Jan 10, 2022
When you’re struggling with self-management, every day can feel like an uphill battle. Not knowing how to manage time, effort, or emotions - or to organize and plan in order to meet demands, is an exhausting way to live. And although it can feel isolating for those who are struggling, these problems are far more common than most of us might think.
As coaches, we wanted to learn more about the problem areas that people of different ages encounter in their Executive Functioning. Starting in 2020 and throughout 2021, our research team asked all of our new coaching clients to take a survey at the beginning of coaching so we could begin to better understand the challenges that brought them to us. We used a survey of Executive Function called the Executive Skills Questionnaire-Revised (ESQ-R) that aligns with a number of the skills we work to address in coaching. This questionnaire was developed by Peg Dawson, renowned psychologist and co-author of the acclaimed book Smart But Scattered, along with her team of researchers.
Fast forward two years, and we’ve since gathered well over a thousand responses from our clients across all ages. In this post, we’ll be focusing on what our survey data revealed about our college students in particular.
Here are 5 problem areas that we see our college students struggling with most (and some coach-tested strategies that can help).
One of the major perks that come with college is the flexibility that students enjoy. Rather than being restricted to a structured school day with limited opportunities for free time to get work done, college students start the semester with much of their week completely open outside of scheduled classes. Although this vast amount of seemingly free time is exciting, it can also be a trap. College has no shortage of distractions, and resisting those "shiny objects" in order to be proactive about big assignments takes a mindful approach. It’s those last-minute, frantic attempts to complete work that get college students in trouble and lead to heightened stress. From the students we surveyed, 70% reported having a hard time putting aside fun activities to get work done and over half (52%) said that they tend to “live in the moment,” which on the surface may not seem like a bad thing, but is typically the kind of thinking that fuels procrastination.
Sometimes it all comes down to getting started. One of our coaches’ favorite tools for initiation only requires a timer to activate.
5-minute goals: Rather than trying to commit to an unrealistic multi-hour work-binge, we encourage students to set a timer for 5 minutes and try to see how much they can accomplish with unbroken focus. After the 5 minutes, they can decide to take a short break before doing another 5 minutes - or, if they’ve gotten into a rhythm, they can continue until they want another break. You’d be surprised how many people will decide to keep working because getting started is sometimes the hardest part!
With so many classes, extracurriculars, social events, and everything else going on in the life of a college student, keeping track of everything and remembering what needs to get done on a daily basis certainly takes some experience. More than anything, juggling it all comes down to thoughtful prioritization, but according to our survey responses, that’s no easy feat for most of the college students we work with. An overwhelming majority (72%) specifically noted that they frequently struggle to set priorities when they're busy, and an even larger majority (87%) reported that they often or very often lose track of all the responsibilities or deadlines they have to meet
Managing multiple responsibilities in an effective way hinges on prioritizing what’s actually most urgent and most important. Week to week, we recommend students go through their syllabus and see what’s due that particular week as well as keeping mindful of longer-term assignments and setting aside time to work on those before they become an emergency. Additionally, our coaches will often use a Covey Quadrants exercise to help students categorize their different activities to see how they are using their time and to help identify what they may be doing that does and doesn’t help them focus on their actual priorities. Are they spending extra time in several clubs at the expense of getting their reading done for classes? Are they getting sidetracked by texts and TikTok viewing? The Covey Quadrants can help uncover a student’s real priorities. Here's an example of what a college student's Covey Quadrant might look like:
In college, long-term planning suddenly becomes a necessity in all areas of life. Whether it’s mapping out numerous semester-long projects, planning which classes and credits are needed to finish your degree, or even simply determining which major will best set you up for an exciting career, long- term planning skills are a must-have for a successful college experience. However, most of our college students struggle with these skills. According to the 157 who participated in our survey, 68% reported frequently having trouble reaching long-term goals, and over half (54%) shared that they often or very often have trouble making a plan.
When it comes to keeping track of long-term priorities at college, we recommend students look at their syllabi at the beginning of each semester and immediately put important dates or deadlines into a digital calendar. Color-coding can be useful here. If students put in all exam dates and paper due-dates in bright red, for example, it’s easy to see weeks ahead of time where there’s a crunch period, and plan accordingly to skip that ski trip the weekend before, for example. They can also adjust the settings of those calendar events to provide reminders days ahead of time, so no surprises creep up!
Building on the theme of time, one of the other challenges that we’ve found that our college students struggle with is how they interpret the passage of time, a phenomenon known as time-blindness. Although there are many examples of time-blindness, the two most relevant here are difficulty estimating how long a task or activity will take, or accurately estimating how much time we have before an event or deadline. Our college students in particular reported struggling with anticipating how long tasks will take, with 63% sharing that this is something they have a hard time with either often or very often.
Our coaches teach students the concept of Budget Versus Actual when it comes to managing their time. For example, we might ask a student to make a guess about how long they think it will take to do a number of typical tasks like reading a textbook chapter, walking to a particular class, or completing an assignment for a given class. That’s the “budget” number. Then we ask them to note their start and finish time for those same tasks when they encounter them. That’s the “actual”. By reflecting on the differences between their budget and actual times and level-setting their estimates moving forward, students can gain a more realistic sense of time.
Let’s face it, all of our attention spans are probably half of what they could be if not for smartphones, social media, and video streaming. Throw in an exciting new living environment without parents, tons of cool people, and endless opportunities for fun things to do, and it’s no wonder why so many of our college students have a hard time staying focused for long periods of time on coursework. This was proven in our survey, with 56% sharing that they regularly run out of energy before finishing a task and 63% reporting difficulty getting back on track with work if they’re interrupted.
Our coaches often recommend using the pomodoro technique to help provide some structure in students’ work sessions. Using this method, you break your work into 25-minute chunks separated by five-minute breaks. After about four work-sections, you take a longer break of about 15 to 20 minutes. This helps make large tasks seem more achievable. One tool that uses this method is called Magic Work Cycle. It’s very simple to use. There are two timers on the page, each with sliders that allow you to adjust the length of your work and break intervals. The timer starts automatically when you load the page, so you can just open the page and get started, adjusting the timers if you so choose. You’ll hear a simple chime after an interval ends letting you know to switch from work to break or from break to work.
In our survey, college students noted elevated Executive Function challenges across all skills when compared to their middle and high school counterparts. There may be a couple of reasons:
Regardless of the why, the what is clear: Without building the skills for successful self-management, college students can struggle mightily. And it’s hard to see someone you love, whose happiness you are deeply invested in, feel overwhelmed and defeated when they can’t keep up with their academic demands. It’s comforting to know that Executive Function skills can be learned and developed over time and that there are experts who can help.
Looking for support? Learn how coaching can help your college student build their self-management skills in our free, on-demand information session.
Sean Potts is the Marketing Specialist at Beyond BookSmart and a recent graduate of Ithaca College’s Integrated Marketing Communications program. As a former coaching client and intern at BBS, Sean has spent the better part of the last ten years witnessing firsthand the positive impact Beyond BookSmart's mission has on transforming students’ lives.
Executive function coaching for students online throughout the U.S. and internationally.
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