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6 Tips for Staying Organized in School

6 Tips for Staying Organized in School

By the time you’re in graduate school, you’ve been through this back-to-school thing a time or two. Whether you’re in a Master’s or Doctoral degree program, your time is precious (and probably stretched pretty thin). Today we’re talking about tips to help you work smarter, not harder by using your Passion Planner as a grad student.

A little back story: when I started my Master’s program in 2017, I had been using Passion Planner Weekly for a couple of years and thought I had my system down pat. The summer before school started, I was working two part-time jobs to save up money before classes started. I’d get my schedule from each job, block off the time in my planner, and use whatever free time was left over to soak up the last bits of summer. Until this point, the goals I’d been working towards in my planner were to apply to grad school and find an apartment nearby. Sitting in my living room in mid-July, I was feeling pretty good about my progress.

In August, I got my syllabi for the semester, and boy howdy, was I in for a reality check. As a social work grad student, not only did I have five on-campus classes per semester, but I also had an off-campus internship, plus other requirements for community service and campus involvement. The math was not adding up. When would I have time to work? To study? To make friends in my new city?

I needed to revisit my goals and adjust the way I was using my planner. I laid out my syllabi and internship schedules on the dining room table and got to work. Here are some of the solutions I came up with.


1. Pre-dating my assignments in the monthly calendar.

Close up of a monthly planner layout with class assignments

Once I got my syllabi, the first thing I did (after taking a few deep breaths) was take stock of what assignments were due and when. I opened my planner to the monthly spread and began copying in due dates for assignments in each class. I highlighted the major assignments to make them stand out, like a 20 page research paper due around midterms. Later on in the semester, this helped me to budget my time more efficiently. For example, our school’s fall break was about a week before midterm. Since I knew I had that research paper coming up, I planned to have the first draft done before fall break started so I could actually enjoy my time off. Setting clear goals for myself allowed me to be more intentional with my time.

Bonus tip: In later semesters, I started matching my color-coding in my schedule to the assignments on my calendar to keep it all straight. I knew even at a glance that if I saw a pink box, it meant I had an assignment due for my human development class that week. This is something I still do today to keep track of my private practice and freelance work by using the Passion Highlighters.

2. Benchmarking larger projects in the weekly spreads.

Weekly planner spread with tasks broken down across the whole week

In the Weekly planner, I started targeting my study time towards specific tasks. For example, if I had 100 pages of reading per week, I knew myself, and there was no way I would be able to do that in one sitting. I broke it up across two or three study sessions by setting benchmarks in my studying time blocks. It was like writing a mini to-do list on my weekly calendar: From 3 to 5 PM, study at the library and read 30 pages for direct practice, finish SOAP note assignment, and write 5 pages of term paper.

Part of why this worked for me was that I was setting SMART goals for myself. SMART meaning Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Reasonable, and Time-Sensitive, that is. The #PashFam has talked about the utility of SMART goals before in financial and career planning, as well as overcoming perfectionism. I think that overall, this framework gave me reasonable expectations and accountability to myself.

3. Creating a “mock schedule” on blank pages I had not used before.

Free planner PDF printout with a mock schedule in pencil

We’ve all been there: you get busy and neglect your planner for a week or two. My head was swimming trying to think of how to keep my schedule straight, so I decided to put those abandoned pages to good use. Using a pencil so I could easily erase and edit, I started blocking time for the things I knew I had to do: class, work, and my internship. I knew far in advance that my classes would always be at the same time and on the same day, so those went in first. I lived about a 10 minute drive or 30 minute walk from campus, so I factored in my commute time as well.

Next up: internship hours. I needed at least 20 per week to make it to 300 per semester, a requirement for graduation. I cross-referenced this with the hours my agency was open and when my supervisor would be available to, well, supervise me. I was a baby therapist doing crisis intervention and mental health counseling, and I was terrified of getting burned out. I settled on two full days and one half day at my internship to give both myself and my clients some consistency.

Lastly, I looked at what time was left for work, studying, and having a life outside of grad school. I was fortunate enough to have a job that didn’t mind me doing homework as long as I answered the phone and helped customers when they came in, so I double-dipped a lot. I had a rough idea of how many hours I needed to work per week to supplement my financial aid, and tried to give myself at least one day off from everything per week, even if that meant leaving class and going straight to work at night. It was important for me to avoid multitasking and give my full attention to each area of my life when at all possible.

4. Pasting in the School To-Do List PDF.

Weekly planner setup with a school to-do list pdf added in with washi tape

Passion Planner releasing the School To-Do List was a game-changer for me. It seemed like every day, my to-do list was growing longer and longer, and even while using the Space of Infinite Possibilities, there just wasn’t enough room to accommodate it all. When I found out this tool existed, I immediately printed a copy for each week of the semester and pasted them into my weekly layouts. I was able to keep tasks organized in order of priority underneath a heading for each class, meaning the most important tasks came first. This meant that things like turning in my hourly internship logs every month were marked as high priority, whereas reviewing my notes from a lecture the week prior became an “if there’s time” kind of goal. It also freed up space in my planner for jotting down notes, reminders, and quotes that resonated with me.

5. Revisiting my Passion Roadmap.

Filled in Passion Roadmap focused on Academic goals

There is a lot of talk in therapist school about “finding your niche.” As a grad student, this is something I struggled with a lot. I changed my concentration three times in two years, driving my academic advisor crazy, I’m sure. I ended up taking an additional night class that was outside of my concentration during my second semester because I was interested in too many things and didn’t want to narrow them down. While this created a lot of extra work for me while I was in school, it made me a more thoughtful clinician down the line.

At the end of my first semester of grad school, I sat down to revisit my Passion Roadmap. I noticed right away that a lot of the things I had set as one-year goals were already completed: choosing a degree program to become a therapist, applying to grad school, and moving to a new city with my partner. I’d even accomplished a three-year goal of adopting a puppy! I’d set these goals as a new college grad working a retail job and wanting something more for myself. But that begged the question… what’s next?

I started small, then built bigger. In 3 months, I wanted to have secured a paid internship for my second year of school, so I could cut back my hours at work and focus more on professional development. In one year, I wanted to have applied for my licensing exam to become a therapist. And in three years, I wanted to be at a full-time therapy job. Over time, I found my niche, and these goals became more specific as I specialized my practice and took small actions towards them daily. That’s what the Passion Planner is for: aligning your days with your dreams.

6. Using the Daily Focus to help me zero in on my task list.

Passion Planner Daily focused on one task at a time

By now, I’m sure you’ve got the impression that I was a little bit type-A in grad school. And maybe still am to this day. Like many of us, my brain tends to move a mile a minute when I’m on a deadline or working on a big project. Probably the most important thing I learned about using my planner as a grad student was how to focus my energy on the Most Important Task. 

At first, this was really hard. School, work, internship… it all felt crucially important, and I felt worried that focusing too hard on one would mean neglecting the others. But I learned that my Most Important Task didn’t have to be the only task I did that day, just the one that got top priority. For example, in my first semester, I had to give a speech advocating for a topic I felt strongly about. I was terrified of public speaking, and wanted to make sure that I came across as confident and knowledgeable about the subject. I penciled this Most Important Task into my Daily Focus as a mental reminder that even if I was totally spent after delivering this speech, just getting through it was a big accomplishment. 

(And for all of my fellow anxious type-As out there: the speech went fine! My anxiety made anticipating the event so much worse than actually experiencing it.)

Whatever your semester looks like, your Passion Planner is an invaluable tool for keeping it all straight in grad school. 

Author Bio

Madeline Hodgman is a clinical social worker living in the Midwest with her husband and pets. In her free time, you can find her doing yoga, baking, reading, or exploring the national parks.

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