Improving Academic Performance

Improved Performance through Better To-Do Lists

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Fri, Nov 14, 2014 @ 10:50 AM

GTD book cover resized 600

In this article I want to discuss two key elements of achieving improved academic performance (or performance at work or in any given area of your personal life, for that matter), and how a simple but powerful system for managing your to-do list can address each element:

  1. Ensuring you never forget about an assignment, and always have enough time to plan and prepare in advance
  2. Completing any given assignment with a confident, calm, low stress demeanor

The first point above is pretty simple. If you show up to math class and have forgotten to complete your homework or prepare for a quiz, your grade is going to suffer. If your boss asks you to do something at work and you forget all about it until 12 hours before it’s due, the work you complete will be of a much lower quality than it could have been had you prepared and planned in advance. I’ll spare the reader more examples, because it’s probably a relatively obvious point.

The path to addressing the first point above usually flows through the tried and true method of keeping a calendar and using a to-do list. By writing down all the things you need to do, it’s much less likely you’ll forget any given item, and most of us get a very good feeling from crossing things off of a to-do list. 

I read a book a few years ago which changed how I think about to-do lists called “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen. Mr. Allen doesn’t bash to-do lists, they are an important part of his system for becoming more productive. The MyGuru To-Do list matrix, which I’ll discuss in a few paragraphs, borrows much from Mr. Allen’s thinking about how to create your own personal system for keeping track of all the things you need to do to succeed at school, at work, and at home.

However, what I found most interesting about the “GTD System” as it’s often called, has to do with point 2) above; getting things done with a confident, calm, low stress demeanor.

Allen describes how, and I find this intuitively very true, when you keep too much information in your head, you get overloaded. You’re never quite sure if you’re forgetting about something, and you’re constantly reprioritizing. At any given point in time when you might be able to relax, or you should be focused on your spouse, or your coach, or your teacher, your mind can easily wander towards the long list of items which you need to accomplish. This can be surprisingly stressful, and lead to low quality work, studying, and even strained relationships.

By having some system, even if it’s really simple, for writing everything down and prioritizing, you allow your mind to relax, and stop trying to use its power remember facts and simple things you have to do. Instead, brain power can be focused on solving complex problems and thinking critically and creatively on any given thing.

MyGuru’s To-Do List Matrix

By clicking here, you can download our free “To-Do List Matrix” productivity tool. It’s an extremely simple Microsoft Word-based tool that can help anyone organize all of their tasks at work or school, medium and long term goals and projects, and basic “to-do” list items.

In the above video, I describe how to use the matrix, but it’s pretty simple. The steps include:

  • Categorizing your life into separate areas, each with their own list of activities you need to accomplish. For students, their classes, sports teams, clubs, etc. make good categories
  • Keeping separate columns for the things you need to do today, this week, or this month…
  • ..and then crossing out items, or moving them left and right, as you prioritize or deprioritize
  • Keeping a separate area for longer term goals and projects you’d like to accomplish, but which you aren’t currently working on

One huge benefit of the matrix is that you can step back and get a holistic view of everything you have to do for the next month or so, starting with today. You’d be surprised at the reduction in stress you’ll feel when you are confident that you have everything covered. It will go a long way towards ensuring you do your best on any given item, whether that’s preparing for a test or performing in a big game.

About the Author

Mark Skoskiewicz is MyGuru's founder. After graduating from Nortwestern University's Kellogg School of Management in 2009, he has pursued informal and formal education to understand how to improve academic performance through better academic planning and study habits. He recently completed, with Distinction, the University of California at San Diego course Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help you Master Tough Subjects