“Mineela, I have to cancel my session because I have too much homework to do.”
“I am swamped and I have to study for the SATs.”
“I have so much to do, I don’t know how I am going to get it all done.”
If you really think about it, a kid’s life is filled with all kinds of academic demands. On top academic concerns, they are trying to figure out who they are, who they want to be, making and keeping friends, managing the adults in their lives, and making decisions about their future. There is a lot to do and very little time to do it.
My young clients are starting to do the proverbial freaking out about everything they need to do by the end of the school year. Papers, SATs, finals, projects…. I am getting tired just thinking about it.
Following are the best productivity tips I have seen work time and time again, leading to more productivity and, surprisingly, more fun and free time.
Take Care of Your Body
Get enough sleep, eat often and health, drink lots of water, and get some exercise. You need to take care of your body and fuel it with the best fuel so it has what it needs to function at its best. Take care of your body and it will take care of you. ‘Nuf said.
Move Your Body
Exercise for 20 minutes before you get down to work. Exercise will temporarily increase increase your focus. A minimum of 20 minutes of a sweat breaking workout will give you up to 2.5 hours of increased focus for what you need to do. It’s less for some and more for others.
Interact With the Material
You will retain more information if you are able to answer a question. Make some up and write them in the margins of your notes. Take your notes and turn them into questions your teacher might ask. Then answer them.
Pen Beats a Sword – Every Time!
Write as much as you can by hand. Here’s an article about why this helps immensely with retaining more information.
For the reasons on why handwriting trumps typing, click here.
Chunk it Down
Use a simple kitchen timer and chunk your work down into smaller pieces. Work in 20 minute intervals followed by five minutes of break. Setting the timer for 20 minutes will force you to work as fast as you can with increased focus and attention on what is in front of you. So the cycle should be 20 minutes concentrated effort with a five minute break.
If you find yourself focused and working hard, let the timer go and stay on course. But, take a break as soon as you find your mind wandering and you are not using your time efficiently.
Maximum attention span for optimal focus and attention is 40 – 45 minutes. The time gets shorter if you are tired, hungry, upset, or sick. So, feel free to play with this number to find your sweet spot. Generally, 20 minutes seems to be optimal when under stress.
List It Out
Having a list, checking it twice and checking off the items you have completed can be very helpful. It can remind you of what you need to focus on, thereby avoiding all the other fun extraneous things you would like to do. (Like the chores you normally hate doing.) Checking things off can help you see you are making progress, fueling further progress.
Use your five minute break wisely. Do not do anything during that time that will get you caught up in it. (Yes, I am referring to video games, Facebook, Instagram, or knitting.) Stick to activities that will take you only five minutes to do but do not take up head space – fold laundry, do some jumping jacks or other exercise, draw, color, pick up your room, do a chore, or play with the dog. The goal is to find something you do not have to think about, can do fairly easily but, you can also tear yourself away from it when your five minutes is up.
Plan Mini-Vacations From the Schoolwork
Plan something fun to do at least twice a week. See these as rewards and vacations from the work. This will give you something to look forward to. Plan them as rewards for a job well done and a break well deserved.
Sip That Glucose
Your brain uses 25% of the glucose (a sugar) you ingest to fuel itself. It is the only fuel that your brain uses to run so, this is the reason you crave sweets when you are studying or using your brain for a long period of time. Glucose comes in a variety of forms and it’s up to you to choose the healthy stuff (like fruit and juice) and to ingest it in moderation. Because your brain needs a constant supply, it’s best to consume the sugary stuff in small doses over a longer period of time. The only rule is you do not chug or eat your piece of fruit all in one go. You eat in small bits over time – make that orange last as long as you can! If you’re drinking Gatorade (or some other drink), sip. Do not chug or take big gulps. Simply sip every once in a while.
(Be wise if you struggle with conditions where you need to limit your sugar.)
Use Caffeine Strategically
Note: This strategy is not for everyone; especially, if you struggle with anxiety.
The timing of caffeine ingestion makes a difference. The research is showing that if you have caffeine before you work, it will increase focus. If you drink it after, it increases retention of information. What you are trying to accomplish will determine when you have that cuppa Joe.
Keep in mind too much coffee and/or too late at night will lead to trouble. Stick with eight ounces at regular strength – that is a very small cup. Espresso does not count! I never recommend energy drinks or strong coffee because you will crash and it will most likely keep you up into the night. Remember what I said earlier about you needing your sleep? Keep reading and I’ll give you another good reason to get a good’s night sleep.
Manage the Ambiance
Often, we can be distracted not only by the sounds of everyday life but, also by the chatter in our own heads. Ambient noise provides a nice cover from these noises. But, not everyone benefits from ambient noise. Some work better in complete silence. You need to figure what works for you.
For those who find ambient noise helpful, the kind of noise that works might be different for each of you. Some options: the hum of the coffee shop (some of my best work happens at a coffee shop), music in the background (avoid music with lyrics and loud enough that you can hear it but, not so loud that it will demand your attention), working in a library, sitting in the hallway at school, or white noise (lots of free apps out there to work with). Experiment with what works best for you.
Sleep Makes Memorization Stick
There is a particular strategy I recommend when there is a lot to memorize. Retention of memorized materials is much better if review happens just before sleep. Brush your teeth, say ”goodnight” to everyone, change into your pajamas, and get into bed with your flash cards. Spend some time memorizing to your heart’s content, put the cards away, turn off the light, and go to sleep.
Do not collect $100; do not pass GO. Go straight to sleep.
In addition to repetition, deep and restful sleep moves information from short term memory into long term. Do this for a few nights and sometimes to refresh. This is a strategy that works really well with memorization of facts, formulae, and vocabulary.
Working Harder Defeats the Purpose
I saved the best for last….
Did you know that when you work harder to stay focused, the worse your focus actually gets. Courtesy of Dr. Amen (the brain scan/science guru), brain scans actually show that the brain becomes less efficient the harder you tell it to pay attention.
Instead, take a quick break.
Now you know what to do. Get out there and get it done!
Good luck to all my student clients. You got this!