You have got to have a plan, and a planner!
Putting everything on the calendar makes life at MIT so much easier.
Growing up in India
Growing up in a busy middle class household in India, my parents did not once ask about my grades. They would just pick my report card and glance over it annually at the parent-teacher meetings. That was it. This was in stark contrast to some parents who spent what seemed like hours with the teacher and hours with their child. I can even remember scenes of some kids crying as their parents expressed disappointment at them not meeting their goals.
In our home, it was an entirely different story. We never sat down to set new goals, prepare plans and objectives, or outline activities. My parents did insist on and prioritize education; however, I never learned an actual structure or specific skills to staying organized. Growing up in this manner, I lacked the structure that some other students had as their parents took a more involved approach, guided them through the organization process, and helped them develop plans. Honestly, I wouldn’t have wanted my parents to be so involved, because I enjoyed the freedom of growing up without the rigid structure that was borderline overbearing or seemingly stressful to some kids.
I did most of the preparation myself in my high school for my Planning and Architecture Common Entrance Test (PACET). I had fun preparing for it on my own without parental pressure, and I achieved a state level 2nd rank. While lack of organization has allowed me to be creative, feel less pressure, and have more fun, having a structure also has its benefits. I started my undergraduate degree at a public institution which allowed me more autonomy and flexibility compared to a private institution. However, the lack of structure got the best of me, resulting in difficulties in properly finishing long architectural assignments that needed thorough planning and preparation over an entire semester. As an undergraduate student, I didn’t have access to many organizational tools. Although we had great professors, many of them seemed to prefer minimal communication. Students were very social and we helped each other stay organized. This system worked well for me in that environment.
Adjusting to a New Environment
When I came to MIT, I quickly realized that staying organized is one of the most important skills that I need, and that I should have developed these skills before coming to grad school. I was tasked with pre-readings for classes, assignments, exams, quizzes, additional readings for classes, etc. I was not used to this format of learning. I also had to meet my classmates for group assignments as many projects were completed in assigned teams. The lack of structure was a nightmare. As readings piled up and I started overcommitting myself or underestimating my time, I wondered how I would stay organized. There were instances when I finished my readings and felt I was in control, and other times I didn’t finish assignments in time and felt extremely anxious.
I learned that being in control of your time and having time management skills will keep you ahead of the curve. I wanted to succeed at MIT. There is no way I wanted to leave this institution without succeeding at what I had started. As the term progressed, some of my friends who were also not used to the system also shared their anxieties and worries about assignments and making time for the readings. I realized I wasn’t alone. My form of structure was to use handwritten notes as reminders or to scribble a haphazard deadline on my book until, thankfully one of my classmates who is now my dear friend pointed me in the right direction. She introduced me to the Outlook Calendar tool. She actually sat down and made me put everything on the Outlook Calendar right in front of her. It reminded me of my friends in India who helped each other. I was surprised as I laid out everything on the outlook calendar how it reduced my mental clutter. Now that I had a blueprint of all my activities and assignments, I questioned whether I really had free time like I thought I did. Having everything on Outlook Calendar, adding every meeting including travel times, setting reminders before meetings, and having the Outlook app downloaded on my phone changed my life.
I could easily refer to my calendar to schedule a meeting. If I wanted to reschedule, I just had to drag and drop to another spot. It was a thousand times less overwhelming. I didn’t need to cross out anything from the Post-It notes scattered throughout my room. Everything was on my calendar and all changes were seamless. I even started putting my recreational and extracurricular activities on my calendar. It made a huge difference in my life. My anxiety decreased as I felt more in control over my own time. I even got better at being punctual and I was on my way to becoming a reliable person, a type of person whom I had previously admired. This helped me build my confidence and develop trust in myself.
My Organizational Tips
So, what is the best way to plan, organize and meet goals? My solution is simple. Put every single activity on the Outlook calendar and make this a habit. This one tip, as simple as it may sound, has been a life changer for me in my experience at MIT. Make sure to add meeting details (i.e., MIT building and classroom locations, Zoom/Teams Meeting ID) while adding events to the calendar, so that no extra time is spent searching for the email invite. This makes it easy to hop on as soon as a virtual meeting starts. Staying organized and having a system has helped me manage my time without causing additional stress. The calendar planner can be accessed right from the phone using the Outlook mobile app, meaning I can literally access my calendar with the touch of a button.
There are different apps available to help with organization such as Google calendar, Microsoft Outlook, iCal, etc., and it ultimately comes down to what works best and personal preference. It is important to know what tools are available to stay better organized and it helps to ask what your peers are doing to stay organized. In my experience, this planning has made a huge difference in my life and has helped me create more balance in my life as an MIT student.
Looking back, I also realized that when I first came to the USA for grad school, I lacked an organizational support system. I missed having family and friends to remind me to finish my tasks or help with the chores. With several new responsibilities on my plate, a lack of a support system, and a new culture and environment, I was underwater for the first few months. Now, after becoming more organized, I am more forgiving of myself and know that with better frameworks and tips, I can make my schedule work for me. The busiest days can be manageable if laid out with a planner. I am sharing these tips so that any incoming student who reads this will know an essential skill that is necessary to succeed at MIT. My hope is that these students will also find a time management system that works for them.
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