Boston University Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences
Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation

Boston University Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences
Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation

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Cognitive Self-Management Strategies for Work and School

October 11, 2023

by Dr. Susan McGurk and Dr. Kim Mueser


We are constantly barraged in our daily lives with new information competing for our limited attention. And there is even more information available than ever before, at the tip of our fingers, on our cell phones and computers. We need to manage the beckoning alerts of tweets, beeps, pings, and other sounds our devices make to inform us something “important” has happened (such as receiving a cell phone text) or try to be mindful of the accumulation of unanswered messages, posts, and other communications whose arrival we have allowed to go unannounced. Our computers and cell phones are a minefield of emails, prompts, and the bottomless pit of the internet, promising infinite information without protection from the perils of endless distractions. Even the mere presence of your (turned-off) cell phone can drain your attention. It is not surprising then, that we often end our day feeling mentally exhausted but without completing the tasks that we need to get done.


Although attention is a keystone thinking skill and a precious, limited resource for managing information, it is just one of several cognitive domains that serve us in our day-to-day lives. We also need to learn and remember information, plan ahead, solve problems, and think on our feet. One other often neglected, but critical thinking area is self-thinking. Negative thinking can adversely impact our confidence and effort to achieve what we want to. We need skills to enhance our awareness of such thoughts, challenge them, and replace with them with more optimistic, hopeful, and realistic thoughts. Optimistic thoughts about ourselves and our ability to achieve our daily tasks and reach our long-term goals can fuel the effort that we need to succeed. Proficiency in the full range of areas of cognitive functioning are critical to achieving goals such as returning to school, completing a degree, getting, and keeping work, living independently, making, and keeping friends, and having deep and rewarding relationships.


The good news is that we can sharpen and extend our mental capabilities and maximize our chances of succeeding in any area we choose.  We can do all of this by using cognitive self-management strategies. Although some may not be familiar with the term “cognitive self-management strategies,” all of us almost certainly use at least some these strategies in our daily lives. Have you ever:

  • set an alarm to remember to take a medication, feed the dog, or turn off the oven?
  • left yourself a phone message to remember to send a birthday card to your mother?
  • tied a string around your finger as a reminder to buy milk?
  • put your keys in a special place when you come home so you know where you can find them?


If so, then you’ve used cognitive self-management strategies. And if you have used one of the above, then you’ve probably used some of the other many possible strategies. While everyone uses cognitive self-management strategies, the more we use the better, and everyone can benefit from learning more strategies or how to use them more efficiently.


We describe below self-management strategies for optimizing and extending thinking skills that can be used in all walks of life. Self-management strategies help us utilize our cognitive skills and the demands on them to maximize their efficiency and effectiveness. Additionally, and perhaps surprisingly, practice and expertise in using these strategies, and incorporating them into our daily routines, further enhances our cognitive abilities in areas such as attention, memory, planning, and flexible (and positive) thinking! Thus, in addition to helping compensate for the cognitive limits everyone has in specific cognitive areas and extending our cognitive reach, practiced use of these strategies can also improve our raw brain power.


Learning and using cognitive self-management strategies can help optimize functioning across a range of daily life activities, such as self-care (such as grooming and hygiene, sleep, managing a medical condition), organizing one’s living space, planning for meals, shopping, connecting with friends or family, work or school, and just plain enjoying life (such as getting out to that movie we’ve been thinking of seeing). For example, common problems such as being late or missing appointments, having difficulty keeping focused on a task, or forgetting instructions or someone’s name can all be prevented by using strategies such as maintaining a personal schedule (and using alarms as needed), removing distractions from one’s environment (such as cell phone or computer alerts), and repeating back/paraphrasing what someone has just said, respectively. Some of these strategies focus primarily on one area of cognitive functioning, such as reducing distractions in one’s environment to improve attention and concentration. Other strategies are helpful for improving the broad range of cognitive performance in daily life (e.g., attention, memory, problem solving), such as developing routines at home, when looking for a job, and at school or work. Because obtaining a job (or getting a promotion at work) or completing a degree or certificate program at school are very common goals for people that have a range of cognitive demands, we address some self-management strategies that are particularly helpful for success in these areas.


The table below contains examples of cognitive areas that are important for work and school, signs of a problem related to each cognitive area, and self-management strategies for addressing (or preventing) each problem


Thinking Skill Signs of Problem Self-Management Strategy
Attention -Having to frequently re-read sections of a homework assignment


-Forgetting a step of a task at work

-Identify and eliminate distractions (e.g., turn off TV, radio, email alerts, and phone; put phone in a different room)


-Follow along passages with a finger

-Read out loud


-Increase attention span by scheduling brief rest breaks between work periods (with a timer) and gradually increasing the focused time during work periods




-Can’t find your stuff before leaving the house for work or school



-Difficulty finding things you need at work or for school (such as supplies, tools, books, stationary, etc.)

-Designate special places (or memory spots) to put things needed when leaving the house (wallet, car keys) and work/school supplies (such as ID badge, uniform, keys)

-Organize work or study space to avoid misplacing things and wasting time looking for them

-Forgetting instructions from supervisor right after hearing them -Repeat back or paraphrase instructions to ensure that they have been heard correctly and retained in memory
Planning -Missing appointments -Keep an appointment book or schedule
-Showing up unprepared for class -Create a checklist – update it daily or weekly to keep track of and prioritize assignments
-Falling asleep at work or in class -Develop a bedtime routine, including what time to be in bed with the lights out
-Feeling like you can’t get anything done -Prioritize tasks using checklists or to-do lists


-Develop routines for home, work, and/or school to increase efficiency for daily tasks in order to save time to accomplish important things

-Often being late to work or class -Develop a home routine for getting ready before leaving the house at a specific time
Problem solving -Getting flustered by unexpected problems -Use 5 Steps of Problem-Solving to solve unexpected problems:

a) Define the problem

b) Brainstorm possible solutions

c) Weigh the pros and cons of solutions

d) Pick the best solution (or combination)

e) Plan how to implement chosen solution


-Identify a “problem solving” helper at work (coworker, supervisor) or school (academic advisor, classmate, specific teacher) who you feel comfortable asking for help

Optimistic/ realistic thinking (vs. negative, self-defeating thinking) -Feeling hopeless about reaching goals


-Losing motivation to keep trying at work or school


-Feeling “down-in-the-dumps” or bad about yourself

-Recognize, challenge, and change inaccurate, self-defeating thinking underlying negative or distressing feelings


-Be aware of your personal strengths, including your skills, personal qualities, and resources


-Write down your strengths on an index card and carry it around


-Ask friends or family members for input  about your strengths


-Remind yourselves of your strengths throughout the day


The Thinking Skills for Work* program contains a rich curriculum of cognitive self-management strategies which are incorporated into a series of educational handouts for clients. The self management topics include Cognitive Skills for Work, Recognizing Your Strengths, Challenging Negative Thinking, Improving Attention and Concentrations, Reducing Memory Difficulties, Getting Organized at Home, Getting Organized for Your Job Search, Planning Ahead, Solving Problems, and, Improving Thinking Speed. The handouts provide information about strategies for improving cognitive performance at work in attention and concentration, memory, information processing speed, planning, and solving problems. In addition, several other handouts are devoted to enhancing motivation which can contribute to greater effort and persistence at cognitive tasks, including understanding the relationship between cognitive functioning and work (Cognitive Skills for Work)developing an awareness of one’s personal strengths (Recognizing Your Strengths), and overcoming negative thinking or defeatist thinking that can interfere with getting or keeping a job (Challenging Negative Thinking), (e.g., “No one will ever hire me for a job”). Strategies geared toward successful work are also highly applicable to success in school. The Thinking Skills for Work intervention is a comprehensive program for improving and optimizing your cognitive skills. A comprehensive description of the program can be found at here

*SR McGurk, KT Mueser (2021). Cognitive Remediation for Successful Employment and Psychiatric Recovery: The Thinking Skills for Work Program. Guilford Press, New York.

Information about the book can be found here.




Notice: The contents of this post were developed under a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR grant number 90RTEM0004). NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this post do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, or HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.

3 thoughts on “Cognitive Self-Management Strategies for Work and School

  1. This was an insightful article on cognitive self-management strategies for work and school. Managing distractions, optimizing memory, and staying motivated are key takeaways. It’s a great reminder that with the right strategies, we can boost our cognitive skills and achieve our goals more effectively.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Valerie! Since you enjoyed the article, we’d love it if you’d share it with your friends and colleagues! Be well!

  2. It could provide tips on identifying your stress triggers, negative thought patterns, and emotional responses in work or school settings.

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