On being in a panic and out of time

My first semester back at Western University ended yesterday; I’m now en route to London to see Jarret and Emma the dog. For the first time in several weeks I’m remembering what it feels like not to be always on the verge of late, of Not Finished, of out of time to do the million things my job requires of me. I do get it all done, though, and generally pretty well; I even finished a book manuscript, Theatre& Feminism, on Monday night. (It’s coming out in the excellent, student-centred, Theatre& series from Palgrave in 2015.) My friends say I get stuff done on on time and on spec because I’m amazingly productive; some of my peers, I know, would say I get stuff done on time and on spec because I don’t have kids (and they’d be absolutely right). My husband would say I get stuff done because I don’t mind being late for other stuff that isn’t so very important (he’d be right, too). I’d say, however, that it’s actually because I have a high tolerance for multitasking, and excellent time management skills. (The tardiness notwithstanding: I maintain modest tardiness is the price I pay for good productivity in an incredibly busy job and life.)


I’ve been thinking about time management lately because this is the time of year when everyone who works or studies on a university campus feels their stress ramp up. All the deadlines crowd in, and the gods of Getting Stuff Done separate the steady-ons from the panicked. Everyone’s tired, and everyone has too much to do; students come to class with heavy eyelids and and giant cups of coffee. I preach the importance of rest, of drinking water, of moderate partying (or at the very least of drinking water while also partying), of proper nutrition. The students try not to fall asleep while I drone on about vegetables and protein. Then, later, they come to my office hours or email me: they are sick, they are overwhelmed, they are trying but failing to keep up. Could they have an extension? Could I authorise their request for clemency?

In fact, what they really need is some of my productivity stardust – which is to say they need some help with time management.

We teach a lot of soft skills at university – especially in the faculties of arts, humanities, and social sciences where I have always studied and taught. We teach students to think critically. We teach students to read with care. We teach students to think about contemporary social and political issues and help them develop strong citizenship skills. (I’ve talked before in this space about what I think needs to be a shift from a “critical thinking” discourse in the academy to one that emphasises training in active, involved, thoughtful citizenship; click here for the post.) We teach students to speak in public, to write coherently, to make arguments in a methodical, extended form in essays. We encourage respectful discussion. In my classes we learn the value of performance as research, and of performance as public activism; we also use performance as another tool through which to make arguments and develop critical viewpoints on urgent social matters.

What we don’t really teach, though, is time management – and arguably this is what students need from us most of all.

Of course, “time management” is one of the transferable skills we often tout as coming with the arts and humanities territory: have a bunch of essays to do, and thereby learn to juggle the doing of them. Take five reading-and-writing-heavy courses or modules, and thereby learn to manage your workload across them. Maybe we even build time management challenges into our existing assignments and in-class tasks; I did that this year by creating a very short timeline for the first performance response paper I assigned in my modern theatre class, encouraging students to “blitz” the paper, and then offering an entire month (over Christmas!) for the second one, with the added challenge of not spending too much time on what is really a short assignment. I hoped the contrast would demonstrate for students what happens when you have short vs long lead times to negotiate.

But are we really teaching time management – even when we explicitly think we are? My short vs long experiment has no outcomes associated with it other than the paper itself, and while we’ll have a chance to reflect on it in second semester, when we write a research paper with a “do-over” component, chances are the students will be so busy fretting about the “research” part of that task that I’ll forget to make enough time for the time-management bit.

The truth is, we mostly expect students to suck it up and figure it out when it comes to balancing their time. I suspect a lot of us forget how hard it was when we were younger and greener and did not yet have years of experience juggling essays, teaching, and other home and administrative commitments. We probably also didn’t have to work significant part- or full-time jobs alongside school; I know I benefitted from both modest tuition fees and excellent funding (not to mention a parental home to live in) while I was at the University of Alberta in the mid-1990s. It took me years of panicked last-minute essay writing to learn that there was a better, saner way if only I planned ahead. (I also know I’m only a prof because I have a gift for argumentation and clear first drafts; I would have failed my English classes if it had all been down to managing my time, slogging it out, and editing my work with care.) Although I hate to presume, I suspect I’m not alone among my academic peers in this slightly shameful personal history… so why do we expect our students to be the time management experts we never were, and without any direct instruction, or mentorship, from us?

Thinking seriously about students and time management, I’ve realised I don’t teach it partly because it’s not something that’s ever been on my pedagogical radar. And because it’s not something that’s ever been on that radar, it’s also something I honestly don’t know how to teach. (I also think I’d rather kvetch about my students than imagine I’m part of the problem. Isn’t that always the way?) So I did some sleuthing online this week (modest – this is not extensive research by any means) and discovered that parenting magazines and publications focused on students with disabilities are all over this topic. In a short article prepared for LD OnLine, a website focused on teaching and learning for students with ADHD and other learning disabilities, Patricia Newhall describes Task Analysis as one method for hands-on time management instruction. She writes:

A good place to begin teaching time management is task analysis. It provides one illustration of a skill that many students do not develop intuitively, yet it is an essential element to developing effective time management. …

Task analysis is the process of identifying what needs to get done to finish a given undertaking — whether it is a homework assignment or a long-term project like a research paper. To estimate time with any accuracy, students need to know the steps required to complete a task. Students sometimes do not recognize that a single homework assignment might have three parts. For instance, an assignment to read a chapter and define the vocabulary for a quiz the next day requires students to (a) read, (b) look up words in the dictionary, and (c) identify and remember information likely to be on the quiz. Students unpracticed at task analysis are likely to complete the first and second steps, then assume that the third step will happen on its own. They might do poorly on the quiz even though they believe they did their homework.

I can easily imagine scaling this simple strategy for a university research assignment. Instead of inviting students to create, say, an annotated bibliography, followed by a draft introduction, followed by the full paper, all in discrete parts (an example of what I already do in some classes), I might create a mandatory but ungraded meta-assignment, attached to the research paper, in which students do a task analysis and preliminary timeline for the paper in class – from initial library searching through to editing and proofreading – and then refine it as homework. They might then be required to post their timelines to our class blog, and to check in periodically to see whether or not they are on track with their time management predictions. Finally, along with their research papers, students could hand in a (brief) summary of how they did keeping up with their own schedules, and how they felt about organising their work this way. (I think it’d be particularly useful if they did NOT keep up well at all – failure makes for amazing instruction, especially if a task like this one is framed explicitly as an experiment, and not graded.)

Readership hive mind: have any of you done this, or tasks like this, to instruct students in time management? Do you offer TM mentorship? I’d live to hear your thoughts.

Chilling out now,


8 thoughts on “On being in a panic and out of time

  1. Hi Kim,

    I inherited a lesson and an assignment on this that I just taught for the first time this semester. It involved having students set broken-down goals for the week (both academic and personal goals), track every hour of their time for the week, and write a short report on how well they achieved their goals and where they could have used their time more effectively. No marks on how well they used their time, just on the conscientiousness and analysis. It worked OK — the assignment was more useful for students straight out of high school than for the mature students in the class, of which there were several.

  2. Thanks, Karen – I suspect a lot of university students would benefit from something this basic. Many of my students know they should be time budgeting, but few seem able actually to do it effectively.

  3. What a great thing to potentially teach students! Everything I ever learned about TM/Multi-tasking I learned primarily during a six week “Survival Instructor’s course” I took with the RC(Air)C; that military approach might not work for everyone (many acronyms, lots of structure), but it certainly imprinted on me.

    • Thanks for this feedback, Mel! It’s a good reminder for those of us who have internalized ‘soft power’as a teaching method: sometimes basic regimentation really works!

  4. Time management is a big aspect of the reflective practice we do on the writing and reading retreats that I run for PhD researchers. By and large, they are not ‘time aware’ with regard to how they work with texts so developing a sense of both what they want to be doing in their writing or reading – a kind of goal setting – and how long this realistically might take – a time planning element – is one of the aims of the retreats. I think your meta-assignment is a good idea, particularly if you can give them opportunities to see both how much time a small task takes and how much they can get done in a given time unit (otherwise the work will stretch to fill the time they have, and beyond). On retreats I start with the time unit, usually an hour or 90 minutes – after two days of massively over-estimating what they can do in this amount time, participants are usually much better at setting good goals and using the time they have effectively.

      • With pleasure – schedules, resources, reflections on the logistics of running retreats are all here http://www.thinkingwriting.qmul.ac.uk/ideas/retreats/details The document called ‘Short Writing Tasks’ is probably most useful. I’m also currently using a version of the retreat model to develop students’ writing at the final stage of secondary school. The teachers report that it is having a positive effect on student’s ability to work independently and to stage their research process (which I suspect ties in to Newhall’s task analysis idea in your post).

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