It’s not easy to transition from a laid-back summer routine to a packed fall schedule. But the start of the school year is the perfect time to tweak your habits and make improvements. Think of it as a clean slate: Now you can start fresh and work toward being more organized, more involved in your extracurricular activities, and more in control of your grades.
Easier said than done, right? If those are your thoughts, you’re not alone. More than 70 percent of students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey said they find it difficult to transition back to being in school after summer break.
How to start strong
A successful year is made up of many successful days, so your best bet is to start introducing small, manageable changes into your day-to-day routine. So what does a perfect day look like?
“I’d wake up not feeling too tired or drowsy, then [eat] a good, light breakfast to wake myself up,” says Alexander, a student from Andover, Massachusetts. “I’d enjoy my classes (be alert and able to participate and think critically), then go to sports and get some physical activity in before settling down to tackle homework. I’d be focused and disciplined while working, then socialize and have some fun, and finally get to bed on time.”
We’ve all procrastinated and been left scrambling at the last minute. This year, stress less by being consistent and prepared.
“Studying productively is about planning ahead. Many people cram at the end of the term, but you’re much better off if you pace yourself through the semester,” says Laura Vanderkam, best-selling author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. “Start by reading the syllabus for each class and do any reading you can earlier in the term, when you’re less busy,” she says.
Along with helping you get a head start on your studies, a well-balanced schedule will make time for essentials, like sleep, physical activity, and, yes, fun—you’re allowed that too!
A little planning goes a long way in terms of making room for:
- Rest and relaxation to help beat stress, stay healthy, and remain focused
- Homework and studying to stay on track for assignments and prepare for exams
- Healthy eating to contribute to emotional and physical well-being
- Sports and exercise to keep you active and energized
- Leisure time with friends or family to be social and find motivation and support
Not sure how to start planning your routine? Follow our guide to having the best day ever; then wake up, rinse, and repeat. In a few short weeks, you just might find yourself having the best year ever.
Early morning: Let in the light
Wake up to a room filled with sunlight. The brightness will help you feel more alert and will make getting out of bed less painful.
Your body’s internal clock is made up of nerve cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. Since these cells are located just above your optic nerves, which send information from your eyes to your brain, the SCN also receives information about the light or darkness of your environment. When you’re in the dark, your internal clock tells your body to produce more melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy. When you’re exposed to light, you’ll naturally feel more awake.
Motivate yourself to start your day by carving out a chunk of time, however short, to do something you’ll look forward to. This could be anything from taking your dog to the park to scrolling through your Instagram feed.
“Literally? My mom. Figuratively? The want for success, praise, and my passion for learning.”
—Maya, sophomore, Vancouver, Washington
“Music or hearing a positive motivational video can help get me going.”
—Peter*, sophomore, Palatine, Illinois
“Running gets me up in the morning—it’s my greatest passion.”
—Ellen, junior, Indianapolis, Indiana
“Knowing that every minute makes a difference. I was sick quite a few times this past year, so it was clear to me that it’s very difficult to catch up with my life (school, sports, friends) when I’m not there.”
—Fiona, senior, Simsbury, Connecticut
Bonus tip! “Start waking up early a week [or so] before school starts so it’s not a shock to your body when you have to get up early.”
—Krystal, sophomore, Charlotte, North Carolina
Mid-morning: Fuel up
It really is the most important meal of the day: Students who skip breakfast are less able to differentiate among visual images, which leads to more errors and slower memory recall. On the other hand, research shows that those who eat a complete and nutritious breakfast make fewer mistakes and work faster in math and numerical tests.
Not only will breakfast help you stay energized and focused, but it will also kick-start your metabolism and help you maintain a healthy weight.
Midday: Make your classes count
Grab a seat closer to the front and center of the classroom.
Studies have shown that students who sit in this section tend to achieve higher exam scores. Plus, you’ll be able to:
- See the board more clearly to take notes
- Hear more of what your instructor is saying
- Avoid the distraction of students sitting in front of you
When you’re more productive in class and take better notes, you’re almost guaranteed to spend less time on your homework. That means more time for things you really want to do, like hanging out with friends or playing sports.
“Go into each class knowing what topics the class will cover. Write down the questions you’re listening for the answers to before class starts—that way, your notes will be more effective. Also, try to read over existing notes every few weeks so the material stays fresh.”
—Laura Vanderkam, productivity expert and best-selling author
On your breaks: Get moving
Find an organized sport/activity or at-home workout that you can look forward to doing most days of the week. This can be anything from Zumba® on your game console to a basketball game with friends—whatever gets your heart rate up.
You should aim for 60 minutes of physical activity per day, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. It doesn’t have to be all at once, though, so squeeze it in whenever you can. Not only will the physical activity keep you strong and help you maintain a healthy weight and blood pressure level, but it can also reduce stress and anxiety. Studies have also shown that regular exercise can make you a better student by increasing your concentration and attentiveness in class.
If you’re too busy to schedule an hour of physical activity into your day, you’d be surprised how easy it is to make up those 60 minutes when you break it down into chunks. Do you take a short bus ride to and from school? Ask a friend to join you in jogging or walking to school instead. Between classes or on your breaks, get in the habit of walking outside or doing lunges down the hallways. When you’re at home, try a YouTube workout.
“I recommend the PumpUp Health & Fitness Community exercise app. It’s a great app that creates workout routines for you based on what you like to do, and you can connect with others for fitness tips and motivation.”
—Shania, junior, Brooklyn, New York
After school: Focus to finish homework
Use the “be here now” technique to help you focus on your homework. It’s simple and effective: When you notice your mind wandering from the topic at hand to your weekend plans or to who just texted you, say to yourself, “Be here now.” Repeat this in your mind whenever you feel your thoughts going astray. With consistent practice over a few days, you may notice that you’re able to focus for longer spurts of time with fewer drifting thoughts.
You can improve your ability to focus with simple concentration strategies and mindfulness techniques. If you don’t know where to start, try a guided meditation exercise to help tune out your thoughts and focus on the present.
Still stuck? Take 15 minutes to get up and move. Not only will you be fitting in a portion of your recommended physical activity, but getting your heart rate up will make it easier to buckle down and study once you’re back at your desk.
Before bed: Rest and recharge
At least an hour before bedtime, after you’ve given yourself some time to watch TV and assess the day’s social media happenings, you’ll want to diminish the artificial light you’re exposed to (e.g., computer, TV, tablet, phone screens).
Research shows that bright lights given off by our screens suppress the sleep hormone melatonin. If you can’t control your thoughts enough to relax, the National Sleep Foundation recommends keeping a “worry book” (or diary) next to your bed. Jot down the issues you’re stressing about with a basic action plan and forget about them until morning.
Getting enough sleep every night will have you waking up more refreshed, even on weekends. Take advantage: Mornings are valuable time slots for getting schoolwork done since you’re naturally more alert before 1 p.m.
“As for carving out time to study, I highly recommend weekend mornings. Yes, you want to sleep in, but if you get up at 9 a.m. and study for three hours on Saturday and study for three hours at night on Sunday, that’s six hours, and you still have a good, long break from studying from noon Saturday to dinner on Sunday. That will help you relax and rejuvenate so you can hit the school week ready to go.”
—Laura Vanderkam, productivity expert and best-selling author
John Ratey, MD, author and psychiatry professor at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Laura Vanderkam, productivity expert and author, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Simone Nicholls, nutritionist, wellness advisor, and founder of GingerNotes, New York City, New York.
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