Organizational Skills: How to Be More Organized in School and Life

It’s easy to tell when a student lacks organizational skills. Messy backpacks, lost assignments, last-minute cramming, late or incomplete assignments, and difficulty staying on task all suggest a student needs organizational skills training. Fortunately, students can learn how to be more organized, improving their ability to self-manage their schedules, school work, and free time.

What Are Organizational Skills?

Organization skills are a set of strategic skills that help students use their time and energy most effectively to achieve their goals. Basic organizational skills make it easier to meet deadlines, maintain an orderly work or study environment, and prioritize tasks.

Organizational skills can be divided into two broad categories:

  • Mental organizational skills include the ability to think logically and strategically to prioritize tasks. Mental organizational skills improve a student’s ability to document, retrieve, and analyze information, identify problems, and think critically and creatively.
  • External organizational skills include keeping workspaces clean, organizing notes, using calendars and planners effectively and consistently, and making the best use of resources. For many students, this includes tracking deadlines, keeping school work neat and orderly, and maintaining a healthy balance between studying and social activities.

How to Improve Organizational Skills

Learning how to be organized in elementary school benefits students throughout their academic journey and into their careers. And fortunately, good organizational skills can be taught at any age.

Here are some basic organizational skills all students can develop with practice:

  • Tracking and sorting: Schoolwork should be sorted in binders and folders consistently, with a separate folder for high-priority items. This includes class notes, handouts, tests, homework, and take-home forms.
  • Using checklists: Using to-do lists and checklists helps students learn important prioritization skills. For younger children, print checklists for them to use. Students in middle school and up can use physical planners or checklist apps.
  • Focusing: Too many items on a checklist can feel overwhelming. Encourage students to focus on three to five tasks a day.
  • Developing time management skills: Time management skills help students get the most out of their time and are an essential part of organizational skills training.
  • Scheduling regular cleaning times: An untidy desktop makes it difficult to focus on studying. A messy backpack increases the risk of losing or damaging important assignments. Set a regular daily or weekly time to clean desks, backpacks, and lockers.
  • Resisting the urge to multitask: Studying should take place in a distraction-free environment. Students should give their full attention to one task at a time and keep distractions such as social media, video games, television, and music to a minimum.

An Example of Basic Organizational Skills in Action

Messy backpacks are a common problem with younger students. If a child wastes time rummaging through loose papers and pencils every evening to find their homework assignments, they’ll benefit from some organizational skills training. The same is true for students who complain of aches and pains because they carry a backpack full of textbooks they could have left at school.

In these situations, developing good organizational skills can significantly impact a child’s stress levels, physical well-being, and academic performance. Students can begin grasping the basics of organizational skills with the following small steps:

  • Picking one night a week to clean and organize their backpack
  • Creating a backpack checklist to track what they need to bring to and from school

A checklist of essential items will help students choose what needs to come home with them. Students can use to-do apps to create backpack checklists or download and print out one of the backpack checklist templates provided below:

Here are a few more organizational tips for maintaining a clean backpack:

  • Carry at least one text to reduce the weight on the back and spine.
  • Keep all pens, pencils, and erasers in a pencil case to reduce backpack clutter.
  • Take time each week to shake out any food crumbs, bits of paper, and other small objects that accumulate over time.

How to be Organized in College

Many of the same organizational skills students use for middle and high school are equally applicable when learning how to be organized in college. The main difference is that college students are more self-reliant and likely won’t have parents around to remind them to stay organized.

The following organizational tips will help college-level students make this sometimes jarring transition:

  • Use an academic calendar: Using a college calendar helps students keep the big picture in mind as they prioritize tasks. Working from each class syllabus, students should record all important dates and assignments on their calendars. Apps like Google Calendar let them have their schedule on hand at any time, while a large wall calendar is great for seeing responsibilities for the month and semester at a glance.
  • Use a paper planner: Paper planners help students break down large tasks into smaller chunks. Plus, writing down long and short-term tasks improves a student’s ability to remember them. Students can use a planner to make daily to-do lists, color-code assignments, and estimate completion times for major tasks.
  • Organize materials by class: Students should keep binders for each class or use a single binder with subject dividers. If students take notes digitally, they should create folders for each course and use subfolders for notes, essays, and handouts.
  • Stick to a schedule: It’s important to create a study schedule and stick to it. Regular study sessions help students retain information much better than last-minute cramming. Students should study in a place where they know they won’t be distracted — this may mean the dorm room, the library, or a quiet cafe.
  • Keep things tidy: Students should keep their dorm room, study area, and backpack tidy by setting up a time each day or week to reassess and organize. To prevent a pile of paperwork from piling up on their desks, students should set aside some time at the end of the month to discard outdated documents.
  • Prioritize self-care: Organizational skills work best when paired with a healthy mind and body. Students should make time for exercise, sleep, social activities, and a nutritious diet.

Resources for Developing Organizational Skills

Some schools provide opportunities for organizational skills training, but not all have the resources to do so. You can find abundant resources for developing basic organizational skills online. Our executive functioning guide provides helpful advice on how to keep students of all ages organized and focused on their studies.

Private tutors are also key to teaching organizational skills. In addition to teaching their subject material, Revolution Prep’s online tutors help students develop important executive functioning skills, including organizational and time management skills that apply to all levels of education.