How to Catch Up On Coursework (AND Keep Up In Class)

Picture this…

Each semester starts out AWESOME, and you’re pumped because you get to work with clean slate, but somehow you always end up falling behind and never really manage to catch back up.

Well turns out that’s EXHAUSTING, so this time you want to make some changes. You finally decide to get your shit together and you’re all excited about all these changes you’re going to make to your study routines that are going to get you ahead of the game.

Problem is: it’s the middle of the semester and you’re already behind! How are you supposed to catch up on this huge backlog of coursework, AND upgrade your routine, AND keep up with new stuff at the same time?

That’s the question I tackle in this video, and it comes from Esther.

Esther asks…

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This is tough because you realize that something is off, you’re getting behind, but you want to start changing things up so you can actually keep up with your coursework. But you’ve got this huge, crushing workload that’s been piling up for the last couple of weeks and you don’t know what to do with it.

Maybe you have a huge engineering project that you haven’t started on and the first part of it is due next week…


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Or maybe you’ve got a calculus exam coming up that you haven’t studied for at all…

Maybe you’re in chemistry class and you have just no friggin’ clue what’s going on…

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Or maybe you have three different problem sets that are due this Friday at midnight and you haven’t started them yet, and it’s on WebAssign and every time you put in an answer with a wrong decimal point, it takes points off, and you’re just freaking out because you have all of this stuff to do, but you also want to keep up…

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Okay, Esther. Here’s what I would do in this situation…

Step 1: Make a giant “backlog” to-do list

First, we want to dump everything that we have stored up in our head onto a piece of paper and make a giant to-do list that covers everything that we’re behind on. Now, I’m not talking about things that you want to do in the future. We’re talking purely about things that you feel like you’re behind on, that are due, that are coming up, that you need to get done.

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Part of the problem is, when we have so much stuff that’s rattling around up in our heads, it seems much worse than it actually is. Your short-term memory can only handle between five to seven small pieces of information, so if you have ten different things that you’re trying to keep track of, you’re always going to be grasping at straws. That’s where that feeling of overwhelm comes from.

Step 2: “Slash-and-burn” that list using the 80/20 Rule

Second, get rid of as much of the stuff on that list that is non-critical as possible so that you can start to move forward. We’re going to do this using the 80/20 Rule (a.k.a. the Pareto Principle), which means that 80% of your to-do list of things that you think are super important are probably not that important, and about 20% of that list is actually critical and you need to get it done.

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Use that and review your list. Then, cross off or delete around 80% of the items on your list. These are things that aren’t absolutely “mission-critical” to keeping yourself afloat for the next two to three weeks – so just take them off the list.

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You’re already behind and you want to keep ahead on the new stuff, so you need to identify and focus on the critical stuff and so you can get moving.

Step 3: Schedule in a “blitz” day

Third, schedule a blitz day into your calendar. Take a day on the weekend (let’s say Saturday), and clear everything off your calendar. Do whatever you need to do to cancel everything you have planned, and that now becomes your day to complete those few tasks that you still have left on your list.

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The time constraint

The trick here is we’re going to give ourselves a time limit – constraining ourselves so that we have to get everything left on the to-do list done in that one day. If you don’t get it done, then too bad.

By doing this, we’re preventing Parkinson’s Law from taking over and dragging out this long overdue work over an extended period of time.

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You want to set a cutoff for yourself so that you can get it done and then start focusing on the new stuff that’s coming at you week by week.

“Do not disturb” time

Now, I don’t generally advocate these long study marathons, but this an isolated case where we’re “resetting” ourselves (doing a control+alt+delete) and clearing everything out so that we can move forward with a clean slate. So because we’re dedicating this specific time and giving ourselves a constraint, we want to make sure to uphold this as “do not disturb” time.

Text all your friends and tell them that you’re going to be out of town, or make something up. Tell them that you’re not going to have access to internet, and NO PHONE. Don’t contact me no matter what…

Then go lock yourself in the basement of the library or drive two towns over and set yourself up at a coffee shop. Make it as likely as possible that you’re not going to get distract and that you have everything you need to really crank through this work.

Prevent procrastination by designing in a reward

The last thing you want to do to make this blitz day really happen, is to schedule in a reward for yourself at the end of the day, or the following day.

Make it something that you love to do: whether that’s going to a football game, whether that’s going out with your friends, or whether that’s staying at home and binge watching Netflix. Whatever it is, we need to have that “nugget” – that light at the end of the tunnel that we’re looking forward to. Otherwise, it’s just going to feel like a long slog of work that’s never going to end. Then tomorrow you’re just going to do more work, so that becomes very demotivating.


Do all that and really execute on your blitz day and congratulations, Esther – you’re now caught up. The slate is wiped clean. You’re ready to get going.

Now the trick is making sure you don’t get behind again. That’s going to be the topic of the next video, so stay tuned…

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