10 Organisation Strategies for Disorganised Students: Keeping Chaos at Bay

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I have a confession to make: being organised is not my natural state. My default state is crazy messy desk. Crazy messy bedroom. Crazy messy kitchen. Just ask my friends.

But after reading various books on organisation strategies, as well as a lot of trial and error, I have sorted out my inner slob. I even made a mindmap to cement the ideas into my brain.

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Long gone are the days of running around the house in a panicked state yelling, “I can’t find my keys. Where are my keys?” or arriving at university only to realise I left my wallet at home and I can’t buy any lunch or get out any library books.

I now have systems in place and strategies so I can get things done without the extra stress and drama.

‘Organised chaos’: Is there such a thing?

I work with a lot of students who tell me, “My desk and file looks messy but it’s organised chaos. I know where things are”.

But have you ever arrived at school only to realise you left your sports shorts at home? Or you forgot your graphics calculator on the day you had an important maths test? What does it feel like to be disorganised? Not much fun.

It’s time to stop kidding ourselves and face our inner slobs once and for all.

In the book ‘Ask me anything’ Rebecca Sparrow states:

“Compare how you feel when you’ve forgotten something really important for school, to the day when you arrive with everything in your bag and you’re ready to go”.

When you’re organised, you’re less stressed. You can focus your mind on what you need to do. You can dedicate your time and energy to the things that matter most to you, instead of wasting it searching for things.

The good news: Being organised is a skill you can learn

I know at this point you may be thinking “But I’ve always been messy! I don’t know any other way to be!”. I get it. Mess is familiar. It’s become part of your identity and it’s hard to imagine being a tidy, organised person.

If you’ve been labelled a ‘mess-pot’, ‘slob’ and/or ‘disorganised’ (all labels I’ve been given in the past), don’t despair. Being organised is like any skill. It’s a skill you can learn. It just takes practice and perseverance.

There are a number of simple things you can utilise to keep chaos at bay and become more organised. Below are some of the strategies I highly recommend.

1. Make your bed first thing

Research has found that people who make their bed in the morning experience a little win of success which sets them up for the rest of the day.

Charles Duhigg (author of ‘The Power of Habit’) says making your bed is a ‘keystone habit’. If you do it, it’s likely to lead to other good behaviours.

Making your bed appears to help develop the mindset of being an organised and disciplined person.

2. Dump what you don’t need in a box

Multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. So you need to make it easy for your brain to do just that.

I work best when I’m not surrounded by clutter and reminders of all the other things I need to be working on. Perhaps this is why people seem to work well in cafes (they can’t bring all their clutter with them).

Here’s a tip: Gather any clutter on your desk that isn’t relevant to the current task at hand and dump it in a box. Put that box out of sight.

3. Keep things in sight (out of sight is out of mind)

I realise this may seem a little contradictory to strategy 2, but hear me out. While you want to be able to focus on one task at a time, you also don’t want to forget about all the other things you need to work on. If I put a project away in a drawer or cupboard, there’s a good chance I’m going to forget about it.

This is why I have an open storage cabinet on the side of my desk that is just out of sight while I’m working on a project. When I finish working on one project, I’ll go to that open cabinet and pick the next project to work on.

4. Make lists you can trust

Many of us make lists but our lists fail us. They don’t motivate us to be in action. Why make a list if you’re not going to do what’s on it? What’s with that?

The problem is that the list items are too vague. They don’t spell out what you need to do next. They contain statements like “Study psychology”, “Exercise” and “Mum’s birthday”. How will you know you have finished studying psychology? How can you possibly cross that off your list?

To create indestructible lists that you can trust, you want to get into the habit of writing down the next step you need to take. For example, if you need to study psychology, you may write down “Open book to page 26 and study the concept on intelligence”. If it’s your mum’s birthday, you could write “Go to the florist and buy mum flowers”.

When something you need to do is framed in a specific, concrete way, your brain says, “This is urgent!”. And then what? You go do it.

5. Have everything you need on hand

Before cooking a meal, a good chef has all the ingredients and cooking utensils out in front of them. They don’t want to get half way through making a meal and say “Ah! I need to run to the shops to get some coconut milk!”. If this happens, it’s going to slow down the kitchen and upset the customers.

You want to be like a top chef. When you sit down to study you have everything you need on hand: paper, pens, sharpener, eraser, textbooks, notes, water and maybe even some snacks if you’re hungry. Take 5 minutes before a study session to lay out what you need.

6. Create a ‘magic spot’

When I was a little kid, I would borrow my dad’s clutch pencil. It was one of those fancy pencils draftspeople use. But if I didn’t put that pencil back in it’s ‘magic spot’ as dad would say, all hell would break loose.

“Where is my clutch pencil? Why is my clutch pencil not in it’s magic spot!?” dad would yell, stomping his feet like an ogre. Needless to say, I learnt pretty quickly to always return that pencil to its magic spot!

You want a magic spot for your school projects, stationery, and books. This will save you time and help streamline your studies. If you need to find something, there’s only one place it can be – in its magic spot.

7. The magic bowl in the hall method

I used to always lose my keys and my phone. It was becoming a serious problem but then I discovered the magic bowl in the hall method.

This is very similar to the magic spot technique, but it’s for the essential items that you need every day (e.g. phone, keys, fitbit, and sunglasses).

You grab a nice bowl (something pretty and solid, not a plastic disposable bowl) and this is where these items are stored. You only take the items out of the bowl if you are going out or you need to use them. Once you are finished with the item, place it back in the bowl.

8. Do a quick tidy up at end of the day

A crazy messy desk overflowing with clutter is unlikely to help you work in a focused way. At the end of each work day, set a timer for 10 minutes and prepare yourself for the next day by doing a quick tidy up.

I’m not talking about pulling out your feather duster or a bottle of spray and wipe (you’re far too busy for that sort of thing). All you need to do is put away any irrelevant papers or books. Return things to their magic spots or to your magic bowl.

9. Post-it note mental preparation

It’s also a good idea to write out on a post-it note what you need to work on the next day. Doing this is like getting the map for a treasure hunt before everyone else. It gives you a bit of a head start for the next day.

Architecture and Design Critic Alexandra Lange says:

“I leave myself a post-it note each night of what I should do the next day, and as if I were my own boss, I let myself move freely among items on that list”.

Why a post-it note? They’re small. You can’t fit much on them so you’re not going to overwhelm your brain with dozens of tasks.

10. Pack your bag the night before

Last but not least, pack your bag before you go to bed. Here’s the best way to do it:

Grab your diary/schedule and look at what you have on the next day. Ask yourself “What are the items I’m going to need?”. Write them down. Then with your list, take your bag and start packing all the items for the next day into it. If an item doesn’t fit in your bag (e.g. a guitar or a giant inflatable penguin) place it by the front door.

If there is something you need to pack the next morning (e.g. your lunch), leave a post-it note reminder on your bag (“Take nonna’s lasagne out of fridge and put in cooler bag”).

Once your bag is packed, place it by the door (or wherever you exit the house in the morning). Why?

Because your bag and all your equipment that are by the front door will act as a visual reminder. They scream, “Take me! You need me!”.

Have you ever tried out some of these strategies before? Have they ever helped you? Or do you find other strategies work better for you? Let me know by posting a comment below.

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