My School Organization and Productivity — Papers and Emails

August 24th, 2008

School is once again approaching, and I am entering my third year in college. I am anticipating this to be my most difficult year because I am taking Mandarin for the first time, and I am terrible with learning new languages — I barely managed to survive Spanish in high school. This is as about as far as I can get from being comfortable.

During this semester, I do not want to be buried in papers, caught unaware of something that needs done, or unable to find a file I need on my computer. Whereas in other years I could afford to be somewhat disorganized, I have very little room for error this year.

There are four different areas of disorganization that a student (and any professional) deals with — paper handouts (syllabi, project descriptions, information sheets, et cetera), email, events and tasks, and actual school work. In preparation for this year, I have created a system of sorts for each area. This will be a two-part article, and I warn you now, will probably bore most of you. These articles are as much for me to think through how I am going to do this as it is for you to read.

Paper Handouts

I receive much too many handouts from my classes, and it is quite easy to overflow with them. In my first year of college, my organizational method was to stick them all in a desk drawer and go fishing for the right one when I needed it. Not only did I lose many important sheets, but my desk was a mess, and this disorganization creates a feeling that I do not have control of my work, which creates unnecessary stress. My second year I bought a simple, 3-area desk inbox. This helped, until I realized I had no system for how to use it. As it filled with more and more papers, a mess once contained in desk drawers moved itself to my desk top.

While thinking about how I was going to be more organized this semester, I realized handouts break down into two types — syllabi, and class-specific papers, such as project descriptions, paper descriptions, and information sheets. These are the important ones, and the rest are mostly junk.


There are only two physical elements to how I am going to organize my handouts. First is the desk inbox I have, and second is a hanging file frame to put in a desk drawer.

  1. Circular It is difficult for me to delete or throw something away, because I have an anxiety that I may end up needing that paper for some reason, so I end up keeping most papers, which take up space rather than provide value. This needs to change. As soon as I receive handouts, I will decide whether I need to keep it or not. If I do not, it immediately goes in the trash. If I do, I put it in my desk inbox.
  2. Review This is the most important step. Every few days I will empty my inbox and decide again whether I need each handout or not. If I do, it moves to step three; if not, it enters the circular. This step is important because it forces me to review my handouts and thus what work I need to do. I cannot file it away and forget about it — it will enter into my mind at least twice before being filed.
  3. Filed Using the hanging file frame in my desk drawer, I will use a simple file system. The first folder is a syllabi folder, which will hold each class’s syllabus. The reason the syllabi get their own special file is because more than any other handout, students reference this one the most so they should be immediately available without any searching. Then each class will have its own folder, and will hold its handouts. Simple to understand, simple to file, and simple to maintain.

That is it. No complex system to grasp. Just an easy way to review each handout, stay organized, and have easy access whenever I need a handout.


I receive most spam from my school. During the regular school year, I sometimes receive something like twenty to thirty of these emails a day, and they fill up my inbox. Worse, these emails obscure the ones I need to pay attention to — emails from my professors and fellow students.

My goal is to remove these useless messages from my inbox and highlight emails from professors and students.


  1. Filter Luckily, my school sends these mass-emails to a list (the email address in the To: field looks something like STUDENTS@LISTS.WHITTIER.EDU), so I can filter these out of my inbox quite easily. To do so, I created a local “Whittier Junk Email” folder, and a rule which moves any emails sent to that email address into it. This keeps them out of my inbox, so only important (or relatively important) emails are in it. Out of sight, out of mind.
  2. Professors I could create a folder for each professor, but that would be a mess —’s source list would be too complex. Rather, I have created a single smart mailbox which lists every email I receive from each of my professors. This keeps their emails in one place so I can quickly find the email I need, or only look at new emails from my professors rather than everything in my inbox if I need to.
  3. Projects Projects tend to accumulate a large number of emails between group members. To make managing these emails easier, whenever I am assigned a new group project I create a new smart mailbox which lists any emails from my group members. Simple.

There is nothing revolutionary, complex or stunning about these strategies — but that is exactly the point. They are simple ways of organizing things I need to manage, and filtering out the junk. The next article in this series will deal with organizing events and tasks and school work.