Top 6 Productivity Hacks for College Students

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Ciera Graham, Ph.D.
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With 11 years of experience in student affairs, Ciera Graham, Ph.D., has supported students through college planning, career development, financial aid, and mental health. Ciera is also a writer, covering topics related to career development, diversi...
Updated on April 25, 2023
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  • Distractions can put a major strain on your ability to get essential tasks done.
  • Exhaustion and burnout keep students off task, and the pandemic has made things worse.
  • To stay focused, use time-management techniques and work at your peak performance time.

College students have always faced major demands and distractions, from work and social lives, to sports and extracurricular activities. But the COVID-19 pandemic has increased these strains — and added more — when it comes to students' abilities to focus and be productive.

According to the American Psychological Association, 80-95% of college students put off work. Other factors contributing to decreased productivity among college students are burnout and exhaustion and financial strain (such as pandemic-related job loss, limited resources, and trying to balance schoolwork with making enough money to cover expenses).

The coronavirus outbreak has made matters worse, with the sudden switch to remote learning posing challenges for many students. In a recent survey, around three-fourths of students said online learning was harder than in-person learning, citing an inability to stay motivated as a key issue.

Some college students have returned home to their families, increasing the likelihood of distractions from younger siblings and parents who might be schooling and working from home.

Despite these hurdles, college students can make use of an array of productivity hacks to keep them focused, positive, and motivated in school.

The 6 Best Productivity Tips for College Students

Use the Pomodoro Technique

This popular technique can work for anyone who wants to maximize their productivity by turning tasks into a sort of game with short spurts of focused time. The strategy is named after the kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (pomodoro in Italian) that its developer, Francesco Cirillo, used to help him complete his work.

The time-management tool includes these steps:

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    Set a timer for 25 minutes and focus on one task.
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    When the "pomodoro" (25-minute work session) ends, mark a check next to the task on a piece of paper.
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    Take a five-minute break, then continue that task or start a new one.
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    After four pomodoros, take a longer 15-to-30-minute break.

If any tasks require more than four 25-minute chunks of time, they should be divided into smaller, actionable steps. Any tasks that can be completed in less than 25 minutes — such as paying rent or making a doctor's appointment — should be grouped together.

With this method, it's also important to track your distractions and interruptions and come up with ways to avoid them in the future.

Make a Manageable To-Do List

Many people feel overwhelmed or lose motivation to complete tasks when their to-do lists are excessively long. This is why it's best to limit yourself to 3-5 tasks you can complete daily.

It's also important that you understand the difference between tasks and goals. A task is something that can be completed within a day, such as reviewing lecture notes for an English class or going grocery shopping. A goal is bigger and usually more time-consuming, like learning a language or buying a new car.

Need help organizing your to-do list? Here are some top-rated task-management apps to try.

Switch Up Your Study Environment

It's easy to become a creature of habit as a college student, with scheduled classes keeping you tied to a set routine. While this can feel comfortable, sometimes our brains and bodies need a change of scenery.

Some people enjoy studying in quiet spaces without a lot of noise and distractions, while others thrive off constant sound and interaction. It's critical that you find a study environment that helps you stay on task.

While at school or home, you can try switching up your location, such as trying the living room or patio. Other campus spots, such as a quiet space outdoors or the library, can work as well. If you're in a metropolitan area, you likely have access to various coffee shops with Wi-Fi.

And remember: No matter your surroundings, the right lighting is critical to sustaining productivity.

Do the Hardest Tasks During Your Peak Performance Time

To harness optimal productivity, you need to determine when you're most productive — is it the morning, midafternoon, evening, or late at night?

To determine your peak performance time, ask yourself: When do you have the greatest amount of energy and concentration and feel your most creative? Your peak performance is also the time when you have the fewest distractions.

It's essential that you complete your most demanding tasks during your highest points of energy. For example, if you know you're not the best at math and have a big exam coming up, you should study during your peak performance time to help you stay motivated and attentive.

Stop Browsing Websites as You Study

For many students, the biggest time distraction and productivity killer is casual website browsing. We've all been there — in the midst of studying, we spot a news article or a tweet that leads to another. Before long, an hour has been wasted away from the task at hand.

Research shows that the average person spends over two hours on social media each day.

One tip is to try to use social media as a reward for completing tasks. Another strategy you can use to help you avoid wasting time online is to install website blockers like StayFocusd.

Limit Decision Fatigue

As a student, you may be experiencing an increased amount of decision fatigue — for example, fretting about what classes to take or whether you should get involved in extracurriculars.

Decision fatigue happens when people are inundated with too many choices on too many subjects, to the point that making an educated or logical decision feels nearly impossible. This can lead to fatigue, avoiding the issue altogether, or overthinking to the point that you can't make a decision.

Here are some ways you can limit decision fatigue:

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    Decrease Your Options: This is why people meal prep — narrowing what's available means fewer choices. Consider a similar approach when it comes to deciding what to wear. By adopting a more uniform approach to your wardrobe and limiting the possibilities, you'll save both time and stress.
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    Set a Time Limit: By assigning a time period, you've got a deadline to work with. If it's 15 minutes, for example, then set a timer for 15 minutes. When that timer goes off, the decision needs to be made.
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    Make Important Decisions During Your Peak Performance Hours: You shouldn't make any decisions when you're tired or feeling a lack of creativity. This can make you even more exhausted and less likely to make a logical choice.

Productivity Hacks Can Improve the College Experience

Staying on task and motivated to improve your productivity isn't easy in a world full of demands and distractions, especially when you're in college. The stresses of everyday life and increased worries during the COVID-19 pandemic have made productivity all the more challenging.

But with the tips above and a little effort, you can tailor your needs, personality, and habits to start living a more productive life.

Feature Image: Marc Romanelli / Getty Images is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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