Posted on: October 4, 2020
By Aaron Golumbfskie & Ryan Warren
We’re now several weeks into the school year, and what we’ve been hearing from you is that this semester’s online learning is very different from last year’s. Last spring, schools and teachers were just trying to weather the storm and get to June. This is a new year, however, and teachers have raised their expectations about how much material they’re going to cover and how much work you will be responsible for.
While your workload is returning to normal, your schedule most certainly is not. Without the scaffolding and structure of the school day, it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to complete more independent work, often over greater periods of time between fewer classes. If, like many students, you’re struggling to be as productive as you’d like to be, read on for our best tips about how to create and execute on a plan of attack that works for you.
See the Future
You’ve likely already been told that you need a schedule to be productive with your work time at home, and we agree. But what’s just as important as having that schedule is being able to see it in front of you. It can be hard to focus on your work while you’ve got the twelve other tasks you need to complete that day weighing down your mind. Having a schedule — and one you can easily see — can reinforce the structure that schedule provides, reducing the uncertainty you might have about how you’re going to get your work done and also freeing up your mental space to focus on the task at hand.
Check the Box
So what do the items on your schedule look like? This shouldn’t look like “Study history”! Make sure your schedule is a list of tasks that are specific, measurable, and attainable. “Study history” is none of those. How do you know when you’re done? And how can you ever really be done? What might be better is “Outline Chapter 2” or “Finish worksheets.” You might also want to consider building some checkboxes into your schedule as well — it’ll help you craft your tasks with those specific goals in mind, and there’s something incredibly satisfying about checking boxes! It’s also more helpful than crossing out a list since you can see and be proud of all you’ve accomplished.
Fight the System. Use a Timer.
If you’re struggling with being as productive as you’d like and finishing the tasks on your schedule, you should check out the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a system of time management in which you break up your work time into 25-minute intervals (called pomodoros), with 5-minute breaks between them. If you’ve got as much homework as we think you do, 25 minutes may not seem like a whole lot of time. And that’s exactly the point — knowing you only have 25 minutes for your task incentivizes you to be efficient and keeping the timer in view only reinforces that sense of urgency. After a few rounds, you can give yourself a longer break for a little more downtime and also to plan your next several pomodoros.
Another benefit of the Pomodoro strategy is that it reduces the cognitive load of transitions, which are particularly difficult for those with ADHD or general executive functioning deficits. Those with executive functioning issues, diagnosable or not, will often rely on some external structure to regulate their transitions: a deadline, an expectation of someone we care about, hunger or bathroom pains, and so on. On the one hand, learning from home offers fewer of these nudges: there are no bells, no nagging teachers, no bus to miss. On the other hand, setting up nudges for our own transitions allows us to take charge of our own time, rather than being blown like a leaf through our days, by the vagaries of systems someone else designed.
While we may have more transitions to manage with less outside guidance, our transitions at home often take less time. While there is no commute to regulate our day, there is also time and planning saved by not commuting. At its best, this time can be converted to a leisurely walk around the neighborhood, practicing an instrument, or a meditation practice.
Holding Space for Time With Rituals
In addition to being productive with our time, we have to be mindful of the ways in which our leisure and work time can run together into days and weeks that lack distinct texture. It’s hard to have a conversation with a friend without a brief diversion on time distorting in our newly socially distant lives. While normality may be a fool’s wish for now, we can create some regularity for ourselves through rituals. If your family doesn’t have shared traditions, you can start some with family, friends, or just yourself. Gather to play board games with friends, but make it every night and stick to it. Plan Taco Tuesday. Or just change the way you take your tea on Mondays to usher in a new week. If your dad is a movie dad, ask him to make a playlist for you to watch together every Sunday afternoon. He will LOVE that. And maybe you’re lucky and he has decent taste. At any rate, you’ll know what day it is, and decrease one component of the uncertainty we’ve all been feeling.
Just as it’s important to create regular times for leisure, it’s also important to make space for reflection. Consider scheduling the last 10 minutes of your workday to actively reflect on how that day went. Were you as productive as you wanted to be? Why or why not? What could you do differently tomorrow to have a more efficient day? These are important questions and deserve carefully considered answers, so take a moment to write a few notes on your schedule after you reflect, and then use that tomorrow as you craft the next day’s plan.