How to be More Productive as a College Student

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From classes and homework to extracurricular activities, work, a social life, and focusing on your personal well-being, there’s a lot to balance as a college student. Balancing these facets can be made easier with the establishment of a productive mindset, and so can the eventual transition from college to the workforce.

What is productivity?

Productivity generally refers to the capacity of an individual, team, or organization to efficiently utilize their time to maximize output. High productivity is the outcome of a blend of factors, including an individual’s:

  • Motivation
  • Personality
  • Innate abilities
  • Education or training
  • Environment
  • Peer support
  • Time management
  • And sometimes luck

While some individuals appear to possess a natural proclivity for high productivity, others may need to adopt daily routines and cultivate habits to help them complete tasks. An individual’s productivity is closely tied to their mental energy and their sense of internal and external motivation; it often arises organically when they engage in work that they find intrinsically meaningful or valuable. 

According to Psychology Today, the drive for productivity is typically motivated by a set of overlapping natural desires. These encompass the desire:

  • To work alongside others
  • For mental stimulation and challenge
  • To meet our basic needs, such as safety, food, and shelter

Beyond these needs, the pursuit of productivity is also amplified by our personal identities and emotions. Completing tasks in a timely and efficient manner may result in being praised by others, or even ourselves.

Although not all daily tasks may hold deep personal significance, research suggests that maintaining focus on larger long-term objectives can stimulate the drive and energy needed to tackle more mundane day-to-day responsibilities.

What hinders productivity?

There are various ways in which productivity can be derailed. For instance, the brain requires time to disengage from one task and shift focus to another, so multitasking can hinder one’s overall productivity. Technology also presents a constant array of immediate distractions. Other factors that can hinder your productivity include:

  • A lack of focus or sleep
  • Poor time management
  • Perfectionism
  • Burnout
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Overcommitment
  • A lack of motivation
  • A lack of resources
  • Health issues
  • And more

Why productivity is important

Being productive in college is important, as it directly impacts your academic success, personal development, and future career prospects. Productivity also enables you to manage your coursework effectively, meet deadlines, and perform well in exams and assignments.

12 productivity tips for college students

To enhance your productivity, it’s important to identify which of these factors are most relevant to your situation, to address them, and to implement strategies that target them. Here are 12 steps you can take to become a productive college student.

1. Use a calendar

Whether it’s handheld or digital, a calendar is a visual representation of your day or week, that helps you see how your time is allocated. Trying to remember all of your commitments and tasks can create mental clutter and stress; calendars allow you to externalize this information, freeing up mental space for more focused and creative thinking.

Putting down your class schedule, homework deadlines, test dates, and extracurricular activities in a calendar can also help you adjust to a new routine in each academic term. While calendars provide structure, they also allow for flexibility. You can adjust your schedule as needed, but having a baseline in place helps ensure that you don’t miss important appointments or tasks, or even overcommit yourself. 

Online calendars like Google Calendar offer settings that help you schedule Zoom meetings, notify others when you’re busy, and remember when scheduled events and activities are coming up.

When looking for a calendar, it’s important to select one that is most user-friendly for you. Below are five free online calendars that can help you stay productive and organized in college:

  • Google Calendar
  • Outlook
  • Calendly
  • Cozi
  • Apple Calendar

2. Make a to-do list

Similarly to a calendar, creating a to-do list can be a powerful tool for staying productive as a college student. When you create a to-do list, you can prioritize tasks based on their importance and deadlines. This helps you focus on what needs to be done first, preventing you from feeling overwhelmed by a long list of tasks.

A psychological phenomenon called the Zeigarnik effect refers to “the tendency for tasks that have been interrupted and uncompleted to be better remembered than tasks that have been completed.” The Zeigarnik effect can benefit students when they take purposeful breaks between study sessions and completing tasks; however, several studies have found that having uncompleted tasks creates a mental tension that hinders how well individuals perform other tasks in the meantime.

While having a to-do list can overall help college students stay accountable, it also helps them visualize and conceptualize what tasks should be completed first.

3. Set (and stick to) deadlines

As alluded to above, setting and sticking to deadlines can be easier when you use a calendar or have a to-do list. Yet as a whole, doing so can help provide structure to your workflow. Setting deadlines may entail breaking larger projects into smaller, manageable tasks, or deciding to complete an assignment before its due date so you can focus on other plans or coursework.

Sticking to deadlines also improves your decision-making, and it forces you to make decisions and progress rather than endlessly deliberating or fine-tuning.

In professional and academic settings, consistently meeting deadlines demonstrates reliability and professionalism, which can enhance your reputation and credibility, potentially leading you to more opportunities.

4. Find your most productive hours

Graphic of a clock

Discovering your most productive hours and completing tasks in those times can:

  • Aid in mental alertness, focus, and concentration
  • Enhance creativity
  • Reduce procrastination
  • Establish work-life balance
  • And more!

To pinpoint your most productive hours, observe your daily routines, energy fluctuations, and focus levels. While high productivity hours are different for everyone, research has found that extroverts tend to have a later peak productivity time than introverts. Blocking out your most productive hours in a calendar can also help you prioritize completing tasks in a timely and efficient manner.

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5. Know your limit

If you want to sustain high productivity levels, it’s important to establish boundaries. Juggling numerous tasks daily across a multitude of projects might keep you busy, but it won’t make you more productive. Taking on too much also heightens the risk of making mistakes, doing subpar work, and experiencing burnout.

6. Get enough sleep

Per the National Sleep Foundation, young adults are recommended to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night. According to Dr. Adam Knowlden, associate professor of health science at the University of Alabama College of Human Environmental Sciences, more than 65% of college students describe their sleep quality as poor; balancing academic and social obligations, stress, and anxiety serve as contributing factors.

“Having a preference for organization was the most crucial factor influencing sleep quality,” Knowlden said. “This suggests that individuals who prioritize and maintain an organized environment tend to experience better sleep quality.”

While college students may sleep less with the intent of being more productive, a study conducted by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that individuals who reported getting five to six hours of sleep experienced 19 percent more productivity loss, and those who reported getting less than five hours of sleep experienced 29 percent more productivity loss.

That being said, getting enough sleep and honing your productivity skills go hand-in-hand with each other.

7. Limit distractions

The buzz of a phone, a friend popping in to say hello, or the rattle of an ancient air conditioning unit are all distractions that you may face on a day-to-day basis. When we allow distractions to creep in, our attention becomes fragmented, making it challenging to complete tasks in a timely manner; according to a study conducted by the University of California, Irvine, it can take almost 25 minutes for someone to return to a previous task after a distraction.

Graphic of a desk that has a lamp, computer, pens, coffee, and textbooks on it.

Fortunately, there are many ways that you can limit distractions, including:

  • Switching your phone to “Do Not Disturb”
  • Selecting which applications can give you notifications
  • Setting time limits on your electronic devices
  • Communicating your schedule with friends and family
  • Finding quiet environments to study or work in
  • Using noise-canceling headphones or earplugs

However, keep in mind that distractions are not always maladaptive to your productivity. Read more about this in step 10.

8. Don’t skip class

With the independence college grants comes great responsibility, and part of that responsibility includes not skipping classes. Attending class regularly ensures that you receive the necessary information and context to succeed in your coursework. It also gives you the opportunity to ask questions, stay up-to-date with deadlines and course materials, and maintain a structured routine.

It’s far easier to stay engaged and motivated when you are physically present in the learning environment. Regular attendance not only benefits you individually but also socially. It shows both your professor and your peers that you are dependable, making them more inclined to work with and help you on particular projects and assignments.

9. Switch up your study environment

When you change your surroundings, whether it’s moving from a dorm room to a library, coffee shop, or outdoor space, you introduce novelty and reduce the risk of monotony. This shift in scenery can rejuvenate your focus and creativity, making it easier to concentrate on your coursework. 

Different environments can also offer varying levels of ambient noise and distractions, allowing you to choose a setting that aligns with your study preferences. Additionally, the act of relocating can serve as a mental cue to transition into a study mindset, helping you become more productive. 

10. Take breaks

Similarly to knowing your limit, taking breaks provides an opportunity for the brain to recharge and focus. Without breaks, cognitive fatigue can set in, leading to diminished concentration and reduced learning efficiency. Breaks also promote better information retention, as they enable the brain to process and consolidate the material learned during classes and study sessions.

Ways that you can take breaks include:

  • Listening to music
  • Going on a walk
  • Interacting with peers
  • Napping
  • Taking a snack or meal break
  • Watching a TV show
  • And more!

11. Start a study group or find a study buddy

Starting a study group or finding a study partner curates a collaborative learning environment where you can share insights, ask questions, and make learning more engaging and enjoyable. Study groups and partners provide a forum for discussing complex topics, which can lead to deeper insights and critical thinking.

Five students are working in a study group together

You can also set regular meeting times with your study partners, which establishes a structured study routine and improves time management and accountability. Studies have also found that groups who meet regularly are more likely to come up with innovative solutions than groups who do not meet on a regular basis.

12. Reach out for help

There is a common misconception that asking for help is a sign of weakness or incompetence; fortunately, studies have shown that asking for help with difficult tasks resulted in higher perceived competence of the individual requesting assistance.

In terms of productivity, asking for help is a great way to advance in the completion and comprehension of tasks. While some students may see it as an additional step that they have to take to finish an assignment or activity, reaching out to their peers fosters a collaborative and supportive space that aids each student’s own productivity.

Additionally, reaching out to faculty members, academic advisors, and working professionals for assistance can help you learn about upcoming projects or career prospects, getting you ahead in certain areas.

Ready to start implementing these practices?

College life is full of challenges, but there are ways to manage a productive student life. If you’re ready to start implementing these productivity practices as a college student, check out Point Loma Nazarene University’s undergraduate programs

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