Time Management: Top Two Skills for Your Teen to Work on for a Successful Start to College

“Oh, crap! I’m supposed to be part of an experiment!” my daughter announced. My wife and I were visiting her during her freshman year at Northwestern, and we had been thoroughly enjoying catching up over bagels and fresh fruit. It was disconcerting to hear that she had flaked out since that wasn’t like her.

But this was college – and without the structure and schedule that had guided her so effectively in high school, she was making a mistake that was not an isolated incident, it turns out.

Earlier that year, she had signed up for the wrong course, which could have resulted in a costly waste of credit hours. And later we learned that she was frequently overwhelmed during her last term because she was taking six courses, working 12 hours a week, performing in a show, and serving on the executive board for her dorm. Each activity was worthwhile, but all together, it was simply too much.

In college, especially in the early days, it is important to learn critical skills in organizing your day, managing your time, and warding off procrastination so that your new college student makes the most of that first year.

In the final weeks leading up to a child’s first year in college, it is natural for parents to fret just a little (or a lot) and ask ourselves, ”What can I possibly do at this point to help them get ready?”

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Teens can improve their time management skills before they go to college.

Time Management Skills for College Students

Here are some things you can do right now that will help prepare your soon-to-be freshman for a solid start.

Develop Strong Time Management Skills

The way time is organized in high school (classes five days a week, all day) means students don’t really need to think about what to do with their free time; there simply isn’t much of it! The schedule of college courses, however, can make it seem like there’s tons of extra time. For a student who piles all five courses into a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule, that means Tuesday and Thursday are entirely class free. For a student who spreads courses out across multiple days, it can often mean nothing scheduled before noon.

But this free time isn’t really free. It’s time that gets filled with competing demands: finish a reading assignment or go out for lunch with a friend; begin researching for an essay or watch reruns of Parks and Rec; go to the gym or sleep in. Having an abundance of time to fill — and having to constantly make choices about how to fill it — can be one of the most challenging aspects of a student’s first semester.

Given this shift, it is crucial to practice thinking about time in new ways. Here are some approaches you can take with your child to get them ready:

Practice Time Estimating: Before we begin to think about using a planner or calendar, it helps for your child to gain insight into their pace. Using a stopwatch, they can figure out how long it takes them to shower and get ready, to eat a meal, to read a page in a book that they’re not supremely engrossed in, and to walk from one building on campus to the next. Once they learn more about how they use time to do tasks, they’ll be better equipped to map out more accurate blocks of time for any of their activities.

Create an Energy Map: The next step to organizing time is to think about when the best times of day are for your child to do work and to pay attention in class. In order to determine this, you can create an energy map over one week this summer.

To do this, co-investigate by asking: “When do you notice you’re really motivated? When do you notice you seem sluggish? When do you notice you’re really able to focus and sustain attention on something? When do you seem most distracted?” Some college students simply should not take a class at 8 o’clock in the morning no matter how enthusiastic they are about the content. Developing a general attentiveness to these levels can help your child identify ideal times for work and rest so that their schedules optimize those timeframes.

Create a Recharge List: Finally, create a list of recharge activities and their benefits. What does time with friends do for your child? Time alone? Time watching a show? Playing a video game? Exercising? Reading fan fiction? Which kinds of activities are all-consuming (and thus harder to return to work after)? Including recharge activities, instead of just escape activities, as part of their daily schedule will enable your child to think meaningfully about self-care and avoid academic burnout.

Once you’ve done these things, it’s time to put them all together on a calendar.  We suggest Google Calendar for a number of reasons.

Create a Calendar: Using your energy map and recharge list will help tremendously with using a daily planner. Some people, for example, might work really well in the mornings and experience a serious slump mid-afternoon, with a moderate resurgence in the early evening. This kind of energy pattern would mean scheduling the most cognitively-demanding tasks early in the day, planning a specific recharge activity during the energy slump, and scheduling a single important-but-not-intense task for the end of the day.

You can practice this kind of scheduling over the summer with all sorts of tasks. If your child has a full-time or part-time job, you can simulate the work/recharge balance on a rigid schedule. If they don’t have a regular work schedule, that’s actually the ideal situation. Have your child choose something that’s meaningful to them to work on over the summer — such as staying sharp with their Spanish skills or learning to play chess — and then have them practice scheduling in dedicated work time and recharge time.

Learn How to Banish Procrastination

Of course, having a well-organized and mindfully created calendar does not mean your child will follow through with the plan. Planning the work and working the plan are two different things, especially when students do not have the external support of a parent/guardian regulating their initiation of tasks.

Create a 5-Minute Goal: Most of us know the feeling when we “click” into work mode. It’s like something magical has happened inside our brain that enables us to tackle our inboxes or organize our Tupperware cabinets. To help us get into that mindset when we feel stuck in neutral, doing a task that we predict will take just five minutes can be all we need to help us lock into a working mindset. Try this with a task your child is resistant to (such as folding and putting away laundry or cleaning out the garage) and give them practice with using this technique. They might say, “I’ll just fold the towels” or “I’ll just pull out all the shovels and rakes” to see if working for five minutes clicks them into gear.

Create Chunks: As you practice the 5-Minute Goal technique, your child might find that sometimes after the timer goes off, you just want to quit. That might be useful data about what kinds of tasks need to be broken down into smaller to-dos. So, if laundry has piled up for days, you might have your child break this down into a set of smaller tasks that, as each is accomplished, feels like a win: wash just the delicates, then just the whites, then the cold water clothes, then fold just one load out of the dryer, and then put just the delicates away.

Seeing these as separate tasks rather than the larger “do laundry” task could be an easier way to feel accomplished by checking things off the list (especially if you play around with a few different list management tools such as One Big Thing or Habitica), and it will help your child learn to think about breaking down tasks more frequently so that when they’re faced with large academic demands, such as doing a 10-page research paper, they can figure out those component parts, too.

Set a Reward: Procrastination, at the root of it, is really an emotional regulation difficulty. We’d rather do the easier thing that is more fun right now than put ourselves into a difficult or challenging situation. But practicing setting a reward for ourselves when the task is done can help us to feel like there’s an end – and an exciting one at that! – in sight. To continue with the laundry example, you can try this: If they get three of the tasks done (wash delicates, whites, and cold-water clothes), then they can take a well-earned break.

Of course, preparing your soon-to-be college student for managing their time and taming the procrastination beast does not prevent the occasional flake-out. That’s OK, too – they will run into problems, and they’ll build muscle by solving them, thanks in part to a foundation of knowing how to organize their days and how to bit-by-bit power through those assignments that seem impossible at first glance.

You Might Also Want to Read: 

Executive Function: How To Help College Students Who Struggle

Michael Delman, Massachusetts Distinguished Educator, is a pioneer and leader in the area of Executive Function coaching. He has served as CEO and founder of Beyond BookSmart, the nation’s largest Executive Function coaching company, since 2006. Prior to that, Michael co-founded and was principal of McAuliffe Charter School in Framingham, Massachusetts. Michael has presented at conferences such as The Learning Disabilities Association of America, the 2018 International Conference on ADHD, and numerous regional organizations. He has been featured in The Times of London, CBS Boston affiliate WBZ TV, and dozens of media outlets across the country. In 2018, he published his first book,Your Kid’s Gonna Be Okay: Building the Executive Function Skills Your Child Needs in the Age of Attention. Michael brings his trademark enthusiasm to his work with students and adults alike, helping people discover their strengths, develop their confidence, and become more effective at whatever challenges they face.

Brittany Peterson is a college instructor, certified writing tutor, and senior executive function coach at Beyond BookSmart. She began her career in education at Quinnipiac University earning a bachelor of Arts in English and Masters degree in Secondary Education. While at Quinnipiac, she became a certified Master Level Writing Tutor by the College Reading and Learning Association and spent three years working for the University’s Learning Center. Feeling motivated to expand her pedagogical skill set, Brittany pursued a second Masters degree in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Boston. After graduating, she became a full-time lecturer at UMass where she currently teaches first-year composition to a diverse classroom culture including English Language Learners and nontraditional students from a variety of academic backgrounds. Brittany’s experience with adult learners, diverse cultures, and a range of learning abilities has enabled her to become a flexible educator who is sensitive to individual learning needs and intrinsically invested in their educational success.

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