The transition from middle school to high school, then later to college, usually comes with a jump in academic rigor, but it also comes with something else. Students need to become more adept at managing their workload and their time. Their planning skills need to improve, and for many students, this is as much or even more challenging as the increased academic workload.
An interview with time management experts Laura Vanderkam and Sarah Hart-Unger, MD
Grown and Flown asked two of the best-known experts on time and task management how they would help teens to make this transition successfully. Here is what Laura Vanderkam and Sarah Hart-Unger, MD, co-hosts of the Best of Both Worlds podcast, suggest:
A calendar is key for time management
What tools do you suggest for a teen who has trouble remembering time commitments, appointments, and due dates that might keep him on track?
LV: This is what calendars were invented for! The actual format of the calendar doesn’t matter much, though there are a few considerations. It must be portable so the teen can take it to/from classes/activities/work/home, etc. It can undoubtedly be electronic, but the teen needs to be able to access it, so if he/she can’t use a phone at school, that’s something to consider (though usually, you could synch with a laptop).
The most important aspect of the calendar is the behavior of the person who uses it. The person needs to do three things:
*Commit to putting commitments/appointments/due dates on the calendar as soon as she learns about them.
*Do a weekly review where she looks at what is coming up in the next week, glancing forward to the next few weeks. This helps people plan for longer-term projects and allows people to solve logistical problems ahead of time.
*Each day, look at the calendar to know the day’s landscape.
Planning is a skill, and while some people grasp it intuitively, most people need at least a little instruction here. You might start helping kids in middle school to write dates on a paper calendar, and then they can begin to refine the system over time.
SHU: I interviewed an absolute rock star of a high schooler (Aashna Shah — pageant winner, published author, and honors student — at 16!) who swore by her paper planner. She is also a disability advocate who has ADHD. Paper may be the best option for those with attention issues or who find themselves easily distracted. There are so many layouts to choose from; some brands are particularly popular with teens (Passion Planner, Clever Fox, and Amanda Rach Lee come to mind).
Agree that the vital thing to any planner user, regardless of age, is consistency and developing the habit of capturing any future to-do item or calendar engagement. It’s also important to create rituals of looking at said planner (or digital tool) regularly, such as a daily overview to set priorities and a more detailed weekly session. Doing these things alongside your teen models the practices, and you may find yourself more organized!
Many teens misjudge how long a task will take, like a homework assignment or group project, and find themselves staying late or asking teachers for more time. How can teens better manage their schedules and assess their time commitments organizationally?
LV: It isn’t just teens who have trouble with time estimation! It’s a challenging skill. Some adults have driven 30 minutes somewhere, day after day, and continue to believe it’s a 15-minute drive and it’s just bad luck that they’re late again.
If you help kids establish the concept of a weekly review, they will at least see if something big is due in the next week and not become aware of it just the day before. You can have conversations about building in a buffer if something goes wrong. If a teen mentions planning to write a report due Friday on Thursday, you might casually mention, “Oh, what if that turns out to be the date that everyone wants to go see that movie?” It’s just nudging people to think through scenarios.
In my house, the teens have set hours to be in their rooms without entertainment electronics. If you don’t have school work, you can read or relax, but because the built-in time is there, I find it nudges kids to spend a little extra time on things than they might have otherwise. Once kids go out on their own, you cannot enforce this, but you might encourage thinking through a schedule and blocking out study hours as a good practice for staying on top of things.
SHU: Keeping some big and prominent reminder of big multi-step projects —perhaps on a whiteboard where the teen works — could be helpful and, if there is enough space, could be used as a place to map out the various steps. Breaking down a daunting project and determining intermediate due dates for different pieces might be necessary if the student has struggled with an impossible task due to having no accurate timeline. Agree that this skill set is complex for all of us!
Time management tips for college students
For the college freshman, who is off the family calendar and keeping their planner, what should they look for when buying a new planner?
For anyone looking to buy a paper planner, the primary constraints are size, layout (daily vs. weekly; days in columns vs. horizontal; whether extra space is needed for notes), and style. Some people prefer to keep calendars digitally but still need a planner to help with list-making and goal-setting. Some popular brands are listed above; I’ll also note that for those wanting a less traditionally feminine-appearing product, some international brands (especially Japanese / Korean / Taiwanese) have much more minimal and understated styles.
College students have far more fluid schedules than high school students. Do you have any time management tips to help them transition to less class time and a less formal schedule of bedtimes and activities?
LV: I find it helpful to picture the whole week with its various time commitments (a week is the “unit of repeat” in the pattern of our lives). You can download a 168-hour spreadsheet from my website or create your own. Put the days of the week across the top, Monday to Sunday, and half-hour blocks down the left-hand side. I go from 5 a.m. to 4:30 a.m., but if you never wake up before 8 a.m., feel free to adjust!
Then block in classes so you see when lectures, discussion groups, and labs meet. You might note any activities you plan to commit to, and you can block in meals if your dining hall is only open at certain times. You should also aim to stop in approximately 2 hours of studying per hour of class, though you can adjust that over time based on what requires more or less intensity. I’m not saying you have to follow this schedule strictly, but it helps to see that my schedule feels more in control if I do manage to study for 3-4 hours at some point on Sundays, so I can try to prioritize that.
As for bedtime…it’s a good idea! As an adult, you can go to bed whenever you want and stay up all night. But most of us are vastly more productive if we get the sleep we need every night and don’t move our sleep/wake times by more than an hour or so.
For many college students, sleeping from 12 a.m. to 7:30/8 a.m. during the week and from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m. on weekends would work fine, but that’s just a suggestion. Feel free to choose whatever time works for you, but having a default bedtime is important. That way, you make a conscious choice if you blow through it. If you don’t have a good reason to stay up, you can go to bed and feel much better the following day.
I also love the idea of setting standard ‘work hours’ in college — something I did NOT do as a student, but I’ve been fascinated to hear Cal Newport talk about this concept. His premise is that if one is very organized and proactive, most college workloads can be completed at a high level during business hours, leaving the weekend more open for recreation and fun. Again — I cannot vouch for this personally, but it’s exciting to try to shoot for!
What are some of the best time management techniques parents can model for their teens, and how do they impart those lessons without the dreaded lecture that teens tune out?
LV: I think it’s helpful to talk about your practices — not that they’re what everyone should do, but explaining why you’ve decided on specific strategies is beneficial. I tell my kids that my bedtime is 11 p.m. because I have to be up at 6:30 with them. And then I stick with it unless I have a good reason not to. I talk about planning out larger projects like my books, and how I break it down into smaller chunks and set intermediate goals, constantly building in a buffer in case things go wrong.
If a child seems to be struggling, and they’re open to talking with you about it, definitely resist the urge to lecture (do not come charging in with “Well, I was a straight A student because I did X, Y, and Z.”). Ask them what they’re considering. You can talk about what they see as the advantages and disadvantages of each strategy. Ask leading questions. It’s the Socratic method of parenting.
Time management tips for high school students
What are the best tools or techniques parents can share with high school students who feel time constrained and like they “can’t get it all done?”
LV: When kids say they can’t finish it, they are probably looking for empathy and support. Yes, you have a lot going on! And yes, I know you are competent and will manage it with aplomb. Past that, I know that a sense of overwhelm often stems from not knowing precisely what you have coming up, when it needs to be done, and how long it will take. So as much as possible, encourage teens to get these matters out of their heads and onto lists. An unknown imagined to-do list is just scary. A long list can be managed.
Also, the less time you have your phone on, the more time you seem to have. I am just speaking from personal experience here!
SHU: I would probably urge them to consult the Screen Time app! Sometimes kids also just put too much on their plate and may need permission to let something go. The ideal week exercise Laura mentioned above could be very useful here — if the pieces genuinely do not fit (including sleep!), an edit may be necessary.
More Great Reading:
Executive Function: How to Help College Kids Who Struggle
About Sarah Hunt Unger and Laura Vanderkam
Sarah Hunt Unger is a pediatric endocrinologist who she posts almost daily on her personal blog and is a prolific podcaster – solo host of Best Laid Plans (all things planning and planning adjacent) and co-host with Laura Vanderkam of the Best of Both Worlds podcast (balancing work/life/fun, time management, and career development).
She has also recently launched her planning platform! In addition to the Best Laid Plans podcast, she offers courses through Best Laid Plans Academy. She publishes a monthly newsletter, is a long-distance runner, and a married mother of three.
Laura Vanderkam is the author and mother of five. She has written several time management books, including Tranquility by Tuesday: 9 Ways to Calm the Chaos and Make Time for What Matters, published by Penguin Random House (2022.). Receive a free time makeover guide by subscribing to her monthly newsletter here. Laura’s website is lauravanderkam.com, and her podcast is Before Breakfast.