Executive Function 101: Bulletproof Your New College Semester (Or Any Semester)

| by Thuy Truong, M.A. Ed., TPT Teaching and Coaching, 1/5/21|





Executive function is considered one of the most important 21st century skills that affect academic and career success. It is intricately tied to students’ self-management, creativity, critical thinking, transition to college, and working memory. The good news is, there is empirical research that shows executive function can be improved with proper guidance and practice (NCBI). Below are fail-proof executive function tips to bulletproof a new college semester (or any semester really):


Pre-categorize Your Time


Time is a thief unless you catch it first. Let’s face it, time is a subjective concept these days when distractions come in multiple directions for students. The reality is, the gift of time is sacred and life is much easier when you maximize various categories of your time. The best way to take control of time is to predetermine your time. That is, assign clear categories for every block of hour that makes up your full day to ensure a proper balance (academic, nutrition, leisure, sleep, and self-care). You can create a master schedule with specific time categories for each day of the week by ensuring the same wake-up and sleeping time each day to help habituate routines and make it easy to remember (memory is important because it does slow you down if you constantly have to stop to check what you need to do next). Solution: make it easier to remember by doing the activity the same time every day as much as possible. The more regularities you can add to your schedule, the easier it will be for you to remember and implement.



Translate The Syllabus Into Your Own Language


To some level, the syllabus is like a playbook on how to get an A in each class. It explicitly indicates the professor’s expectations and class policies. You will finish the class strong if you proactively understand the rules within that class. You may think you will remember the policies now, but things will feel like a whirlwind by the middle of a semester. To make your college life easier, the best time-efficient strategy is to create a pre-outlined catalogue of expectations and weighted grade systems from the get-go for each class. That way, when you need to reference it in the future, it will open in seconds (because you had organized it in advance because you knew it would save you time in the long run) and you can refresh your memory in minutes.



So what is the essential information from a syllabus you would need to bullet out in your own language on a Google Docs or paper planner/notebook? My suggestions: If you use a paper planner, lift all the needed information listed below into the “Notes” section of your planner or anywhere in the planner with plenty of blank space. If you use Google calendar, then there’s space restriction, so create a “Syllabus” subfolder within the main folder for each designated class in your Google Drive, and throw the information in the subfolder.


Vital information to extract from a syllabus:

  • Professor’s full name and office hours

  • Professor’s preferred communication method, if applicable.

  • Contact information (both email and phone, prepare for emergencies)

  • Grading system

  • Extra technical information to ace the class (Example: online discussion twice a week-must reply to 2 classmates' posts to get full credit weekly, 15% of semester grade)

  • Recommended resources (This can be a time saver, so bookmark your professor's suggested websites and write down professor's recommended books etc.)


My point: if you distilled the syllabus within the first week of each semester (do 1-2 a day), it would take you less than 5 minutes to revisit a professor’s expectations if you need a refresher during the semester. 5 minutes every time or wading through a 8-10 page syllabus every time? The choice should be clear.


Move All Deadlines From Syllabi Into Your Personal Calendar (Right Away!)

Brian Tracy penned: “Every minute you spend in planning saves 10 minutes in execution; this gives you a 1,000 percent Return on Energy!” This is the beauty of plugging all academic deadlines into your personal calendaring system within the first week of each semester (do this magic for each class). Turn your academic life into a well-oiled machine, so you have ample time and energy to focus on getting those A’s. It will feel really good when 80-90% of your deadlines are laid down pat within the first week of school all in one sweet place: Planner or Google calendar. Gentle reminder: when you plug in final deadlines, don’t forget to plan backwards and also slot out when you’re going to do the actual parts of each assignment (Having the deadline down is only half of the work). The smaller you chunk out the work, but do it consistently each day, the easier it will be.



Automatize Online Resources (for each class)

The secret to navigating a smooth semester is proactively organizing and automatizing your online resources early so everything will be at your fingertips by the time you get tons of homework and projects. For example, bookmark your frequently used academic websites in designated folders categorized by class name, create digital folders for each of your classes in your Google Drive, cut and paste all your teachers’ emails in one Google Doc so you can find it in 30 seconds every time, autosave schools' passwords and download additional apps/ebooks needed for classes. Centralization is key. Keep it simple, because simple means stress-free.




Have It When You Need It (Physical Resources)


Academic success means you need a physical environment where you can dedicate yourself to academic excellence away from needless distractions, so make sure you have a clutter-free study corner to call your own. It is where you can be your all and give it your all. Besides a quiet space, you also need to get in the practice of having extra writing instruments, notebooks, and other physical academic materials near your study corner for convenience and ease when you need it (like in the middle of a project and it's an inconvenience to do school supplies shopping after your late shift). The unexpected lack of additional school supplies can get in the way of your productivity and eat up your valuable time. Solution: take stock and replenish often or buy generously every August so it will last you the entire school year. Also, buying or borrowing hard copy books early in the semester is a huge time and stress saver.





Don’t Fall For The “Just 10 More Minutes” Voice


The truth about time and distractions is that they’re never on our side. This is a simple truth, but it's hard to remember when we have to juggle so many things. The only way we can make it work for us is when we proactively remove the opportunity for any temptation to even occur in the first place. Stick to your plan, follow your time categories, no matter what! Do what you wrote down you would do, find ways to transform your distractions into inspirations. That way, you can see how far you can really go when you have a system and game plan to combat roadblocks along the way.

The key to executive function is practice because through it you’ll discover and develop your own personal style to tackle challenges that you often face each semester. The primary aim of executive function is not to dictate there’s only one way to increase productivity because everyone has their own secret sauce to keep stress at bay while reaching their personal and professional goals on a daily basis. Instead, it’s about taking note of the challenges you often run into and proactively issue personalized solutions for those situations, thereby making the future tasks you do more enjoyable because you’re making it your own and acing classes at the same time. Now, have a great spring 2021 semester and beyond! Happy New Year!









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