I’d like to take you back to my high school years for a moment:
There were tons of fun activities and lots of great friends, but if you could have peeked inside my mind, you would have seen that I wanted to be organized SO badly. I had a planner and got a lot “done,” but I was pretty stressed most of the time.
Growing up with lots of piles and clutter was “fine” because I had an amazing family/support system, but I didn’t know how to organize, and I craved that mental freedom I knew was possible.
Instead, I made SUPER long lists every day in my planner and tried my best to check things off, but I typically ended up rewriting my lists day after day, procrastinating pretty much everything, and living in a constant state of “oh man, what do I need to do next?”
Now that I’ve been teaching family-centered productivity/helping people get organized for more than a decade, I want to share 5 things I wish I’d known back then.
(As a side note, I was recently asked to teach a couple of classes to local teenagers on “how to get organized,” and these are the things I shared with them. I hope this will help you, too…whether you have a teenager in your life or would like to brush up on some of these skills yourself!)
(1) Follow the Two-Minute Rule
This is something I learned from David Allen, author of Getting Things Done®. It essentially says, “If you can do something in two minutes or less, just DO it. Don’t write it down or put it off.”
Here are some examples of two-minute tasks that most teenagers could incorporate into this “rule”:
- text that friend to ask a question about the weekend’s plans or that homework assignment you have a question about
- check the hours of a store or place you need/want to visit
- add something to your calendar (deadline, event, activity) right when you hear about it
- order the book you need for your class project or put it on hold at the library
There are also “routine” two-minute tasks that would have made my space SO much cleaner growing up:
- hang up your shirt/jacket/pants instead of throwing it in “the pile” at the end of the day
- clear out your backpack/lunch bag right when you get home and throw the trash away
- put your dishes into the dish washer as soon as you’re done eating (ours would pile up by the TV until we didn’t have any more dishes in our cupboards, and then we would go find all the dirty dishes and carry them back into the kitchen….)
(2) Identify Next Actions
A “Next Action” is another awesome thing I learned from David Allen. It’s the next physical, visible activity that will lead a project toward completion.
The reason I procrastinated so many school projects/extracurricular needs was because the multiple steps felt heavy. Learning to boil projects down to basic tasks that can be done in about 10 minutes (we call those “microbursts”) has changed everything for me, and it helped our own teenagers to get moving when they were tempted to put something off.
For example, I had to write a paper on John Steinbeck for my English class, and I waited until the very last minute and then spent the whole day in my bedroom, writing as fast as I could. In hindsight, I would have simply figured out that the “next action” was to get just one article about John Steinbeck, skim it and annotate it, and identify which parts I would want to include in the paper. I could have had that thing finished way in advance of the deadline.
Another example is something like student council posters. I always waited until the night before to make them, and they didn’t turn out so well. A next action could have been, “get out a sheet of paper and sketch what I want the posters to look like.” Easy….
One more example could include my college scholarship application. I waited until the last day to get it done, and my mom had to overnight it to the university. (She was so nice…) A next action could have been, “Open the application and look at the essay prompts. Sketch responses for 10 minutes.”
Once you learn the art of identifying Next Actions, it’s also helpful to use a weekly “Next Actions List.”
This can be digital or paper, but the key points are as follows:
- You have one list per week, and you try to get all of the Next Actions completed by the end of the week.
- If you don’t complete them, either they don’t actually need to be done, you put too many on there, they aren’t really next actions and need to be boiled down further, or you are resisting them so heavily that you may need to simply schedule them into your calendar and make yourself do them at a certain time….
- The list is divided into contexts (where you are when you’re getting them done)
Here’s a little picture of the sample symbols I created for a teenager’s Next Actions List (school, home, errands, computer, phone, to discuss with parents):
(3) Create Morning, Daytime, and Nighttime Routines
Routines provide structure for your life. Keep the list short–with only the most important things–and you’ll see how your life starts to feel happier!
If I could go back in time, my routines list would have looked something like this:
- Basic Tidy of Bedroom
- Pack Lunch and Bookbag
- Empty Backpack
- Do Next Actions and Calendar-Specific Homework Assignments/Extracurricular Needs
- Spend Time with Family and Friends
- Spiritual Study/Prayer
- Plan Next Day (Calendar, Details with Borrowing Mom’s Car, What I Need to Pack)
- Lay Out Clothes
- Get to Bed Early (Limit TV)
(4) Keep a Simple Calendar
Honestly, my high school paper calendar (pre-smart phones!) had SO MUCH on it that I had to keep scanning it throughout the day, and it took a lot of my bandwidth to “stay on top of things.”
If I could do things over again, I would have been more realistic about the time I actually had, and I would have made shorter lists that were way more focused.
There are two parts to any optimal calendar:
- Part 1 includes your actual appointments/schedule…things like, “Drama Club at lunch” or “Drill Team Practice 3-5” or “Church Group 7-8:30.”
- Part 2 includes flexible tasks that need to be done sometime that day…like, “Call counseling office” or “Make cookies for the event tonight” or “Type up the paper for English.”
(5) Write Down and Post Key Goals and Projects
First, just a quick word about goals verses projects. There are lots of theories out there on how to “best” set goals, but the simplest way I know that generates results is to think of goals as what you ultimately want–and then the projects are specific things that could be accomplished in a month’s time or less that will move you toward what you want.
Here are a few examples of goals:
- Graduate with a GPA of ____
- Get into _____ university
- Have a lot of fun with my friends (no regrets!)
- Develop a closeness with God
- Earn enough money to pay for my first year of expenses after high school
- Have a strong, healthy body
- Prioritize time with my family
And here are some corresponding projects that can be accomplished a little at a time to support those goals:
- Complete my History assignment on time and earn at least a 93%
- Explore the application for _____ university and figure out what I need to do to be accepted
- Block out 2-3 activities this month with my favorite friends
- Establish a routine to pray/study/draw close to God for at least 15 minutes a day
- Explore a part-time job I could do 10 hours a week
- Figure out 5 healthy lunch options I could pack/rotate or look into joining a sports team
- Talk with parents and plan at least 1 night of family time each week
If goals (and a monthly list of specific projects) can be posted on the bathroom mirror, back of the bedroom door, etc., and if they are worked toward each week through some simple personal planning sessions, it’s amazing how much can be accomplished, without requiring a lot of stress.
I know that “teenagers” are often referred to as lazy, unmotivated, addicted to screens, crazy, etc., and I’m not saying that teaching our teens how to “get organized” will suddenly whip them into action that sounds great to us. But I do believe that there are a lot of teens who slip into avoidance behavior/tricky situations because they don’t know what else to do. They get stressed, and they worry about not “measuring up,” and so they stop trying.
As we prepare the next generation with skills that at least give them another option, I think that’s a gift. Then they have the power to choose, and if they need more support, we’re right there to show them how a little structure can go a long way.
Please feel free to share comments/suggestions here on this post!