A Student's Guide to Get and Stay Organized this Year

Shelbie WilliamsMar 20th, 2021

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Whether you started college right out of high school or you’re an adult learner working to finish your degree, life is crazy busy. For many people, the realities of life have caught up to those hopeful resolutions we made on New Year’s Day a few months ago. 

If you’re one of the thousands of people who resolved to get organized this year, you might feel like the mythological Sisyphus and his boulder that never quite made it up the hill. Don’t give up yet! It’s time to give your goals a boost and remember exactly how much organization can benefit your life. Research shows that the advantages of organization include: 

Nearly everyone has at least one area of life that would benefit from organization, whether it be home, work, school, relationships, finances, goals, personal health, or all of the above! Here is a list of practical tips that can help you take a small step today toward a happier, more peaceful existence.

1. Figure out what works for you

Organization should be defined by what works for you and the people you live with, not what a magazine article or home designer says you should do. If you like alphabetized workspaces, great! If you don’t like your creativity hampered by too many neat boxes, that’s okay too. (Albert Einstein had a messy desk, after all.)

At the end of the day, getting organized isn’t about outside opinions. It’s about what helps your life run more smoothly and happily.

2. Create a centralized to-do list and calendar

One of my favorite ways to stay organized is to have a Grand Central Station for all my tasks, thoughts, reminders, appointments, school deadlines, lists, and anything else I need to be able to find or remember! My mom does this with a wall calendar that she keeps filled with all the family schedules and activities, while I prefer to keep my family organized electronically with Google Keep and my cell phone’s calendar. I turn on reminders for my calendar and sync Google Keep across my devices so all my lists and reminders can go with me wherever I go.  Whether you prefer to have physical or electronic organization, choose one method and always use that method for everything you need to remember. Don’t assume you’ll remember anything. I cannot count the times I’ve come up with a shopping list in my head only to forget to write it down. That’s the brilliance of a centralized hub of organization. It’s like an external brain.

3. Declutter for good

If you need to get rid of stuff (and who doesn’t...), don’t just throw it away. If your extra possessions are in good condition, take a couple extra minutes to drop those bags off at a donation center. Not only will you be freeing up space in your home (and brain), but someone else will be blessed by your efforts.

Not sure where to take your donations? Here’s a list of places who take everything from old cell phones and power tools to clothing and furniture.

4. Start small

One of the most important principles of accomplishing any goal is to start small. Don’t try to organize your entire life in an afternoon, or even a week. If you overwhelm yourself, you will be setting yourself up for failure.

Instead, pick the most pressing area of your life and make only one or two small adjustments. If you don’t have any time, set a timer for just 5 minutes and do what you can in that time. Small steps will get you there faster than you think. If you only spend 5 minutes a day, that’s over 30 hours over the course of a year!

5. It doesn't have to be Instagram-worthy

Organization doesn’t have to look like Martha Stewart or Marie Kondo took over your life. Practicality can sometimes win over aesthetics, especially in spaces that receive a lot of traffic or clutter. Take a deep breath and ask yourself what this space needs to accomplish in your home or workplace. It doesn’t have to look like a perfect Instagram post all the time. It just has to do its job.

6. Think of others

If you are organizing a shared space, make sure the other people involved are comfortable with the changes you want to make. You may have to compromise to accommodate more tidy or less organized personalities.  If you are sharing an area with others, it’s okay to ask them for help keeping it clean. You could make a chart of responsibilities, divide up responsibilities by what each of you prefers to do, create a reward system, or take turns being the organizer each week. Remember, the goal isn’t perfection. Any small step you can take together toward a calmer, more streamlined space is worth it!

7. Prioritize

When you pick an area of your life to organize, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all that you want to accomplish. The best way to see meaningful change is to prioritize what is most important or causing the most problems. For example, if you want to organize your kitchen, think about what part of the kitchen gets most cluttered and causes you the most stress. Perhaps it’s the never-ending stream of dishes. Think about how you can streamline your dishwashing process. Maybe you can move frequently-used dishes to a cabinet closer to the sink or dishwasher, ask everyone to put their used dishes directly in the dishwasher rather than leaving them on the table or in the sink, or set a timer for 10 minutes of dishwashing before bed each night so the pile doesn’t loom so large. Whatever area of life you want to organize, pick one piece and start there.

8. Go with the flow

Organizing doesn’t have to painfully go against your grain. Instead of trying to create habits that you won’t enjoy or connect with, find ways to work within your preferences. Pursue who you actually want to be instead of chasing an idealistic picture of someone you think you should be.

The best way to create a lasting habit is to find a creative way of using your personality quirks and personal drive to accomplish your goals. Enjoy music? Throw on some tunes while picking up clutter. Like to socialize? Talk on the phone while you tackle that laundry. Organize your office files while listening to that audio book you’ve been wanting to read. Combine something you enjoy with something you have to do to make the whole experience more enjoyable.

9. Create dedicated stations

Creating special stations for common situations or needs can save lots of time and energy. Spilled something on the floor? Having all your cleaning supplies in a dedicated closet, cabinet, or caddy means fewer steps and less stress for you. Always hunting for your wallet or keys? Create a station by the door to hold all your going-out items so you can simply gather things at the door before you go. Wherever you find yourself needing items over and over, ask yourself if you can create a station to automatically set yourself up for success.

10. Be prepared for mishaps

Accidents happen, but you can improve many difficult situations by having a plan.

Your situation will be unique, but a few preparation ideas include: back up important documents, entrust spare keys to a friend or family member, talk with members of your household about what to do in case of fire or a storm emergency, post a list of numbers to call for common emergencies (such as 911, poison control, or animal control), start a rainy-day savings account, or keep a small amount of cash on hand.

Many people like to have a portable bag of emergency essentials in their home or car (often including food, water, first aid supplies, and a change of clothes) just in case they need to grab it in during a serious emergency. Many accidents that we prepare for do not ever happen, but it is okay to thoughtfully consider a few essentials that might be handy in a range of situations.

There are a lot of opinions about organization, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. What do you need to be happy in your spaces and habits? That’s the most important question. Your house doesn’t have to look like a museum, your car doesn't have to look like it was just driven off the showroom floor, and your exercise routine doesn’t have to mirror anyone else’s. Organization is not an end goal. It’s just a tool to help you live a better life. As you balance school with the rest of your priorities, embrace small organization steps that can free up your time and mental energy so that you can thrive.   More ideas on getting organized for schoolwork:

Working Full Time in College

Productivity Hacks for the Working Student

Best Time Management Apps for Students

Shelbie Williams

If Shelbie has a cup of tea, a good book, or a deep conversation, she is a happy camper. With a background in accounting, classical music, and blogging, she believes learning is one of life's greatest adventures.