The two things you need for success in college and beyond

Today’s post isn’t strictly about college admissions, though it can help you immensely with the college application journey. It can also help you be a better college student, and a calmer person after college. Today’s post is about two things you need for success in high school, college, and beyond: a meditation routine and a time management system. Maybe need is a strong word. You can get by without either of these things—many people do. But I promise that a meditation routine and time management system will never be a waste of your time or effort.

Meditation. Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are very popular at the moment, and for good reason. I’ve been falling in and out of my own mindfulness meditation habit for 20 years, so I’m obviously a fan. But it’s not the only type of meditation that you might consider. I’m using the broadest possible meaning of meditation: any repeated activity that allows a person to focus their mind for the purpose of relaxation and/or awareness.

There’s mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation, loving kindness meditation, body scan meditation, and many more. Meditation is commonly associated with Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Many meditation practices are completely secular, even if they originated in Hindu or Buddhist religions. There are also Christian, Jewish, and Muslim contemplative prayer traditions. There’s a meditation routine to fit any body, any belief, and any community. There are ways to meditate sitting, standing, walking, even running.

The important part is to completely disconnect on a regular basis. Disconnect from the noise and activity around you. Disconnect from your critical inner voice. Disconnect from all the thinking about the past and the future. Disconnect from everything that prevents you from relaxing and and raising your self-awareness. Sleep also helps you disconnect, and sleep is essential. But sleep isn’t focused, and many of us don’t experience sleep as a way to get away from stress or anxiety. Meditation, however, is focused and intentional. So don’t assume that sleep is all the relaxation and disconnecting you need. (You’re probably not getting enough sleep anyway.)

Meditation works best when it’s a regular routine. Daily is better than occasional. Five minutes, twice a day is better than an intense weeklong retreat every few years.

What’s so great about meditation? It helps control stress and anxiety. It promotes the ability to focus. It may make you healthier. If you’re a spiritual believer, it helps you attain spiritual awareness. It makes different people more focused and happier in different ways, but a meditation routine, once you find the right one for you, will make you more focused and happier.

Recommendations. There are an overwhelming number of meditation books, meditation classes, guided meditations, and websites exploring meditation of all sorts. If you need a place to begin, try the Calm app or Andrew Weiss’s book Beginning Mindfulness: Learning the Way of Awareness. I think it’s better to start any meditation routine while you search for the best fit rather than wait until you find the best fit before you begin.

Time management system. Ours is a culture with too much. Too much stuff, too much to do, too many choices, too many distractions, too many solutions that never quite solve the problems. That’s a blessing; I’d rather be in a place with too much than not enough, and too many people within our culture still don’t have enough of the things that are important. But our abundant culture also has challenges—lack of sleep, lack of direction, anxiety, missing out on important things and people, self-destructive habits. This is why we need a time management system. As a high school teacher I told countless classes that the secret to doing well in college is time management. It’s something a lot of people say. But that doesn’t mean that we’re good at teaching time management.

Like meditation, there are so many ways to go about it. There are programs and systems for managing your time, and they often contradict each other. There’s not a single solution that fits everyone. The different systems use some combination of to-do lists, calendars, inboxes, notepads, routines, rewards and notes, but there are two main ideas almost universal to productivity management.

The first main idea is that you have to get your organization outside of your brain. Get your thoughts onto paper, or a note on your phone, or a calendar. But get these things, literally, outside of your body. The more you’re asking your brain to keep up with all your commitments, all the things you have to do, all the things you want to do, and all the things you hope to do, the less energy is left for your brain to focus on the thinking that it needs to do at the moment.

Imagine you’re very, very rich, and you can hire people to do most things for you. A personal shopper buys your clothes, and a helper has them ready for you each morning. A chef makes all your meals, housekeepers keep your home clean and looking good, a secretary takes care of all your planning, and someone drives you everywhere. You literally have no decisions to make or things to do that you don’t choose for yourself. Imagine how much time and energy you can focus on the projects you want to focus on! Very few of us have that much money, but the time management systems we put in place serve the same purpose. By spending 30 minutes each day reviewing what you need to do the next day and making a plan, you can maximize the time you spend on what you want to do, minimize the on-the-spot decisions you have to make, and make it less likely you’ll be unprepared for whatever is in front of you. But if you’re constantly trying to remember what you need to do, where you need to be, and what you should have done to be ready for it, you’re always behind and not spending much mental energy on what’s important to you in the moment. Any routine that gives you more time doing what you want to do and less time trying to keep up with what you need to do is a good thing. Explore your options.

The second main idea is that you have to use your system consistently. A time management system that you only use some days doesn’t work. A way to keep track of your assignments and appointments that you only check sometimes doesn’t work. You have to be consistent, or the organization doesn’t actually get out of your brain—you’re still trying to keep track of everything in your head when you could be focused on other things.

Take, as a simple example, my car keys. My car keys are always in one of only two places. They’re either in my left pants pocket, or they’re in the top drawer of my bedroom dresser. I never set them down anywhere else. It took some self-training to get myself to that point, but I did it. And now I never lose my keys or waste time looking for my keys. I also spend exactly zero mental energy thinking about where my keys are—it’s just a habit. But it wouldn’t work if I only put my keys in the same place half the time. Even if I mostly put my keys in my dresser, but sometimes left them on the kitchen table or in the bathroom, then I would either end up spending some time looking for my keys or a lot of mental energy trying to keep myself aware of where my keys are.

The same is true of your homework assignments or deadlines for college application materials. If every time you get an assignment or a deadline you write it down in your calendar, and you check your calendar daily, then you never miss a due date or deadline. And you don’t have to spend any mental energy keeping track of them, because you know they’re in your calendar. But if you only get your assignments and to-do items written down half the time, then it’s not much better than writing them down never.

Recommendations. All of my recommendations for time management systems are books: Daniel J. Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload; David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity; Laura Vanderkam’s Juliet’s School of Possibilities: A Little Story about the Power of Priorities; James Clear’s Atomic Habits; and Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Also: watch this.

People often ask me for tricks and tips for getting into the college of their choice. I usually have to tell them that college admissions doesn’t work that way, and I definitely don’t work that way. The best way to get into a good college is to be a good high school student. But forming a meditation routine and using a time management system will definitely help you be a better high school student and get into college. They’ll also help you be a better college student. And a better employee and a better leader. So, you know, put that on your to-do list.

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Photo by Zoe Herring.