Why Time Management Doesn’t Work for Students and Teachers

The promise of most classic productivity books is: “follow my steps and you’ll be able to get more done, faster.”

The promise of most recent productivity books is: “follow my steps and you’ll be able to get the right things done, largely by saying ‘no’ to the wrong things.”

I’ve read them all. I’ve tried them all. I bought the best apps. None of them worked for me. Why? Because the world of academics is unlike any other.

This post looks at the ideas behind most time management systems and starts to adapt them to the unique demands of students and teachers. There is hope: you can be in command of your world, on top of your studies, and maintain a life outside of school.

Time Management: two words that raise many emotions.

  • Hope: time management offers hope to the over-busy person with a 14-page to-do list.
  • Clarity: a distant notion that we can actually feel in control, that all of our commitments are tracked and moving forward (this is why the task-management app business is booming).
  • Limitation: it takes a lot of work to run an effective time management system, and we get to spend less time doing the things we like. We are scheduled, with less freedom.
  • Frustration: most of us are certain that we are no good at time management. We read a blog, or even an entire book on time management strategies. We get motivated and run through the steps prescribed by an author who has never seen our lives. For a week or two we feel clear, focused, and productive. Our new system works. Until it doesn’t. Then it goes off the rails and we don’t recover until next year, when we get fed up and try a new system.

Time Management Basics

The basic ideas behind time management (mixing the new and old) are:

  1. The brain is a terrible place to keep information, so write everything down in a trusted system that you regularly sort and organize
  2. We need complicated ways of organizing our to-do lists including Covey’s Time Management Grid; Projects, Contexts, and Priorities; Current Actions, Current Projects, Areas of Responsibility, One- to Two-Year Goals, Three- to Five-Year Vision, and Life
  3. Batching similar tasks increases our productivity by getting more done, faster
  4. Eliminate distractions so that you can focus solely on the task at hand
  5. We cannot have it all: we must say “no” to good opportunities so that we can say “yes” to the best opportunities
  6. Establishing priorities and working towards goals in all areas of life leads to greater clarity and control

There you have it. The main points of all time management books in one concise list. And it seems to make good sense. These books spend a few hundred pages elaborating on these concepts, describing actual methods in detail for the busy professional who needs to get in control.

Unfortunately, these details don’t apply to the needs of a student, or a teacher, very well.

Students are in a different position

Underlying these time management concepts are a few key principles: (1) that you get to establish and live by your own priorities, (2) that you can say “no” to something you’ve been asked to do, and (3) that you can negotiate deadlines.

Underlying the student’s mindset is one key principle: everything that I do appears on a permanent record that will largely determine the course of my life.

A corollary of this principle is: the teachers have figured out what I should do, so as long as I complete the tasks they give me I will be successful.

Let me briefly unpack these ideas today, and we will start adapting next time.

1. Establishing Priorities

Time management is all about working on the most important things, in priority order. When we are mentally drained we should spend some time on the low-priority items that need doing as well. Outside of school we have considerable freedom to establish priorities and spend our time on the activities that matter most in the moment.

In school the teacher sets the priorities: If reading assignments are graded, we do them. If homework problems are graded, we do them. If this concept will be on the exam, we learn it. We learn the topics that are listed on the syllabus. We don’t get to consider our individual learning style, or the topics that are most important to us.

2. Saying “no”

The time management gurus guide us to say “no” to “good opportunities” so that we can say “yes” to “great opportunities.” In other words, we should take on new projects and responsibilities only if they move us towards our long term vision for our lives. Management will respect you for standing up for your priorities as long as you show them that your decision is the most beneficial use of your time for company.

In school we are compelled to take on certain responsibilities: we are told which classes to take, we are told which educational activities to participate in (read this, solve this homework, watch this video, read this journal article). If our time is better spent learning from example videos on the internet but the professor assigns a writing assignment, we don’t get to say “no”. If the professor is asking too much and we won’t  learn anything because we don’t have time to explore, we don’t get to say “no”. We just cram it all in and try to get as high a grade as possible.

3. Negotiating Deadlines

All of the time management books suggest this response to your boss at some point: “I’d be happy to take on that responsibility. However, my current load does not leave time to complete it by the date you suggested. How about next month instead?” While life in the business world is governed by quarterly reports and annual budgets, deadlines are a bit more flexible. There is always something that can be put off so that the most important thing can get done.

At school, exam week is from May 4 to May 10. Submit your assignments, learn the material, and show up at the exam on May 7 at 10:00 am to prove it. We may be able to negotiate a deadline extension on a homework assignment (of a few days), but not enough to maintain balance. When we are given a few extra days, it buys us a weekend to work over, not extra work days.

School work, unlike most professional work, follows us home. If we aren’t done with an assignment we stay up all night, work all weekend, and even work on holidays to get it done. Otherwise our permanent record gets a mark.

Real Hope

Students and teachers: it turns out that our case isn’t hopeless. We can live balanced lives. We can limit work to during business hours. We can make progress in the other areas of life outside of work. But it takes a special approach.

If you want your life to be better than average, you have to do better things than average people.

 Stay tuned.

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