High school students know the struggle of time management all too well.

Throughout primary school, we managed our home readers, maths worksheets and the occasional poster or diorama without thinking about it. All of a sudden, we reached year 7 and we’re expected to spread our afternoon across 8 subjects worth of homework and assignments as well as any work we didn’t finish during the day’s lesson.

For some students, the struggle to do it all can be dangerous. They strive to keep up with their homework, yet their to-do list only grows longer, so students regularly stay up until the early hours of the morning, sacrificing sleep, exercise and self-care. They know this routine isn’t sustainable, yet in our workaholic “hustle” culture it’s nearly impossible to see an alternative way to succeed.

The school curriculum is designed to share knowledge about the world and give students the skills they need for the world they’ll graduate into. By this logic, the school years are also a training ground for students to develop the time management practices and principles that will enable them to succeed in life after school.

Here are 3 tips that every student should know to achieve a healthy balance between life and study:

A paradigm for prioritising.

One of the books I read and re-read in high school and my early university days was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey. It’s based on the bestselling The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, but has been revised with examples and scenarios relevant to teenagers. Both Covey’s write about ‘The Time Quadrants’ but you might have heard of this called the ‘Eisenhower Matrix’. It is a 2 x 2 table divided into:

  1. Important and urgent,
  2. Important but not important,
  3. Not important but urgent,
  4. Not urgent and not important.

Adapting this framework to a student’s to-do list would look something like this:

STEP ONE: List all homework and assessment activities and their due dates.

STEP TWO: Sort them into the following categories:

  1. Homework that is due tomorrow (important and urgent),
  2. Assignments and exam revision (important but not important)’
  3. Recommended readings for tomorrow’s class (not important but urgent),
  4. Optional extension activities that are relevant but shouldn’t be done until more important tasks are up-to-date (not important and not urgent).

By following this guide, you can tame your to-do list in less than 20 minutes and work out where your focus should be in the present.

Once we’ve prioritised our to-do list, we have to do the work. The next tool for effective time management is what I call time-blocking.

STEP THREE: Estimate the time it will take to complete each task.

Be realistic and round up by 5-10 minutes. If your teacher says to spend 15 minutes writing a paragraph, allot 20 minutes. If you think the maths worksheet will take 20 minutes, allow 30 minutes. Most people underestimate how long it takes to complete a task so it’s wise to leave some margin.

STEP FOUR: Break it down

If the task will take over 45 minutes to complete, break the task into smaller pieces. You could divide 2 hours of research into 4 x 30 minutes blocks or divide a 90 minute essay into:

  • Introduction (10 minutes)
  • Body paragraph 1 (20 minutes)
  • Body paragraph 2 (20 minutes)
  • Body paragraph 3 (20 minutes)
  • Conclusion (10 minutes)
  • Proofread (10 minutes)

Time-blocking is crucial for students who work slowly and carefully to make sure they get everything right, since they are the students most prone to sacrificing sleep, exercise and self-care to finish a never-ending to-do list.

Change your definition of productivity.

Instead of asking yourself, “Did I complete the task in the time I set?”, time-blocking allows you to re-frame effectiveness as “Did I focus during the time set?”.

  • If you answered “no”, then you need to identify and manage distractions.
  • If you answered “yes”, but the task still isn’t done, you may need to re-evaluate how realistic your time estimates were or whether you are putting more time into a task than the teacher is asking you to. You might have to shuffle some time blocks to tomorrow to get the task done tonight (if it’s important and urgent) or allocate an additional time block to the task another day.

In some cases, it is possible that your child has been assigned an unrealistic amount of homework or that the teacher’s expectations about what tasks are and are not for homework are unclear. If you think this is the case, speak to your child’s teacher.

Spending too much time on homework is counter-productive to learning (which is the goal of homework) because you are compromising on your body’s need for rest and movement which help your mind to retain the information and skills you are revising.

Sleep is non-negotiable

High school students, whether they’re in Year 7 or Year 12 need at least 8-10 hours of sleep each night.

Contrary to popular opinion, you cannot catch up a sleep debt. Sleeping in more on the weekends might help you to feel better, but you cannot buy back lost sleep. This is because one of the many functions of sleep is moving short term memories (what we learned that day ) into long-term memory. The brain creates new synaptic connections and reinforces or changes neural pathways, linking new information to what we already know, and organising it in a way that helps us to recall that information when we are awake.

We go through several sleep cycles a night, and when we compromise on the amount of sleep we get during the week, short-term memories miss their opportunity to be consolidated into long-term memory. Sleep only works on what you’ve earned that day, so if you learned something on Monday and stayed up all night doing homework, sleeping less that you need to, your extra efforts aren’t going into long term memory.

We also know that when we are well-rested, we focus better and actually get more done in the same amount of time, meaning your time blocks will be even more effective.

We can’t hack our biology and overworking does not equal effective learning, but balance does.

Nepean Tutoring cares about the whole student because we know that that achieving success is supported by a healthy body and a healthy mind. Our tutors not only help students with assignments and homework, we also help students to get organised. If your child needs help with time management, Contact Us to see how we can support your child to success.

(Photo by Gustavo Torres on Unsplash)