“What’s the best way to prioritize homework?”
“Should I do the easiest assignments first? Or the hardest ones?”
I’ve heard from a number of parents and students recently who have been wondering how to prioritize homework.
It’s sometimes hard to know whether starting with easier or harder assignments is better, because there are benefits to both approaches…
Starting with the easiest assignments…
- Reduces the risk of procrastination
- Gives students a quick ‘win’ so they feel encouraged to continue
- Gets some assignments checked off the list quickly, so there are fewer things to think about
Starting with the hardest assignments…
- Enables students to tackle their most difficult work when their focus & energy level are highest
- Gets the most challenging work out of the way, so the rest of the homework feels easier & more enjoyable
- Prioritizes work that is a large percentage of students’ grade, and/or the classes where they need the most improvement
Since there are pros and cons to each approach, how do you know which one to choose?
For the majority of my students, I actually recommend using a blend of the two approaches.
What I like it do is…
- Start with an EASY assignment
- Tackle a CHALLENGING assignment
- Take a short break
…then repeat until the work is finished!
Here is a diagram of what this cycle would look like visually:
Within the list of easy and hard assignments, it is also a good idea to rank them in order of importance.
- Hard Assignments— My AP history reading and English essay are both due tomorrow. The English essay is worth a lot of points, whereas the reading is not being graded, so I should start with my essay. If I didn’t have time to finish my reading, I have some extra time this weekend when I could catch up.
- Easy Assignments — Both my math and Spanish problems are quick & easy to do…but I have a lower grade in math right now, so it will be better for me to start with that one.
Alternating easy & challenging assignments has a number of benefits…
- Students don’t resist starting their work as much, because they know they’re starting with something that is easy and enjoyable
- They get an immediate sense of accomplishment by getting the easy assignment out of the way and checked off their list
- They are starting their challenging assignments earlier in the afternoon, rather than saving them until late in the evening when they’re tired and unfocused
- They get rewarded with a break every time they complete a challenging assignment
- The most important work is being done first, so if they run out of time to finish everything at least the most important work is done
For most students, this approach works quite well, as long as they are taking study breaks that increase their energy rather than draining it, and working efficiently on the challenging assignments. Check this article out for more tips
To help with implementing this idea, I’ve included a printable PDF checklist students can print out and use to plan their work in the afternoons!
I hope this strategy is helpful for you! If you try it out at home, please post a comment on the blog below or email me at email@example.com to let me know how it goes!
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Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit http://creatingpositivefutures.com/contact or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The great American writer Mark Twain once said,
“Never put off till tomorrow what may be done the day after tomorrow just as well.”
When we live by that advice, though, we sometimes find ourselves chugging concentrated coffee at 2 a.m. in a valiant effort to stay awake and finish a huge project that’s due in 6 hours.
As productive as I’d like to think I am… I’ve been there.
If you’ve been there as well – or maybe if you’re there right now – this week’s video is for you. I’m not going to waste time lecturing you about the importance of planning, there are other videos for that – let’s just look at the best plan of attack when you find yourself in a time crunch.
Now, we’re going to look at some specific concepts related to planning and willpower in a minute – The Impact Effort Matrix, Ego Depletion – but let’s start with the foundation: location selection.
I think your location is vital when you’re working under pressure, and personally I like to pick my study locations based on their “vibe” – that is, what’s going on around me. I tend to favor coffee shops and libraries – I still go to my university library at times even though I’ve graduated – because I work well when I’m surrounded by other people who are also working. Also, close proximity to caffeine is helpful.
The most important part of location selection, though, is avoiding the “call of the pillow”. When you’re studying in a time crunch, it’s likely you’ll be doing it late into the night. That’s why you want to get as far away from your bed as possible.
The later it gets, the more you’ll start rationalizing how good a nap might be and the more you’ll start deciding that certain parts of your project don’t matter. So pick a place where going to bed would be more effort than finishing the next part of your project.
That piece of business taken care of, it’s now time to plan your efforts. Before you start working, take some time to break down your workload into individual parts. Then, it’s time to figure out which ones should get the bulk of your attention.
Dwight Eisenhower often remarked that,
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
In the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey popularized the “Eisenhower Decision Matrix”, which is based on this principle. In the matrix, tasks are categorized based on their importance and urgency.
When you’re in a time crunch, though, everything can seem urgent – so importance is the factor you should focus on in this case. To that end, let’s use a similar but more fitting tool – the Impact/Effort matrix.
Here, tasks in a project are given scores based on their impact to the overall success of the project and the effort it will take to implement them. To illustrate how this works, here’s an example from my life.
When I was a senior in college, one of my final projects was building a web app. My idea was called AMPanic, and it was an app that would require you to log in and tell if you’re awake before a certain time – otherwise it would send an embarrassing email to someone. This was actually the precursor to the early wake-up system I use now, which I detailed in this video.
With this project, though, I found myself in a time crunch trying to finish it. So I broke my project down into different parts that I’d have to code and prioritized them using this Impact/Effort matrix.
The core functionality – the code that would let you set an alarm and an email message, the code that would schedule and send the email on time, and the function to cancel the email if the user checked in on time in the morning – those required a lot of effort to build, but they also had the highest impact on the project.
On the other hand, some parts of the site – like the About, FAQ, and Contact pages – didn’t have as high of an impact, but they were low-effort tasks. Since they didn’t take much time to create, I made sure to include them to make the site look more complete.
The main element of the site that I chose NOT to focus on was the user registration and login system. A proper one needs functions for resetting passwords, but I decided that the core alarm setting functionality would be more important to my grade since that was the point of the whole project. So I used a login system I had written for an old project and didn’t bother creating a way to reset passwords.
In the end, it was a worthwhile decision; the alarm system was more advanced than most of the other projects in the class, so I ended up getting an A.
To assign Impact/Effort scores to each component of your project – or each assignment if you’re juggling multiple – consider the following factors:
- What the core deliverables are
- The grading criteria for the project, what which components count for the most points
- What percentage of your grade each assignment counts for
- How much each component will contribute to the knowledge you need to have for tests, which usually impact your grade the most
Once you’e assigned scores to each component, I think it’s a good idea to tackle the ones with the highest impact and highest effort first. This is due to Ego Depletion – a phenomenon explained in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Citing research from the psychologist Roy Baumeister, he reveals that:
“…an effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around.”
Use the bulk of your willpower to complete the harder tasks first; that way, you’ll only have to deal with low-effort, high-impact tasks when you’re feeling drained.
That’s where we’re going to close for this week. If you select your location well, plan based on impact and effort, and tackle your tasks in a way that utilizes your willpower effectively, you’ll make if through your time crunch in one piece.
If you’re unable to see the video above, you can view it on YouTube.
Some viewers let me know they’d like wallpapers from some of the animations in this video, so here they are! I made them 1920 x 1200 – feel free to re-size them as you like.
Click each one to enlarge it, then right-click the full-size version and hit “Save As” to download it.
Looking for More Study Tips?
You’ll find more tips on planning, study environments, and maintaining willpower in my free 100+ page book called 10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less).
The book covers topics like:
- Defeating procrastination
- Getting more out of your classes
- Taking great notes
- Reading your textbooks more efficiently
…and several more. It also has a lot of recommendations for tools and other resources that can make your studying easier.
If you’d like a free copy of the book, let me know where I should send it:
I’ll also keep you updated about new posts and videos that come out on this blog (they’ll be just as good as this one or better) 🙂
Here’s a Pinterest-worthy image for sharing this video 🙂
What other topics related to working under tight deadlines would you like to see covered in the future?
Do you have any additional tips? Share them below 🙂
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Images: Eisenhower, Twain, Twain living room, James Cameron, ocean trench, Everest, wall of books, Big Ben, coffee shop