Three reasons students are terrible at time management

[Originally Sent to Study Hacks Newsletter on 3/21/07]

Today’s post marks the second in our Getting Things Done for College Students
series. If you recall, the point of this series is to develop a
comprehensive and practical student time management system, based on
David Allen’s popular Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology.
Initially, I claimed that this post would be dedicated to explaining
the basics of GTD and where it might fail to apply to the
undergraduate lifestyle. Recently, however, it was pointed out to me
that before I dive too deep into the specifics of a particular system
I need to address the motivating question: Do students really need
help with time management?

It’s hard to refute that student’s lives would be made easier with the
introduction of some strategic scheduling. Consider, for example, a
longitudinal study of college students, conducted by the Cooperative
Institutional Research Program (CIRP), that has been following student
trends since 1966 [1]. The most recent reports from this study show
that the percentage of freshman who report “being overwhelmed by
everything I have to do” has increased from 16.4 to 29.4 since it was
first asked in 1987. At the same time, the percentage reporting
feeling “frequently depressed” has increased from 8 to 10 and the
percentage of freshman needing to “seek personal counseling” has
almost doubled from 3.4 to 5.7.

In short, college students are more overwhelmed than ever before. Time
management is not a panacea, but it’s reasonable to assume that it
could make a significant difference in the lives of the one in three
students who are feeling constantly overwhelmed.

This observation leads to a natural follow-up question: If time
management would be so helpful to students, why don’t they do it more?

I have recently begin to think seriously about this question. To date,
I have developed three different hypotheses. I’m am describing them
here, for the first time. They are still rough, and I have little more
than anecdotal data to back them up, so I am, naturally, interested in
your reactions.


REASON 1: They have not yet shifted from the occasional/immediate to
the continuous/optimal model of task flow.

As young children, the role of tasks in our lives was simple. Either
we were at an appointment (such as school or a music lesson) or our
time was free. Occasionally, a task would come along — perhaps our
mom asks us to make our bed, or a teacher asks us to write out some
spelling words. But such tasks were simple enough that we could treat
them as an occasional interruption that we could handle more or less
immediately before moving back to enjoying our free time with no
looming obligations. Advance scheduling is unnecessary. Either we have
nothing on our task queue or we have a small number of things which
can be easily dispatched in the near future.

On the other end of the spectrum are knowledge workers. Here, the flow
of tasks is continuous (i.e., there is no point in which you have an
empty task queue and can be returned to a state of free time).
Accordingly, the job of a knowledge worker is to optimize the number
of these tasks completed per time unit working. Such efficiency is as
prized in the current economy as speed on the loom might have been
prized in an early industrial period. Clearly, this optimization
requires advanced task flow management. It follows that most knowledge
workers speak fluently in the language of scheduling, organization,
and prioritization.

As we age, the task flow in our daily life shifts increasingly from
the occasional to continuous. By the time we arrive at college, the
number and complexity of tasks in our lives is almost (if not equally)
as complex as that faced by the average knowledge worker. At the same
time, however, most students don’t shift their coping strategies from
immediate to optimal until post-graduation. Therefore, during college,
we are in a period of maximum disconnect between how we handle our
tasks and how many tasks we face. Many are able to survive high
school, just barely, trying to tackle their obligations in the
immediate model (e.g., “oh shit, this is due tomorrow, so that’s what
I’ll do now”), but then find themselves unable to keep up under the
increased demands of college.

The fact that we don’t shift earlier is not surprising. We are given
little guidance throughout life on this fundamental change. When we
arrive in the workforce we are provided, for the first time, with
clear motivation: adapt to the continuous model or be fired. The
question is how can we induce this shift earlier without the clear cut
consequences present in the real world?

REASON 2: There is no college workday

Following a schedule consumes mental energy and exhausts scarce
will-power reserves. Accordingly, there are only so many hours in the
day in which we can hope to keep up such efforts. In the working
world, these hours are well-delineated. You arrive at an office, you
spend 8 hours working under schedule constraints, then you leave,
releasing your mind to spend the next 16 hours recharging. At college,
no such defined workday exists. Because of the unpredictability of the
student schedule, work might need to be accomplished at any time
between early in the morning to late at night. Attempts to schedule,
therefore, can require you to induce an organizational structure on
all of your waking hours. This is unsustainable — as many students,
unsuccessful in their preliminary attempts to gain control over their
time, will testify.

REASON 3: The power of peer convergence

One of the most fascinating phenomenon to observe on a college campus
is that of peer convergence. An incoming freshman class consists of
hundreds (perhaps many thousands) of insecure young adults entering a
demanding and unfamiliar new social and work environment. To keep
things sporting, they are given next to no instruction on how to
operate in this new setting. Thus begins a process of cultural
evolution. Students watch their fellow students. They take tentative
behavioral steps, then evaluate and compare to try to assess their
appropriateness. This dance of small moves, counter-moves, and
self-censorship eventual converges on a stable behavioral
configuration. This configuration can help mitigate the uncertainty of
the new environment. It allows the students a model on which to safely
base their behavior. The problem, however, is that this stable
solution tends towards the least common denominator — inoculating a
new class with a bevy of behaviors that are arbitrary at best and
self-destructive at worst. Consider, for example, the timing of test
preparation. There’s an endless variety of ways to break up and tackle
the chore of studying. Observe a freshman class after a few months,
however, and you will see a remarkable consistency in their approach;
e.g., the night before, starting after dinner, continuing until around
midnight with the exception of the “serious” students who can continue
to 2 or 3. Next to no student will deviate from these constraints.
Consider the well-defined classroom slouch with the overly-bent
baseball cap raising his hand to answer a question with a tone couched
in indifference. This demonstrates a carefully calibrated mix of
disdain with a hint of natural ability not being pursued too
vigorously. You will see these same traits show up in almost every
classroom on campus. None of these behaviors are explicitly discussed.
They are simply arrived upon, through many small social interactions,
over the first few months of school.

Time management is a natural victim of such blind convergence. The
behavior is too complicated for a sufficient threshold of students to
try it, early on, so that it can become integrated into the stable
solution. Students at this early point in their college career are
making small, tentative moves; nervous to observe what is approved of
and what is questioned. A full-blown scheduling system is simply to
risky to publicly jump into during this critical period during which
what is acceptable, and what is not, is being adjudicated.

[1] Alexander Astin. The Changing American College Student:
Thirty-Year Trends, 1966 – 1996. The Review of Higher Education 21.2
(1998) 115-135.

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