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Are unfinished assignments threatening to blow up your social life and mangle your peace of mind? Wondering what happened to your deadline discipline?

Staying on top of our workload is about more than organizational skills (although those matter). Research is highlighting the importance of how we think about deadlines and goals—and the findings are sometimes surprising.

1. Revamp your daily routine

Commit specific times every day to working on your assignments. “‘Consistent forward progression’ means doing something every day, no matter how small, to complete the assignment,” says Amy Baldwin, director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas. This way, you can…

Thrive on the small wins
“Even if the progress is a small win, something that looks incremental, almost trivial, it can provide a tremendous boost to people’s intrinsic motivation and positive emotions. That’s what we call the power of ‘small wins.’ There is a feedback loop: Creativity and productivity feed on each other,” said Teresa Amabile, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and co-author of The Progress Principle (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011) (quoted in a Toronto publication).

Student strategies 

  • If you’ve fallen behind with your academic requirements, prioritize your current work
    to avoid additional late penalties.
  • “My best strategy is working on my coursework, every day, without fail.”
    —Sally S., first-year graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles

2. Practice this mind trick

Focus on the due date
As soon as you’re given an assignment, get the due date onto your calendar. But that’s just the start.

Manipulate time
We do better with deadlines when we deliberately play with our sense of time, studies suggest. Deadlines within the current month feel closer than deadlines that fall outside it, even if the timeframe is the same, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Here’s how to capitalize on this mind quirk:

  • Instead of focusing on a next-month due date, try thinking in terms of the number of days to get there. This way, the task seems more current, motivating you to get started and work on it consistently.
  • On your calendar, color-code the timeframe for each project (e.g., a blue band spanning from the date the history paper was assigned to the date it’s due). In a study, this simple technique helped people meet their deadlines.

3. Stretch and break down (Your assignments)

Guesstimate how long each assignment will take—then stretch it out and add some.  “Most students make the mistake of assuming that assignments will not take as long as they think, which causes the back-log,” says Baldwin.

Break up larger assignments into smaller tasks—e.g., research the topic; outline the paper; draft the first section.

Give each component task its own interim deadline on your calendar.

This is a motivational trick as well as a practical one: “Some small wins people set up for themselves through interim goals. That’s the progress principle, how small wins can help you move forward,” said Dr. Amabile.

5 apps for making calendars and lists that work

Wunderlist

  • Helps you organize and sort through your tasks.
  • Can be shared with others for group projects.

Swipes

  • Make a list and swipe tasks away as you complete them.

Finish

  • Created by teenagers, this app helps with academic prioritization.

Any.do

  • Starts your day with a quick review of tasks.
  • Organizes them by “today,” “tomorrow,” and “later.”

Todoist

  • Offers prompts for recurring tasks.
  • Provides easy-to-read due dates.
  • Helps break down major tasks.

4. Know how to talk to yourself

Ask, “Will I complete this assignment?” This can be more powerful than telling yourself, “I will complete this assignment,” according to research published in Psychological Science (2010).

This seems counterintuitive after everything we’ve heard about self-affirmation. But in studies, participants who spent a minute asking themselves that question were more likely to get the job done than were those who spent a minute telling themselves they would.

Researchers suspect that asking “Will I?” builds motivation to complete the task.

Their findings provide more evidence that the way we talk to ourselves can predict our future actions.

5. Bring on the reinforcements

Colleges recruit potential allies for you. Call on them, says Baldwin:

Professor
“Students need to talk with professors about their feelings of being overwhelmed. Often, a short conversation with them may help with their anxiety. Students often make things much harder than they are.”

Library staff
“The library staff are always a good and underused resource for all types of assignments. They can help students refine their searching techniques and provide advice on time-saving techniques.”

Tutor
“Contact a tutor who is on campus and works in a tutoring lab. Tutors work with these issues all the time and can provide useful advice for meeting assignment requirements and due dates. They often know what a professor really wants.”

Peer mentor
“Fellow students (usually upperclassmen) can provide emotional support, if not academic support, for handling multiple assignments.”

Amy Baldwin, Director of University College, University of Central Arkansas.

6. Find your place(s) on campus

Where’s your head at? Switching your study location can reset your attitude, spare you distractions, and even help you remember what you’re learning. That’s not all.

Student strategy
Find several spots that work for you. Head to the library or wi-fi café, or sit outside. “Reserve a library room and work with a friend after classes.”
—Matt W., first-year undergraduate at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California

Unpack your schedule
This is about finding your place on campus in the broader sense: Instead of taking on multiple clubs and activities, fully commit to one or two. You’ll gather more meaningful résumé material while sparing yourself a lot of stress.

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