Quick Tips for Students: Getting, Staying Organized

Timeline concept: Painted red Clock icon on Torn Paper background with  Hand Drawing Time Icons, 3d render

“Executive Functioning”—it’s not just for executives. It’s for everyone who wants to set and realize goals, including students.

Here is a formal definition of Executive Functioning:

The executive functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal.

It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.

One major resource is time. For everyone, but especially many people with ADHD, time-management can be a constant challenge. Time just seems to fly by—or stretch endlessly.

Taming that trickster, time, requires making solid plans to keep on track with one’s goals.

Enter a new book specifically for students, designed to help them strengthen executive functioning via concrete strategies: The Work-Smart Academic Planner: Write It Down. Get It Done, by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare (Guilford, 2015). Part workbook, part planner, this spiral-bound guide is endorsed by two of highly regarded experts:

“This planner will be extremely useful for a wide variety of students, from those struggling with school performance to high achievers seeking further growth. It incorporates research-based strategies that will help students manage and plan their time, organize school assignments and responsibilities, and remain focused on short- and long-term goals. I know of no other resource that not only provides an individual guide for executive skill development but also includes many helpful checklists, tip sheets, and templates to support the successful completion of essential school tasks.”—George J. DuPaul, PhD, School Psychology Program, Lehigh University

“While it is valuable to develop theoretical models of executive functioning, it is incredibly more so to develop practical strategies and clinical tools for overcoming problems in this area. Congratulations to Dawson and Guare for doing just that. This planner provides a set of tools that will help teens with executive skills deficits–including those with ADHD–to function more effectively. Parents and teachers will find the book highly useful, and clinicians will want to add it to the list of resources they recommend for dealing with executive skills deficits on a daily basis.”—Russell A. Barkley, PhD, ABPP, ABCN, Department of Psychiatry, Medical University of South Carolina

Two excerpts follow:
planners for students with ADHD

How to Keep Track of Due Dates, Papers

What works for another student may not work for you, but here’s an approach to try:

1. Use one large binder for all subjects, using a tab divider for each subject. The binder should come with pockets in the front and back.

2. Write INCOMPLETE HOMEWORK on the front pocket and put any homework assignments you get there as soon as the teacher hands them out. Write COMPLETED HOMEWORK on the back pocket.

3. Write the DUE DATE for homework assignments on the top of the sheet as soon as you get it.

4. Organize homework in the INCOMPLETE HOMEWORK pocket by due date, with the one due first on top. As soon as you open your binder for whatever reason, you’ll see the assignment and the due date to help you remember to do it.

5. As soon as you finish a homework assignment, put it in the COMPLETED HOMEWORK pocket.

6. Keep all papers your teacher wants you to keep in the section for that class. Throw out papers you don’t have to keep. You may want to check with the teacher if you’re not sure whether you should save something.

7. You may also want to include in the binder a zippered pouch with materials such as pens, pencils, erasers, and calculators.

How to Manage Your Time

Time management is actually composed of other executive skills—task initiation, sustained attention, and planning—as well as a unique element called time estimation.

Many students have trouble with time management because they’re not good at estimating how long something will take. Most frequently, they underestimate how long a difficult task will take and so don’t build in enough time to get it done. Occasionally, students overestimate how long the task will take, which leads them to delay starting because they feel overwhelmed by it.

Time estimation can be improved through practice, which is why the daily planner includes a space for you to estimate how long you think any given homework assignment will take. If you track your estimate to see whether it was correct or not, you can improve your time estimation skills.

Other strategies for improving time management skills are:

1. Try to stick to a predictable schedule, particularly for studying, but also for sleep and other daily routines. Build reasonable “down time” into your daily routines.

2. Make a public commitment to follow your schedule—for instance, you might tell your mom on Saturday the time you plan to study for a test or begin writing a paper during the weekend. You may even ask her to remind you when the time comes.

3. Set alarms or use a reminder program on your smart phone to get you started on time.

4. Create checklists or to-do lists that include start times and an estimate of how long the task will take. Add up the amount of time needed to get through the list and delete things if the list is not realistic.


4 thoughts on “Quick Tips for Students: Getting, Staying Organized”

  1. Any comments on getting others to buy into supporting and coaching the person on a regular consistent basis, who may not be able or ready to be fully independent in its use? I’m having a terrible time getting others to understand the severity of executive functioning and the impact it has on every aspect of life, including one’s social life. It’s frustrating when you’ve spent a lot of time and money learning about effective strategies and purchasing materials which help make life better for everyone, only to be ignored and unsupported. I’ve shared multiple resources I’ve purchased, suggested and made color coding systems, pre-made planning tools from Smart but Scattered, time management tools……but our team refuses to lift a finger to ensure these items are being utilized.

    1. Hi Jane,

      I’m a little confused. Are you talking about a young child, a teen, a college student? And, when you say “others,” are you talking about teachers, therapists, co-parents, etc.?


  2. These are solid tips. Staying on top of paperwork and assignments was an ongoing struggle in college. I still have yet to find a reliable method now for my day to day purposes!

    1. I know, Carolyn. Same here. I seem to get a system that works, then something always changes to make it less effective!

      Log rolling!

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