*Note, this was originally published on Medium in December of 2017. It's been republished as I move off of Medium for blogging.
So with the end of Fall 2017, I can officially say that I am now a college graduate! After five and half years as a college student, I have gone through numerous iterations of my productivity setup. Here’s a short list of what I used to get work done during my last semester:
I have been a chronic switcher of task management apps since I was in high school. When I wanted to procrastinate, I would download a new app and justified the time spent as “being productive”. All of this stopped when I started using Todoist.
There’s a deep level of complexity and customizability wrapped underneath a simple design. The app allows you to set subtasks and sub-projects and create complex reoccurring due dates. My other favorite feature is the natural language input. It’s not as robust as Fantastical’s, but I really do feel more efficient when I can input tasks without needing to lift my hands off the keyboard.
On the nitty-gritty organization aspect of Todoist, I create one master project for each semester and make a sub-project for each class. That way, I can see an entire overview of my semester and all the related assignments by just clicking the semester project. I also made sure to include the course code in the title of the projects since it’s a handy way to access it when you’re asked for them on forms, etc.
In contrast, my calendar setup has been a lot more consistent. I use Google Calendar as the backend with a variety of calendars added for class, activities, and social events. All of this data is synced to Fantastical on both my iOS devices and my Mac. Fantastical has been my go-to for years because of its fast natural language input. Like Todoist, I feel a lot faster entering tasks without having to swipe and scroll through menus.
Evernote has been my bread and butter for note taking since I started university. Similar to Todoist, I create a notebook group with the semester name and included notebooks underneath it for each class. It is the central repository for things such as the syllabus, lecture notes, and other odds and ends that aren’t formal assignments (I did all of those in Google Drive).
Truthfully since I have graduated, I’m actually experimenting with other note apps like Bear since I probably won’t be needing any of the “heavier” features of Evernote. If you are still in college, I still do recommend you sign up for student pricing so you can get features such as unlimited syncing to all devices and OCR searching of PDF’s.
While I used Evernote to store and search my lecture notes, I mainly used Notability on my iPad Pro 9.7 with the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard. This setup is the trifecta that I dreamed of since high school. During most lectures, I would type out lecture notes in Notability’s outline mode and would occasionally pick up the pencil to highlight or diagram quickly. If I felt like I was losing interest in the lecture, I would force myself to hand write the notes with the Pencil to force myself to re-engage with the material. These notes would be sent to Evernote after the end of each lecture as a PDF and a backup of the notes would be synced to Google Drive.
This section is going to be short since my file syncing is pretty straightforward. I used Google Drive to write up and sync up all my files while in college. I'm deeply invested in the Google ecosystem and really rely on Inbox, Google Photos, etc. daily. The other main reason for using Google Drive is that its collaboration tools are the default for any group project in the classroom.
Studying for Exams
This last semester, I went back to a simpler and much more analog method of studying. I would grab a stack of standard 8.5x11 paper and create a study guide using a combination of Sharpie pens and colored pens.
I think there was a powerful effect in going back to a simpler method when studying for exams. Using the different colored pens kept me engaged because I love stationery and thinking about information hierarchy. Writing everything by hand also made me very aware of what was important to note and what to leave out. After the exam, I scanned in these study guides so I could share them with underclassmen.
One of my original goals, when I started university, was to carry and keep as little paper as possible. This is where Evernote and its OCR technology really shined. Any papers that I got in class were scanned in and organized in Evernote. If I ever needed to find the note I jotted on the piece of paper, searching in Evernote would bring them up.
I had two main scanning solutions: Scannable and the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300. Scannable is made by Evernote and is a simple iOS scanning app. The main reason why I used this app over others is that it autodetects the pages and doesn’t require you to actually push a button to capture the image. It seems like a minor difference but really made it easy to scan in many pages while on the go. If I was back in my apartment and had a large document to scan, I would use my Fujitsu scanner. It’s a duplex scanner that can scan in tens of pages quite easily. It also was the tool that facilitated my roommates and me to create a digital repository of all of our old class material that we could usually share with underclassmen. The next time I’m in the market for a scanner, I will look for one that has built-in WiFi because I seriously disliked needing to plug in my MacBook Pro whenever I needed to scan something.
The two main things I did to combat procrastination were using the Pomodoro method and having StayFocused installed on Chrome. Pomodoro is a method to break up your time into working for 25-minute chunks with 5-minute breaks in between. If I felt overwhelmed by the scale of an assignment, I would promise myself to work for 25 minutes and be rewarded with 5 minutes to goof off on Reddit or YouTube. I didn’t use it all the time but it was very effective in making a task like studying for an exam a much more achievable task.
The other tool I used with the StayFocused Chrome extension. StayFocused is very similar to other blocker extensions in which you can list the websites you want to stop yourself from going to. The reason why I like StayFocused the most is that you do get an allotment of time daily in which you are allowed to visit those blacklisted websites. That way, you’re not fully depriving yourself or removing functionality from your browser but teaching yourself on how to set time limits on websites that waste time.
If you’re interested in reading more about how to become super efficient in college, I highly recommend Cal Newport’s books and the College Info Geek YouTube Channel. Anyway, if I missed anything critical in your workflow, feel free to share with me!