Ask Doist: How Can I Stay Productive and Organized as a Student While Maintaining Work-Life Balance?

A college student asks for advice on managing their course load while also prioritizing hobbies, relationships, work, health and self-care

Illustration by Margarida Mouta

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“I would really like to know how a student can handle the stress and responsibilities of school, hobbies, home, relationships, part-time jobs, health, and self-care. Whenever I try to focus on one of those things, another one crashes and breaks. I want to try to use Todoist but each time I do, something comes up and I think that being productive is not for me. I just cannot be organized no matter what I do. I really want to become productive and organized so I can tackle life by the horns!

Is there anything that I might be missing?”

I finished school years ago, yet still occasionally have dreams––well, nightmares––about waking up late for a final exam, suddenly remembering a class I’ve never shown up for, or opening up a test and not knowing a single answer. These academic anxiety dreams are incredibly common and are a testament to exactly how stressful school can be. Suffice it to say, we entirely understand the challenges of juggling classes with everything else in your life. 

While it’s hard to entirely avoid stress taking hold, here’s some advice on staying balanced in the face of a million competing priorities.

Study Smart

Naturally, one of the biggest time expenses as a student is hours spent attending lectures, working on assignments, and studying for exams. It’s worth considering how to more productively do all three:

  • Avoid context switching –– Don’t multi-task while listening to a lecture, working on assignments, or studying for an exam. Instead, stay clear of the context switching trap: focus solely on the immediate task, cut out distractions, and practice focusing your attention on one thing at time. Staying focused during a lecture, instead of visiting Twitter, will help you better absorb course material. Concentrated study will reduce the overall time you need to spend going through your textbook and notes. 
  • Work in pomodoros –– I personally found the Pomodoro Technique useful while studying and working on essays and assignments. It allowed me to work in focused 25-minute chunks, sprinkled with breaks ranging from 5-30 minutes. This encourages deep concentration while also making time to briefly unwind between each session. Feel free to modify the technique to better suit you. For instance, try studying for 45 minutes and taking a 15 minute break. 
  • Focus on the hard things –– Focusing on what you know while you study is a waste of time. However, it’s often a comfortable default for many of us: it feels nice to review the problem sets we find simple or go over the concepts we understand. Instead, run to the resistance and study what you find hard. Get in touch with your Professor or Teacher’s Assistant when you encounter a roadblock.  Alternatively, use YouTube videos or Khan Academy as resources for working through what you don’t understand
  • Consider constraints –– I’m a big believer in Parkinson’s Law, the idea that work expands to fill the time allotted. You can use this idea to your advantage by giving yourself constraints to work within. For example, rather than studying for what feels like an infinite amount of time, limit yourself to studying for 5 hours, rather than continuing until you finally feel prepared. Often this feeling never really comes, leaving us studying well past the point of efficiency. A time cap can keep us more focused, making studying more efficient. Less time might mean you start working on practice tests (efficient), instead of rewriting your notes (inefficient). 

Priority Bundling 

It probably feels overwhelming to think about the hours in a day and the prospect of fitting in “school, hobbies, home, relationships, part time jobs, health and self care”. Combine some of your priorities to get more done. This is less about haphazard multi-tasking and more about intentionally finding where your priorities can intersect. 

  • Combine school and relationships by studying together –– Instead of always solo-studying, reserve some sessions for studying with friends. Or take a leap of faith and start a Zoom study group where you can make new friends.
  • Integrate hobbies and health –– Find a hobby that you can explore while simultaneously staying active. Join a recreational rugby team that helps you stay fit, go on walks listening to your favorite podcasts, or practice your Spanish in Duolingo while on the stationary bike. 
  • Take care of your home on study breaks –– Rather than spending your shorter study breaks scrolling through your phone, consider quick tidy-ups or organizing tasks. Taking 5-10 minutes to fold some laundry or unload the dishwasher can add up. While these home upkeep tasks usually feel like annoying chores, they often feel like a welcome relief when the alternative is studying. 

These are just a few of the combinations you can strike. You can workout with family members, take a bath while listening to an audio or video lecture, make money through your hobbies, or study outdoors in the sun with your favorite espresso drink. Think about how you can bundle your priorities and get more done at once. 

Keep a To-Do List

Often, part of feeling stressed out and overwhelmed is not knowing exactly what you need to get done and when. This is where a productivity manager, like Todoist, can be helpful. You mentioned trying the app before, but it might be worth trying again with one mindset change: make it as simple as possible. 

Instead of working out a complex workflow or following a prescribed productivity system, simply add everything that comes to your mind to Todoist with a due date. For school, add known assignment deadlines and exam dates from your syllabus as due dates. Do the same for the rest of your life, including items you need to pick up at the grocery store, the friend you want to wish a Happy Birthday, and an article you might want to read later. 

Then, consistently work off your “Today” and “Upcoming” view in the app. This way, you’ll know what you need to focus on and get done on both the immediate and short-term horizon. That’s all! Consistency is more important than perfection here. 

We have a dedicated Student’s Guide to Todoist that will help you make optimizations to your Todoist, whenever you’re ready. Here’s a few tips for down the line:

Be Selective (and Realistic) With Your Time 

Realistically, you really can’t do it all; at least not all at once. This means you need to be discerning when it comes to how you spend your time. Subtracting time for sleep, classes, any commuting, and other responsibilities, consider how many hours you actually have in a day to spread across different priorities. Then, figure out what you can realistically commit to. This is called a commitment inventory and will help you better understand what you can spend time on and what you’ll have to say “no” to.  

Fortunately, what you have to decline today can be an opportunity for tomorrow. You might have to decline a casual hangout with friends in favor of studying one week, but catch-up on your social life the next. If you’re short on time to pursue a hobby this semester, you may have time the next time your course load is more manageable. You may not be able to exercise daily, but a few times a week could do the trick. Think about your priorities on a longer time horizon and be as realistic as possible. 

Have an off-day

Or, at least, an off-afternoon. Each week, block off a few hours where you resolve to take a longer break from studying, assignments, and work. Instead, focus on an activity that allows you to unwind or recharge; like watching a movie, reading a book, or walking to the bakery to grab your favorite pastry. 

Here’s the trick to really make this work: don’t feel guilty about it. With limited time in the day and competing priorities, it’s easy to feel bad when we spend a single hour unoptimized. But this is unrealistic and a recipe for stress. A few hours mulling over an assignment likely won’t make a huge difference. But a few hours spent relaxing and charging for what’s ahead can protect  against fatigue and burnout. 

Feeling stressed is part of life. Even with the best of habits, you may still find yourself feverishly writing an essay at midnight or frantically studying the morning of an exam. This is entirely normal. Do your best to manage your time and energy effectively to avoid these moments, but don’t beat yourself up when they happen. Aside from that, enjoy the experience as much as you possibly can. Make life-long friends, find joy in studying topics you’re (hopefully) interested in, and forge college memories that you can fondly look back on. 

Best of luck,

– Fadeke

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