Most of my academic success was about organization and getting work done on time. I don’t think I’m the smartest member of my family, or the most creative, but I’m the worker bee. I’m the one who got the grades. And the grades launched my life, because it led to a full scholarship because I had no money for college. It allowed me to graduate without debt and use those grades to get another scholarship to take one course at a time in a graduate program at New York University. I worked in advertising and public relations during the day and pursued my dream of becoming a professor one night a week for many years.
After college, when I would see roommates and reminisce, my friend Chris would talk about my “system,” something I wasn’t even aware I used. (That's us in the picture, sporting some very 80s hair). She would say, “I just remember that planner you had, with a page for each day, and the big to do list for the whole semester taped to the wall. Oh, and that clipboard with the stack of blank white copier paper. I knew when you headed out the door with that clipboard, you would be back with a paper completely written.” What I realize now is that those tools gave me purpose and set the parameters I needed to not get overwhelmed. It was in the act of writing tasks, breaking them down into smaller tasks, crossing them off, and scheduling the time to get it all down that I discovered a sense of peace, of control and empowerment.
When I began working, personal computers were becoming the norm, but I remember getting a free leather desk planner from the New Yorker Magazine. I loved its thick white pages, a small cartoon each week, and the column for each day of the week, spread across two pages. It became filled with my scribbles of everything to do each day – who to call, what copy to write, and all the deadlines. When I began to teach, even the classic lesson plan book didn’t quite hit the mark.
Then I became a mom and started juggling more lives than just my own, I searched high and low for a mom planner that would work for me and again, there were so many options, but I guess I’m like Goldilocks when it comes to planners. None of them were “just right.”
No matter how many digital calendars came my way, and productivity apps – and believe me, I tried them all because they always seemed like the ultimate answer to staying on top of things – nothing worked for me like my paper planner, a stack of white paper, and a to do list.
Coming full circle, I returned to full time teaching and my planner search began…again. By now, I had used so many planners and spent so much money that I knew what I needed as a college professor, working mom, and an ever-evolving human. I needed a layout that matched the way my mind saw my time. I needed something aesthetically pleasing and fun, to make the process of planning somehow creative. I needed a tall skinny to do list to anchor it all and mark my place in the planner. I needed colored pens that felt great in my hand and inspired me to categorize my tasks. I needed that great weighted paper that felt so amazing when the pen met the surface. I needed something on each page to “speak” to me, as those New Yorker cartoons did way back when. And I needed some reminders to focus on simple ways we can be happier every single day.
Bottom line – I needed a planner that CALLED to me, that didn’t overwhelm me, or make me feel guilty for not using every feature it offered. I needed a planner that calmed my mind by accepting all the things that were forever tumbling around in my Gemini brain and sorted them in a way that matched my day-to-day life as a teaching professor. And I needed one that would gently remind me, every week, how fortunate I am.
And my students needed one, too.
Why? Because all the technology they had was not helping them. With every passing year since returning to teaching in 2007, I saw more and more students struggling to complete their schoolwork. Despite alarms in phones, and the ability to take photos of the blackboard and calendar apps and productivity apps and tablets and Apple pens -- they were getting worse at managing their time, not better. They were getting worse at taking notes despite using a laptop in class, and worse at actually remembering and being able to apply what they learned.
Every year, I saw students increasingly anxious and overwhelmed in the post 9/11 world, in the world of the common core, teaching to the test, travel teams, resume-building in high school, competing and competing – always focused on the ultimate goal: getting into a good college. Only to find that reaching the goal was just the first step of another mountain to climb – self-directed learning, “hands off” professors who expect intrinsic motivation to drive a student, and students with no real idea of how to manage their time when it was completely up to them to do it.
I realized I needed to find a tool for them and for me – and to get them back to the basics of activating their brain by writing by hand. I taught two cohorts of students how to use a paper planner, one I “Frankensteined” together with free printables, random stickers and positive psychology prompts I taped into the calendar pages before I made the copies. It was a hot mess compared to what we have now, but IT WORKED.
When it came time to review the various aspects of the course, including color coded notetaking, practicing gratitude, and using a paper planner, I read the same phrase over and over again. The paper planner was “life-changing.” When they wrote down what they needed to do, and found and scheduled the time to do it, they not only remembered their assignments better, but they also handed them in on time. They scheduled their work hours, their play hours, their study hours, their family, and friend time – and every week they saw it all right in front of them. And at the end of the week, they saw all they had accomplished, too. And a pattern emerged – writing it down made the work more “real” and seeing their time made them realize how much of it they had and how to really use it. The act of planning gave them a sense of control, which lowered their anxiety, and increased their self-esteem.
All the while, I was doing it too – and my working mom life started to feel a whole lot better. I remembered that college girl I used to be and recreated all the tools I used then so I could use them in my life now.
And that is how the Centered Student System was born. I tapped into the times in my life when I was most successful, the habits I had then, and the moments when I felt truly centered and focused…and passed it along to my students.
Now I would like to pass it along to you, even though I know you have an amazing cell phone, and a fabulous laptop, and a tablet that takes notes with a stylus. Even though I know you don’t think you need to write by hand or use a paper planner. Take this leap of faith with me and use this period of your life to develop a habit that will serve you for the rest of your life – the mindful use of a paper planner. All the technological tools will help you be successful, but only when they are the means to an end – when they support the plan you actively create and control in the Centered Student Planner.
Touch – Write, don’t tap. Writing by hand activates the thinking part of your brain and improves your memory.
See – most of us are highly visual learners and when we can see a week laid out before us, our brain begins to map out the blocks or chunks of time that appear before our very eyes. We can now quantify, sort and place those tasks in our week and in our minds eye.
Feel – experience the sensation of control as you master your time. Allow the positive emotion of accomplishment to wash over you with each task you cross off, when you focus on how you are growing and learning, when you own your mistakes so you can correct them. Most important, tap into gratitude to put all of it – the stress, the social ups and downs, the exhaustion, and the elation – into perspective.
xo Prof. Horan