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Getting Things Done for College Students

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Recently, on the Study Hacks e-mail newsletter, we completed a month-long series tackling the issue of student time management. We took, as our starting point, David Allen's popular Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology, which we carefully optimized to work for the specific challenges of undergraduate life. In this article we describe the system that resulted from the discussion.

If you're a student who has never really attempted time management before (i.e., basically every student), a good starting place is the "Manage Your Time in 5 Minutes a Day" chapter from How to Become a Straight-A Student. The introduction to this chapter is also available online. If, however, you're ready to tackle something more comprehensive, and to take back control over your chaotic, up all night, chugging Day-Quil like water to keep your work-weary eyes open, fighting impending brain damage brought about by over-inhalation of highlighter fumes, typical student schedule, then please, by all means, I urge you to read on...

An Introduction to GTD

Over twenty years ago, David Allen began a storied career of seeking and describing optimal productivity techniques. The result of this work was captured in the book Getting Things Done, first published in 2001. The GTD methodology immediately resonated with the fatigued denizens of the technology-saturated, 500 e-mails-a-day, new economy. It became a national bestseller, selling over 500,000 copies, and was republished in 23 foreign languages. Even today it remains in the top 500 on Amazon's sales rankings.

There are several easy ways to find out more about how GTD works. For starters, you can read A Whirlwind Tour of Getting Things Done, a streamlined primer of GTD excerpted from our Study Hacks discussion. Another great place to start is Merlin Mann's incisive 43 Folders blog. Merlin moderates one of the web's most intelligent conversations about GTD methodology. In particular, check out his recent Getting Things Done: Recap for '07 post, which presents a concise primer for getting started and optimizing the system.

Getting Things Done for College Students

Here, we present our variation of GTD, optimized for the specific challenges of college. We call the full system: Getting Things Done for College Students (GTDCS). You don't need to familar in GTD to follow what's described below, but this knowledge will help you understand the underlying philosophies.


The basic materials you need for GTDCS are the following:

  1. Three collection bins: your e-mail inbox, a physical inbox on your desk, and a small notepad you carry with you everywhere.
  2. A calendar
  3. Next action list
  4. Project list
  5. A filing system

Any subset of (2) through (4) can be managed on a computer using tools such as Outlook or iCal. For (5), a simple plastic filing box and a ready supply of hanging file folders should suffice.


In GTDCS, as with GTD, when new "stuff" enters your world you need to immediately place it in one of your three collection bins. Stuff, in this context, defines any sort of information that might require you to do something. This includes everything from errands ("return library books"), to upcoming deadlines ("study for next week's quiz"), to random ideas ("look into starting a campus band"). Make no distinction between work and personal life. Stuff is has to get out of your head.

For e-mail this collection happens automatically (your e-mail inbox is a collection bin). You're physical inbox should be used to collect things such as letters, papers to read, or administrative forms to file for safekeeping. Your notebook can capture anything that pops up when you are away from your desk (e.g., hearing about an assignment in class or having a friend stop you in the dining hall to change the time for your next study group meeting).


In GTDCS, the processing of items in your collection bins occurs almost identically to the process described in GTD; the only difference being that we skip some options (such as delegate, or the more complicated Tickler File, that are less relevant to students). Specifically, when processing a given collection bin, for each item, follow this decision tree:

  1. Decide if the action requires action on your part. If it doesn't, either discard it or, if it's something you need to hold on to, file it. Otherwise...
  2. Identify the specific next action required by this item. If it requires more than one action then identify the first of these actions and make a note of the bigger project on your projects list. If this action can be completed in two minutes or less, do it right now. Otherwise...
  3. If the action needs to be completed on or by a given date, record it on this date in your calendar. Otherwise...
  4. Record the action on your next actions list.


In GTDCS, as in GTD, reviews of your stuff occurs at three main levels: the daily review ("runway level" in GTD speak), the weekly review ("10,000 foot level"), and the big picture review ("the 30,000 foot level"). It's in the specifics of these reviews that we first notice some major differences between GTDCS and its parent.

The Daily Review:

At least once a day you need to process the items that built up in your collection bins, review the date-sensitive tasks on your calendar, make a run-through your next actions list, and, in general, get updated on your action landscape. This daily refresh is crucial to keeping the system effective.

A key difference between students life and the working world, however, is that in the former you don't have a set work day. We therefore take advantage of the daily review to assign certain hours during the day to be "work hours." During these times, you follow the classic GTD process to help decide what action you should be completing. Specifically, you continually apply the following review process:

  1. Check your calender to see if any date-specific actions remain. If so, tackle these first. Otherwise...
  2. Turn to your next actions list and choose something appropriate.

Treat your work hours like your work day; don't do anything in this time but work. The trade-off is that during all other hours of the day you can do whatever the hell you want. Relax completely.

How many hours should you designate to be work hours? The general rule is to add up the time needed to complete your date-specific actions and then add an extra hour so you can make some progress on your next actions list. If you don't have anything on your calendar, then you're going to have a light day. Great! This is what makes student life better than working life. On the other hand, sometimes a large number of deadline hit all at once. In these instances, you might find that *all* of your waking hours are designated as working. Oh well. This is what makes student life so damn hard sometimes. The key, however, is that you have clearly designated when you're "on" and when you're "off." This lets you be more focused when you're working and more effectively relaxed, un-stressed, and all-around debacherous when you're not. Trust me here: based on my research of successful undergraduates, cordoning off work hours from relax hours (preventing the guilt-inducing, un-productive mash of pseudo-work employed by most students) is a necessary condition to avoid the worst of academic-induced stress.

Once you've decided how many hours to be work hours, you must then decide which times to so designate. Here's a simple procedure: make a list of the waking hours during the day. Cross out the hours that you will be eating meals, in class, at work, at practice, at meetings, or at appointments. This leaves you with a clear sense of your available time. Next, starting marking free hours as work hours, starting from the earliest available and moving toward the later, until the total number of hours you've marked equals the total you calculated in the above step (e.g., date-specific actions plus an extra hour). Notice, this procedure has you squeezing in hours in free pockets all throughout the day as oppose to waiting, like most students, to do everything in one continuous stretch at night. Once gain, trust me here: the less work you do at night, the better. To put is simply: you have more energy during the day (so you finish stuff faster); you don't have as many free hours at night as you think; your focus leaves you quickly at night, making work more painful; and night is when the real fun begins, you don't want to waste it in the library.

The Weekly Review:

As with traditional GTD, once a week you need to check in on your system. If any stuff has been floating around in your head or stuffed in your backback, languishing unread, or piled up in your e-mail inbox, now is the time to process everything and get your mind free once again. It's also a time to review your next action lists and clean them up where necessary (consolidate actions, add some, delete some). Similarly, you need to review your projects list. If there are projects on here that you need to continue work on, generate appropriate next actions to add to your next actions list. In general, this is your moment of calm reflection in which to plug the leaks in your system and reaquaint yourself with the important tasks in your near-future action landscape.

Here, once again, however, we must move beyond GTD to handle some issues specific to the student lifestyle. First we must engage the question of when to do the weekly review. Unequivocally, the answer is: Sunday morning. Drag your sorry, hungover self out of bed, get breakfast, then tackle your review while fueled by that wonderful first cup of coffee. The reason you do it in the morning is that you have a full, empty day ahead for you to catch-up on work. (The reason you do it Sunday instead of Saturday is because if you're working all day Saturday then you've got other, bigger problems; e.g., discovering the secret to being less of a loser).

This brings us to a more complicated problem: how to handle weekly assignments. Under the traditional GTD system, a class assignment would be handled as a project. This follows from the fact that most assignments take a few actions to complete (e.g., work on first half of problem set problems, meet with problem set group, type up answers nicely...) The project scope, however, is insufficient for the needs of a student, as, typically, the first action for the project gets put on the next action list and the project itself isn't visited again for another week. This doesn't fly when the work is dues within a few days. First, the action floating around in your large next actions list is not guaranteed to be addressed in time -- leading you to keep track of it in your head (e.g., "start this assignment soon!"), which defeats the purpose of full capture. Second, one action per week is not enough, we need *all* of the actions relevant to an assignment to be handled in the small number days you have before the next class. This brings us to the following student-centric addition:

The "Weekly Assignments" Project:

Add "Weekly Assignments" as a standing project on your projects list. This is a stake in the ground to remind you each Sunday, when you do your weekly review, that you need to deal with the class assignments due during the upcoming week. Here is the procedure to follow:

  1. List out all of the work due for classes that week. This includes both traditional homework (e.g., reading assignments, problem sets), as well as studying for tests and writing papers.
  2. Break up each of these assignments into specific actions, each requiring no more than 1 to 2 hours.
  3. Assign arbitrary deadlines to each action for the upcoming week. Be smart about how you do this. If a day is already busy, don't pile on too many assignment actions. Now that this work has become date-specific you must, following the GTD methodology, write the tasks on your calendar under the appropriate date.

By treating weekly assignment work as date-specific you rescue you it from your overwhelming next actions list and put it in a place where you are sure to execute. Furthermore, by planning the full week in advance you are able to spread out your work intelligably -- avoiding work pile-ups when multiple deadlines coincide.

A final note: for long-term assignments, such as term papers, that require more than a week to complete, you should introduce them originally as a traditional project, allowing you to make progress on them in advance. When you enter the last week before their due date you can then treat the remaining work as a weekly assignment and schedule as above.

The Semester Review:

In GTD, you do a big picture review once or twice a year. In GTDCS, we designate the beginning of a new semester as the ideal time to accomplish such introspection. This is a perfect time to reflect both on the big questions -- e.g., "Am I doing the things that are important to me?" -- as well as the longterm -- e.g., "I need to start searching for an internship this semester?"


The typical college student is juggling dozens of impending deadlines and obligations at any one time. Each of them crucial. On forgotten test, for example, can deep six an entire semester's grades. This can be incredibly stressful. It leads to a constant state of guilt ("should I be working now?") as well as fatigue-induced pseudo-work, where your free time mashes in with your work time, and the whole thing becomes a jumbled mess of exhaustation.

The GTDCS approach emphasises relaxation. You wake-up. You see what's on your plate for the day, make a plan, then follow it. During the work hours you work, otherwise you relax. When new obligations get introduced into your life they're immediately collected and soon processed. Many students identify the first few days of the semester as their favorite. Why? Because there are no obligations yet. No deadlines or due dates have been injected into their life. You can relax, and enjoy the sense of possibility. GTDCS aims to make every day feel like the first.