Students today are busy. Really busy.
They have homework to do, projects to complete, extra classes to attend, and other responsibilities to fulfill.
It’s no wonder that most students are sleep-deprived, and find it hard to lead a balanced life.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In this article, I’ll share with you the 10 principles I used to become a top student who slept eight hours a night.
(I’ve since completed my formal education.)
In case you’re curious, here are some of my academic achievements:
- I got 9 A1s for the GCE O-Levels.
- I got 4 As and 2 “Special” Paper distinctions for the GCE A-Levels.
- I received a full academic scholarship to study at Duke University in the USA.
- I did a double major at Duke and graduated summa cum laude (First Class Honors). My GPA was 3.98/4.0.
- I was inducted into three academic honor societies at Duke.
Just to be clear, I don’t think these achievements make me some super-impressive person.
Neither do I think that the main aim of education is to become a top student.
But through the process of becoming a better student, you’ll learn to be more organized, focused, disciplined and meticulous.
These are skills and traits that will be beneficial throughout your life.
Students who continually feel overwhelmed are those who spend most of their time on urgent tasks. These are usually the same students who are sleep-deprived!
To be an effective student, you must focus on important tasks before they become urgent.
The 10 principles outlined in this article will help you to do just that.
By applying the 10 principles, I guarantee you’ll get better grades, be less stressed, and have more time for things outside of school – including sleep!
Sounds good, right?
Let’s get started.
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Principle #1: Stick to a routine.
You should definitely make room in your life for spontaneity. But without some kind of structure or routine, you won’t be able to achieve maximal productivity.
Creating a weekly routine is one of the most important steps to becoming a top student who has a balanced life.
Follow these steps to create a weekly routine that works for you:
(a) Take out your calendar. (I use Google Calendar, but a hard copy calendar works, too.)
(b) Create events in your calendar for all of your fixed, recurring commitments, e.g., school, music classes, extracurriculars, family events, religious activities.
(c) Looking at the remaining slots in your calendar, set aside time each day for homework and studying.
(d) Set aside time each day for leisure, relaxation, going out with friends, and so on.
At this point, your calendar will be filled with “fixed” appointments that will guide you as to how to spend your time.
Of course, these appointments may change once in a while. But by following what your calendar says you ought to be doing, you’ll have established a solid routine.
Principle #2: Write everything down.
When I say “everything,” I mean it.
As productivity expert David Allen says, “Your brain is a thinking tool, not a storage device.”
Don’t trust your brain to store information like:
- What homework has been assigned
- Homework or project due dates
- Test or exam dates
- Family events
- Project meeting dates/times
- Miscellaneous tasks
- Ideas that pop into your head
I’m sure you have already experienced how your brain doesn’t always remember such information perfectly.
So instead of relying on your memory, write it all down in an “everything” list. Use a notebook or, if you prefer, a smartphone app like Google Keep.
Here’s the system I recommend:
1. Once a day, review your “everything” list.
Perform this daily review when you get back from school, and have your calendar handy too.
Depending on what the item in your “everything” list is, do one of the following:
- If it’s a date you need to take note of, mark it down in your calendar.
- If it’s a task that will take three minutes or less to complete, do it immediately.
- If it’s a task that will take more than three minutes to complete, schedule an appointment in your calendar to do it.
- If it’s an idea or some type of information you’d like to keep for future reference, save it in a document in Dropbox or Google Drive.
This is a process that takes just five or ten minutes a day, but it’ll save you a lot of stress down the road.
You’ll be on top of things as they occur, and you won’t have to worry about what you might be forgetting.
2. At the end of each day, plan for the following day.
Before you stop work for the day, review your “everything” list and calendar once more.
If there are any tasks you weren’t able to complete, make a note in your calendar about when you’ll complete them.
This way, you’ll ensure you don’t leave anything to the last minute.
3. Every Sunday, review your upcoming events over the next two to three weeks.
Refer to your calendar every Sunday to see if there are any important events or dates to take note of, e.g., tests, project due dates, class presentations.
If necessary, make a note in your calendar about when you need to begin preparations for the event.
For example, if you have an important history test in two weeks, you might make a note to start studying for the test this coming Tuesday.
Principle #3: Make sleep and exercise a priority.
Sleep and exercise have also been shown to lower the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and many other illnesses.
In other words, if you’re not getting enough sleep and exercise, you probably won’t be a top student who’s focused and motivated. You’ll probably also fall sick more often.
So why is it that so many students don’t get sufficient sleep and exercise?
Is it because they don’t have time?
No, it’s because they simply haven’t made sleep and exercise a priority.
After all, no matter how busy we are, we always make time to eat and shower.
In fact, when I made it a point to get eight hours of sleep every night while I was in university, my concentration, memory, and mood improved. So did my grades!
Because of my increased focus, I was able to take on more responsibilities outside of school, and I had more of a social life too.
Here are some practical steps you can take to help you get more sleep and exercise:
- Decide that sleep and exercise are non-negotiables, just like eating and showering.
- Decide how much sleep and exercise you’d like to get.
- Decide on a consistent bedtime.
- Schedule sleep and exercise into your calendar, and make them part of your routine.
- Set a daily repeating alarm as a reminder for you to go to bed on time.
- Set a rule that you aren’t allowed to use your phone in bed.
- Remove all electronic devices from your bedroom.
- Find an exercise partner.
- Tell at least two or three people about your sleep and exercise goals.
- Put all of these goals down in writing.
- Review these goals several times a week.
Don’t try to make too many changes at once. Start small, and make gradual progress.
Soon enough, you’ll be a better, happier, and healthier student!
Principle #4: Keep up with the work
Staying on top of your work is easier said than done, I know.
But if you want to be a top student who isn’t too stressed, then consistency is key.
Here are some practical tips and strategies I recommend:
1. Complete your homework at least a day or two before it’s due.
By using the system described under Principle #2, this shouldn’t be too much of a struggle.
2. Skim through new topics before your teacher covers them in class.
One or two days before you learn a new topic in class, skim through the relevant notes or textbook chapter.
Pay attention to the learning objectives, headings, diagrams, and chapter summary.
These will give you a good idea as to what the topic is about, so you’ll be able to grasp the new concepts more quickly.
As an added bonus, you’ll also need to spend less time studying this material later on.
3. Review any new information you learn later that same day.
For example, say that today you learned about respiration in biology class, the Treaty of Versailles in history class, and population dynamics in geography class.
Once you have time, look through your notes for each of those topics to check that you understand what was taught.
This will ensure that you don’t fall behind in any of your classes.
4. Clarify your doubts right away.
If, during the review I described above, you realize you don’t understand certain concepts, then write down all your questions on a sheet of paper.
As soon as you have a chance, clarify your doubts with your teacher.
Don’t wait until just before your next test or exam to do so, because that will result in unnecessary anxiety. And anxious students are rarely successful students.
5. Use online resources.
If your teacher’s explanation isn’t clear enough, you can always turn to the Internet.
There are many educational resources out there, but these three are my favorites:
6. Test yourself often.
After studying a topic, test yourself to see if you’ve memorized the relevant equations, definitions, concepts, and facts.
In addition, do as many practice questions as you can to ensure that you’ve mastered the topic.
Don’t assume that reading the chapter is the same as learning the chapter.
Reading is a necessary part of the learning process, but you must test yourself in order to master the information.
7. Attend every single class.
Do this even if you think your teacher is the most boring one in the entire world.
Because he or she understands the material far better than you, and knows which concepts are important and which aren’t.
By attending every class, you’ll prevent yourself from wasting precious time studying irrelevant information.
And no matter how monotonous your teacher’s voice is, you’ll still learn something during each class if you have a positive attitude.
8. When it comes to projects, always have a plan.
Too often, students rush to complete a project a few days before it’s due. This leads to sleep deprivation and undone homework.
If you want to become a top student, this is a combination to avoid.
Many students leave project work to the last minute because they don’t plan ahead.
If you want your project to be a success, you must first identify the following:
These tools will enable you to get your projects done both faster and better.
9. Start your test preparation early.
If you follow the system outlined under Principle #2, you’ll schedule a specific date to start studying for every upcoming test.
In addition, I recommend that you periodically review the topics you’ve learned. That way you won’t need to cram for tests.
Before you begin studying for a particular test, be clear about which topics will be covered, how long the test will be, and what the test format will be.
With this knowledge, you’ll be able to focus on the topics and types of questions that are most likely to be asked.
Principle #5: Focus on achieving progress, not perfection.
A big reason why students get demotivated is they feel that they’re not making progress – or that they’re making progress too slowly.
Often, this is because students become fixated on the desired outcome, rather than on the process necessary to achieve that outcome.
On your journey to becoming a top student, you’ll face challenges and disappointments.
Tests that you underperform in. Essays that your teacher doesn’t like. Group projects that turn out to be a mess.
So it’s essential to remember that the goal is progress, not perfection.
How can you ensure that you focus on the process?
By setting process-based goals instead of outcome-based ones.
The reason for doing this is that you can’t always control outcomes, but you can control processes.
By setting process-based goals, you commit to things you can achieve no matter what the eventual outcome is. So you’re putting yourself in a position to succeed.
Here are some examples of process-based goals you could set:
- Read one newspaper article and learn at least five new words a day.
- Do at least two extra math practice questions a day.
- Sleep at least seven hours a night on school nights.
- Exercise for at least 10 minutes a day.
- Check Facebook and Twitter a maximum of three times a day.
- Study for at least two hours a day on weekdays, and three hours a day on weekends.
- Start preparing for tests at least two weeks in advance.
Again, you can’t guarantee outcomes. But by setting process-based goals and monitoring your progress, you’re much more likely to get the results you want.
On the other hand, if you obsess over the desired end result without developing a plan for how to achieve it, you’ll likely be disappointed.
I’m not saying that the outcome doesn’t matter. But I am saying that the process is what counts in the long run.
So focus on making continual progress, and you’ll accomplish your goals over time.
Principle #6: Stay motivated using practical strategies.
No matter how badly you want to become a top student, or how driven you are to reach your goals, or how badly you want to make your teachers proud . . . there will be times when you’ll feel unmotivated.
You’ll feel like lying in bed all day.
You’ll feel like watching YouTube videos non-stop.
You’ll feel like doing anything except schoolwork.
How do you stay motivated when you feel this way?
Try these practical strategies:
- Reward yourself when you finish each task.
- Set a timer for three minutes and start work. Tell yourself that you can stop work after the three minutes are up, if you really don’t feel like continuing. (You’ll probably carry on with the task.)
- Work in short blocks of just 25 to 35 minutes.
- Put up some motivational quotes. My personal favorite is this one by Jim Rohn: “Don’t wish it were easier. Wish you were better.”
- Break tasks down into smaller steps so that they’re not so overwhelming.
- Visualize how you’ll feel when you finish the task you’re working on.
- Keep a list of the tasks you’ve completed to remind yourself that you’re making progress.
- Turn your schoolwork into a game. For example, you could give yourself five points for each task you complete, and give yourself a reward when you accumulate 20 points.
- Join a study group made up of motivated students. Their motivation will rub off on you.
- Get enough sleep, because tiredness is linked to a lack of motivation. (Refer to Principle #3 to get more sleep.)
Principle #7: Learn to say “no.”
I’ve worked with students who are insanely busy.
They’re involved in many extracurricular activities: music, art, sports, enrichment classes, and more.
If there’s way too much on your plate, you won’t be able to be a top student who gets eight hours of sleep a night – no matter how efficient you are.
There are only so many activities you can juggle at once without eventually burning out.
What’s the simple solution?
Learn to say “no.”
As you do this, here are some tips and guidelines:
1. Develop a variety of ways of saying “no” politely, so you’ll be equipped for every situation.
Here are some examples:
- “Thank you for thinking of me, but I’m sorry that I can’t make it.”
- “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. Here’s what I can do instead . . .”
- “Thanks for the invitation, but I’ll have to pass.”
- “I appreciate you asking, but I apologize that I can’t help this time.”
- “I’m sorry, those dates don’t work for me.”
- “I’m sorry, my schedule is really packed for the next month.”
- “That sounds like a great opportunity, but I’m sorry that it’s not suitable for me.”
- “I’m sorry, I’ve already made other plans.”
- “I’d love to, but I’ve already made a commitment to help __________ (friend, family member, etc.) out.”
2. Don’t participate in more than two to three extracurricular activities.
These activities could be related to volunteering, learning a sport or musical instrument, or developing a new skill.
Whatever the activity is, don’t take part in more than two to three at any one time.
3. Categorize your friends and decide how much time to spend with each group.
This might sound like a strange suggestion, but it will make it easier for you to say “no” to social engagements that would have otherwise overloaded your schedule.
After all, time is a finite resource. It’s impossible to frequently hang out with everyone you consider a friend.
So here’s how to implement this tip . . .
Categorize all your friends into the following four groups:
- Casual friends
- Close friends
- Best friends
Next, decide how often you’ll hang out with each group in general.
For me, it looked like this:
- Acquaintances – once every few months
- Casual friends – once a month
- Close friends – once every one to two weeks
- Best friends – once every few days
By being clear about how much time you’ll spend with each group of friends, you’ll be intentional about investing in the friendships that mean the most to you.
Principle #8: Create systems for staying organized.
Have you ever started studying for a test only to realize that you don’t know where the relevant notes and assignments are?
Or do you keep your papers in a pile, only to spend way too much time rummaging through it when you need to find an assignment?
Being disorganized is a huge time-waster. So here are some tips to help you stay organized when it comes to (a) notes and assignments, and (b) email:
Notes and assignments
1. Bring an accordion folder to school every day.
The accordion folder should look something like this.
2. Assign one section of the accordion folder to each of your subjects or courses. Assign one additional section to your incomplete homework.
As the school day goes by, place the notes and graded assignments you receive in their respective sections.
Place your incomplete homework across all subjects in the “incomplete homework” section.
3. Get binders to be kept at home – one binder for each category of work for each subject.
For example, use one binder for your history notes, one for your history assignments, and one for your history tests and exams.
4. Once a day, look through the “incomplete homework” section of your accordion folder.
Do this to make sure that you haven’t overlooked any homework that’s been assigned.
5. Once a week, transfer all of your notes, graded assignments, etc. from your accordion folder to the respective binder.
If you do this consistently, you’ll realize if you’ve misplaced any notes or assignments. This way, you can get them replaced way before you need them to prepare for the next test.
1. Forward all of your school email to your Gmail account.
I’ve used almost all of the popular free email services, and I’ve found that Gmail is by far the best.
So if you don’t already have a Gmail account, set one up.
2. Create as few email folders as possible.
In fact, most students should be able to get by without creating any additional folders.
Why do I suggest not creating folders?
Because it will simplify the way you process email.
In addition, the Gmail search function is so good that you’ll be able to find any old email you’re looking for.
3. Process your email just once a day.
I recommend that you do this on your computer, not your phone.
The danger of reading emails on your phone is that they’ll appear as read, even if you haven’t actually replied to or processed them.
But if you process your emails on your computer, you’ll likely have all the necessary information at hand, so you’ll be able to efficiently get through your inbox.
4. Follow these rules when processing your email . . .
- If an email doesn’t require a reply, archive it.
- If an email requires a reply, do so immediately if you have the time. After doing so, archive the original email.
- If an email requires a reply but will require significant time for you to write one, create a task (refer to Principle #2). Archive the original email only after you’ve replied to the email.
By following these rules, you should be able to get to “inbox zero” (everything out of your inbox) almost every day.
This is the best way to eliminate email stress, knowing that everything has either been handled or scheduled.
5. Use the Boomerang for Gmail app.
This app allows you to schedule a reminder to follow up with someone if he or she hasn’t replied to your email by a specific date.
This function is especially useful when it comes to group projects, because there are bound to be group members who don’t manage their email effectively.
The Boomerang for Gmail app has saved me dozens of hours over the past two years since I started using it!
Principle #9: Work on one task at a time.
It takes time to get into the flow of an assignment, so finish one before moving on to the next.
In addition, eliminate all forms of multitasking.
No texting, watching TV, or checking your Twitter feed while doing your schoolwork.
Research shows that multitasking just isn’t possible. When you think you’re multitasking, you’re actually just switching between tasks. This reduces your overall efficiency.
Here are some tips to help you focus on one task at a time:
1. At the start of each homework/study session, write down specifically what you’re going to work on.
Write this on a scrap piece of paper or a Post-it Note, which you can then put on your desk.
This will serve as a reminder of the task you’re supposed to be working on.
2. Allocate a specific amount of time to the task.
By giving yourself a realistic deadline, you’re more likely to concentrate fully on the task at hand.
3. Whenever you feel like switching tasks, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
The urge to multitask or do something more “fun” comes in waves.
By closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths, these waves will usually pass you by.
You can then get back to work.
4. Improve your focus gradually.
If you have trouble focusing, make progress one step at a time.
Start with 10 minutes of complete focus. Then, over the next week, increase it to 12 minutes, then 14 minutes, and so on.
Eventually, you’ll be able to focus for 30 to 40 minutes straight.
Principle #10: Eliminate distractions.
It’s not just the urge to multitask that hinders students from being productive. For many students, distractions are an even bigger problem.
Here’s a list of things you can do to eliminate or reduce common distractions:
- Turn off notifications on your phone.
- Reply to text messages only three times a day. Put this in your calendar as a series of mini-appointments.
- Archive all the inactive chats on your phone so they don’t clutter your messaging app’s home screen.
- Mute your group chats.
- Delete all the social media apps on your phone.
- Wear a watch so you don’t have to check your phone for the time.
- Use an extremely long password for your phone, so you won’t be tempted to use your phone mindlessly.
- Use headphones while you’re studying (even if there’s no music playing) so that others will be less likely to interrupt you.
- Do all of your schoolwork at your desk, not on your bed. As such, you won’t be tempted to laze around in bed.
- Put your phone in another room when it’s time to do work.
- Cancel your cable TV subscription.
- Use an app like Freedom to restrict online distractions.
- Turn off your Internet access.
- Close all unnecessary programs or tabs on your computer.
- Tell the people around you when you’ll be doing your work. This way, they won’t interrupt you in the middle of your study session.
If you do all the things listed above, you’ll be much closer to becoming a top student.
But take it slowly.
Implement a few suggestions at a time until they become habits, then tackle a few more. Even one small change can make a big difference over the long term.
Every student wants to do well academically while also leading a balanced life.
Of course, this is easier said than done.
It took me 16 years of continual research and experimentation to develop the systems needed to achieve this. And I’ve shared some of these systems with you in this article.
But, for me, the real reward wasn’t the straight As or the accolades.
The reward was the process of challenging myself, of becoming a person of greater focus, self-discipline, commitment, and resilience. (Of course, I still have plenty of areas I need to work on!)
So as you implement the tips and techniques outlined in this article, I’m confident that you’ll make progress toward becoming a top student.
But more than that, you’ll become a student who’s equipped with advanced self-management skills.
These skills will allow you to contribute more effectively, serve more meaningfully, and make a difference more powerfully.
Now that’s an end goal worth working toward.
Wishing you all the best on this exciting journey!
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