Early in my career as an academic adviser, a few years after graduating from Duke, I began noticing a pattern. When I would start working with students, I would ask them to identify their most challenging classes. They typically responded by naming the class or classes where they were receiving the lowest grades. I would ask to see their materials, and they would become sheepish. In most cases, their papers were in utter disarray, with no system for organizing, planning, prioritizing, and tracking their workflow. That lack of structure created stress and anxiety and diminished their ability to learn, engage and process information with confidence.
Even so, most students overlooked the importance of focusing on the initial underlying system before addressing content. They wanted to know how to ace their chemistry test or edit their English essay. Some parents and caregivers would also become frustrated with my focus on what they considered nonessential skills.
Still, as I gently insisted we start with the system, students began to feel a great sense of ease and calm. One simple goal we often set: to organize so that they could find any document or digital file in under a minute. Soon, when their materials were in order and they had a plan for completing tasks, they were better able to focus, plan and prioritize. For many who stuck to it for months and then years, their newfound confidence spilled over into all areas of their lives. They got more sleep. Many seemed, on the whole, happier and healthier. Their personal and academic endeavors exceeded expectations. They made connections and developed a sense of community. Twenty-some years later, it remains a magical evolution to witness.
Even now, when I begin working with schools and corporations on developing these same skills, I see some of the very same resistance I’ve seen in parents and students for decades. It’s not surprising. With a heavy load of academic or work content that needs to be delivered and absorbed, taking time out of a busy day to practice these “executive functioning” skills – organizing, planning, prioritizing, starting and completing tasks, and thinking flexibly with self-awareness – can seem of secondary importance. And yet, post-pandemic, executive functions are more foundational to learning, engagement and overall well-being than any one grade, test score or deliverable will ever be. In fact, academic research studies indicate that developing such skills is a more reliable predictor of success in academics and in life than IQ, test scores, or socioeconomic status. And, since these skills are impacted by mood, stress and sleep, we’re right to think everything feels like it takes longer these days.
After two decades of working with students and consulting with schools and corporations on developing a system based on these skills, I’ve seen how this work can utterly change life trajectories and is key to social and emotional well-being, as well as workplace harmony and economic stability. Until recently, these fundamental skills have been overlooked and underemphasized, but now the message is hitting home. The research is seeing results. I’ve found my life’s work in encouraging change – one system at a time.
Ana Homayoun ’01 is the founder of Green Ivy Educational Consulting and the author of four books, most recently “Erasing the Finish Line: The New Blueprint for Success Beyond Grades and College Admission.”