How to Avoid Falling Behind In School: My Top 3 Principles

So you just finished a huge marathon session yesterday. You’re pretty tired, but got all caught up on your backlog of coursework. Now what do you do?

In the last video we talked about how to catch back up on a backlog of coursework by using a blitz day, but we really didn’t cover the second half of Esther’s question, which related to how to still keep up in class at the same time. How do you avoid falling behind in school in the first place?

Blitz days are effective, but you don’t want to get into the habit of doing them all the time because they disrupt your schedule, they take a lot out of you, and you sacrifice depth of learning when you do these things. It’s better to spread your learning efforts over a longer and more consistent period of time.

Plus, once you’ve put in all of this effort to get caught up, you don’t want to let yourself fall behind again because you want to take advantage of the fact that you’re now able to keep up in your current courses.

Now that you’re caught up, the one problem is it’s actually pretty difficult to stay on top of every single thing that comes up in class. Check out this StackOverflow post:

falling behind in school image 1

This is not all that uncommon.

It’s no wonder that we fall behind – because we’re trying to do all of these things at once we inevitably get spread thin. So we need to figure out some better way to get all this work done.

Trying to figure out how to not fall behind is actually pretty tough, especially when a quick Google search on this comes up with terrible advice like this:


Instead, here are three principles that if you stick to, you’ll never find yourself with a backlog of course work that you need to catch back up on.

Principle #1: Adopt Process-Oriented Goals

Adopt process-oriented goals, not results-oriented goals.

Having a goal to get a specific result is good. You want to look forward to getting a 95 on an exam or getting a 4.0 a semester GPA. These things motivate us and they give us something to look forward to.

The problem is when we get down to actually executing on that goal, focusing on the result is actually counterproductive. Because when you focus on only the result, it’s not doing anything to get you any closer to it. If I’m sitting here saying “I want a good grade, I want a good grade, I want a good grade, I’m going to study,” how is that helping me? Now what do I do?

Instead, what you want to do is take those result goals and convert them into process goals.

What I mean by a process-oriented goal is: you want to take your initial goal of, say, getting a 95 on your next test, and “reverse engineer” that into the specific steps that you need to take in order to achieve that.

Once you’ve broken it down and you know that, for example, if you do an hour of practice problem each day leading up to the test that you will get a 95 or something close to it, then you don’t have to worry about the result. This reduces a lot of anxiety and it gives us a very tactical focus – something that we can specifically target each day to get done, knowing that if we do get it done, it will get us that much closer.

It also facilitates the development of habits, which can aid you in keeping momentum and reducing the amount of perceived workload that you’re putting in each day.

Principle #2: Rough Time Blocking

Now you guys might have heard of time blocking before. People like Cal Newport talk about the importance of blocking out specific chunks of time each day and detailing out exactly what you’re going to do within those chunks of time in order to increase productivity.

This definitely does increase productivity over just not having any schedule or idea of what you’re doing at all. However, for your coursework, what you’re doing each day is going to be more consistent than someone working on a more fluid and creative project.

What I advocate is something that’s a little bit less painstaking but follows the same principles. This is what I’m calling rough time blocking.

Here’s an example of what that might look like:

These are just specific times that you’re blocking out during the day for each of your courses in order to execute different aspects of your study routine. By blocking out and understanding how much time you have allocated for each course and how much time you’re dedicating to each aspect of the study process, this is going to help you keep more on track without spending too much time on things that may not be as important to achieving your academic goals. It will also help with facilitating the things that we talked about in principle #1.

Principle #3: Do Problems First

Now this can get kind of controversial because some people think that they should be learning things beyond just what they need to know for the test, but I’m not talking about just drilling problem after problem after problem. What I’m talking about is working from the problems first and using those problems to diagnose what part of the different concepts you don’t understand and where you’re weak. Then you can go back to your concept or view and specifically focus your time on those aspects of whatever concept you’re learning about that you’re missing in your problem-solving process.

This very efficiently focuses your time on the things that you should be learning that are going to have the biggest impact on your overall understanding in the course and your ability to perform on exams. Learning concepts in the absence of problems can become a huge time suck because you start going down different rabbit holes, learning about things that may be interesting but you’ll never see again on an exam. The professional will never talk about it again, so it ends up being time that you’re spending that doesn’t directly contribute to any tangible results. This is why if you do the problems first, it’s going to narrow your focus in on the things that you need to learn in order to get through the course that you’re taking right now. Then, if you have extra time later, you can go back and learn whatever you want.


Those are the three.

Adhere to these principles and it’s going to be really difficult for you to get far behind.

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