Archive for October, 2012

When I teach study skills classes, I often share this quote by the Roman Stoic Philosopher named Seneca. It is a beautiful and simple metaphor illustrating how intrinsically goals are related to success. Even though most of us wouldn’t set out on a trip without knowing where we were going and how we would get there, many of us set out on a life path without any true plans, preparations, evaluations or goals. Perhaps we have jumped into the boat, but what happens after that? Do we know how to control the sails? Do we know what to do when a storm approaches. Do we know how to read the instruments and chart a course? Do we know the specifics of our destination and what it takes to get there?

If a student approaches their college education without thinking through any of these things, success will be elusive. Are you guilty of blindly jumping into the boat? Whenever we discover we are free-floating without a true purpose, it’s a good idea to take a time out to do some self-analysis. My personal approach to this is to take a nice journal or notebook to a place where I can sit uninterrupted and meditate about the course I am currently taking. Writing helps me to think through things. I can make lists of relevant things, such as goals or steps I might need to take to get somewhere in particular. I’d recommend this practice for anyone who finds themselves in a place where they are kind of “free styling” life. While that can be fun for the short term, it is typically a course toward nothing. Where do you want to be 5 or 10 years from now. Write out your dreams, your goals, your past successes and failures… and then think about what alterations you need to make in  your current course in order to reach the “harbor”  you would ultimately like to reach.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself while meditating and journaling:

  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
  • How do you expect to get there?
  • What potential obstacles will you face? How will you deal with them?
  • Imagine yourself facing potential obstacles and think about how you will overcome them. How can you encourage yourself to do this? Maybe you can write yourself a note on an index card and tape it to your bathroom mirror. Right now, I have a little note taped to mine that says, “Perseverance pays off!”
  • What is the first step you must take to begin this journey? What is the second step?
  • How will you know when you reach your destination?
  • How will you celebrate? How do you envision your celebration and who will be there to celebrate with you?

Try to revisit your notebook or journal every week and see if you are still on course. Treat it as if it is your compass. If you have gotten off course, what alterations do you need to make? Write them down and commit to them. Take time to evaluate and make adjustments every so often. These things will virtually guarantee progress and eventual success in reaching your ultimate harbor.


Studying for a test can be excruciatingly difficult if you wait until the day before the exam to study. But, that’s what many students do. This may be due to poor time management skills,or a student being unrealistic about how long test preparation will take, or perhaps simply having a bad case of procrastination.

Whatever the case may be, a student will not reach his or her full potential without learning how to more effectively prepare for an exam. This skill can easily be transferred over to every-day-life, as well as to a future career. Think about it. Some day Jack or Jill will be in the work force, and Big Boss will say, “I want this presentation ready by Friday.” Jack may end up with a panic-induced form of procrastination, and Jill might end up with a lousy presentation because she pulled an “all-nighter”. Instead, if Jack and Jill learn how to set up a plan for completing a project over several days, they will be more capable in their future employment.

I learned about the 5-Day Study Plan in my job as an academic coach. The idea is simple, but very effective. Block off chunks of of time in your planner each day for 5 days before the exam. Typically these blocks of time will be 2-3 hours of time, depending on the difficulty of the material. The first four days will be used to prepare study material and/or to use the study material. For example, the exam is over chapters 1-8. So, on day 1, you will prepare study materials for chapters 1 and 2. You may be creating practice tests, flash cards, concept maps, study sheets, etc. On day 2, you will prepare chapters 3 and 4, and then use the study materials you prepared the day before for chapters 1 and 2. On day 3, you would prepare chapters 5 and 6, and then review chapters 1-4 using the study materials you have prepared.

Now, let’s skip ahead to think about what day 5 would be like. You have all of your study materials ready, and have already done quite a bit of studying over the last 4 days. So, on day 5, you just need to continue to review, quiz yourself, and utilize the materials you have created. You don’t feel panicked because you’ve already gained a solid grasp of most of the material. It’s a great way to do well on the exam and combat test anxiety.

Adapting the Plan to Academic Papers

Take a moment to think about how you might adapt this idea to writing a research paper. Depending on the length and complexity of the paper, you might need more than 5 days to work on it. When you are first assigned a paper, see how many days you have between the current day and the due date. Look at your calendar and choose days and times that you will set aside to work on your paper. Think about the steps you may need to take, and make a skeleton plan for yourself. As an example, you have 2 weeks before your 10-page research paper on metaphysical poetry. In my opinion, the first step is pretty much always research, and that research will help you choose and refine your topic. The second step is nailing that topic down, and the third is beginning your focused research.

The fourth step is to start writing, and you need to identify a date for that. The reason I specifically choose a day to start comes from a conversation I was having with one of my coworkers when I was doing a large research paper. I mentioned that I enjoy the research part of writing so much, I would research a topic “to death” before I started writing. My co-worker brilliantly said, “I think that research can sometimes be a well-disguised form of procrastination.” It was a light bulb moment for me! I was regularly talking to students about methods for combating procrastination, yet I was indulging in it myself. Now, when I am preparing to write , I choose the day I will stop research and begin writing and put it in my planner. Then, I back plan and create deadlines for different parts of the writing process, and put those in my planner, as well. Don’t forget to give yourself a couple of days for editing before you have to turn the paper in!

A lot of people are resistant to integrating this much structure into their lives. But, I can tell you from experience, it is actually very freeing to plan and prepare major projects in this way. The bonus is, it drastically reduces or eliminates the anxiety and stress that comes if you have no plan and end up working on a paper, project, or studying for a test while in crisis mode. Try it. And I mean really try it! Sometimes one of my students will say, “I tried what you recommended, but it didn’t work.” But, when they tell me what they did, they often stop after the planning part. That isn’t trying it. You have to follow through with the plan. If you don’t, you can’t say it didn’t work. The truth is, you didn’t work!

Please come back and let me know how you used a 5-Day Plan in your work as a student or elsewhere. Feel free to ask question, as well. I love to brain storm solutions with students.

Managing a Crisis

Posted: October 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

Lian Dolan, wrote something to this effect on her blog recently: One the of the strangest aspects of having a full-scale medical emergency in your life, is that life goes on outside of what you’re experiencing. If you’ve gone through something like this, you can relate to that strange sensation of being unexpectedly removed from the real world. However, you are also simultaneously forced to connect with it. I couldn’t agree with Lian’s assessment more!

It was somewhat surreal for me, walking back into my office after missing work for two weeks during my husband’s hospitalization. To me, it felt as if no time had passed there, even though it had been eight days of sitting by his bed day and night, and then another six days of transitioning him to home and setting up various home health resources.

But life goes on, even when mine seemed to be on pause. The responsibilities don’t go away, bills keep coming. I had no choice but to return to work even though my husband’s illness is terminal and he needs round-the-clock care. I am near the end of my current degree program, and my husband’s illness actually makes it even more imperative that I stay on course to graduate asap so that I can increase my earning potential. Once I entered back into “real life,” I encountered person after person who simply asked, “How is it going?” It sounds oddly similar to the way one might ask about the status of a softball game or preparations for a birthday party. When you are dealing with a hard reality, a reality that says your husband’s life can only be measured in days or weeks, not months or years, how do you answer that question? It’s tempting to pour out the whole story, because it seems like it can’t be communicated any other way. Yet, you know that conveying the magnitude of what is going on is too much. Too much for them to hear and too much for you to say without bursting into tears. Things are definitely not “okay” or “good,” but you have to resist the temptation to dump. So, for now, I’m trying to compartmentalize as best as I can to take care of my sweet husband, my family and home, work as much as I can, and keep up with the classes I’m taking at a local university.

What does all of this have to do with Success Hacks? While there are no cookie-cutter situations, I wanted to share some suggestions on how to keep the ship from sinking when huge splintery holes have been blown into your best laid plans. First and foremost, in spite of it being difficult to communicate “how’s it going” to other people, the one place you must be at least somewhat transparent is at work and school. Don’t just disappear from your college classes and then expect your instructor to give you all kinds of leeway later. Contact the instructor as soon as possible to let him or her know what is going on. If it’s possible, schedule a meeting in person or by phone. If it looks like you will need extra time for projects or assignments, see if your instructor will allow it. Ask if you have an option of receiving a “delayed grade.” A delayed grade is sometimes used during extenuating circumstances– a college will sometimes allow an instructor to basically “pause” the class for you for a certain length of time. During that time, you can work with the instructor to make up work and finish the class on your own, similar to the way you might do an independent study. If you find out your instructor is not going to be flexible, it is better that you know this as soon as possible, so that you can drop the class before it affects your grade point.

What this all boils down to is: communicate. Communicate with your instructors from the moment you realize your school work will be drastically affected by a life crisis. Yes, I mean crisis. Don’t expect special treatment because you decided to go on vacation in the middle of a semester. If you have a true emergency, then be as open and honest as you need to be in order to communicate the gravity of the situation. Then, be responsible and complete the course work and continue to reach out to your instructor via email, phone calls, or office visits. Help them to help you through effective communication.

When I work with students who are struggling in college, one of the first questions I ask is, “Do you have a planner?” Most of them will say yes, especially since the college provides a free planner for students. The second question I ask is, “Do you use it?” This is where they will hesitate, look away, hem-haw, and then admit, “Not really.”  And sometimes they are blatantly honest and answer, “Never.”

One of the most important keys for success in any area of life, whether it be college, work, or running a business, is to get in the habit of using a planner. There are very, very few of us who can truly keep track of everything they need to do without having some kind of pen and paper method. I know that when I am using my planner to it’s full potential, I am able to keep up with many things quite well. When things start falling apart, I can usually attribute it to falling off the wagon. My planner started collecting dust.

I’ve tried many planners over many years. I’ve purchased small calendars, ones that I can stick in a pocket of my purse, but they are quickly forgotten and there just isn’t enough space to write down everything. I’ve tried a big, beautiful planner, that included everything-but-the-kitchen-sink. However, there were so many sections I didn’t use, and quite frankly, too much for me to manage. Plus, if it’s bulky, I won’t carry it with me. I’ve also purchased the basic calendar-style planners, but it doesn’t accommodate my on-going projects adequately. Can you tell? I’ve been mostly frustrated with the planners I’ve tried.Image

Eventually, I found the Uncalendar. For me, it was the holy grail of calendars! I love it!  I work in a community college, where I teach non-credit classes on study skills related topics,. and I always teach students how to use a planner. This has given me many opportunities to show people my Uncalendar and talk about how I use it. Many of my co-workers and students have started using it after seeing mine. It’s fully customizable, which paralyzes some people at first. Most of us are used to having planners that tell us what to do and where to do it. So, many students who ended up buying one of these later stopped by my office later to ask if they could look at how I’m using mine. Once they give themselves permission to “be free” and use their imagination, they love it! I will share more about the Uncalendar in future posts, plus on a related note, I will review other unique planners I find.

I am also working on designing my own planner taking things I love from the various planners I have tried, as well as adding my own twist to them. If I use it, and like it, I just might share….. 🙂

What This is All About….

Posted: October 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

The college where I work is in an urban area where the majority of students do not have much in the way of financial resources. Many are struggling financially and are dependent on government aid for sustenance. In addition, many are young, single parents, attempting to raise a child on their own while working and going to school.

My story is different from these students in many ways, but I can relate to them because there are also a number of distinct similarities. I returned to college as a recently divorced mother, suddenly left with the complete responsibility of caring for my children and paying the bills. Problem is, I didn’t finish my college education when I was younger and my earning potential was low.

I applied for financial aid, and received grants and scholarships. I went to the community college and graduated with a 4.0. I went on to a university and managed to maintain a 4.0 there as well, until my  life took another sudden turn. I met someone, fell in love, got engaged. Everything seemed great. I was doing well in school and nearing the finish line. But then, my fiance was diagnosed with brain cancer. Up to this point, we put off getting married because of the fact that we both still had young adult children at home (and attending college and working close to home) and we didn’t want to uproot either when they were all so close to graduating from college. But, now, we didn’t know if we would have the luxury of time. We had a private wedding ceremony on the patio at home. So, now I had school, work, children and a terminally ill husband.Image

My grade point slipped a little because of all of this, but I have managed to (usually) keep my head well above water. My goal was to graduate from the 4-year college with a 4.0, but sometimes you just have to take a look at all of the things in your life and re-prioritize. Obviously, caring for my husband and dealing with his illness and care had to take a front seat, and while my studies are still a priority, there are times when I have to allow it to take a back seat.

All that to say, I know something about juggling a whole lot of stuff, and I know something about the difficulties in life that can throw a huge wrench into the best laid plans. I’m coming from a place of an imperfect life, just like everyone else. I want to help others find ways to tread water during times of difficulty, and not give up on dreams and goals. At those times when I’m just barely hanging on, I try to at least minimize the damage, and can therefore not give up on reaching my end goals successfully. Therefore, this blog make take directions I’m not even aware of right now. One thing I can say, my main objectives are to be transparent and to share things that may be helpful to others. Feel free to email me with questions, suggestions, or whatever is on your mind.