The way you start each class sets the tone for the semester. It can make you more engaged and productive – and reduce your stress in the process. That’s why it pays dividends to plan ahead. At Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School, I have implemented some productivity systems to better manage my time and resources and keep up with demands in my MBA (and other degree programs). All it takes is a little bit of low-cognitive work; you can get done during an episode on Netflix.
Below, I will help you implement productivity tools and systems to manage your degree. This productivity system is inspired by the book, Getting Things Done by David Allen. (In fact, I wrote a summary of GTD on my business blog). Your system should help you capture everything that may need to be done or useful out of your head and in an organized, trusted system. Here is an overview of my step-by-step process:
1. Block out time in your schedule to implement the productivity tools for your semester.
2. Read the syllabus and intro material to understand course structure and grading.
3. Organize your files to be easy to store, easy to find, and easy to use.
4. Establish a class notebook to take notes and link to other course files.
5. Schedule your class in your calendar to show up and be ready for each class session.
6. Create to-dos in a task application for class assignments, quizzes, and exams to get things done on time.
7. Setup your email inbox to filter out emails specific for class and create to-do’s.
8. Use and maintain your system to be more productive and get better grades!
Note, this is how I set up my system, and you will see that it is all digital. Some of you will prefer taking physical notes or using different apps. Not all productivity advice works or applies to everyone! We are all different and have different preferences. Please feel free to try out the ideas below and customize accordingly to the systems and apps that work best for you.
1. Schedule Time for Course Preparation
First, set aside some designated time to prepare during the week that you start class. When you reserve time out of your day, you are being intentional about what you are planning to do during that time. Go through each one of your classes for your semester and run through the steps below.
During my first week of class, I set two hours specifically to take the preparation steps below. For the examples below, I will run through the process for my Managerial Economics course taught by Professor Fallaw Sowell.
2. Read the Syllabus and Accompanying Material
First, you should understand how the course is structured and how you will be graded. These ideas can be found by checking out the course syllabus, accompanying documents, and intro videos. The syllabus is the professor’s guide to the course with the expectations for students. By reviewing all the intro material, you should have an understanding of course policies, rules, required textbooks, readings, and assignments. These materials will come in handy for implementing the productivity tools and systems below.
For my Managerial Economics course, I visited the course website (Canvas) to find the intro material. Professor Sowell included a comprehensive syllabus, Course Structure slide deck, and a Course Structure video. The syllabus included a class overview, required textbook, required problem sets, exam policies, grading policies, and a course schedule with deliverables.
3. Organize Your Course Files (Google Drive)
Next, you should organize your course files. The professor and course website will provide you with a multitude of documents and slides. If you are digging around for documents in your computer files, physical folders, or on the course website, then you are wasting time. Thus, you should set up your course files and documents to be easy to file, easy to find, and easy to use.
For Managerial Economics, I visited the course website to download all available course files including the syllabus, lectures, problem sets, and exam material. My tool of choice is Google Drive as I like being able to access my files with my phone or computer. You can digitally store files on your computer or other cloud services like Dropbox or iCloud. If you prefer physical files, then organize your notes and printed documents in a three-ring binder with tabs to separate different types of material.
I then organized the files in my Tepper Google Drive account strategically by the types of documents. During the semester, my Course folder will make it easy for me to file more documents and access documents. Here’s a detailed list of steps:
1. Visit the course website.
2. Go through and download all available course files.
3. Create a Course folder in Google Drive and save the Syllabus in the folder.
4. Create subfolders for the different types of material:
4A. Documents: Store all other documents in here like readings.
4B. Lectures and Notes: Store lecture slide decks and course notes.
4C. Problem Sets: Store problem set assignments and solutions.
4D. Quizzes and Exams: Store information and practice problems for quizzes or exams.
5. File regularly using your during the course as more files become available.
4. Create a Class Notebook (Google Docs)
After storing your course documents, you should create a physical or digital notebook for storing all of your notes. During class, you will be taking notes for readings, lectures, or other course activities. Taking notes will engage your mind into carefully listening to what the professors or others are saying. it will help you organize and digest the content, so it is easier to access and understand. it will also enable you review what you learned and study for exams.
I opted for digital notes as it allows me to take and access notes anywhere with my computer or phone. My tool of choice is Google Docs, However you can also use Microsoft OneNote, Evernote, or a physical notebook. If you prefer physical notes, then write all your notes in a notebook or insert them in a three-ring binder.
For my Managerial Economics class, I created a master Google Doc to store class information and notes and link to all other files. I really like Google Docs, because it is part of Google Drive and I can easily link to other files in my Google Drive. Here are my steps for setting up a class notebook document:
1. Create a Google Doc in your Class folder.
2. Write the name of the class (ex. Managerial Economics) at the beginning of the document in the “Title” header text.
3. Write the following information for easy access (found from the course website or the Syllabus):
3A. Class section and times (ex. Thursday at 6:45 PM)
3B. Professor name, room number, phone number, email, and office hour information
3C. Link to the course website
3D. Link to the videoconferencing hyperlink (Zoom) from the course website
3E. Important information from the Syllabus with a link to it in Google Drive
4. Add a “Table of Contents,” by selecting the last option in the “Insert” menu. If you select the option with hyperlinks, you can click and go straight to the appropriate section.
5. Create note sections by choosing different levels of Header text (H1, H2, H3 …) When you use the preformatted Header text throughout your document, updates to the Table of Contents will reflect the sections in your notes.
6. Link to different documents in your Class folder by going to a specific document (lecture, problem set, etc.) and right-clicking to get a link for that document. In the notes, you can add hyperlinks to connect to these documents.
7. Take notes regularly in your document during class, assignments, or readings.
8. Reference your notes when it comes time to study for the exams.
I have created a master class template to help you get started, so you can access it here.