A new year, a new start, and midterms right around the corner — it’s the perfect time to look back on the school-year so far and reflect on what went right or wrong. Maybe you found that you weren’t quite as organized as you could be: you spent a lot of time looking for papers, lost track of assignments, found yourself cramming for tests or scrambling to finish essays, or just generally felt stressed by the chaos of a busy life. In any case, here are some tried and true tips for giving your organizational system a New Year tune-up!

1. Develop a routine.

You want a system you don’t have to think about. The more you have to think about your organizational system, the more headspace it takes up, and your headspace is precious — so figure out times, places, and resources that work for you, and then let those become set parts of your day, like brushing your teeth or eating lunch. As a special bonus, neuroscience suggests that having daily rituals can make you more grounded and less stressed in general, allowing you to better focus on the tasks in front of you.

2. Use a planner (that works for you).

The fewer decisions you have to make and the fewer resources you have to keep track of, the better. For this reason, choose one spot to record all of your assignments and time commitments (practices, rehearsals, work schedule, family and social events, etc). This could be an electronic resource like Google Calendar or iCal, but don’t discount the paper planner: there’s something particularly effective about having all your dates and to-dos and associated items in one big panorama. If you do go for a paper planner, make sure you choose something durable with plenty of room for notes! Check out these options or this specialized planner for students with organizational difficulties.

3. Create a task list & prioritize it.

Write everything down either using an old-fashioned paper checklist, a to-do list phone app, or a project management software like Trello. Once everything that needs to be done is laid out in front of you, it will be easier to prioritize the tasks. To prioritize, try sorting the items in an Eisenhower Matrix, or plan to do first the one thing you’re most likely to procrastinate (we call that eating the frog).

4. Work on one task at a time.

You’ve probably heard this before, but it bears repeating: multitasking leads to decreased productivity. Furthermore, if you’re shuffling tasks around, it becomes easier to bury the less pleasant but more important tasks under tasks that are perhaps less dreadful but not as valuable.

5. Break big projects into smaller tasks, or big tasks into steps.

If one of your tasks is to “write a paper on Mark Twain,” don’t just plop that onto your Tuesday list between “chem homework” and “return library books,” unless the requirements for the paper are very low or you are a leading expert on Mark Twain. Sometimes the biggest block to starting something is feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of it, so focusing on smaller pieces can make you less likely to procrastinate.

Not sure how to break down a task into smaller parts? Firstly, don’t get obsessive: break a task down until the individual piece can be done in one sitting and you have a sense of what that one sitting will look like (e.g., rather than “go to the library, go upstairs, find the book” etc, try “check out book from the library”). Secondly, ask yourself:

  • Do I know what I want the end product to look like? (If not, that’s a good place to start.)
  • What are the resources I’m likely to need? Will I need anything from anyone else?
  • Are there parts of the project that can only be done before / after other parts?

6. Designate a study space.

People are diverse, so there’s not one perfect kind of study space, but there are some constants: scientific studies suggest that visual clutter impairs your ability to focus and process information, and background noise can distract you and even increase your levels of stress hormone, making it hard for you to work efficiently. So, to make the best use of your time, find a quiet and uncluttered spot where you can do your work each night. Other pro tips for optimal studying:

  • Make sure you have all the necessary materials nearby.
  • For the time that you plan to be working, silence your phone and shut down social media (the Internet is definitely a cluttered space).
  • Avoid studying on your bed! It’s bad sleep hygiene, and you might end up sleeping when you’re supposed to be reading Lord of the Flies.

7. Check in with yourself at the end of the day.

Take 5-10 minutes before you go to bed to take a look at your to-do list for the day. Is there anything on your list that you weren’t able to get to? If so, do you need to move it later in the week (like tomorrow) or should you scrap it? Did any deadlines or events come up today that you need to add to your calendar?

Lastly, go ahead and make sure you have everything you need for the following day (printed-out copy of that Mark Twain paper, your gym clothes, money to get a snack with your friends after school, etc). If you’re not a morning person, having everything ready to grab as you head out the door will make life much easier!

8. Declutter and regroup once a week.

Life is messy, and as the week goes by, those messes pile up. That doesn’t mean you’re disorganized; it just means you need to set up a dedicated time every week (weekends are good for this) to tidy both your physical space and your headspace. During this time, you want to:

  • Take a few minutes to go through the piles at your homework station and get rid of what you no longer need. Put away things you may need to reference later. Identify items that need your attention.
  • Take a look at the week ahead. Note any big projects or tests that are coming due. Identify activities outside of school (sports, family commitments, social events) which could impact your ability to get your work done.
  • Schedule time for your school work. Make a plan for how you are going to complete the big project and/or study for the test.

9. Don’t give up.

Organization (planning, sorting, compartmentalizing, etc) comes easier to some people than to others, just like artistic talent and athletic prowess are stronger in some people than in others. Furthermore, even very organized people order themselves in different ways: not everybody color-codes, not everybody feel comfortable working in front of a clock.

The most important part of becoming more organized is experimenting to find out what’s going to actually work with your specific set of strengths and circumstances. If you expect something to work and it doesn’t, don’t just throw in towel. In a completely non-judgmental way, try to figure out why it didn’t work and how you could adjust or what you could try instead. Maybe the optimal system for you has never been captured and put down into one single blog post, but it’s somewhere out there, waiting for you to find it.