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Practical Ideas for Chaotic Moments

As much as we love planners, binders, and other EF-driven systems, they are not perfect. Inevitably, something slips through the cracks or breaks the system. A student becomes distracted during the fifteen-second window when his or her teacher announces a major test on Friday. An extra-innings baseball game derails a student’s writing progress as the workload devolves into procrastination station. And sometimes, schools just assign too much work for a student to handle. Ultimately, systems, however perfect, fail eventually. Therefore, students need to develop practical methods for dealing with chaos and panic.

Let’s start with what doesn’t work. Whenever a chaotic scenario ensues, the least helpful thing a parent, teacher, or academic coach can say is “calm down.” Often, this simple edict sparks more rage and adrenaline, further complicating a tense situation. Likewise, scolding doesn’t help. Parents should save the lecture, however poignant and necessary, for another day. In your student’s current state of panic, your wise words are going in one ear and out the other. Your student is probably more aware of the mistakes that led to this point than you are. A post mortem is necessary to prevent future mistakes, but right now, your student needs support, not scolding.

On to the fun stuff: what should parents, coaches, and teachers say or do during moments of chaos? Well, we have devised four simple steps to help your student go from panic to productive:

Step 1: Dump out the box

What’s the first step to solving any puzzle? Dump out all of the pieces. Anyone who tries to put together a puzzle within the box either enjoys suffering or doesn’t understand the concept. When the puzzle pieces are in the box, you can’t see any similarities or differences between components; you can’t maneuver because of the barriers the box creates; and most importantly, you can’t see how many total pieces you need to sort. So, the first step is to dump out the box. Give your student a piece of paper and a pen and tell them to write down everything: every worry, every assignment, every task. Woo! Now, we have something to work with. We have space, we have perspective, and we can prioritize, which leads me to the next point.

Step 2: What can you bomb?

In moments of chaos, the most helpful thing to do is eliminate the unnecessary, freeing up willpower and cognitive bandwidth in the process. Therefore, the first question to ask is, what can you bomb? I had a college student who somehow missed the professor’s forty-minute lecture about the term paper. He called me in a mild state of hysteria three days before this behemoth of a writing assignment was due (minimum twenty pages). I made him write everything on his mind a la step one. His stream of consciousness produced everything from outlining and researching his term paper to hanging out with his girlfriend, watching the Astros play, and hitting the gym. I asked him what he could completely ignore for a week without any significant consequences. His girlfriend? That could end poorly. The gym? That might hurt rather than help, as per our post on the importance of exercise to brain function. Finally, we decided that the Astros could be utterly and completely ignored for a week without significant consequences. We had already clinched the playoffs, and Bregman was out for two weeks anyway. This freed up about nine hours for paper writing. Whether it is skipping sports games, ignoring your social media, or even cutting the gym routine for a week, deciding what you want to bomb is an essential step to productivity.

Step 3: Can you delegate or delay?

Once a hefty chunk of free time has been repurposed for productivity, we need to D & D (delegate & delay). Encourage students to delegate items that need to get done, but not immediately. For example, many students sign themselves up for unofficial jobs both at school and at home. It might be organizing a weekend plan with their friends via group text or walking the dog in the evenings. For this week only, we want to hand those tasks off to someone we trust. Hopefully, the student has built up enough social capital to ask for favors. Secondly, ask students if there is anything they can delay. We’re not procrastinating, we’re delaying. There’s a huge difference. Procrastination is fear-driven and often subconscious. Delaying is purpose-driven and intentional. Items that can be delayed are usually easy to find. What can wait until next week? What can wait until tomorrow? Asking these questions and intentionally sorting tasks into the proper container is the fastest way to move from panic to productivity.

Step 4: W.I.N.

The last step is to W.I.N, which stands for what’s important now? Students should take that monumental task that’s causing them all this stress and anxiety and turn it into one clear-cut action item to work on NOW. Avoid vague generalities here like “write paper” or “study”. Let’s get specific and action-oriented. Great examples are things like outline introduction and first body paragraph, gather quotes for body paragraphs, and meet with a teacher to discuss the thesis. The goal here is movement. The firsts step is always the most difficult but the most crucial. The first step creates the momentum that sustains push after push until the chaos ebb back into relaxation. So, what’s important now?

Panic happens to everybody. What separates great students from merely ok students is how they prepare for panic before the onset. As Cicero once said, “build more barns; it won’t always be summer.” We are future-focused, and our mission is to help students built the tools and systems they need to thrive academically and in all other areas of their lives. If your child could benefit from one-on-one executive functioning help, please reach out today! To read more about what we do and how we can help, please visit our services page or check out our blog posts.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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