Reframing Time Management

How teaching "time management" can push students into unhealthy habits-- and a tool we can use instead

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Day 2 of my undergraduate career, I sat down in my once-a-week seminar class that was promised to essentially teach College 101– how to be a successful student at my university.

The first few weeks were chocked full of information: how to find an on-campus job, how to find a cultural center of interest, how to get engaged in research. Then came the week on time management. A current student came in and spoke about how she managed her schoolwork, extra-curriculars, and her job. Drawing an example of a day in the life of her on the white board, she talked about how vital time management is. As an eager first-year student, I took her words deeply to heart. I used the tactics she and instructor taught me for years. I thought they were my key to survival.

Junior year arrived and I was still using these tactics. To get by, I was working three part-time jobs. I was also attending school full time, involved in extra-curriculars, and leading one organization. Each time my anxiety levels would spike I would return to her words: “make a schedule and prioritize.” Then, one day, I couldn’t. I broke. No matter how well I managed my time, I could not imagine living one more day. I had prioritized just as I had been taught, but in the pressure of a university setting, I had always prioritized school and work above my own needs.

As I opened up to another student, he told me about an article he had read that described this new idea– energy management. A quick google search opened up an entirely new world for me. If you search “energy management instead of time management” today, you’ll find many articles, all focused on productivity. To me, though, this idea goes so much deeper than just finding a new way to push for productivity.

The way I was taught time management sent me a clear message: there are 24 hours in a day and, as a student, it is your job to get as much done in those 24 hours as you can. This is why you schedule, why you prioritize, why you set aside blocks of time– to be productive. Not only is this not the way to be genuinely productive, but it also prioritizes productivity over well-being in dangerous ways.

I believe the concept of energy management can be used to not only ensure that students can be productive when they sit down to work, but also ensure they know that caring for themselves is a vital part of their every day life. I offer my students this example each time I introduce this idea to them. If you have 4 hours to study and you haven’t slept or eaten, will you retain 4 hours worth of information? No, of course you won’t. However, if you nap for 20 minutes and eat a healthy meal, you will have 3 hours of effective study time left, rather than wasting 4 hours on ineffective studying.

Teaching energy management instead of time management gives students permission to care for themselves in the midst of the demands of college life. It teaches students that if they are scheduling their time or prioritizing their to-do list, eating well, exercising, having fun, being social, and resting deserve a spot too. In fact, they deserve spots high on the list.

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