How to get ahead at university

Just around the corner from tonight’s gathering of the University of London’s brightest and best sits the 19th century social reformer, Jeremy Bentham. Quite literally. His mummified body has been sitting in a display case in the South Cloister of University College in Bloomsbury since 1850.

When he decided to have his body preserved for posterity he’d have been alarmed to discover what fate had in store for his head. You see it was decided – after the mummification went awry – that his head would be replaced by a wax copy and the original kept in a separate box. Unfortunately, this invited numerous student pranks down the years. On one occasion the students of Kings College stole Jeremy’s head and held it to ransom for £100. On another, it was kidnapped, spirited away to Scotland and eventually found in the left luggage of Aberdeen train station.

Fortunately, the students gathered for this evening’s ‘Introduction to GTD’ talk have much higher and nobler aspirations in life. They’re all members of Team Up, a charity that trains students to tutor children from low income backgrounds in London schools.

While their heads will never experience the abuse suffered by poor Jeremy, they’re already discovering that their educational journey is bringing other mental stresses as their commitments multiply and responsibilities increase. With this in mind, here are some thoughts on how GTD best practices can help students take the strain…

  1. Capture

Have a system ready to capture new ideas and commitments at all times so you’re not wasting headspace tracking and remembering them. You already do this for lecture notes but there are other times when it’s useful, too. A Masters student I know has a ‘distraction wall’ for when she’s writing essays. If she’s interrupted by a distracting thought, over on the wall it goes; captured on a post-it note for later but no longer a barrier to the free flow of thought. Think also about less predictable moments when ideas strike, too. What will you use when you’re on the bus to an early morning lecture and a bright idea strikes?

  1. Clarify

Once you’re capturing your new inputs effectively, regularly sit and decide what they mean. With each, what’s the specific next action that is required? Discussion with your tutor? Getting a book from the library? Reviewing a paper? Asking Dad for money next time you’re home? This simple practice will transform vague reminders into clear actions that you can act upon more easily.

  1. Organise

As you generate reminders from the clarification process, lists are a highly practical way to store the future actions you need to take. In the GTD methodology we have some lists that have helped the busiest of people time and again, and the world of study is no different;

Projects list – a simple list of all the outcomes you need to achieve this year that require multiple steps. It will enable you to stay focused and keep different plates spinning from week to week as the semester progresses. Here are some examples of project outcomes in a college context:

  • Average coursework grade of over 70% achieved.
  • £500 raised for charity hitchhike to Paris in Rag Week.
  • Jez and I have a fabulous time inter-railing in France and Spain this summer.
  • I have a part-time job in the Student Union bar.

Action lists – the day-to-day next actions you need to complete to carry each project forward. These are often broken down into context-based lists, too, so you’re reminded at the right time and not all of the rest of the time. For example:

  • @Library list – the things you need to do when you visit your university learning centre.
  • @Computer list – the things that can be done from anywhere you have access to your laptop, tablet or PC.
  • @Home list – the things you need to remember when you’re next back home.
  • @Agenda list – the things you need to discuss face-to-face when you meet specific people; e.g. your tutor.
  1. Reflect

The fourth phase of GTD workflow involves reviewing and updating your lists regularly and systematically – we suggest once a week – to prepare for the week ahead. Completing this process will reassure you that everything’s on track (or at least not dangerously forgotten about). To get the most from a Weekly Review, choose a time when you’ll be mentally fresh and a place where you won’t be distracted.

  1. Engage

Developing these habits will help you to make better judgements about how to use the time that you have. You’ll have an up-to-date picture of everything that will move you forward in all areas of your world, and you’ll be able to make choices with confidence and clarity.

What difference will it make? Well, let’s ask Nathan, a UCL student who discovered GTD with us a year ago and has written about his experience since then in a blog entitled, ‘Getting Things Done – The Most Valuable Skill I Learnt at Uni.’

Happy studying!