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5 executive functioning tips for the new school year

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

New year: new backpack, new binder, new calculator! But what about the back-to-school essentials that can't be purchased at Target? Drawing from the methods of presidents, CEOs, and software engineers, our executive functioning experts are sharing their top five productivity tips to launch you into a successful new school year.

1. Set Goals You Can “Touch and Feel”

There’s nothing wrong with ambitious aspirations, but we often need to accomplish small goals to make our big dreams come true. For example, as a 10th grader, you might know (or think you know) where you want to go to college, but what can you do today to help you get there? What can you touch and feel, here and now, that will help turn your long-term goals into a reality?

We encourage our students to work with SMART goals, a method of setting meaningful objectives with its origins in corporate planning. Quite simply, SMART is an acronym that frames goals in five tangible ways:

Specific: What do you want to accomplish? Be as specific as possible. Instead of saying “I want good grades,” focus on the specific grades you want in specific classes and the specific steps you can take to get them.

Measurable: How will you know when your goal is accomplished? What tangible measures of success, like a grade or test score, can you use to measure progress?

Achievable: What are you able to do to achieve your goal? Goals should be challenging, but not impossible. Set yourself up for success by identifying goals within your ability and control.

Relevant: Why is accomplishing this goal worth your time and effort? How does this small goal support your big dreams?

Time-Bound: When can you reasonably accomplish this goal? Some goals might have due dates set by a teacher. Other goals might require self-imposed deadlines. Maintain momentum and accountability by giving each goal a tangible timeline.

Not sure where to begin? Try brainstorming your school-year goals on our SMART Goal worksheet.

Smart Goals
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2. Embrace the Difference Between Urgent and Important

Ever feel like life is one, big, never-ending game of whack-a-mole? The busier we get, the harder it can be to figure out which mole to whack first. How do we prioritize what needs to be done now, without neglecting the important tasks that need to be completed later?

The good news is you’re not alone. In fact, world leaders struggle with this too! Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Whenever our affairs seem to be in crisis, we are almost compelled to give our first attention to the urgent present rather than to the important future.” Decades later, in his best-selling book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey synthesized Eisenhower’s insights into what is now known as the “Eisenhower Matrix”.

The Eisenhower Matrix helps us understand the difference between urgent and important, and prioritize tasks accordingly. Organizing a to-do list into four separate buckets helps us navigate the psychologically proven “Mere-Urgency Effect”, which compels us to focus on the “urgent, non-important” at the peril of the “important, non-urgent”.

As school ramps up and your schedule gets full, try categorizing your tasks and assignments on our Prioritization Matrix so you don’t drop the ball on the important stuff.

Prioritization Matrix
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3. Visualize Your To-Do List

If you’ve identified SMART Goals or filled out an Eisenhower Matrix, you now have an organized and actionable to-do list. Unfortunately, to-do lists have a funny way of controlling us when we should be controlling them. Try getting out of your head by visualizing what’s in front of you.

We’re fans of the classic Google Calendar because it integrates with platforms like Google Classroom and Schoology, pushes reminders to your phone, and can be easily shared with a parent or tutor. Marigold staff and students make use of its color coding feature, as it visually organizes what can otherwise feel like chaos.

To help students manage the “flow” of their to-do’s, we take a cue from project management and design thinking. The Kanban Board, originally ideated by Toyota

manufacturers and revitalized by Silicon Valley, enables students to visualize their “to-dos,”“doings,” and “dones,”and zoom in what's blocking progress. Are you struggling with starting tasks, finishing homework, or simply forgetting to turn in your assignments? A well-maintained Kanban Board will help you identify and eliminate patterns that stand between you and your goals.

Project Management Board
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A Kanban Board can be as simple as our above paper/pencil tool, but we encourage you to find what works for you. In an office setting, Kanban Boards are typically put on a large poster or whiteboard, and tasks are written on post-its that can be physically moved as they progress. We’re also big fans of the digital Kanban Board app Trello, which can be integrated (and color-coded!) with your Google calendar.

4. Give Yourself a Break

You read that right; we are giving you permission to give yourself a break. Not only do you deserve it, but taking strategic breaks during study sessions is a proven way to maximize efficiency and understanding.

During a multi-hour study session, the learning curve generally looks like this: It starts slow, speeds up, then levels off entirely around 30 minutes.

Instead, try using the Pomodoro Method which interrupts the learning curve in order to restart it. For middle and high school students, we recommend starting with these intervals and adjusting as necessary:

  • Set a timer for 20 minutes.*

  • Study hard during those 20 minutes.

  • Once the timer goes off, get up and take a 5-minute break.

  • Do something non-academic during those 5 minutes: take a walk, get a snack, or go outside.

  • Come back to your studies refreshed and ready for another 20-minute study session.

  • Repeat this four times. Then, give yourself a longer (20-30 minute) break before diving back in.

*Keep in mind, mileage varies from student to student. Younger students may need shorter intervals and students who struggle with transitions may prefer longer intervals. Adjust the time-on-task and the time off-task to suit your needs.

The learning curve using the Pomodoro Method looks more like this:

The strategic breaks allow students to process and understand new information, enabling greater retention over time.

Try this method out in your next study session by using our Pomodoro Timer.

5. Become a note-taking ninja

We’ve talked a lot about the ways to maximize your time outside of the classroom, but what about inside the classroom? Actionable goals and organized to-do lists can only take you so far if you don’t remember what you're learning. As a back-to-school gift, we are providing you with our four most effective note-taking templates and our recommended strategies for each.

5a. Cornell Notes use two separate columns. One for the information you learn in class, and the other for cues and reminders you can fill in later while studying.

Cornell Notes
Download • 361KB

Record as much information as possible during class in the first column, like names and dates, charts and formulas, examples, and case studies. Reduce your notes into main ideas in the second column shortly after class to practice recall. Write down keywords, concepts, and facts from the right column, then formulate concise questions based on your reduced notes. Finally, a section at the bottom allows you to review and reflect on your notes, summarizing them into a few main conclusions.

5b. Mind-Mapping is a non-linear method of taking notes that uses lines and shapes to connect main ideas.

Download • 367KB

This is an effective tool for visual learners or for academic concepts that don’t have a “beginning and end.” Try doing this with colored pencils on our template, create your own format on a blank piece of paper, or harness the power of technology by mapping on a computer or tablet.

5c. Outlining organizes main ideas under different headings and categories, and often uses numbers and bullet points.

Download • 359KB

Not only is this an effective tool for managing in-class notes, it also helps students organize thoughts for essays and free response questions. For many students, the hardest part of writing composition is getting started. Outlining allows students to break their ideas into manageable chunks and “fill in the blanks” later, which eliminates the task-initiation paralysis that can come with open-ended writing assignments.

5d. Taking notes while reading is one of the most effective ways to retain complex information. Whether reading for a class, a test, or homework, we recommend students follow six simple steps to actively engage with and remember the text: make connections, visualize the text, anticipate questions, infer meaning (read between the lines), identify the main idea, and summarize. We’re fans of on-page annotations with colored pens and highlighters, but encourage students to take notes on a separate page, like our template below, for complex stories and concepts.

Active Reading
Download • 355KB

In conclusion, it's completely normal to feel overwhelmed at the beginning of the school year. You're juggling new classes, new expectations, and higher stakes. The good news is there are tools to help. Try getting out of your head and out of your way by following proven systems to success.

Sharable Back to School Toolkit
Download • 848KB

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