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The Five Minute Prep

Too often, struggling students focus on the wrong problem and thus arrive at the wrong solution. Like most human beings, students mistake busyness with productivity, but that mistake inevitably leads to frustration. Instead, we recommend a different, albeit simple, approach to righting the academic ship: enact simple systems. The art of executive function often hinges on simplicity because, at the end of the day, the best tactic to help a student improve is the one he or she will adopt and practice consistently. Because simplicity is such an extraordinary lever for growth, our unique approach to executive functioning skill coaching emphasizes ease. In other words, we encourage students to adopt minor changes that spark major results. One such minor change, the Five Minute Prep, is the focus of this blog post.

A student, let’s call him James, returns home from school around 3:30 pm with a full to-do list. Midterms are around the corner, so he wants to start on his study guides. However, he has two tests and an essay due in the next five days. To further complicate proceedings, James will miss school on Thursday for a soccer tournament, so he needs to reschedule one of the aforementioned tests while alerting several teachers of his absence and intended “catch up plan.” With this litany of action items tumbling through the ephemeral synapses of his adolescent mind, James arrives home, exchanges pleasantries with his mother, and hunkers down at his desk. He opens his laptop to start on the English essay.

He searches his email for the prompt when he suddenly remembers his soccer tournament on Thursday. He switches tasks to draft an email to his history teacher entitled “Missing Class Thursday, Make-Up Exam.” Halfway through that email, his mom pops into the room to ask about midterm preparation. James spends the next fifteen minutes showing her his review packets and laying out a battle plan. Satisfied for the moment, his mother returns to the kitchen to finish making dinner. After forgetting what he was working on before she came in, James starts filling out the biology review packet, which isn’t due for another two weeks. Twenty minutes later, his mom calls him down for dinner. He glances at the clock, which reads “6:33 pm”. Soccer practice starts at 7:45 pm. He shakes his head, wondering where the time went.

Does this scenario sound familiar? We see it every day. Every parent and educator can put themselves in James’ shoes — overstimulation rendering a promising study session ineffective. The good news is James can turn this cornucopia of partially completed tasks into solid, sustainable progress with one simple habit: The Five Minute Prep.

The Five Minute Prep is a pre-study ritual designed to help students get the right things done in an acceptable period of time. It’s akin to the NASA countdown checklist. By eliminating possible hindrances to a goal in a systemized manner, students can maximize the progress of any given work block. There are three phases to the Five Minute Prep: (1) reduce external distractions, (2) acknowledge internal distractions, and (3) chart the minimum effective dose.

Reduce External Distractions

Students can take two minutes to reduce the external distractions in their environment BEFORE it’s an issue. A clean desk makes a huge difference, as any visual stimuli will seem more appealing when procrastination strikes. With that in mind, let’s leave the cell phone in another room. As we have discussed in other posts, the danger of always-on is all too real. Decide to limit distractions at the forefront, and life will be so much simpler.

Acknowledge Internal Distractions

A decluttered desk is sure to help, but how do we declutter our minds? In the hypothetical story with James, he had plenty of non-pressing issues that just kept popping up. Soccer tournaments, social events, and the emotions from the day pull our attention away from the task at hand. Before your student starts studying, ask them to take a breath and put all non-urgent tasks on the back burner. For some, it helps to write down distractions as they pop up, vowing to return to them at a more appropriate time. For others, try unloading the five to ten thoughts running through your mind before they derail a study session. I promise it’s a worthwhile sixty-second investment.

Chart the Minimum Effective Dose

Last but certainly not least, chart a course. One of the biggest mistakes students make when they sit down to study is not setting a clear direction. Mindlessly working for the sake of working, without a plan, as James did in the hypothetical scenario, does more harm than good. One completed task is better than six partially completed tasks. Further, we pay a cognitive switching cost every time we rotate from one assignment to the next.

A better approach is to simplify, refine, and attack a meaningful action item. What is the minimum action that will have an impact? In medicine, they call this method of thinking the minimum effective dose. For our pal James, the minimum effective dose would have been a ten-minute email to his teacher and the introductory paragraph of his essay — a few meaningful goals rather than scattered struggling.

The five-minute prep is just one of many tools we teach students. We have learned that systems and habits account for more success than all intelligence in the world. To learn more about our unique executive functioning skills coaching, please reach out today! In the meantime, check our other resources for more EF-driven tools and tactics.

Evan Weinberger


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

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