processes have to work in tandem. A lot of these are obvious, like preparing before class or studying for exams. However, there are other things that aren’t immediately obvious — yet not doing them severely limits our capacity to excel. If you consistently apply the tips I’m about to discuss, you’ll avoid the mistakes and pitfalls many succumb to when it comes to academic performance. These recommendations will make school less of a chore, and more of an opportunity to develop lifelong skills.

Perhaps the most important tool for success — whether at school or life in general — is creating a productivity system. Many students lack a plan in their academic lives; they simply go through the motions and take things as they come. While this might seem like a “chill” or relaxed way to approach life, it is also the root of procrastination. Lack of structure and clarity in your day makes you more likely to push things to the side. This is because people are excellent at grossly miscalculating time, thinking they have plenty of it when in reality they don’t.

So how do you create an effective productivity system? Begin by planning your days in advance. While the benefits of doing this might not be immediately apparent, I can’t stress enough how useful it is to write down the activities, assignments and tasks you have pending. Don’t simply make mental notes, actually record them somewhere. Start by planning for a week in advance, being as detailed as you can. Break down each day by the hour and estimate to the best of your ability what you will be doing at different times.

For example, Mondays 8–10:20 a.m. you have a chemistry class, 12:20 –2 p.m. you will workout at the gym, and 3–5 p.m. you will focus on your math homework. If it seems like a lot of work to write out each day like this, it is not; you only have to do it once per week. Better yet, the more you stick to the plan, the stronger the habit will become. As a result, starting tasks that originally required a lot of willpower will be much easier, giving you more free time to relax once you are done.

Building a schedule for the week frees you from the waste of mental energy that happens when you go on aimlessly. Once you have a clearer picture on how your days look, you can redirect that energy towards focusing on your studies. Luckily, there are many resources that make this easier than ever. As part of your productivity system, work on putting together a set of useful tools and technology that can help you in your goal of becoming a great student. If you are unsure about applications that fit this purpose, I’ll provide an example of what I use and how it helps me be productive.

The hardest part of being productive is starting. Millions of things might be going through your head, draining your attention and limiting your ability to take the first step. A way to kickstart the process is to consume some sort of motivational content before you begin a productivity session. I find that reading a few pages of a book using the kindle app on my phone, or listening to a podcast, are fantastic ways to get me into the right frame of mind. Some people also like to exercise before doing cognitive work, as your brain will be flooded with feel-good hormones that are useful when tackling something challenging. Once you have the right mindset, you can move on to checking the schedule you have made as part of your productivity system.

I use Google Keep to record tasks and maintain a to do list of productive things. I identify the task I need to work on, and then move to my laptop. In the alarms and clock setting of the computer, I have a timer named “deep focus” which lasts an hour and 10 minutes. Once I click the play button, I will work on an assignment uninterruptedly. That means putting away everything that might prove a distraction, including phones, browser tabs and most media.

I recently discovered an application called Brain.fm, which generates music specifically designed for focusing. I’ve been using this app whenever I do something that requires a lot of concentration, like reading or studying, and it has been very effective at blocking any sort of distractions from the outside world. Once my deep focus timer reaches zero, I feel a sense of accomplishment because I studied in a deliberate manner. As a result, the learning I did in that hour-long session is much more effective than if I was constantly switching between tasks — like visiting Facebook, watching YouTube videos, or consuming other off topic content.

Finally, I use a habit tracking application that shows me, visually, how well I have been performing based on goals I’ve set. This is extremely important because seeing a tangible representation of the effort you have put (e.g. seven checkmarks representing 15 pages of a book read every day of the week) will motivate you to keep working towards that goal, as you don’t want the streak to end. Check out the app called Loop on Google Play, which provides an easy-to-use interface to track habits.

People learn in different ways and have different tools they use to reach their goals. The important part is to recognize how you can combine different strategies and technology to help you become a standout student. Once you have a well-developed productivity system in place, you’ll see how much easier it is to start tasks as opposed to procrastinate on them. The earlier you start working on this, the more of an advantage you will have over those who go through their lives with no clear direction. Get to it, and enjoy your new success!