Is Working Too Hard Holding You Back?

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It's easy to tell ourselves that we just have to study more. Work harder. That’s it. Just buckle down, put in more time, and we'll all get the grades we want.

It's rare that we look up from our frantic activity to ask: Is putting in the time really equivalent to hard work? Does hard work always result in the mastery of material?

Junior year should be harder than sophomore. Freshman year should bring challenges you didn’t face in middle school. If not, then somebody may be wasting your time. We don’t grow without being stretched, and we won’t look for new solutions if we don’t have current problems. School (and any activity) should be increasingly challenging (just as Little League should be easier than high school sports.) You can expect college to be more competitive than high school, because advanced students should be increasingly sophisticated learners (in the same way that college players are more skilled than their younger selves.)

School, however, is not just about learning increasingly complex material and developing deeper critical thinking skills. School is about developing increasing mastery as a learner.

If school is becoming hard in ways that are hard to handle, or if you feel as though you are working harder and harder just to keep up, consider a gentle exploration of how you are working–and, maybe when. Insanity, as the saying goes, is doing things the same way over and over, yet expecting different results. Before redoubling your efforts with the same methods and making yourself crazy, ask this: “Is there another way to do this?” (Whatever “this” is.)

Fortunately, today, we do not need our own army of experts (although they could possibly help). What we truly need is the inclination to ask important questions such as:


“What is the best approach for this assignment?” “How should I tackle this next project?”

“How do other people most easily prepare for tests, improve their writing, or memorize?”

“How can I be more focused and efficient?”


There are, of course, limits to the amount of time and energy we can spend on any given project. In my experience, the students and families who are feeling on top of their game are not simply working harder than others – but are making time to step back, looking at how things are unfolding, and considering adjusting their approach. It is always useful to check up or check in on your use of time, study habits, or daily routine. When your school presents new challenges, revisit your strengths. Know yourself, understand when and how you work best, check your organization/time management strategy, focus, and ask for help if you need it. 

In a great piece by Sue Shellenbarger, titled “Before You Study, Ask for Help,” educators shared tips for becoming a successful learner. Some of these ideas may work for your son or daughter, but others may fall flat. To improve the chance that your kids will consider new methods, think of yourself as a consultant rather than a manager (or the teacher). As many of you have already learned, kids (especially teens) don’t always receive parental advice with the enthusiasm with which we parents offer it. So, one phrase you might try (and I use this with my kids, the kids I tutor, and the parents I speak with) is this: “Would you like my advice on that?” or “May I make a suggestion?” If your son or daughter says “No thanks, Dad,” well, then, there you have it. In my experience, though, kids will often circle back later out of curiosity. Or, the next time they may say yes, because you respected their “no” the first time around. Getting their buy-in will help you and your kids work collaboratively, thereby increasing the odds that they remain open to leaving old habits behind and adopting new skills as they grow and develop as learners.