“Being organized” can seem like a mysterious skill that some students have and some don’t. But this isn’t true! Organization results from a specific set of behaviors, and if these behaviors don’t come naturally to you, it’s more than worth your time to learn them.
Organization makes everything about being a high school student easier. You’ll stay more focused, have less to worry about, have lower levels of stress, and since you’re using your time more effectively, you’ll actually have more free time!
When it comes to being organized, there are four major elements you need to manage: Time, Tasks, Stuff, and Energy. We should note that not all good students excel in every one of these categories. You may compensate for weaknesses in one area by being particularly strong in the others. Applying these principles even 50-75% of the time will make a huge difference!
Freshman year is the perfect time to become aware of these concepts. Not only is the high school workload far more demanding than in junior high, it’s also less predictable, shifting based on time of year and extracurricular activities. If you start working to master organizational skills now, you’ll have four years to hone your abilities before the even more challenging environment of college.
So let’s break it down:
1. TIME: Students who manage time well understand the non-negotiables in their schedule, such as school, sports practice, or club meetings. They account for the amount of time those activities take, and also make sure that they show up on time. Your parents tracked these activities when you were younger, but at this point this responsibility should be shifting onto your own shoulders.
Good time management also involves distributing other work around those non-negotiables, in a way that makes your life easier instead of harder. Students who do this well might make use of the time between classes to get work done, for example. They have a sense of how to approach homework on a daily basis so they never have to stay up too late, and they start early on larger projects.
Essential Tools for Managing Time:
- Calendar (can be digital—Google, Apple—or physical)
- Agenda Book
Students tend to gravitate to either a calendar or an agenda book. Organized students use at least one of these tools, and many will use both. Ninth grade is a good time to experiment with these tools, as well as whether you’re more comfortable writing things down or keeping track digitally, and get used to the idea of managing your own time.
Rhythms and Routines for Managing Time: Add items to the calendar as soon as they come up. Review what’s on your daily calendar either the night before or the morning of, so there’s a sense of what’s ahead. Once a week, review and clean up your calendar/agenda for the week ahead.
2. TASKS: Tasks are the things you need to get done, schoolwork-related or not. Younger high school students tend to rely either on their memories or on external reminders from teachers or parents, perhaps in the form of material distributed in class (seeing an empty worksheet in their folder reminds them that they have to do the work).
As they go through high school, students who are more successful and less stressed begin consciously identifying what they need to do and organizing those tasks into their own system. Managing tasks well also involves the ability to break long-term projects into smaller pieces, and sequence them appropriately.
Essential Tools for Managing Tasks:
- Task List
The task list can be as simple as one sheet of paper, or it can be woven into your agenda book or digital calendar system. We typically recommend avoiding putting all your tasks into a calendar system, simply because as your task list gets longer, the space considerations get in the way.
Rhythms and Routines for Managing Tasks: We recommend entering tasks into your system whenever they come up, rather than relying on your memory to hold them until a later time. Once a day or once a week, dedicate time to planning out when tasks will be accomplished, and revisit/update the task list as needed. For larger projects, break them down into component tasks as soon as possible after an assignment is given.
3. STUFF: Students have lots of stuff, both physical and digital. Sometimes messy students still do well, but mismanaged stuff can also lead to assignments that aren’t turned in because they’ve gone missing, not to mention a lot of time wasted hunting down misplaced items. Ultimately, the highest-performing students manage their stuff in a way that doesn’t hold them back from executing their work.
Essential Tools for Managing Stuff:
- Binder/folder system for papers from class
- Some method for organizing digital files
Some students will want to keep all their schoolwork in a single folder or binder; others will want different folders/binders for each class. This will largely depend on the amount of content you receive from each teacher, as well as personal preferences.
Digital file organization doesn’t have to be elaborate, but having subfolders for each class in a main folder for the school year is an easy way to ensure that you can revisit that material as needed for test or exam preparation.
Rhythms and Routines for Managing Stuff: Nightly or weekly, review your binder(s). Put papers in order and add loose sheets to the rings if appropriate. Pull out any papers that require additional work and make sure they are added to the calendar/agenda book/task list.
4. ENERGY: Once you know what needs to be done, and when and where you need to do it, it’s important to be able to map your energy onto your work. This involves understanding subtle factors like your personal level of motivation, which tasks are easier for you and which are harder, the time of day and conditions under which you work best, and the optimal amount of pressure you need to function well.
This knowledge, which is drawn from self-observation and self-reflection, will help you match your workflow to your energy levels—in other words, avoid burnout. If you develop this skill, you will become far more effective, and also work in ways that are more satisfying to you. This skill is particularly important for students whose schedules are “maxed out” with activities!
Focus also plays a role in energy management. You can have the most organized time, tasks, and stuff in the world, but you still have to use your energy to get something done. Managing distractions, such as noise and computers/phones, helps you shape a productive work environment. Utilizing mindfulness, meditation, and exercise wisely can all contribute to helping manage your focus. Taking breaks is also critical!
Essential Tools for Managing Energy:
- Self-understanding: tracking, reflecting, and asking outside sources (parents and teachers may have observations about energy that you are not aware of)
- Focus Tools: exercise, mindfulness, meditations, and short breaks
Rhythms and Routines for Managing Energy:
Create a ritual or routine to get into the right mental space for certain activities. This could look like always working in the same space, or taking a few minutes to breathe deeply or meditate before getting started. Finding consistency in sleep, exercise, and eating will also contribute to effective energy management.
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