What?! There’s a Paper Due Tomorrow?

September 30, 2009

The first quarter after I returned to school was challenging. I was trying to work and be a good mom and keep up with everything around the house and do the best I could in my courses. At school, I did a pretty good job of staying on top of all the reading and I did well on my mid-terms. I was quite self-congratulatory. I could do this, I thought, despite feeling like there was never a minute that I didn’t have several things I should be doing. And then it happened. The night before it was due, I realized I’d completely overlooked a paper I needed to write.

Fortunately, it was in a literature course and the essay was related to a novel we’d read. I had everything I needed to write the paper since I’d gone to class, kept up with the reading, and taken lots of notes. Still, I had to stay up all night writing. I made it, but I also realized that my organizational skills needed enhancement if I was going to remember to deliver snacks as an elementary school room mother, get holiday packages in the mail, manage the details of home life, keep up with an irregular work schedule that revolved around numerous customer deadlines, and juggle the myriad requirements of school.

The next quarter I began a procedure I used all the way through my doctoral studies: a large, color-coded calendar that showed the quarter at a glance. If I can’t see the big picture, I can be seduced into thinking that I have a lot of time. In reality, deadlines can creep up quickly! My color coding was based on the colors available in file crates and folders and somewhat matching highlighters. At the beginning of an academic term, I got all of my syllabi together and wrote the due dates of everything from reading assignments to term projects on the calendar. As I wrote something down, I highlighted it with the color assigned to that class. Everything else I needed to do went on the calendar too. I used small Post-It© notes for important reminders of things like doctor’s appointments or two dozen cupcakes for a bake sale, affixing them to the appropriate day.

I also color-coded books (round dots or colored tape on the spine) and other resources for each course and kept materials in colored crates that hold hanging folders since they can be part of the color coding too: a red crate for one class, blue for another, and so forth. They also stack so your materials don’t take up too much room. I had separate notebooks for each course and saved them (these can become useful later, especially in your major). If you don’t want to save notebooks, have some sort of filing system that allows you to keep selected materials from each course, especially hard copies of all your papers. Don’t rely on the availability of an electronic copy, no matter how faithfully you back up.

The colored file folders were used for random thoughts as well as related information I collected. I always carried a folder for each course in my backpack so that I didn’t have to take all of my notebooks with me everywhere. You never know when or where you’ll have an idea.

What kinds of organizational strategies keep you sane?

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by
• Douglas Adams


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