In this article, Matrix Scholarship holder and Tara Anglican School Student, Hannah, shares her high school success secrets for the balancing act – managing multiple extracurricular commitments & successful study.
Name: Hannah Wang
School: Tara Anglican School for Girls
Grade: Year 10
You may be someone who has a lot on their plate and feels frequently overwhelmed. Do I rewrite the English essay due tomorrow or go through my General Knowledge notes for my flute exam the next day? It gets even harder when you sit down and plan the next week, and outline your study schedule. How in the world do you manage to fit it all in?
This was me until I realised that I simply wasn’t approaching everything the right way. Trying to go through all my commitments every day was an impossible task, and it’s important to make time to unwind. Here are four of my top tips that will hopefully help you balance school with extracurriculars.
However long your to-do list is, remember that school comes first. Once you’ve prioritized school-related things, then you can arrange the rest of your activities. With prioritization, it would be good to include an estimation on how long that task will take. This will help you gauge your study for that afternoon, and also ensure that you keep up productivity and efficiency.
In terms of actually completing the tasks, I know some people like the ‘eat-the-frog method’, but I tweak it slightly. I like starting with a task that doesn’t take too long, and is not too arduous. This helps me keep up motivation as I am not stumped by the first task I am confronted with.
In a sense, I ease myself into the focus zone. Then, since my confidence and motivation are high, I attempt the ‘chunkiest’ or most intense tasks.
Once this rhythm is established, your brain will automatically maximise its efficiency, allowing you to make the most out of each task.
My to-do lists aren’t anything fancy, however, I find making them neat and adding a splash of colour doesn’t hurt. Below is an example of my to-do lists for one weekend (i.e., two days).
You may not want to spend ten minutes writing up a to-do list, but trust me, the investment is worth it. Knowing what you need to achieve increases accountability, and setting clear goals is essential to contribute positively to the bigger picture, whatever it may be.
On a more practical note, after experimenting with many kinds of to-do lists, I found I liked the generic sticky note. It’s also really satisfying to tear it off and trash it once you’re done. To me, it felt like the right size, and sticking it under my timetable which is right next to my computer was handy. Each note outlined the tasks for one subject, and when my brain became tired with a particular task, I would either take a break or switch subjects.
2. Listen to your heart… but don’t ignore your mind.
Take up what you are actually interested in, not necessarily what the rest of your friends are doing or what university applications may benefit from. It’s the unfortunate truth that none of us are study machines, working from sunrise to sunset.
Being able to do what you are interested in and filtering out the other commitments will help you stay motivated and on track to your goals, whatever they may be.
However, sometimes rationality needs to step in. It’s the precarious balance of mind and heart that requires some careful juggling. It’s like pen and paper – you need both to make use of their individual functions. Without paper, you will have nowhere to write with. Without a pen, there is nothing to write with. I know it seems a bit deep, but especially as we get older, it becomes even more essential for us to understand and evaluate the implications of our choices.
Here are some of the compromises I’ve had to make:
To provide an example, just recently, I made the very tough decision to discontinue flute and fencing lessons. Previously, I had been playing the flute for well over six years and fenced both nationally and internationally! However, there came a time that I simply could not fit all my commitments into the mere 24 hours given each day, and long-term.
Indeed, I spent quite a few hours planning my timetable and study schedule to try to accommodate for all my activities – but to no avail.
At the forefront of my mind was my studies – I made sure there were enough hours each day allocated to schoolwork.
One tip to figure out which activity to drop is to find your ‘clashes’ (debaters will know what I’m talking about!). They are the activities that may either happen at the same time, or simply cannot coexist. For example, my flute lesson was at the same time as The Future Project, and there were no other suitable times to shift to. The next step is to think about what you gain from each one – if you cannot think of anything, that is a good indication it would probably be in your (and others) best interest to discontinue.
Out of the two, I chose to discontinue flute as I was already heavily invested in another instrument. This not only meant I was already musically inclined, but since the skills were transferable, I could learn flute by myself (to some extent). Additionally, the Future Project was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and after research, I envisioned that I would be able to gain much. But since I was extremely reluctant to drop flute, I decided to attend lessons by appointment – booking in advance and going only when I had the time. This is just one example of not entirely quitting an activity, instead, making a compromise.
My second clash was between fencing and piano, both occurring on Saturdays. As the number of recitals to play increased at the conservatorium, I would often turn up late to fencing at Sydney University. Though they were quite close in terms of distance, I knew it wasn’t fair on myself and my coach if I was only there for half a session. Since I already decided to drop flute, piano could going to stay. Hence, fencing had to be cut.
This isn’t an official guide on how to decide what to drop – simply an example of where logic and rational thinking can help make difficult decisions slightly easier.
This was something I always struggled with especially when starting high school! Eventually, I ended up with an interminable list of tasks, and the overall quality of my work would be in danger of decreasing. There are many ways to help lessen the burden, but for me the most effective was to be selective. I always remember that it takes lots of time and energy to commit to something, and without that, I might as well leave the opportunity to someone else, or simply say ‘no’.
Note: This tip helps you avoid being stuck in the sticky situation described in point two ☝️ by not getting tangled up with too many commitments in the first place.
Sometimes, the problem may stem from a lack of confidence. It’s important to remember that saying ‘no’ is and will be a very necessary skill.
It’s simply impossible to please everyone (including yourself) and if you resort to always saying yes, life can become hectic, very quickly. Clearing out unnecessary or unimportant tasks can help you focus on what is at hand, therefore producing the optimal result.
Especially if you are good at a particular subject or skill, people will turn to you and ask for favours. Now, keep in mind, I am not saying to decline everything, only to be rational and aware of your capabilities (and the fleeting nature of time).
To provide an example, I was asked to accompany a very talented instrumentalist to play at a school assembly. I was delighted to be able to help out a rising talent, however, once I was handed the score, I knew it was something that wouldn’t only take a few hours. Aware of my busy schedule, after deliberation, I politely declined. It wouldn’t be fair on the instrumentalist if I didn’t produce a smooth performance, nor would I feel good about myself.
In summary, saying no can be daunting. But in many cases, you are doing a favour for your future self. Remember that you aren’t a workaholic – and shouldn’t strive to be. It’s important to respect yourself and let others do so too.
This one takes a deeper dig: however chaotic things may seem, it’s always essential to never lose your focus. There’s no standard template or quiz for this – it varies from person to person.
Personally, I found I produced the best results when I treated school like a job. This worked as I shifted my views from ‘school is the place I have to go’ to ‘school is my workplace and my job is to be the best student I can be’. I work the standard 40-hour week, with 5 hours in class per day, and 3 hours to study and revise.
This also helped me utilise the weekend properly – I focused on leisure and downtime, but any outstanding work needed to be completed before ‘work’ started again on Monday. Teachers can be seen like a ‘boss’ or ‘manager’: they guide your work by laying out our learning objectives and test your knowledge through assignments. If you are stuck, your task is to communicate questions and seek help.
Matrix+ was the place to seek out my ‘co-workers’ or other professionals. Through workshops and mentoring, I was able to enrich my knowledge and set clear study goals that kept me focused all through the term.
I use 3 main methods:
It may sound complicated, but these three are all interconnected. For example, Notion is my most handy place – always open on my computer, I jot down things I need to remember/complete. It mainly has important dates such as result day, exam day, competition deadlines, etc. As a result, it can become very crowded which is why I call it my brain dump.
My study timetable is the backbone of how I study. It outlines the study blocks and allocates subjects to different time slots. It is quite consistent all-year-round – though sometimes I may have to shift things around if I find something doesn’t quite work, or if an extracurricular activity has ended for the year. The study blocks aren’t set in stone – I filled some cells using a gradient when I thought that two activities could work at that particular time. However, I do like having something to stick to and having an organised schedule keeps me motivated.
My to-do list is almost like the culmination of the two – depending on the number of subjects/extracurriculars I have, I write up to-do lists. What I write within each subject to-do list is partially comprised on the tasks I have on Notion, and the daily dose of homework/assignments. My study schedule gives me an idea of what I have planned for the day, and then on my to-do list I write specifics such as ‘Finish workbook 7’ or ‘Rewrite essay and submit for feedback’.
My commute takes an hour one-way, so sometimes I utilise the time to study or plan. It’s important to make use of every minute you have – it may seem small, but it adds up and can majorly influence your results. I have a relatively early bedtime – 9:30 every day. This is a matter of habit, but also because sometimes I wake up early to study as well.
This isn’t an easy one to answer – each activity I do for a different reason. To add upon that, my motivation has changed throughout the years as I mature and experiment in more extracurriculars, though for some things, the underlying reasons stays the same.
For example, I’ve always done music because I enjoy it. This often confuses people, and many ask me, ‘Don’t you get forced to? Do you mean you actually like music?’, and I get where they’re coming from, with stereotyping and social norms. There were stages where I struggled to persevere, but that is where the eventual beauty shines through. Now, it’s something I am proud to say I have been enjoying and learning since kindergarten, and something I will do my whole life. Being a musician also opens doors for many social opportunities – I’ve enjoyed many rehearsals with my school ensembles, and Rising Stars has pushed me to perform at my best in a nurturing, supportive environment.
Similarly, debating has become something I enjoy. Although I only started debating competitively in Year 5, I’ve seen how the skills I’ve nurtured are transferable to everyday tasks, and even my academics. It has taught me to form well structured, critically analysed arguments and consider other points of view – and sometimes force myself to adopt a certain (and maybe controversial!) viewpoint temporarily. Once again, the social occasions introduced me to many inspirational people from across the state, and I’ve developed strong bonds with all my teammates.
I could list everything I gain from each of my activities, but the central message is that I do them for an actual reason. I believe if I only did these simply to add something to my resumé, I would not have had half as enjoyable an experience.
I encourage you to evaluate your involvement in extracurriculars, and ask yourself, honestly, if you enjoy it, especially for long-term activities. I don’t mean for you to quit something that you’ve been doing for ten years, but perhaps change your outlook and seriously consider what you use your time on. However beware, especially for newer pursuits, that you aren’t disheartened by a learning curve. Stick to it, and you will be enormously rewarded for your efforts.