For many students, the greatest challenge they encounter in high school is not demanding teachers or complicated college applications, but time management. Even brilliant students often struggle to stay organized and make time for their many projects and assignments. We hear from students every year who find themselves losing track of assignments, struggling to focus on their homework, or tackling major projects at the last minute.
To help students in this position, who aren’t already working with us in our Application Boot Camp, private counseling, or other programs, we’ve put together a list of recommendations to assist with time management and organization. These are the suggestions we keep in mind for our students, our children, and even ourselves when we’re having trouble staying on top of our work.
TOP TIPS: ORGANIZATION AND TIME MANAGEMENT
GET A PLANNER
You can’t tackle everything on your plate if you have no idea what’s on your plate in the first place! For that reason, we recommend getting a planner, which will allow you to list all of your upcoming projects and assignments. You can also use your planner to track assignments’ deadlines and figure out how to organize your time to meet them. If you need help managing day-to-day assignments, then a daily planner is probably a good fit. If you need to stay on top of large-scale projects, a monthly calendar will help you to see what you have coming up in the weeks ahead.
START WORKING ON ASSIGNMENTS EARLY
As a general rule, almost every project you tackle will require more time than you anticipate. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working on a daily math worksheet or a multi-week research project—you’ll frequently encounter issues (a difficult problem, a hard-to-find source) that take up additional time and energy.
If you work on your projects at the last-minute, this can turn a simple assignment into a crisis. To avoid such issues, we recommend getting started on your assignments early. If you know you have a big project due at the end of the week, budget some time during the preceding weekend to get started on it. Not only will this reduce the pressure you experience later, but it will also help you to spot and address potential issues before they become problems. Be the boss of your schedule, and break down simple assignments into due dates you’ve marked in your daily planner.
Sometimes it’s hard to force yourself to tackle a difficult homework assignment or a large-scale project, even though you know you should. In that case, you may find yourself procrastinating on your work. Procrastination can take many forms, ranging from guilty pleasures (playing video games, hanging out with friends) or seemingly virtuous activities (cleaning your desk, redoing your to-do list). At the end of the day, all of these activities lead you to put off necessary work on one of your projects.
To help counter procrastination, keep in mind the long game. Playing video games right now means that you’ll have to work doubly hard on your project later. In contrast, if you’re willing to give up video games in favor of your project today, you’ll be happier and less stressed in the future. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post on this topic!
DEVELOP A ROUTINE
Especially when it comes to longer-term projects, routines are the key to success. It’s easy to say you’re going to study for your AP test for two hours each week, but it’s much harder to actually accomplish this, especially when the test is several weeks away.
We recommend setting aside a particular time every day or week to work on your project. The date and length of that time are entirely up to you. Some students prefer to work on a project for 30 minutes every day, while others prefer to carve out a solid 3 hours for it each Saturday afternoon. The key is to develop a set schedule that works well for you and to make sure — no matter what else comes up — that you use that time for your project. Once again, you’ll want to make sure to block out time for this in your planner. For standardized testing, in particular, we recommend setting a designated time each weekend to prep, months before the actual test, and honoring that weekly date with your test prep books by reserving it on your calendar.
When it comes to carrying out your work itself, research has shown that multitasking will actually makes you lessproductive. This means that, rather than trying to tackle a bunch of projects simultaneously, you’d do better to address each task on your list one at a time. It also means that, when you sit down to work, you should focus your full attention on what you’re doing. Instead of stopping every few minutes to check Instagram or get a snack, plan to devote a consistent block of time to a single-minded focus on the task at hand.
Of special note: make sure to turn off texts, emails, and other communication outlets when you’re working. It’s incredibly easy to get sucked into a group text or a Facebook comment thread when you should be working on your English paper. Make sure to put your phone down and sign out of any chat programs while you’re working. If you’re having trouble sticking to your goals, you can use products like Google mesh wifi and Freedom to temporarily block internet access.
BUDGET TIME FOR BREAKS
No one can work without interruption forever! Rather than taking small, guilt-filled breaks whenever you feel bored, we recommend scheduling breaks at regular intervals. Taking a planned break gives your brain a much needed reprieve from homework, and knowing a break is coming can also motivate you to stay focused during your “work time.” The only catch: make sure that you keep your breaks limited to a few minutes (most experts recommend 5-15 minutes), so that you don’t lose momentum. We also recommend taking these breaks outside of your set study area so that they feel distinctly separate.
For some people, the Pomodoro Technique provides a particularly useful system for time management. This method asks students to break their time into short increments, spending 25 minutes focusing intently on a project, and then taking a 5-minute break. After four 25-minute work sessions, students can take a longer, 20-minute break to fully refresh themselves. All you need to implement the Pomodoro Technique is a simple timer. There are, however, plenty of Pomodoro apps available online and on your phone, if you’d rather track your time that way.
Do any of these suggestions resonate with you? If so, we recommend trying them out during the final weeks of the school year. We hope they’ll make the upcoming exam season much easier and, as a bonus, give you a helpful set of skills to hit the ground running next year.