As an undergrad, I mostly managed to get by without writing down my commitments and assignments. In my first year of grad school, I started experimenting with different methods to organize my time because I wanted to do lots of things and my brain couldn’t hold it all in.
I started out with a paper planner - a neat little notebook that I got for free during the school welcome week. It had short and sweet sections divided by date where I put down my plan for the day. Having a physical object with my plans felt nice except for one thing: as with any other physical thing, I usually ended up forgetting to bring it with me, leaving me scrambling to remember what I needed to do that day.
So I switched to the only thing I always have on me - my phone. I put all of my commitments in a digital calendar and reaped the benefits of my awesome organizational skills (okay, okay, more like awesome technology). And then I discovered that my phone/computer can do more than I ever expected.
At the moment I’m using a set of tools that help me with scheduling, organizing files, keeping track of tasks and projects, managing workload and more. Without further ado, let’s dive right into the tech world!
Disclaimer: I am not advertising any of the apps and do not get profit from it. I’m only sharing my personal experience. I am also an Android/Windows user and I don’t have access to iPhone/Mac (I do have an iPad but never use it for work) so I can’t recommend any apps for the latter from my own experience, and I am wary of recommending apps I haven’t used.
Google Calendar (cross-platform) - freeGoogle Calendar is the only app I use to schedule my meetings. It’s straightforward and highly customizable. I use it to:
- Put down all of my meeting times (I trained myself to do it right after I find out the next meeting ime, be it during a conversation or in an email, so that I won’t forget later);
- Put down my class time (I do it for one week and set them to be repeated automatically on a weekly basis - that saves tons of time!);
- Put down any other commitments;
- When things get rough, I schedule very specific times to get work done, work out, and do personal care tasks and chores.
Pro-tip: Use a Google Calendar widget on your phone! It will place the calendar on your phone screen for fast access (I use weekly view but monthly view is also available).
There are more intricate scheduling systems, of course, but all of them require more effort to open an external app and navigate to the information of interest. Don’t know about you but I’m way to lazy efficient to do that.
Info and file organization
Google Drive (cross-platform) - 15 GB free; 100GB - $20/year
I’ve tried OneDrive and hated it. Tried Box and hated it even more. They all five very limited free storage space and have a clunky interface. Google Drive is a clean winner for me because it’s simply awesome.
First, it gives you 15GB of storage for free - compare to 2-5GB you get with other platforms. Unless you backup all of your photos there, it’s more than enough to store school documents including papers, notes, etc. And Google Docs don’t event count toward your storage limit!
Second, the upgrade to more storage is very affordable ($20 per year for 100GB - that’s the plan I have) - much cheaper than its competitors
Third, its’ integration with document editing services (Google Docs, Google Spreadsheets) in incredible. I absolutely hated using Live version of Word with my school-based Box storage but Google Docs are amazing for writing, and Google Spreadsheets are great for storing data.
This is how I use it:
- I created a folder named UNIVERSITY
- In there, I made several subfolders. Mine include Coursework, Research, Papers, Candidacy, Dissertation, Funding, and Documents.
- Each folder gets subfolders when needed.
- I work right inside the folders using Google Docs and Spreadsheets. All of my work is stored online so I never lose it and can access it everywhere.
Google Drive works seamlessly across my devices although I don’t like its iOS integration - at least on my iPad - because the overall experience seems less smooth. You can also download the desktop app and synchronize your computer data with the cloud, and work offline.
Overall, Google Drive is a fantastic way to organize your school files for quick access.
Google Docs - (cross-platform) - freeThis is my go-to writing place. I tried many writing apps but all of them were inconvenient for a variety of reasons. This is a dead simple solution that has a powerful set of tools for writing and text editing. It’s incredible for collaboration: you can comment, suggest and track changes, and manage version control - not to mention you won’t lose your writing as I once did when writing my candidacy in Word and seeing it crash before my eyes.
I write everything in Google Docs - including my dissertation at the moment - and switch to Microsoft Word at the final stage for formatting and proofreading.
Google Spreadsheets (cross-platform) - free
This is a free Excel alternative with a bit less functionality if you’re into formulas and heavy computing but nevertheless a wonderful place to store data. I use it to organize my research datasets, information about funding (e.g., what applications are due when and what has to be submitted) and for my current job hunt.
OneNote (cross-platform) - freeOneNote is a great place to organize notes. In a way, I think it provides a better organizational solution when it comes to text materials than Google Drive just because the layout and interface are more convenient. At the same time, you can’t really store other types of files there, and its text editing capabilities are mediocre compared to Google Docs. I’d recommend it for class notes or idea brainstorming.
Task and project organization
Google Keep (cross-platform) - free
When I was working on a video game as part of my dissertation, I had to complete a lot of tasks every day. When I say a lot, I mean it! The tasks were different in nature (coding, searching for 3D assets, picking music, creating concepts of game challenges…) and of different priority, and I had to keep track of all of them and add new tasks over the course of 5 months. A paper planner would be utterly useless to keep up with this type of planning, so I decided to try Google Keep and it did the job.
Basically, it lets you create lists with tasks or information and categorize them the way you see fit. Take a look at the screenshot of my Google Keep:
I like it because you can create checklists fast and easy - and prioritize tasks by color and their position on the board.
I recommend using it to:
- Keep track of complex solo-projects
- As a to-do list app
- As an app to jot down quick ideas and notes
Trello (cross-platform) - free
Ah, Trello. I love, love, LOVE this app! It’s similar to Google Keep but offers more options, customization and flexibility. I experimented with it quite a bit and ultimately decided that I will use mostly for one purpose: collaborative projects.
You see, Trello users can make a board together and control the workflow of a project so that everyone can see what’s going on. Let’s say you’re working on a paper with three co-authors. You can create one card dedicated to content, one to formatting, and one to submission process. You then can assign deadlines for each task on the cards and assign which user (co-author) is responsible for the task. When a task is completed, it can be archived or marked as finished. The system is super straightforward but powerful to manage even big teams.
You can also use Trello as a persona to-do app, of course, but I think Google Keep is better for that because it’s simpler and won’t distract you with unnecessary features.
Sticky Notes (Microsoft) - freeI discovered Sticky Notes just a few weeks ago, and man do I love this app! It creates digital sticky notes on your desktop that stay there until you close them. In other words, every time you open your desktop, you see your to-dos for the day.
It’s very basic but I now find it indispensable for my workflow and use it as a main to-do app - unless I’m involved in long-term complex projects that require more nuanced tracking. All my work is 100% on my laptop, so there is no way I can miss what’s on my to-do list because it’s on the most often accessed part of my digital space. This eliminates the need to use any external apps and saves me a little bit of time.
I wouldn’t recommend it for long notes and storing information but as a to-do list app, it’s a winner for me!
Momentum (Google Chrome extension) - freemium (you get all the essential features for free)
If you use Google Chrome, you should install Momentum yesterday. It changes the default new tab window into a beautiful and customizable space that can store all of your bookmarks and a to-do list. It also changes the background picture daily and shows inspiration quotes. Finally, it synchronizes between devices, meaning you can access your bookmarks and to-dos anywhere. Isn’t it cool?
Focus management and time tracking
Engross (Android) - freemium ($1.99 no-ads version).
Sometimes I find it hard to focus on my work, usually due to lack of motivation. So I found a workaround: I set up a timer for as long as I feel like I can work productively (ranging from 10 to 30 minutes on a very bad day) and use this app to track progress. Every time I get distracted, I tap a special button in the app and it shows me motivational messages (that I can customize).
Does it work? Usually.
This app is also a great companion to the 9-to-5 model of work that I use to avoid overworking. I label certain categories of tasks (e. g., dissertation, coursework, research...or simply work) and make sure I spend a fixed amount of time on work.
Try this app when your motivation is at the level of staring at the ceiling while vegetating in bed all day, or incorporate it in all of your work sessions. It does make a difference.
Time Meter (Android) - freemium
I’m no fan of tracking my time use on a daily basis. It’s really exhausting if you do it regularly. That said, during my experiments with it I realized I routinely overestimate (more often) or underestimate (less often) how much time I spend on certain tasks. I tend to overestimate how much I work on tasks I don’t like or find boring, so when such tasks are important, I set a timer to make sure I spend enough time on them.
I’d recommend this app as a diagnostic and - sometimes - accountability tool. You can easily categorize the tasks in the app and enter them manually if you forget to start the timer. It also produced helpful descriptive statistics about how much time you spent on what.
Flashcards Deluxe (cross-platform), free or $4If your major is memorization-heavy, flashcards are a great way to organize facts, definitions and other info and practice recalling information through tests. If you are learning a foreign language right now or will be as part of your major, this is THE best app for vocab learning. If you are learning Chinese/Japanese/other pictographic language, this is the only flashcard app I found that allows the use of more than 2 card sides.
Go with the paid version - you won’t regret it. I won’t list all of the features just because there are to many but what stands out to me is:
- Multiple sides of the same ard (e. g., side 1: term; side 2: definition; side 3: example, or: side 1: word; side 2: reading; side 3: meaning; side 4: use in sentences).
- Every word can be voiced (and you can record your own voice)
- Freedom to decide how you want to review the material (something that wasn’t the case in Anki)
- You can store your cards in cloud storage
- You can search images within the app while making a card to illustrate a word or take a picture with your phone
- One-time purchase unlike Quizlet
- Can search decks made by others
The only disadvantage of this app is that the community is not as big as that of Quizlet so it’s harder to find flashcards made by others. Other than that, this app is incredible.
Do you know any other apps that you like using that’s not mentioned here? Let me know in the comment section!