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Learning self-discipline and time management

Some students who appear very intelligent do not do well academically or in life. Others, who appear less bright, seem to do very well.

Some students who appear very intelligent do not do well academically or in life. Others, who appear less bright, seem to do very well.

What distinguishes a top performer from one who does not do well? Is it their intelligence or is it something else? Why is there such a wide range of outcomes among children of equal IQ? If it is something else, what is it?

There is a great deal of research that shows a fundamental capacity at an early age, namely the greater ability to delay gratification measured at age four, predicted higher academic and professional functioning decades later.

A simple test was the wait time of four-year-olds relative to eating a marshmallow put in front of them, or delaying gratification and receiving an additional marshmallow as a reward. Those students who could delay and get the second marshmallow got better grades 10-plus years later. Upon follow-up many years later, researchers found that those who were unable to wait were significantly more likely to have problems with drug addiction or obesity.

Many of these children continued to have problems controlling themselves years later, but several were able to overcome and build self-discipline. Self-discipline is the only one among many personality variables, including extraversion and energy level, that predicted college performance and correlated positively with grades.

A very recent study showed that self-discipline and the ability to delay gratification are much stronger predictors of academic performance than IQ. They were also great predictors of how well students would improve their grades during the school year.

Despite widespread appreciation of the importance of self-control and self-discipline to student success, few schools provide training or advice on the subject as part of their assistance to students in any form, not even print or online information resource.

The development of self-control and self-discipline is assumed to be not a school issue, but part of a student’s personal growth and development as an independent learner. It becomes an issue to refer students to counsellors only when they develop major problems. This insufficient attention is striking given its vital importance to successful learning even at an early age.


There are many workshops and courses available, but most of these are directed towards adults and are usually not entirely pertinent to the needs of students. Of the many elements in self-regulation, one of the most important is to manage the tasks and the time that is needed to accomplish them. This requires the learner to learn planning and organisation, using time competently, avoiding diversions and staying motivated.

For most students, simple guidance on study practices can help. For some, more individualised attention at an early age can set them up to gain confidence and succeed.

Often students sidestep confronting the scale of the work they need to complete — they either underestimate and, therefore, delay starting or overestimate the magnitude. In either case, a perfectly attainable goal begins to feel unachievable because it is not defined.

One way that can help is putting the task or goal down on paper or in the phone or tablet. This starts to get the effort under control and establishes a sense of what is needed.

Tasks can be carved up into less scary portions and a work timetable planned. The tasks can also be prioritised and decisions made about the order in which to undertake the tasks.

If students are feeling overwhelmed, it can help to recognise one task that they can do immediately to disrupt the cycle of procrastination and get them started on their way.

Students who have always been given set schedules in schools and fixed expectation can have difficulty learning to build their own priorities and engage in their learning development. Allowing students to be involved in priority and goal setting is a good initiative to undertake, especially with older students.

Often a standard piece of advice is to tell students to set goals for completing tasks. A better piece of advice may be to have them learn to set deadlines to start tasks along with completion deadlines. Both start and completion deadlines can then become a start point to break the work into small bits that are achievable and can help in breaking procrastination cycles.

For many students, especially those who tend to be perfectionistic, completion deadlines can become a source of much stress.

Completion deadlines can be overwhelming as they suggest a fixed time when the activity will be perfect. Providing help to have students learn to stop and move to a new task and teaching them that the perfect can sometimes be the enemy of the good is easier to do early in life than later.

Disruption, entertainment and smulti-tasking reduce self-control and create an inability to focus on study. Teaching students to build awareness of their causes for distraction and planning strategies to avoid them is very helpful.

Figuring out which is their best time of the day for concentrating, and whether they use that time effectively, can be enough to solve the problem. Teaching students to recognise that they must establish behaviour and develop a lifestyle that stops them from procrastinating by wasting their best time for study is another worthwhile strategy.

Assuming that students will learn self-discipline by themselves may shortchange some of them. Some students seem to be able to learn this without help. For many others, a little bit of help early on can go a long way.


K Ranga Krishnan is Dean of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore. A clinician-scientist and psychiatrist, he chaired the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Duke University Medical Centre from 1998 to 2009.

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