From a Grad Student, with Love: 6 Life-Saving Organizational Resources

So, December, right? Winding down to the end of a year, gearing up for the start of a new one…but not quite there yet. Sometimes it even feels like time is dragging its feet on purpose, tick, tick, ticking away at its leisure towards the next vacation. After a tumultuous summer and an even crazier start to autumn I was definitely feeling the drudgery of it all. I was ready to move forward but I couldn’t do that without getting through the responsibilities or mess (ha) of the day. And that led me to embracing something I’ve never been able to before: online organizational tools.

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I’ve always found it difficult to integrate digital tools into my lifestyle. I’ve always preferred good old pen and paper to do my planning because something about the digital medium made my goal-setting feel intangible and, in a way, unreachable. But life has made it so that I am rarely away from my phone or computer for work or my studies, which means that I invariably spend more time in cyberspace than not. Luckily, in the last few months, something clicked and a new scope of potential was revealed to me. Yes, technology and the internet had in many ways taken over my life but there were ways I could not only fight the power but use the power. Here are 6 websites, apps or internet resources that have helped me take the jumble in my brain and lay it out coherently so I can navigate through it all.

Todoist

I am notoriously bad at keeping online to-do lists— keeping online records, period, actually. I’ve always found it to be a hassle to keep updating whatever spreadsheet, template, etc that I’m working in and usually if you forget to update it enough times the entire exercise becomes futile! But I guess I’m experiencing the winds of change because Todoist has been really doing it for me as of late.

I value functionality and seamlessness a lot these days and I feel like this app has given me just that. It is simple to add and adjust tasks and you are even able to create sub-units to check off as you progress. One aspect of their design that goes towards helping you maintain focus as well is that the default setting on mobile only ever shows you what is due Today, sorting the tasks by date and filtering out those that are upcoming, which lessens the chance of you getting overwhelmed. Sometimes I do want to have the bird’s eye view of my upcoming tasks to keep track of deadlines and pace my actions (readily available in Inbox mode) but when things get tough and I start worrying or agonizing over the future I do appreciate the opportunity to narrow my focus a bit. Besides, the full list is only a toggle away.

I can use Todoist in browser or on mobile which facilitates seamless switching from my static workstation, and getting things done on the go. Making changes in one mode also updates almost instantaneously in the other so I never feel the frustration of things going out of sync.

Free College Schedule Maker

There have been a lot of changes in my life as of late; starting grad school and a new job, plus moving to a foreign country all in the same week is NOT fun let me tell you that. With all the new demands on my time it was hard to structure my schedule mentally and I felt I had little room for mistakes because even simple mess ups could make me feel like everything was out of whack. That’s where the Free College Schedule Maker came in.

This is not a very pretty or snazzy website and I probably found it after googling ‘school timetable template’ and clicking the second link that came up but it is very sentimental to me because it has come through in many a sticky situation. It feels very bare bones at times with not the most liberty and ease of modification but even those drawbacks I can appreciate in moments where downloading yet another app can feel like a mountainous task.

I use the schedule maker in my browser and I always keep the tab open for easy reference. I input my work and school schedule and colour code the blocks to create a visual separation between the kind of focus I need to bring to each session. Likewise I also added a couple of my extracurricular activities in a separate colour, all in the aims of having a visual aid to order how I structure my time. I update the schedule every week by changing the colours of sessions that I don’t have in a given week to grey, leaving all active sessions ‘live’ and in colour; that way I never give myself the opportunity to overbook myself and keep the big picture in mind. I also save copies of the schedules to my phone for easy reference and also to a folder on my laptop because idk record keeping seems important to me these days.

Momentum

Now this is truly a comeback story. I downloaded Momentum years ago once when I was looking for a way to jazz up my Chrome browser and maybe inject some organisation in my life. It didn’t work. I found the design to be a bloat to my web experience and promptly switched it out for a different, more artistic and passive design. My hypothesis is that at the time, I just wasn’t in a place to fully appreciate the magic but boy, am I in the place to do that now.

This year I became attracted to Momentum again not only because I was seeking an organisation tool but also because I was seeking some peace. I was consulting a million documents across a million sites a day and I couldn’t even get a break because covid restrictions made being anywhere but your home a hassle for the most part. I sorely wanted some scenery, I wanted to give my eyes a break from time to time and the Momentum landscape backgrounds— mountains, rivers, snowy trees, blue skies— were just the balm I needed.

Their way of organizing tasks by keeping the most important task of the day centered on the screen and the rest put away into a sort of task tray wasn’t always the most useful for me but I did appreciate the focusing gesture. “What is the main focus for today?” each new tab asks me upon opening, and even if I find it hard to sum up, and I gravitated to longer lists anyway, it did help to get into the mindset of prioritisation. The little motivational quotes at the bottom of the screen were also a nice touch. Just enough visual nudges on an otherwise minimalist layout that helped you want to streamline and organise your day to flow along with it.

Forest

This is not quite a comeback story but more a leveling up story. You’ve probably heard Gladly Global talk about the Forest app before— we’ve been obsessed forever. We’re always planting trees over there, always tracking study time. BUT now I can say with experience that you really haven’t used the first app until you’ve used the premium version for 2.17 USD. Why? Because friends, that’s why.

One thing I’ve missed since the dawn of the pandemic is the ability to get together with others and start a focusing vibe. Sure sometimes those get-togethers devolved into less-than-productive gab sessions but being in another person’s company still can do wonders for motivation. Recently, I have found a new form of communal energy in co-working “pomodoro” streams, hosted by my close friends and even strangers. And one thing that has helped to make things feel a bit more tangible to me is by planting trees together in Forest. Something about it just makes the reward system in my lizard brain light up. We aren’t even using the strictest settings: just coming together, planting a tree and vibing. Even in my solo study time I am very motivated to deliberately set aside time to work or study so that I can plant my tree in good conscience. Forest is yet another simple addition to my host of routines that adds a spark to a packed schedule.

Browser Tab Grouping

This is basically self-explanatory and maybe you’ve already been using it yourself but  I must express my delight at making good use of tab grouping in my Google Chrome browser. I’m the type of person that only feels at peace after a work project or assignment if I can close all the relevant tabs in good conscience. For long haul duties, that gets to be a bit of a drag though because then you just have tabs haunting your every waking browser experience. So, it’s been nice to pack away pending responsibilities to their own little tray and give my eyes a break.

Tumblr

Now this….is admittedly a stretch but hear me out! I’ve been talking a lot about how I’ve incorporated different apps and tools to organise the external factors of my life, utilising templates and strategies that help to make sense of it all. Well, I also thought that maybe I could benefit from a strategy to make sense of what’s going on in my heart— emotional organisation, if you will. So, like any self-respecting child of the modern age, in my aim to manage my thoughts and emotions I decided to make a blog about it. Not a public blog but a blog indeed.

I was there in the Tumblr hey-day, I knew what the community was like and how to curate my dashboard but this return to the platform had a totally different purpose. I started a new blog and never shared it with anyone: zero followers, zero watchful eyes, just me. Whenever I felt like I needed to, I went there to vent. The process of writing forced me to think through my feelings, assigning language to abstract roils of emotion in an attempt to perhaps get a hold on them. There were and still are some feelings that still felt inescapable but the process of describing even those elusive states felt therapeutic. 

I treated the blog much like a worry diary as well. I’d make lists of things that were weighing on me and to complement them I’d make a corresponding list of things I thought I could do in the moment or in the near future to assuage my anxieties. Sometimes there were solutions to be had, sometimes it was a matter of just riding it out. Either way, the act of dissecting these situations felt better than pinballing back and forth between them blindly. I’d also write about lighter moments, like if I had a good day or if I felt particularly balanced and productive. If a situation had improved I’d return to old posts and reblog them with new status updates. And when situations worsened I still found some solace in commiserating with my past self (Would you believe what happened next…).

Using a blog like this is much like keeping a regular pen and paper diary, which I do in fact have, but I think that having a digital complement does pose its benefits in accessibility, portability, etc. And also, just like how we search for new vocabulary, new language with which to share our experiences, sometimes it’s useful to try new mediums of expression to let it all out.

Hopefully, you’ve learned a couple new tricks for keeping your life in order– studies, schedules, emotions and all. I hope you find as much value in them as I do and that you upcoming new year will be better off for it!


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