Seize the Day: Backwards Planning for Optimal Student Performance

By Mona Pelkey, United States Military Academy, West Point

"Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows." --Michael Landon

I begin this treatise on time management with this quotation from Michael Landon, the actor who played Little Joe on the television series Bonanza (1959-1973), the character Charles Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie(1974-1983), and an angel on the TV series Highway to Heaven (1984-1989). Michael Landon died an untimely death from pancreatic cancer, only three months after diagnosis, in 1991, at the age of 54. I am certain that he still had things he had wanted to do when he passed away, things he had put off, assuming that he would have plenty of time to accomplish them later.

A scene from the movie Dead Poets Society (Touchstone Pictures, 1989) further illuminates the precept that life is short and precious; this scene is aptly entitled Carpe Diem, which is Latin for "Seize the Day." English teacher John Keating (played by Robin Williams) escorts his all-male preparatory high school class out of the classroom into an atrium lined with glassed display cases filled with photographs of former students. As his students ponder over the decades-old images of school alumni, who were, as Keating pointed out, just like them-seemingly invincible, full of hopes and dreams-- Keating reminds them that these former students are now "dust…food for worms," and that one day, they, too, would grow old and die. He asks his students to lean in toward the display cases, as if to listen to the voices of those long-dead alumni.

"Carpe," Keating intones in a haunting stage whisper, giving voice to the imagined yearnings of the dead. "Carpe diem… Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary."

Seize the day. How many students truly "seize the day?" How many more students live by the old adage, "Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow?" As Landon and the character John Keating so poignantly, and perhaps over-dramatically, point out, eventually, life is over. Time runs out, those hopes, goals, and dreams become dust, and there is no more opportunity to even reflect upon whether one's life was truly extraordinary or not. Of course, it seems morbid to live life as though one's death is imminent, but there is an important message imbedded in the parables of Landon and Keating: the loss of time is a sort of death for opportunity; who knows how many opportunities are lost because time has crumbled away? The academic application of the concept of "opportunity," of course, is opportunity for study, the opportunity for practice, the opportunity to develop well-thought out papers and projects, and the opportunity for rest, renewal, and reflection.

Of course, life is all about time or the lack of it. It sometimes seems as though there is never enough time, or opportunity, to finish any task properly unless one burns gallons of midnight oil. Ironically, studying after midnight is less effective than daytime or early evening study (it actually takes an hour and a half after midnight to accomplish the same work that would be completed in one hour during the day); yet, many students engage in this activity because they feel that they have run out of "day time" before they have run out of required tasks such as homework assignments, papers and projects, and exam study. Repeated wee-hour study sessions result in sleep deficits that significantly interfere with academic performance. In addition, the old adage "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" is grounded in fact; not only does constant studying without rest place poor Jack in social isolation, but he also may become dull intellectually as well, because the brain works best when it is allowed to renew itself through recreational activities, particularly those that relieve stress. One of the essential skills for success in an academically challenging environment, then, is the development of an effective time management system that allows ample opportunities for sleep, fulfillment of academic and other requirements, exercise, and recreation.

Time management involves planning for tasks at the daily, weekly, monthly, and semester levels. Without effective time management at each of these levels, students may miss opportunities for study and other tasks, and find themselves in a time crunch that jeopardizes their performance. The tools to accomplish this are:

  1. a daily to-do list as well as a daily schedule
  2. a week-at-a-glance tool that can be carried, such as a student planner (which can also manage appointments for an entire academic year) or a PDA
  3. a desk or wall calendar that shows the entire semester at a glance.

Let's begin with time management at the semester level. One of the first things that a student can do to get a good idea of what the semester requirements really look like is to write the dates of all major graded events (tests, quizzes, papers, and projects) in all subjects on a calendar that shows the entire semester at a glance. Once this calendar is filled out, students will be better able to identify weeks that include due dates of several major graded events. (Then, these same dates of major graded events, along with all of the dates and times of all classes, work times, and other events, should be recorded in the student's planner.) Planning for weeks that include multiple paper due dates/exams requires extra effort and perhaps for much work to be accomplished many days before the actual due dates in order for all tasks to be completed well and on time. The process of backwards planning is necessary in order to schedule adequate study time for tests and adequate research and development time for papers.

What is backwards planning? Backwards planning involves looking ahead at the due date of any major graded event, deciding how much preparation time is necessary for optimal performance, and then scheduling enough increments of time in the days/weeks before the event to meet performance goals. As an example, let's say that your student has determined that he needs ten hours to develop his term paper for history class, and the paper is due in two weeks. Starting with the due date of the paper, he schedules (for example) one hour a day for ten days before the due date to ensure that he is able to spend ten hours in developing the paper, rather than waiting until the day before the due date to start the paper and then staying up all night to finish it. Scheduling means looking at the empty time blocks in the student planner and penciling in "Writing history term paper" in enough time blocks to equal ten hours total. Having a plan like this helps a student take control of the situation, ensuring that he doesn't run out of time before his paper is well developed.

Now let's look at student planning on a daily level. What does that look like? Many students simply follow their daily schedule of classes, and keep a list of assignments to complete that evening. They have no schedule or to-do list that includes estimated time necessary to complete each task, no goal time for completion of all tasks (such as, "I will be in bed by 11:00, so all homework must be completed by 10:30.") They simply begin their homework with the expectation that they will finish before they go to bed-but there is no set bedtime, so often, the homework takes longer than expected, and they work until 2:00 a.m. or later. That leaves only a few hours to sleep, often too little to support effective performance the next day, and which often results in drowsiness and inattention during class. Some students also put off test preparation until the evening before the exam, and then spend hours (sometimes all night) cramming. Without sleep, the brain has been given no opportunity to organize the material studied in a meaningful, retrievable way, and the consequence is often not being able to remember what was studied during the exam. These practices, then, are ineffective, as well as being exercises in pure misery as they result in struggling to stay awake and think.

Backwards planning is key to optimum performance at the daily level. To backwards plan, students must begin with the time they must arise the following day, and then count back the number of hours that they intend to sleep, to determine the time they must go to bed. As an example, let's say that the student must arise by 7:00 a.m. on Tuesday, and he wants to sleep 8 hours. Count 8 hours back from 7:00 a.m., and that's a bedtime of 11:00 p.m. on Monday.

Then backwards plan from bedtime. It's important that students keep a to-do list, so that they know how much homework in how many subjects they must finish each night. It is also important to know exactly how much time is available that day to do homework, including free periods during the day as well as during the evening. Once students know these things, they can divide the available time so that time is spent in each subject before bedtime. Be sure to encourage students to schedule time for study breaks as well. These times are written as a schedule on the to-do list or in the planner, and once a plan is established, it is important to stick to the plan. This schedule determines limits for the amount of time that is available to spend on each activity, and determines what time the student must go to bed in order to get adequate sleep.

Of course, there often seems to be more homework to do than there are available hours in the day, and the temptation remains to just skip sleep time to complete the homework assignments. However, backwards planning again can help students find the extra hours necessary to accomplish long-term projects, papers, and other assignments-on the weekends.

Backwards planning at the semester-long stage, as you recall, involves looking at the due dates of the papers, projects, and other assignments, and planning time to accomplish them by filling in the spaces in the planner, including time during the week as well as the weekends. Time goals (the start and end times for each activity) should also be set so that there is adequate time allotted for study, completing assignments, sleep, recreation, exercise, and other necessary activities. Setting time goals or setting limits on the amount of time to be spent on each activity, also gives students an incentive to complete tasks efficiently, and not procrastinate.

Backwards planning actually helps students to maintain good physical and mental health by ensuring that students have the time scheduled for fun activities in addition to work and study. Exercise is necessary for good physical and mental health, and recreation helps students to maintain a positive attitude; both activities are stress relievers as well. Chronic sleep deprivation is a vicious cycle that hurts, rather than helps, student academic performance; the more sleep deprived the student becomes, the longer it takes for him/her to accomplish each academic task, which means that, without a time management plan, the student is forced to stay up later and later in order to finish assignments and study. This, of course, results in less and less sleep, which in turn exacerbates problems with thinking clearly, learning, remembering, and stress. By scheduling time for sleep, exercise, and recreation, students can enhance their academic performance by taking good care of their overall health.

One of the worst habits that a student can develop is the habit of procrastination, of putting off studying until the day before the exam, or of putting off starting a paper or project until just before it is due. How many times have you worked with a student who had put off starting a paper until the last minute, only to find inadequate time was left to develop the paper well? In addition to earning a less-than-optimal grade, the other consequences of procrastination can be increased stress, loss of sleep, loss of other opportunities, loss of a feeling of control, and even depression. With an effective time management plan in place, students are better able to avoid procrastinating and all its associated problems.

In the larger, and perhaps more morbid, scheme of things, there are those whose lives have been cut short, and who fell short of their lifetime goals and dreams, because they put off accomplishing them, misguidedly thinking that there would be time later. Although this is an extreme case, it serves as a reminder to live by the Latin adage carpe diem, "Seize the day." Encourage students to take control of time and what they accomplish with it by making a written time management plan. They will find that by making a written plan, and sticking to it, that they will accomplish more, and incorporate more fun into their lives, than they previously thought possible. Encourage them to incorporate into their plans time for themselves, time to LIVE, time to dream, and time to plan life goals. Carpe diem. Make life extraordinary!

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