It’s time to be real for a minute: As a nursing student, you already know firsthand the demands of juggling coursework, clinicals, and studying for your exams. Keeping track of deadlines, assignments, and patient care plans all at once can be overwhelming—and that’s on top of remembering your mom’s birthday, your roommate’s track meet, and your nursing club’s social.
Some studies indicate that feelings of incompetence (which could stem from feeling disorganized) may increase your stress levels and lower your academic performance. But the good news is, you don’t have to feel scattered or incompetent. Organization is absolutely a skill that can be learned and mastered.
This guide is packed with practical tips and strategies you can implement today to help you get yourself together, prioritize your tasks, and improve your academic performance. The result? You’ll be equipped to handle the demands of nursing school and be poised for success in your professional career.
10 Steps to Mastering Organization in Nursing School
Though it can sometimes feel like an uphill battle, mastering organization as a nursing student is crucial if you want to manage your time well and succeed in your academic endeavors. With the right tools and strategies, organization can become a reality. Yes, it will take work and commitment, but eventually these strategies become habits, and habits are what ultimately determine the trajectory of your life and career.
In this section, we’ll explore 10 tips to help you create an effective and consistent system for managing your tasks and time so you can knock your goals out of the park and become the kind of student and nurse you want to be.
1 – Schedule, Schedule, Schedule
Creating a schedule that works for you is a key component in mastering organization. If you take time to plan your day well, you can prioritize your tasks and maximize your time. Putting major deadlines on a calendar (digital or paper) and setting mini-deadlines along the way will help you see where assignments overlap and what you might need to start early to avoid the crunch. Without this, you can’t strategize or prioritize the items on your to-do list effectively. Without this daily structure, you could find yourself double-booking meetings, arriving late to class, missing social events because you haven’t finished a project, or realizing you’ve blown off your workout again because you just don’t have time.
2 – Fail to Plan = Plan to Fail
This old adage holds true for most things in life, but especially when you’re in nursing school. Failing to plan can lead to procrastination, missed deadlines, and last-minute scrambling. Take some time to plan what you need to do, how you need to do it, and what materials you must have. Starting on your capstone project? Be sure to take your notes from your most recent discussion with your project advisor. Heading straight to clinicals after class? Make sure you have your scrubs, and don’t run out the door wearing sandals. Planning means you won’t have to delay starting a project (or maybe even miss a deadline) because you don’t have what you need, when and where you need it.
3 – Schedule Your Planning Time
Going back to point number 1, remembering to set aside dedicated time to actually plan out your day is also extremely helpful. Whether you do it first thing in the morning or just before bed, find a time that works for you and stick to it. Spending this time with your planner or calendar, however you prefer to map out your day, is a good way to ensure you always know what is going on. It takes dedication and consistency, but we promise if you carve out this time daily, you will not regret it.
4 – Make To-Do Lists
Sounds so old school, but to-do lists are excellent for keeping track of your tasks and staying organized. By listing out all the things you’ve got on your plate that need to be done, you can more easily prioritize those tasks and ensure nothing falls through the cracks. Many students love the sense of completion they get when they cross an item off their list. However, if your list is too long or you feel overwhelmed looking at it, consider organizing your to-do list by week, general topic (school, personal commitments), or priority (must do, nice to do, etc.).
5 – Be Realistic About Your Schedule
One thing that is super-important is to be realistic when you’re planning your day. Setting lofty expectations of yourself and overcommitting by scheduling too much in too short a period of time is a recipe for burnout and poor self-esteem. Instead, be mindful of how much time you actually have, and plan your tasks and goals to fit that timeframe.
6 – Create Consistency with Routines
There’s an old saying, “Show me your habits, and I’ll show you your future.” Developing good habits and creating a daily routine you’ll actually stick to is vital if you want to create order and predictability in your life and stay on a path to success. Nurses carry a great amount of responsibility. As you finish your degree and start your career, showing your colleagues that you’re consistently organized and on top of things will lead to greater trust and maybe even opportunities for advancement down the road.
7 – Designate Space for All the Things
Again, it seems so simple, but designating space for things and giving everything a place, whether that’s a physical space or a digital one, helps you stay organized. You can do this with your notebooks and your textbooks, your Google files and your phone apps, your keys and your scrubs, and all the things in between!
8 – Set Alarms & Reminders
It’s so easy to lose track of time, especially when you’re juggling multiple to-dos. Using alarms and reminders can help significantly in keeping you on track so you don’t forget anything important that needs to be done. Need to dial into a Zoom call at 10 am? Set an alarm for 9:50 so you have a few minutes to find the link. Need a few groceries? Set a calendar reminder to pop up 30 minutes before you typically pass a grocery store. Being on time for your Zoom call and not spending 30 minutes going back to the grocery store later helps your whole day go more smoothly.
9 – Designate a Distraction-free Workspace
Your workspace is important in reducing distractions and staying organized. Designate an area that’s only for work. Not only does that help you stay focused, it’s also a bit of a mind trick that tells your brain, “It’s time to work now, because we’re sitting in the place where only work gets done.” Once you’ve wrapped up your studies, put the books away and move elsewhere in the room to relax.
10 – Don’t Forget to Have Fun (Scheduled Fun, That Is)
As a final tip, remember that being organized isn’t just about ticking tasks off your list, it’s also about carving out time in your day to do things you enjoy doing. Schedule these activities into your calendar, and make sure you’re taking breaks during your day to refresh and recharge. If you take a 30-minute walk across campus, your brain will be refreshed and ready to learn the 206 bones of the body or the difference between a heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest.
If you take time to implement some of these tools and tips, you’ll soon be a master at organization. This will benefit not only your life as a student, but also your life beyond nursing school, as you learn habits and strategies you will take with you far into your future.
Planning Tools of the Trade
One of the secrets to mastering organizational skills is to experiment and find a system that fits you. Everyone is different, and there’s no one right way to do something. Below, we’ll explore different types of tools for organization and their pros and cons.
Try testing each until you land on the one that resonates with your personality and style. You may even find that you have to use a conglomeration of different tools and methods—and that’s okay too! If it works, it works.
Paper vs Digital
- Paper Planners: You can find lots of brands of planners on the market these days. A few popular brands that come to mind are Happy Planner, Filofax, and Erin Condren. Planners offer you a tangible way to schedule and organize your tasks. The downside is they can sometimes be bulky or get lost or damaged. Plus, if you leave your planner in the dorm, you may be lost until you can run over to pick it up!
- Digital Planning: Like paper planners, digital planners abound. Try apps like iStudiez Pro, Trello, and Todoist. Digital tools give you the convenience of being easily accessible, either through your computer or phone, but can sometimes trigger some overwhelm if they have too many features to learn. Plus, they can be affected by your WiFi connection, too. The other risk with digital planners is that, as you’re checking your evening plans, it’s easy to get distracted by the Instagram pop-up or the new TikTok from your best friend.
Pre-Formatted Planner vs. Bullet Journal
- Pre-Formatted Planner: Day Designer and Passion Planner both offer sections that are predefined for different events and tasks. They’re simple and easy to use, and those who love structure tend to favor them. However, if you’re a person who likes to customize things, pre-formatted planners can be a little limiting.
- Bullet Journal/Unstructured Journal: If you like to customize things, a bullet journal or a “BuJo” might be a great option because it offers a more personalized and flexible approach to organizing your day. Make your own sections and layouts as you need them, and be as creative as you’d like. However, bullet journals and unstructured journals can be time-consuming to set up and maintain because they require you to create “spreads” on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Some popular BuJo brands are the original Bullet Journal or the trendy journals from Archer & Olive.
Daily vs Weekly vs Monthly
- Daily Planner: Use a daily planner to map out your day by the hour. It’s great if you like to batch tasks or use time blocks for certain things in your schedule, or if you want to track certain things daily. The Next Level Daily Planner is an example of this. However, for some people, this level of detail can also lead to overplanning and make you feel overwhelmed, or it might not show a big enough picture to be able to plan out a week or more at a time.
- Weekly Planner: Using a weekly planner, like the minimalist Leuchtturm 1917 lets you see your week at-a-glance. It’s less overwhelming than a daily/hourly planner but can still give you the gist of what you want to accomplish. Weekly planners will usually still incorporate individual days, so if you need to plan out specific things for each day of the week, you can do so, but look at your whole week on one page. This can be a good happy medium for those who need more than just a monthly calendar with a bit more space to plan daily to-dos and lists.
- Monthly Planner: Also self-explanatory, a monthly planner is great for seeing your month at a glance. Use it to keep track of long-term goals and big-picture planning, and also jot down tasks or appointments for the day. You won’t have a lot of room to write and plan, but you’ll be able to note major goals, deadlines, and appointments.
Dated vs Undated
- Dated Planner: Use a dated planner if you like your dates pre-printed and uniform. Dated planners make planning easier since you don’t have to take time to write in dates, though if you need to change your plans or make a mistake as you write it’s more difficult to fix. The other thing to note is that you will need to buy a new planner annually but you can usually get either Academic/School Year versions or a traditional year version that runs January to December.
- Undated Planner: If you’re sporadic in your planner usage, an undated planner, such as this planner from Mossery, may be the best for you because you can start a fresh month/day/week at any time. For example, you may only want to plan out the last two weeks of the semester before finals. What is kind of cool about these planners is that if you are a sporadic planner, you can make your planner last much longer with undated pages which can feel much less wasteful if you find you normally go weeks at a stretch without planning. Obviously, being a consistent planner is recommended during your busy times, but it’s nice to be able to take breaks when you need it without wasting paper on pre-dated pages.
Minimalist or Detailed
- Minimalist Planners: If you’re of the mindset that simple is best, a minimalist planner can be useful. Even an old spiral-bound notebook can work. However, minimalist planners may lack some features and sections you might want or need, which might then require you to have additional notebooks or planning tools to compensate. If you think a minimalist planner might be what you are looking for, you can check out the ones from Hemlock and Oak.
- Detailed Planner: If you opt for a more detailed planner that offers different sections or features, you can not only schedule and track tasks but also budgeting and meal planning. Golden Coil has taken the detailed planner to the next level allowing you to fully customize every page for what you need with their seemingly endless layouts and page options. But again, all of those extra sections can trigger overwhelm for some, so it’s key to find the right system for you.
Remember that choosing the right scheduling and planning system should revolve around your unique needs and preferences. The best system is the one you actually use. Taking a little time to experiment with different planning systems whether paper or digital is key to finding what is right for you. Additionally, if this doesn’t come naturally to you, give yourself some grace and remember that developing organizational skills and processes can take time and practice. Eventually, it will become a habit.
Finding a Planning System That Works for You
We understand that finding the best system to help you stay organized can be a daunting task. Your system will be unique to you, and there are so many tools and methods to choose from. However, given some research and experimentation, you can find the perfect one for you. Below are five steps to help you figure it out.
Step 1: Make a List of Everything You Need to Keep Track Of
Lists can help you figure out what tools you might need. For example, you might need a more detailed and customized planner if you want to keep track of things like classes, assignments, exams, clinicals, and extracurricular activities. If you just need to track deadlines, appointments, and specific dates, a simpler system might work. By making your list, you can figure out what type of organizational system will best fit your needs.
Step 2: Research Planner Brands and Types
Use the comparisons we outlined in this guide to help you narrow your choices. Base your decisions around your list of things you want to keep track of and your own personal style. If you tend to be overwhelmed if you have too much stuff written down, a minimalist planner might be ideal. If you want to only track certain days, not every day, an undated planner could be the best choice. And of course, you might decide you need a monthly overview more than a weekly or day-to-day type of system.
Step 3: Try a Few Different Planners or Systems
Remember that you may have to try several before you find what works best for you. For example, you might start out using a paper planner but then discover you like the convenience of digital planning tools. Or you could use a daily planner, find it’s too much, and discover a weekly one works better. It’s all trial and error until you find the system that works for you. The best planning system is the one you use consistently.
Step 4: Don’t Be Afraid to Change Things Up or Simplify
Your planning system definitely shouldn’t cause you stress. If it isn’t working or doesn’t offer enough (or even too much) structure, tweak your system. For instance, if you’re using a paper planner but you often forget to check it, you might need a reminder on your phone to prompt you. If your task list is long and unwieldy, it’s possible you need to chunk things up a bit and break them off into more manageable pieces. Ultimately, you have to be willing to make adjustments so your planner works for you and not against you.
Step 5: Ask Your Organized Friends What They Use to Plan
You can learn a lot from others. In addition to gaining a little inspiration from what they do or use, you can also get potential feedback if they’ve tried something you’re considering. Becoming more organized and productive is a journey of discovery, and having people you can ask for help along the way is supremely valuable.
Organization and Planning Resources for Students
You already know how challenging it is keeping track of your assignments, clinical hours, and patient care responsibilities. Thankfully, there are many who have gone before you and countless tools to help you stay organized and at the top of your game. Check out our list to get started:
- Atomic Habits by James Clear: A book that provides a framework for building good habits and breaking bad ones by making small changes.
- Best Laid Plans Podcast: Sarah Unger is a physician and planner addict. She’s been an avid planner since high school and shares some super helpful tips for getting organized on her podcast.
- The Bullet Journal Method: The website of the creator of the Bullet Journal, a method of rapid logging, to help you organize your thoughts and tasks.
- Evernote: A versatile note-taking app that allows you to organize notes, create to-do lists, and save articles and websites for later.
- Focus@Will: A music service that uses neuroscience to help you focus and stay productive while studying.
- Forest: A gamified productivity app that helps you stay focused by growing virtual trees as you work.
- Google Calendar: A calendar app that helps you keep track of important dates and events, including class schedules and clinical rotations.
- MindNode: A mind-mapping app for Mac and iOS that helps you visualize your ideas and projects.
- MyStudyLife: A free study planner app for students, teachers, and lecturers that helps organize assignments, exams, and classes.
- Nursebuff: A website that provides a wide range of nursing-related content, including articles on productivity and organization for nurses. There’s also a section for nursing humor and inspiration.
- Nurse Keith: A podcast hosted by registered nurse Keith Carlson that covers a variety of topics relevant to nurses, including productivity, burnout prevention, and work-life balance.
- NurseTogether: A website that provides resources and support for nurses, including articles on productivity and organization. It also includes a community forum where nurses can connect and share advice.
- The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan: A book that helps readers focus on one thing that will make the biggest impact on their lives and provides a framework for achieving it.
- The Pomodoro Technique: A time management method that breaks work into 25-minute intervals, separated by short breaks.
- The Productivity Show: This podcast provides tips and strategies for increasing productivity and achieving goals. It’s not specific to nursing, but the advice is applicable to anyone looking to improve their productivity.
- RescueTime: A time-tracking app that shows you how you spend your time and helps you stay on track with your goals.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey: A bestselling book that covers seven habits for success in personal and professional life.
- SmartTasks: A productivity app that helps users manage tasks and projects using a simple and intuitive interface. It offers features such as task prioritization, calendar integration, and collaboration tools for teams.
- Todoist: A powerful task management app that helps you keep track of assignments, exams, and clinical rotations.
- Trello: A visual project management tool that helps you organize your tasks and collaborate with classmates and clinical partners.
Interview with an Organization Expert
William Christie is an organizational expert who works with students and nurses to help them learn to stay organized and productive while juggling their many responsibilities. He blogs at https://studyinghood.com/. Keep reading to tap into some of Christie’s top advice:
Q. What tips do you have for students and nurses on how to stay organized?
A. One of the most important tips I can offer to students and nurses for staying organized is to create a plan. It’s important to have a clear understanding of your goals and break them up into daily or weekly tasks. This will help you stay on track and make sure you’re making progress. I also recommend setting aside specific times for studying, planning, and taking breaks.
Q. How do you recommend students and nurses prioritize their tasks?
A. Prioritizing tasks can be difficult, especially when there are so many competing demands. I recommend using the Eisenhower Matrix, which helps you break down tasks into four categories: urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and not urgent and not important. By understanding which tasks are most important, you can better prioritize your time and energy.
Q. What strategies do you suggest to help students and nurses stay motivated?
A. Motivation is key when it comes to staying organized and productive. Setting small, achievable goals can help you stay motivated and on track. Take breaks throughout the day and don’t be afraid to reward yourself when you reach a goal. Celebrate your successes and remember that it’s okay to take some time for yourself.
Q. How do you recommend students and nurses manage their time?
A. Time management is essential for staying organized and productive. I recommend setting a daily or weekly schedule and sticking to it. Make sure to include time for studying, planning, and taking breaks. Additionally, I suggest using a time-tracking app to better understand how you’re spending your time and make any necessary adjustments.
Q. What advice do you have for students and nurses to help them stay focused?
A. Staying focused can be difficult when there are so many distractions. I recommend turning off notifications on your phone and other devices, and setting up designated study zones with few distractions. Additionally, taking regular breaks can help you stay focused and energized throughout the day.
Q. What other tips do you have for students and nurses on how to stay organized?
A. Creating a to-do list or using a task-management system can help you stay organized and on task. Additionally, I suggest breaking down larger tasks into smaller chunks and tackling them one step at a time. Finally, ask for help when you need it. Don’t be afraid to reach out to family, friends, or colleagues for advice or assistance.