Last week I hired a personal organizer to help me clean out my office. It took 3.5 hours to organize the desks and shelves, and, on a separate day, it took 3 hours to organize 4 drawers and 1 cabinet. The last time my office was cleaned out so thoroughly was never. I meant to do it, but the project felt too overwhelming and scary.
When I was student many years ago, the big projects and essays also seemed overwhelming and scary. There were so many parts and steps! My go-to solution was often to put them off as long as possible and then suffer through them. But since I hate suffering, I gradually devised methods to break them down into manageable chunks. Tutoring For Success offers not only tutoring but “coaches” to help students get motivated and break down their assignments. Here are some strategies that we teach our students to help manage those overwhelming school projects.
Let’s say you have been assigned a research paper that is due in 3 weeks. Here is a blueprint on how to break it down.
- Use a calendar, the kind where you can see the whole month, to break down your assignment into manageable tasks. You can use a large desktop calendar or an online calendar, depending on your preference.
- First mark up the calendar with your extra-curricular activities, so that you can see which days you are available to work on the project. Be reasonable and schedule times and days that you will be productive. (For many students, this does not include Fridays or weekend mornings.)
- Then plug in time slots for each task. Each time slot should be between 40 minutes and 2 hours.
- These are the tasks I use for a research paper:
- Spend some time thinking about what you want to say
- Write thesis statement
- Research day 1
- Research day 2
- Rough draft day 1
- Rough draft day 2
- Revise and edit day 1
- Add notes and references
- Revise and edit day 2
Step one is important and involves some creativity. You want to write something interesting and compelling that connects your research with your own opinion and argument. You can come up with ideas while lying in bed, sitting outside, or walking. I composed most of my college papers in my head while walking around campus, which usually took several days. Then it was easy to sit down and and get started writing.
If you are assigned a creative project, perhaps for a science fair, your tasks may look like this:
- Make a list of the steps you will take. This may involve a walk to sort out your project in your mind.
- Write down a list of materials, look for some in your house, ask your friends for some, and shop for the rest.
- Create your project day 1.
- Create your project day 2.
- Write up your analysis.
- Proofread and practice your presentation.
- Practice day 2.
This break-down method works for studying for tests as well. This takes a lot of self discipline, but ideally, you should review what you learned each day that you have class. You may be able to do this in 15 minutes. Then use the calendar method to break down your test preparation into steps. In addition to making your life more manageable, learning material over a period of time has been proven to be more effective and long-lasting than cramming.
- Create a study guide. This should be for topics you need to review, not those you already know.
- Find the information for your study guide and write it in.
- Meet with friends and ask each other questions.
- Create a sample test for yourself or a friend.
- Explain the material to a parent or classmate.
If you want to organize your office without hiring a personal organizer, you can use the same technique. Do one drawer or shelf in a day. When schoolwork or any tasks are overwhelming, using a calendar and breaking down projects into manageable chunks will both improve productivity and reduce stress.