Effective Executive Function Skills—Organization Tips for Busy Students (and Parents!)

October 18, 2017 

effective executive function skills Several times during the run of the hit TV series Sherlock, the title character (Sherlock Holmes) uses a memory technique called a “mind palace” to call up information stored in his brain. TV plots being what they are, the attempt nearly always yields spectacular results.

A mind palace, or memory palace, is actually a real, centuries-old mnemonic system. Known since Greek and Roman times, the technique allows practitioners to absorb and retain a surprising amount of information.

Unfortunately, in the modern world, few of us have months to devote to expanding our memories to the size of Cicero’s. Therefore, we offer a few tips here from our executive functioning (EF) curriculum. Busy students and families will find these practices useful at home, at school, on the job—just about anywhere!

Executive function skills, according to A+ Test Prep and Tutoring’s President Dan Ascher, are those used in decision making, planning, and time management. A key goal of EF coaching and strengthening effective executive function skills at A+ is to help students develop good organizational habits. Below are a few hints on optimal organizing:

Write It Down

Key it in, dictate it, or carve it in stone. Don’t wait! As soon as you make that appointment or receive that assignment, record it. Choose one place as your “Master List” location. It can be a file folder on your laptop or an old-fashioned datebook that you carry with you.  Experiment to find out what works best, and then stick to that method.

Organize Your Lists!

If you need to keep track of more than one task (and most of us do), a logical system of ordering is crucial. Some of the most common and effective are:

Chronological (Time Order)

Time order works well to keep track of a full day packed with responsibilities. Schedules often combine chronological order with a graphic component (boxes to separate time units, for example). One word of advice: If you organize your schedule in time order, leave enough time to eat and take breaks—don’t create a schedule that only Superman could follow!



Emphatic order means putting tasks in order of their importance (most important first). If you do your work in emphatic order, you reap an additional benefit—each task is easier than the last. There’s a popular saying—“Eat the frog”—based on a quote by Mark Twain, in which he remarks that if you’re ever forced to eat a frog, you should eat it first thing in the morning and get it over with. This is emphatic order in possibly its most memorable form!


Never dismiss the old tried and true A to Z. Alphabetical lists are useful when you need to keep track of people or organizations. Imagine trying to work your way through your phone contacts if they were in the order you entered them, rather than sorted alphabetically.

Back It Up!

Computers crash. Phones fall into the sink. Lists get lost. Flash drives get left at friends’ houses. If you value the information, back it up. Businesses know this all too well. Remember all those seers in the 20th century who predicted a paperless society? They’re still keeping file cabinets full of “hard copies” of absolutely everything.

Never fear! Being organized will not change you from a daring, exciting person to a dull mouse whose only joy is counting paper clips. On the contrary; being organized will help you reach your goals with less stress and effort—leaving you more time to enjoy life!

At A+, we are here to help you reach your academic goals. If you would like information about executive function coaching and building effective executive function skills or any of our services, you may reach our Client Service Directors Anne Stanley and Susan Ware by calling A+ Test Prep and Tutoring at 215-886-9188.


Photo credit: dierk schaefer


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