Any successful person in life is intimately concerned with productivity. Being able to complete tasks effectively – the essence of productivity – can give a person a deep sense of accomplishment. But many college students arrive on campus with goals and aspirations that are incompatible with their own success: They want to be productive and earn good grades, yet they put other things ahead of their grades. Too often friends, social life, sports, and other interests get in the way of completing work. Later face the stark reality that, if they don’t earn good grades, they won’t be allowed to stay at their school. Notice that I said earn, because in college, it’s hard work not natural smarts that always wins the grades. I’ve seen perfectly average high school students make the Dean’s List every term in college, while the “gifted” high school students have spectacular failures, all because the former understand what it takes to be productive.
The Core Of Productivity Is Action
At the heart of productivity is action, and action is what drives us to be productive. This means that you don’t procrastinate, you get started on the work now. You set priorities, with your classes being number one, then you act on these priorities. You set goals and objectives, and work on the smaller steps toward reaching the larger task. You have a results-orientation, caring only about what you have accomplished, and not counting half-hearted efforts as being legitimate work.
Key elements of productivity:
Setting priorities. Being able to identify what’s most important among all of the competing tasks, and then ordering them in a sequence that they must be done, is a key aspect of productivity. If you have readings to do for different classes, which ones must be done first? If you have studying for exams to do, where do you start? Setting priorities also means making the hard choices, like when you should opt out when friends want to meet. In college, if you want to earn good grades, productivity for classes must always come first.
Actively tracking responsibilities. It’s impossible to be productive unless you know what you should be working on, which means knowing what is due for each of your classes. Whether it’s preparing to participate during class, scoring well on exams, writing well for essays, or preparing for cumulative finals, productive students track then complete all of the work they need to do. Tracking your responsibilities will give you a sense of “executive control” over your academic life, which will make you feel in charge and foster a feeling of being effective.
Planning. Students who are able to plan the tasks they must do will find much more success than those who do not. Identifying which chapters will be on an upcoming exam, laying out a blueprint for an essay or paper that is due, or listing the steps that must be taken to complete an end of term project are all examples of what students can and should plan. Even some common tasks, like writing response papers, will require a certain level of planning if you want a good result to earn the maximum number of points.
Discover Your Own Productivity Secrets
We’re all unique individuals with our own characteristics, so when it comes to being productive, no two people are identical. Discovering exactly what makes you productive is part of your human journey, not just in college, but in life after it. Important for this is noticing your own traits, your own patterns, and then starting to uncover your own personal productivity rules that naturally govern your life. For example, being able to say “if I go see friends right now, I’ll never go to the library today” shows a lot of insight and wisdom. Once you begin to notice your own habits and behaviors then you’ll start to notice your own productivity rules and secrets.
Some of the things to notice for your own productivity:
Times. When do you work best? In the morning or evening? For example, knowing that you’re more likely to work get work done after dinner can tell you that working in the evening may be one of your strong points. Other students may be the opposite, they may think more clearly first thing in the morning, so that implies they should get tough tasks done while fresh in the day.
- Places. What places seem to help you to get focused? Is it being in a coffee shop, library, or other place? Some people need very quiet places to feel completely focused, so that might imply that an unused floor at the library might be a good spot. Others need some level of activity in the background, otherwise they start to feel bored, so that might mean coffee shops or student lounges might be good for them.
Expectancy Factors. “Expectancies” are unwritten behavioral rules that tend to shape our actions and how we feel. For example, you probably behave very differently when you’re waiting in line at a bank compared to how you act around your friends. The subtle changes in our behavior are due to the setting or context, so what type of context factors will make you feel like you’re in “work mode?” Working in student teams, studying in a classroom, or being in formal school locations such as the library might help you to be in a mood of “working” compared to other situations.
Identify Your Productivity Tools
Just like an artist needs brushes, and a carpenter needs a hammer, students need their own tools to successfully get work done. Students will need to be able to take notes for their classes in some form, complete online assignments, write papers, take quizzes, and perform many other tasks as part of being productive to achieve. They also must be able to stay organized, which means effectively tracking all of their responsibilities, due dates for papers and projects, as well as perform common tasks like send emails or work as part of a team. The basics tools for students are pencils, pens, notebooks, paper, folders, and similar supplies. Some courses will require a computer or even electronic “clicker” devices, so the tools they need can quickly grow. Regardless of specific course requirements, there are some basic things that students will need to be productive in college.
Core tools for student productivity:
- A planner or calendar is essential to staying organized, tracking due dates, and for knowing when exams or deadlines are coming. It can be a regular paper planner or calendar, or an online system like Google calendar, whichever you prefer. But the rule is this: You must actually use it. If you forget to enter or check the dates, can’t write additional notes in it, or otherwise you simply forget about it then it’s not worth using since it won’t work effectively. With a good old fashioned paper planner, you can physically put it in your way like on your desk or on top of your book bag so you can’t avoid it. With an electronic system, you can set reminders, and do so daily if need be. Regardless of what you choose, you must actually use it.
A computer (or access to one) can be Windows, Mac, or Linux based, although for some programs you might have to use for classes the type of operating system can make a difference. Students who are taking classes in computer science, graphic arts, engineering, and others may need to download and use software for a specific class. These programs may not run in Linux or on Mac, only in Windows. To complicate matters, now all Mac computers are made with Apple’s M1 processor, which means they cannot run x86 software without an emulator. This can slow down performance considerably, especially for larger programs.
- The basics, such as pens, pencils, notebooks, and a good book bag should never be overlooked. Some students believe that they can get away with hitting campus each day with essentially just their phone, and they think that they can do all they need with that one device. This is impossible for college, so you’ll need to bring your gear with you to get work done. This means having a book bag that is large enough to hold enough books and supplies for at least half of a day on campus. That might mean toting lunch with you, or at least snacks plus a water bottle. Being hungry can really hurt your focus, and it’s hard to stay productive if your stomach is growling.
Develop Your Work Routines
One of the secrets of productivity is that our routines – our consistent habits and behaviors – can drive us forward even when we aren’t thrilled with doing a task. Routines are simply behaviors that have been solidified through repetition over time, and they tend to take on a life of their own (also called functional autonomy). You might have had a time, like during high school, where you got up at the same time every morning for a while, then suddenly you woke up automatically or even before your alarm clock. The same is true for those of us who workout, we may feel tired on a given day, but the strength of our routine picks us up and takes us to the gym anyway. All of these things were hard at first, but with repetition they became almost effortless. The same is true for college and being productive, once you start to get your work routines together it becomes much easier, but you must build them first.
Ways to develop your positive work routines:
Get good sleep. Personal routines underlie good work routines, and there’s no more fundamental aspect to feeling good personally than getting enough sleep. This means that you go to sleep at a reasonable hour every night so you can wake up fresh and ready to work. A good habit is to lay out your planner and to-do list the night before so that you’re organized the moment you wake up.
Get up at the same time every day. Then check your planner as soon as you feel awake to see exactly what you will be doing on that day. A trick is to physically put your planner in your way, so that you have to run in to it, this way you can’t avoid it. You can put it on your desk with your keys underneath it so you are forced to look at it.
Spend time planning. Plan out what you can do before, between, and after classes in the locations where you know you’ll work, then once you’re done the rest of the day is yours. Planning renews your focus, so refer to your planner often throughout the day.
To get in the mood to work, change locations. Moods are highly malleable, and these transient states will come and go, so you can often affect the mood of not wanting to do work by doing something very simple: Just change locations. By getting yourself to a place that seems more “work like” you just might put yourself in the mood to do work, even if you didn’t start off that way.
Once you are ready, get out the door and head to places where you can get work done. Of course, this will vary somewhat day to day because of your class schedule. Make sure you take at least one extra subject with you so you can switch if you get bored of one topic, this way if you have time between classes you can get at least something done. Even if it’s finishing five or ten pages of assigned reading, or doing a handful of homework problems, you’re still being productive in the spaces between class.
- As you repeat this cycle of plan-work-plan-work and get to productive spaces every day, you’ll start to feel the power of building such a routine. You may feel like you’re missing something if you don’t do it, or that you’ll be too far behind in work if you don’t do your routine. Those are actually good signs, it’s the power of that routine pushing you to get out and get work done.
Measure Your Own Productivity
Being objective in evaluating our own productivity can help to keep us honest. If we didn’t complete enough work, should we be doing other things? We all would rather have fun than do work, that’s just human nature, but when it comes to being productive it can be a weakness that can cause us to fall behind where we should be. When measuring your own productivity, you should seek to objectively quantify what you are getting done so that you can get an accurate read on whether you’re making an honest effort. Always remember, the only person you’re letting down if aren’t productive is yourself: It hurts only you to not do the work that earns good grades.
Types of measurements for productivity:
Task completion. You can measure how productive you are by looking at how many tasks of the total work that you have finished. This means first listing everything that you must do, then comparing what you have achieved to the whole. If you have completed one of four tasks, then you have 25% completion. Measuring by completion is like a check list approach, where you have a global list of tasks that you must do, and you check them off as you finish each one.
By efficiency. Using a time factor, if you were able to complete 90% of your work in one hour, that’s a high level of efficiency – or how much work you were able to complete per hour. But if you got distracted and off track, you might only have 10% completion, which is low. Low completion of work during an allocated work time is unsustainable. Not only will you never finish what you need to, you’ll never keep up with the class and the Professor at that rate. So you need to aim for a higher level of completion, at least 70%, in order to keep up with your courses.
By linear progress. If you are working on a project where there are multiple steps that must be done in sequence, you can measure overall progress on the project by counting all of the sub-steps that are complete. For example, a project might be 85% done, based on all of the sub-steps completed. Or a paper might be 70% drafted, or 90% edited counting the annotated bibliography, abstract, or other parts. Measuring the overall progress on a larger project moving forward can often be more meaningful since it considers the whole, and not just the sub-parts.
For productivity, completion is the goal, not effort. It is the nature of productivity to be concerned with what has been accomplished, which means it is finished and requires no more work. Quizzes are taken, notes are done, papers are written, or other tasks are wrapped up. It’s fine to take exam and get a modest score of 70%, but you still need to complete it and not skip it. You can end a class with a score of 70%, but you can’t just avoid the work for it if it’s required to graduate. So you must set the goal for completion, even if imperfectly, for all the things you have to do for class.
Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A. is an Educational Consultant based in Pittsburgh, Pa. He holds a B.S. in Psychology and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology, and has been helping students to reach graduation since 2001. Jeff specializes in helping to uncover and address the reasons why students do poorly in college, and has helped many students to achieve their higher education goals. He is also credentialed as a college Advisor, and works at the national level to help students across the U.S.