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Turning Panic into Productivity

It’s 7:30 pm on a Thursday night and your child comes bounding down the stairs with a look of bewilderment. Your child hurriedly explains that they have two tests tomorrow and a paper due at midnight. He or she would have had “plenty of time” to finish all of this work, but a twenty-minute nap quickly turned into three hours of somnolent Netflix binging. Now, it is too late to get everything done and your child is panicking.

Does this sound familiar? It is one of the most common occurrences for high school students nowadays. With pitiful sleep schedules and relentless distractions, it is also too easy to push that task off until tomorrow. This is very dangerous though, as the Spanish proverb says, “tomorrow is often the busiest day of the week.” While we never condone procrastination of this magnitude, it is important to have a reliable system during panic mode. To read about preventative techniques, please explore our other blogs on procrastination vs proactiveness, time management, or habits and routines. This post, however, is for a one (or two) time bandaid to turn panic into productivity.

Write it Down

By far the most useful fire extinguisher for procrastination-induced panic is a pen and a piece of paper. All problems seem much more complex and insolvable in our own heads. Tell your student to grab some paper and a pen, set a timer for five minutes, and write down everything that needs to be done. Write everything, no hesitation, academic tasks as well as miscellaneous to-do items. Just list away. Solving panic is very similar to solving a puzzle. The first thing we need to do is dump out all of the pieces. If you try to solve a puzzle by picking pieces out of the box, you will never finish. Instead, get everything out into the open. This often has a remarkably calming effect on students. Most of the time, the problem isn’t as bad as it seemed. When I ask students to do this, the average number of tasks they need to complete is three or four, but just seconds before they started writing, it seemed like they had twenty problems to deal with. Write it down.

Delegate, Reduce, and Prioritize

Next, we need to turn this therapeutic tool into a jagged weapon of productivity. Continuing with the puzzle analogy, we need to put in all of the corner and border pieces, so we have a scope for solving the middle. First, see if anything can be delegated. Let’s be clear, I am not condoning cheating. If there are any small, organizational tasks unrelated to academic integrity, then let’s try to delegate them. For example, students will often write that one of their tasks is to print their essays or pack their soccer bags for the game tomorrow. If possible, (politely) delegate this to a sibling or helpful parent. Then, cross those items off of the list. Next, try to reduce the list with some creative problem-solving. Can your student ask for a one-day extension on the paper because he or she has built up social capital with the teacher? This is a dangerous precedent, but it works for a one-time fix. Can your student complete their math homework during an off period tomorrow? Again, this isn’t a habit we want to form, but it works in a pinch. By following this process, your student can cut down their list to maybe two or three items. Next, prioritize this list using the Three D’s of prioritization: due date, difficulty, and desire. If one assignment is due at midnight while the rest of them are due at 8 am, do that one first. If two have the same due date, then do the one that is more difficult first. If they have the same difficulty, then do your preferred subject. Now, your student should have an ironclad, prioritized to-do list for the evening.

Rely on Interval Training 

I often tell students that studying is similar to interval training. In interval training, athletes seek to have short sessions at high intensity, rather than long sessions at low intensity. When time is of the essence, interval training is key. We want to create a rhythmic study process by eliminating distractions and using timers. Ask your student to work in one of the three following work/rest ratios: 60 minutes on/15 minutes off, 45 minutes on/10 minutes off, or 30 minutes on/5 minutes off. There are a few other rules students need to follow: always stand up and leave the table during breaks, work until one task is completely finished before moving on to the next one, and put all devices on do not disturb mode or put them in a different room.

That’s it. In no time, your student’s work will be completed, unaware of how quickly this system turned pure panic into pure productivity. Tomorrow morning, provide a gentle reminder that procrastination tends to snowball and preventative measures are more effective. For more tips like these, please visit our other blogs or head over to our services page to find out more about our one-on-one coaching.

Evan Weinberger


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

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