As a writer and teacher, I live under the ticking clock of deadlines, and—over the years—I’ve learned how to trick myself into getting the work done on time. Teaching my students to manage their time, however, is a trickier proposition. Like any kind of behavioral modification, what works for one person often doesn’t work for another.
Thus, time management—the superpower wielded by self-starters everywhere—is a matter of individual preferences. As an instructor, it does me no good to “teach” my students the rituals that work for me. Rather, my duty is to model methods of time management and make them conscious of the practices that will help them thrive as an individual.
Break Assignments into Steps
For students who struggle with time management, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of any assignment—even the more straightforward ones. In order to moderate some of their anxiety, instructors might consider a scaffolding approach to lengthier assignments (such as essays and multimodal presentations). Rather than setting one due date for the entire project—and leaving the time management dilemma to the student—it can be helpful to divide the work into incremental steps. In anticipation of a research paper, for example, it is typical for instructors to first require a formal proposal, then an annotated bibliography, then a formal outline and so on—each a graded assignment unto itself. Pedagogically speaking, this requires students to focus their full attention on one or two tasks at a time and helps to model creation as a process that can be broken down into controllable components.
Model Process as an In-Class Exercise
When it comes to smaller assignments (such as in-class writing or written responses to readings) the above method can also be modeled in the classroom. Instead of setting separate due dates, an instructor may choose to allow a certain number of minutes for the completion of a manageable task. For example, the first 10 minutes of class might be devoted to reading the assignment and brainstorming ideas; the next 10 may be reserved for informal outlining, etc. With repetition, this sort of in-class activity can “train” students not to overcomplicate their creative process by zeroing in on necessary tasks and directly meeting their demands. The key is to keep it “low-stakes,” so that the student learns to produce work outside the pressures of stringent grading. The rigor and division of labor he or she learn in class may then be applied to at-home writing.
Form a “Best Practices” Collaborative
In order to shape a fledgling student’s time management skills, it is important to echo (and never dismiss) their frustrations. By validating concerns about procrastination, self-doubt, and multitasking, I find common ground with my students—commiserating over the bad habits and neurotic fixations that thwart our success. To help troubleshoot these obstacles, I split the class into groups of 4 or 5 and ask them to create a shared list of anything that hinders them from getting work done in a timely fashion. (Answers include: “having Netflix on in the background,” “not getting enough sleep,” “answering texts from friends,” etc.) Once they’ve identified their worst habits, I ask them to trade lists with another group and offer suggestions that might help remedy this homework and studying “don’ts.”
Set Strict Deadlines
To be clear, without a deadline, there is no time to manage. Even if students struggle to meet them, it is important to set clear, fixed expectations for any submission. The notion of a deadline creates a temporal space in which creation must happen and promotes production as necessary. For some students—though not all—having a strict deadline will prompt some sort of eleventh-hour creation; for others, it may have no effect at all. However, in cowing to student anxiety, loosening standards, and extending deadlines, instructors only sanction difficulties without setting limits to change their behavior.
Stress the Importance of Space
Time management is not simply about when and how. It also depends on the where. Completing an assignment happens more easily in controllable spaces. As an instructor with a lengthy commute, I’ve found it more conducive to write and grade on a quiet train than in the crowded adjunct offices on campus. I also prefer to work away from the comforts of home—where the television, refrigerator, and cozy couch lure me away from the task at hand. It’s not that I can’t work in these other spaces; it’s that the work often takes twice as long to complete. For an exercise, I sometimes ask my students to “design” the optimal space for creation and work toward finding its closest facsimile. Sharing their ideal workspaces (with me and one another) forces them to be metacognitive about their preferences and to identify the ideal conditions in which to manage their time.