Executive Functions Training, High School, Middle School

Plan First, Work Later: The First Step in Effective Time Management

(Exercise 2 in the Executive Functions Training series)

Tired student having a lot to read. Student girl with lot of pap

As an Executive Functions Coach, parents constantly told me that they were the ones in need of time management. It is a tough skill – one that was drilled into me by the fabulous tutors I saw weekly starting in seventh grade.

One in particular, Michele, was just the best (too bad I did not start seeing her until high school). She is the one who showed me why organization and time management were so useful. I wanted to get good (excellent!) grades (I had high goals!), but something was missing. I only had so many hours in a day and I was on the dance team, and in community service clubs, and I wanted to hang out and talk online with my friends. In a misguided attempt to finish work quickly, I usually skipped the planning phase and just jumped right in. HUGE MISTAKE.

The whole reason I saw Michele was because I would start working and become incredibly overwhelmed by the amount of work I had to do, not just what I was currently working on, but oh my goodness, what else did I have to do that night? How on earth could I finish that if I was still working on this? I was paralyzed. The only thing I could do was panic, cry, distract myself, and then get back to panicking because I had wasted even more time.

In the start-to-get-to-know-your-student phase of our first meeting, Michele asked what homework/projects/tests I had to do for the week. I rambled off a list of what I thought was an impressive (go me!), but also a completely overwhelming amount of stuff, mentioning that I was sure there were other things, but how could I remember EVERYTHING right now? (I liked complaining to her.) Michele wrote it down on a quickly pieced together weekly calendar, it looked something like this:

Homework To Do
(Since it has been a long time since I was in high school, this is an approximation of what a week might look like excluding extracurricular activities.)

Michele: So what needs to get done tonight?
Me: Oh you know, just the stuff that is due tomorrow. I’ll work on that long-term project due Friday starting Thursday night.
Michele: Okay… So how much time have you scheduled for each item?
Me: I have all night to get it all done.
Michele: Okay. Part of being able to accomplish your goals is knowing how long each task will take, planning when you will work on each task, and making sure to schedule breaks.
Me: (Not feeling too confident in this lady. Everyone says that, but that just doesn’t sound like it would work for me. It just seems like more work, but…) Breaks? (Now that’s interesting…)
Michele: Yeah. You have to schedule breaks for yourself. It’s good motivation. Everyone needs breaks. Anyone who says you just have to sit and do it all in one go is crazy.
Me: (…I’m intrigued. Okay, I’ll play your little game)

I had no clue how long anything would take, so Michele and I guessed. Then we went through each hour of my evening planning when I would do what. I had forgotten that things like eating dinner with my family, which takes up a huge amount of time, would need to be included in my planning (they count as breaks). It was painful process. Here is an example of what we came up with:

Michele noted that if I finished early, to keep going on to the next section before my break. Then, if I finished everything early, I could start working on an outline for my paper Wednesday. This was very wishful thinking at the beginning, but it planted the seed.
Michele noted that if I finished a task early that I should keep going on to the next section before my break. Then, if I finished everything early, I could start working on an outline for my paper Wednesday. This was very wishful thinking at the beginning, but it planted the seed.

It was even more painful sticking to my schedule once she left. However, I was a little less stressed by all the things I had to do because I knew everything that needed to get done and thought, Wow. This could actually all get done. (Now that I can plan and schedule my time all on my own, the stress I start to feel when I am overwhelmed almost always vanishes after I rework my schedule. However, it took a LOT of practice to get to that point. Thankfully, the practice results in a positive feedback loop: practice, stress reduces a little. Practice more, stress reduces a little more. Maybe you are even feeling pretty accomplished at this point because you are getting more done and hopefully your grades have improved, so you practice even more…).

I found myself motivated by my scheduled breaks. And I saw a clear pattern between running over my allotted break time and my stress level. That was bad, so I quickly learned how to reduce that stress! Also, with a lot of Michele’s help and some other tricks she taught me (these will be in future posts), it did not really take long to figure out how much time my homework would take. I was, again, motivated by the scheduled breaks – how could I schedule my time to maximize my free time? I was hooked. My goodness, it took a ton of work! But it sure was worth it. Without planning, my stress would be through the roof and who knows how many tasks would fall through the cracks.