Back-to-School Tips with a Mindful Twist

By Gina Biegel, LMFT

A Fresh Start

When I was in high school, I had mixed feelings about going back to school each year. I loved the idea of a fresh start. Every year, I got a new opportunity to start over, to reinvent myself. Though I remember loving this time of year, that wasn’t the case for many of my friends. Some of them would practically get sick before school started because they were so stressed out.

Setting Back to School Intentions

In my adult life, the focus of my work is to help teens reduce their stress by bringing mindfulness into their lives. Mindfulness is noticing your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in the present moment. To be honest, I wish that I’d known what a mindfulness practice was when I was in high school. I know now how it could have helped me navigate my way.

Starting a new school year is a wonderful time to set your intentions for the year ahead. “Setting an intention” is simply talking about your goals or plans. Take out some note paper, or type out the answers to these three questions:

  1. What is going on in your life right now that is working well?

  2. How do you want this school year to be different from last?

  3. During your school week, how do you want to spend your time? (During school time, after school, spending time with friends, working on homework, playing sports, clubs, a job, etc.)

Considering the answers to these three questions can help you hone in on your intentions for the new school year as well as help you decide where you want to put your time and attention.

By considering your intentions for the upcoming school year, you avoid walking through your days on autopilot. By writing your intentions down, it’ll be easier to remember that you can stop and consider your reasons for doing what you’re doing. In other words, being intentional can help you make thoughtful decisions instead of automatic reactions.

Tame Your To-Do List

The first week of school was always an interesting time for me. I remember having a new opportunity to set how the year was going to go. It was that short period of time where I wasn’t behind and homework hadn’t piled up yet. However, that feeling quickly faded as work began to pile on from teachers. My worries and stress would begin to mount. I was on this hamster wheel of this never-ending to-do list.

I was a pretty anxious teen. I worried a lot. When I would lie down to go to sleep at night, my to-do list would appear as if I was reading it straight off a piece of paper. It wasn’t until I learned about mindfulness in graduate school that I was able to tame my to-do list. Use these steps below to help tame your to-do list.

1. Write It Down

Make sure what you have on your to-do list is written down or typed somewhere. Therefore, when it pops up in your head, you can remind yourself that it is written down and you don’t have to worry about it right now. If you find something new pops up or if you don’t remember if it is written down somewhere, keep a small notepad by your bed or with you during the day. Write it and forget about it until the right time.

2. Consolidate

Put all your to-dos in one place, on paper or electronically. Consolidate all your scraps of paper, the multitude of post-it notes you might have lying around, or miscellaneous reminders you have typed and put them all in one place so you know where to find them. Going to this one to-do list spot instead of searching many places can be a quick way to verify everything you need to remember is written down.

3. Acknowledge It

You can acknowledge your to-do thoughts as they arise. You don’t have to give the thought more power by focusing on it. You can say to yourself, “Yes, that is something on my to-do list, thank you for reminding me.” Sometimes a thought or a pain just wants to be heard, and by acknowledging it, you have taken away the potential for it to snowball into a much bigger worry.

4. Attend to Your Body

Shift your attention from the to-do list and onto your body. Move as far away from your head as possible and scan your body from the tips of your toes to the top of your head. Just notice the different parts of your body as you move to your head. Hopefully, this will get you away from thinking and onto feeling the physical sensations of your body. If you still feel stuck on your to-do list, try wiggling your toes or fingers, or touching each individual finger to your thumb. Doing any of these switches your train of thought and brings you more into the present and now by focusing on your body.

5. Let It Go

Thinking, worrying, or ruminating about your to-do list isn’t going to change anything. It isn’t going to finish anything on the to-do list. If your to-do list is arising at a time that you can’t do anything about it, like at night when you are trying to go to sleep, let it go. Just say to yourself, “Let it go.”

These back-to-school tips can be used all year long. Making small changes to your habits every day leads to big change down the road. Listen to your body this school year, and do more of the things that nourish you and less of what drains you.

Stressing out about homework or a test? Download a FREE mindful homework worksheet.

Gina Biegel, LMFT, is a psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area who specializes in mindfulness-based work with adolescents. She is founder of Stressed Teens, which has been offering mindfulness-based stress reduction for teens (MBSR-T) to adolescents, families, schools, professionals, and the community for over a decade. She is the author of The Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens.

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