Even though I’ve been out of school for more years then I care to count I still get a little melancholy when summer winds down. I no longer get the long summer vacations I did when I was a kid nor am I wrapping up a summer part-time job (some more fun than others) as I did when I got older but I still love the longer and warmer days that summer brings. Our affinity for summer can sometimes produce a bit of unfair antipathy toward having to get back to the regiment that a school semester brings with it. Nevertheless, the responsibilities come and we have to get back into the game again. In all the fun of returning to old friends and making new ones, however, it is easy to lose the focus you may have intended as you thought about what you wanted to accomplish once back at school. Before you know it you are halfway through the semester and many of the goals you may have had now seem long lost. The rest of the semester now just looks like strife, sleepless nights, and missed deadlines. Here’s the good news, with some simple but intentional calendar planning, you can stay on top of those goals and have the most productive semester of your life.

A mentor of mine told me he never worked on or studied for anything important past 10:30 at night.

The wake-up call for me was a challenge about halfway through my university experience. After expressing how much work I had to do to get a paper in that night a mentor of mine told me he never worked on or studied for anything important past 10:30 at night. He then promptly challenged me to get my schedule to the point where I could do the same. He promised it would help me create better work and would greatly cut my stress levels. He even joked I would find there was no peace like seeing people panic late at night over a paper due in the morning while knowing you were done with it and could do what you wanted with that time. I thought the idea was impossible but took on the challenge. I quickly found out that with some planning and a careful investment of time that not only did I not have to study late at night (a habit proven time and again to yield terrible results) but that I could also have assignments completed sometimes weeks ahead of schedule. I was hooked on the calm mindset it provided to head into finals with no big deadlines hanging over my head and that mentality eventually carried over to the workplace. It is possible for you to master your calendar and here are five steps (and a bonus tip!) that can help you make that happen.

Choose to take an ownership type of mindset to your time. It really boils down to do you want own your time or do you want it to own you. The really important things in life take investments of time, there’s no way around that. If you want to be really good at anything from a sport to a friendship you have to invest intentional time toward it. Treat time as the real commodity that it is. You have a limited amount. Your investment of time should be directed toward the things that have the most reward. It all begins with you deciding to take responsibility for your time as opposed to just letting every day happen on it’s own. Choose to be proactive, not passive, with your calendar.

Dispel the myth that you do your best work under last minute pressure. It’s a hard truth but this is nothing more than a lazy lie people use to fool themselves from the fact they are procrastinating. While it is an admirable quality to be able to make quick and intelligent decisions and perform strong work under pressure that is very different from an intentional decision to wait until the last minute to start working on something. Plainly stated, when we have to work fast we make sloppy mistakes and don’t fully think through what we are producing. It’s a simple math equation of volume vs. available space. Much like trying to pour a gallon of water into a quart jar it simply does not equate. In the end it’s not your best work. Proactive planning trumps hurried results every time.

Define your goals and reverse-engineer your schedule. What is it you really want to accomplish this semester? Whether it is a grade goal or a personal goal there is power in writing them down and keeping them somewhere prominent. Productivity guru Michael Hyatt has an excellent blog post on the power of writing your goals down here but in short there is something vital in that kinetic action of writing that can trigger a higher sense of responsibility and ownership. Writing them down and keeping them visually in front of you will help increase your focus on them and ingrain them in your day-to-day thinking. For tips on how Impact 360 Institute plans goals click here.

Use your calendar! Once you have your goals captured then pull out your calendar and do some reverse engineering. How much of each day could be set aside toward this? This is an invaluable step to take to get your best work. Sure, you can stay up most of the night before the deadline to produce a 20-page paper or you can spend a half hour on it for a few days out of the week beginning several weeks out. You wouldn’t show up for a marathon having only practiced the night before; other tasks in your life are no different. Big tasks become amazingly easy and manageable when broken down into smaller parts. The key to this is building dedicated time toward them in your calendar and religiously sticking to it. If you don’t believe me then just take the biggest assignment you have this semester and try it. You will like the results so much you will begin to apply it to all areas of your life. Incidentally, Evernote is a great system for creating and keeping task lists and you can find some great tips here.

A good goal list is not all work! Contrary to what many may think about productivity the secret is not just keeping up with “work” type of activities. Sleep, regular exercise, and intentional community are vital to overall well-being. Take very seriously your amount of recommended sleep as it has benefits in focus and energy levels as well as to your overall health. If you don’t have access to a gym then just plan regular walks for exercise. Set aside time to be with people who care about you and invest in you. I can tell you from personal experience that an unbalanced approach here can lead to medical exhaustion. Commit to regular sleep. Understand the importance of exercise. Never underestimate the power of good community.

You are doing no one, not yourself nor others, any favors by being over committed in tasks and under committed in time.

Bonus tip: You are free to say “no.” It doesn’t make you a bad person to say “no” to things that can pull you away from your priorities. Yes, occasionally that means not doing something fun with friends or taking on an important, short-term commitment, but the reality is procrastinating will also rob you of these opportunities. The amazing thing you will find is that when you have your important tasks calendared it actually creates more time for things such as this. You are doing no one, not yourself nor others, any favors by being over committed in tasks and under committed in time. Say “yes,” but do so with confidence and discernment.

Being the master of your calendar takes intentional time and effort but the payoffs are worth it. You will find it increases your enjoyment of free time while helping you to do your best work. If nothing else take the challenge of at least one big project this semester and calendar it by breaking it down into smaller, dedicated chunks. A steady practice of this will undoubtedly move you toward become master of your calendar.