Disorganization is a force to be reckoned with.
At least it is in my house. I’m by nature what you might call “Not-type-A.” I’ve never willingly folded my socks, and I’ve definitely never folded them before putting them in the laundry. When it comes to tracking important documents, I prefer the “piling” method (rather than “filing.”) I could vote, be drafted in a war, and had my own apartment before I ever learned that people actually used files.
On top of that, disorganization has been scientifically proven to be a extraordinarily powerful. They call it “entropy,” and (while I’m oversimplifying) it basically says that things move toward disorder. I imagine you have never woken up to a cleaner room than when you went to sleep. Nor have you woken up to have found that the wood scattered around the back yard after a storm gathered itself into a nice, neat pile.
No, we all move toward disorganization. And if we’re going to fight it, we need some powerful tools as a part of our comprehensive approach to study skills. Your student’s success depends on it…. (cue dramatic music).
A Student Organization Secret Weapon
Habits are also powerful, although they seem to be difficult to master. While disorganization seems to exist with or without your help, habits may take some effort to build.
Now, sometime during the 1970s it became common knowledge that making or breaking a habit was conveniently easy. In a short 21 days of doing the same thing every day, you could create a new and powerful habit. The same went for breaking bad habits.
Want to quit biting your fingernails? Band aids for three weeks was you needed.
Want to start jogging every single day? It will be tough for 21 days, but it’s all down hill from there! You’ll be a marathoner in no time!
Can’t quit smoking? Oh, but you can, and in just three weeks! Try drinking a cup of coffee when you want a cigarette instead. Sure, you’ll experience a mild amount of shaking, potentially a seizure or two, but it will all work out in the end.
Are habits really that easy to create and break?
Newer research says no, that 21 day rule is probably not completely correct. For some people with some habits, that may be all it takes. In fact, it could take less than that. One author suggests some of the research indicates that habits can be formed in as few as 5 days. But it could also take 90 days or more.
The key is understanding that so much of what we do in our daily lives is purely on force of habit. In the book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about the way habits are actually created. Three basic factors are involved with every habit.
First, there is a cue.
Something happens. It could be just about anything, as long as it’s a recurring event. Maybe it’s changing into your pajamas. Maybe it’s walking in your front door. Maybe it’s seeing your best friend in science class. Maybe it’s just the fact that it’s 11:30am. A cue for a habit can be just about anything, and you’ll know it by an undeniable (and sometimes seemingly unexplainable) urge to do something.
Then, you act on the cue.
These cue,s can trigger thousands of different actions. It’s pretty incredible the way this works, actually. Consider this: when was the last time you had to write a note to remind yourself to brush your teeth? Hopefully it’s been a long time. Certain cues have been so connected to that activity by now that the action of actually brushing your teeth no longer requires planning. You just do it. (And FYI fellas – if you haven’t quite nailed down this habit, that’s why you’re still single)
Finally, you are rewarded for acting on the cue.
This is why habits are so powerful. By being rewarded for the action that happened after the cue, you become further entrenched in that habit. When you feel good after brushing your teeth – that grimy feeling and the dragon breath goes away in the morning – it just encourages you to continue the habit. The same is true for every good and bad habit – which is great news for those of us students who struggle a bit with staying organized.
Why Habits Matter for Student Organization Skills
The very best student organization approaches are those that require no thinking.
Yes, you read that correctly. We want ZERO thinking involved with our organization systems. This is not because you aren’t smart enough. You may be a future rocket scientist, and I will still tell you that you need take all the thinking out of your organization system.
Far and away the best tool to creating a thoughtless organization system (we know it sounds mean, but thoughtless is good in this case) is habit.
Duhigg suggests about 45% of everything we do is by habit alone. When you act on habit, you’re rewarding yourself for a particular urge that is triggered by a cue. Notice how much thinking is required in that process: none. You don’t have to think, you just act on what you already want to do, and then you find a reward at the end. And the reward can be a bunch of different things, perhaps just a great feeling knowing that you are organized and that you don’t have to stress about it.
The beautiful thing about this is that it allows you to focus your best thoughts on things other than “where did I put that paper?’ or “Should I put this in my locker or leave it in my backpack?” If you are anything like me, you know that if you have to think about it, there is a good chance it’s getting lost.
That’s why we’ve invested a lot of thought into the organization in the system we teach students in our study skills course. Every paper has a place it goes, and there are an extremely limited number of places papers can go. Students who use the system know exactly where unfinished assignments always are, where completed assignments to turn in always are, and where graded assignments always go. It’s thoughtless (again, in the kindest sense of the word).
3 Questions to Determine if Your Organization System is Simple Enough
You don’t have to use our system. In fact yours may work better than ours. We’d welcome any tips you may have in the comments section of this page.
But here is the key to staying organized: Make it simple. If your system is simple enough to use on habit alone, you know you have a good one. Here are 3 key questions to making your organization system simple enough to be habit-driven:
1. Is my system comprehensive?
If every assignment type and every course aren’t covered by your organization system, you need a new one. You should know exactly where new worksheets to be done go, where you record new assignments out of the book, where take-home tests go, where projects go, and what to do with science lab work. Math, science, English, history, art, gym, health, humanities, and any other course you find yourself taking must be included in your organization approach. If you do not know exactly where something needs to go before you are handed it, you’ll be in danger of misplacing it.
2. Does my system have fewer than 5 steps for an entire day?
The more steps that are required for you to execute your organization system, the more chances you’ll miss something. If your system requires you to change binders between every class, consider each of those as a step. If you have to check each of those binders before leaving for home after each day, count that as a step. If you have a different filing place for different types of assignments, count that as a step. And so on. Any time you have to organize something, select a tool from among several options, or dig through a pile of papers, you’re using brain power.
Our goal for our system is that there would be no other steps than placing a paper into it’s right location (which is with you at all times). To stay organized, you’ll have one step at the end of each study session or class. That’s it, and it’s just placing whatever you were working on in the right spot.
3. Has my system removed all decision making responsibilities?
The more times you must decide which resources are needed for a particular course, the more chances you’ll make a mistake. That’s when students get the dreaded ZEROES. We hate zeroes. They’re lost points that aren’t even based on your understanding of the ideas. By removing all decision making aspects from a student organization system, students will be much less likely to miss an assignment, lose an assignment, or fail to turn in already completed work.
Our system requires that no decisions be made, as they are already determined before hand. If you have a new assignment to do, it always goes in one place. If you’ve completed an assignment to turn in, that always goes in one place. If you’ve received a graded assignment back, that too has a place. And you never have to wonder what to take home – because it all goes with you, and it stays super light.
When these three aspects are in place, habit can effectively take over. Simple cues will become second nature, your actions won’t require thought, and you’ll be able to stay organized without expending precious thought and energy on such a tedious task.
We recently released a YouTube video that shows you how we put our system together, how it’s pieces work together, and how you can build your own. We’ve included it here in case you’re interested! And remember, it’s not important that you use our system. The key is to have a great system that uses habit – not a lot of thought – to keep you or your student organized.