When I started teaching, most meetings I had with students had nothing to do with class lessons. They would come into my office, sit down, and whimper, “I’m stressed out, exhausted, and my life is all over the place.” Sometimes bursts of tears would ensue. They aren’t alone: Solid research shows that students feel that society is more and more demanding of them. Mental-health issues in young children and teenagers are on the rise.
Students didn’t come to me because I’m a therapist. Neither had my course anything to do with mental health. They came to me because I’m the time-management guy—I’ve been doing research on time management for years. They came to me because of a simple but insidious assumption: If I can be just a little more productive, everything will be all right.
Why do students think productivity is the answer to their malaise? Because that’s what they’ve been told their whole life. By parents, television, the internet, peers, coaches, and, yes, schools. Schools play a major role in instilling this productivity mindset in young children, according to Vicki Abeles, author of Beyond Measure, a splendid book on how school performance pressures harm students. This mindset, especially in excess, can make students’ relationship with time fraught. If being obsessed with productivity makes students tired, anxious, and depressed, then the way schools think about time is neither conducive to their well-being nor, ironically, to their long-term productivity.
What would it take to make dramatic and effective changes to how schools think about time? Obviously, much of our obsession with productivity does not start with school. Public policies, culture, parents’ socioeconomic background, and a host of other factors play a major role. But historically, schools have been where children learn about time, punctuality, and schedules. Maybe it’s time for schools to use that power to teach students a healthier way to use their time. Here are a few actions school communities can take at a local level.
1. Conduct time-use surveys. We don’t really know what we do with our time until we measure it. That’s why governments around the world have been conducting time-use surveys for decades. These surveys essentially ask people what they do every half-hour or so over a 24-hour period. When we scale this up to a whole population, we get a clearer picture of how people use their time and whether it makes them happy and healthy. That’s how we know, for instance, that people who spend less time watching TV and more time with people are happier than those who do the opposite.
Why do students think productivity is the answer to their malaise? Because that’s what they’ve been told their whole life."
With time-use surveys, schools can better understand where students’ time goes, which is the first step toward tackling time issues. Doing this at a local level is key because time-use patterns will likely change from one school to another, especially for students with different socioeconomic backgrounds.
2. Lower the pressure. It’s far from clear whether, past a certain threshold, homework actually boosts students’ grades. The amount of homework assigned to students has increased a few times in the past—at one point the U.S. government feared students would be outperformed by their Russian counterparts during the Cold War. Whether homework is still increasing is not clear, but one thing is: The American public has been consistently in favor of more homework despite contrary expert opinion. Thankfully, several school districts, including in Hillsborough, Calif., and Somerville, Mass., have implemented reduced-homework policies, although not without resistance. These policies can go a long way toward alleviating students’ unnecessary time pressure.
Another worrying trend is the decline of recess time. The logic here isn’t that different from that of corporate employers: Reduce break times so people will spend more time working and thus boost performance. But that logic isn’t supported by science. Recovery, physical activity, and enjoyment are crucial for school performance and well-being, and that’s what recess is for. Reducing recess means reducing the break time necessary to recover the resources necessary for learning and creativity. Fortunately, many schools are now upping recess time, but it’s not just quantity that matters: How and with whom students enjoy recess time are important as well. (For instance, having more adults present during recess time increases physical play and helps conflict resolution among kids.)
3. Intentionality over productivity. Students today have more ways to spend their time than at any other point in history: watching TV, browsing the Internet, piano lessons, acting classes, community service, football, and countless other activities. We also live in a society that encourages busyness: If you’re not doing something at any given time, you’re a nobody.
Schools, parents, and peers push students to engage in a seemingly infinite number of activities, extracurricular or otherwise. These activities can be important for students’ well-being, but too much can backfire, as research shows.
Not only does overscheduling kids with activities make them miserable, but it also fails to teach them an essential lesson: It is better to do a few things intentionally and deliberately than to crowd one’s schedule with activities. An abundance of activities fails to teach children an even more important skill: focus. Doing too many things inevitably saps our ability to immerse ourselves fully in whatever we’re doing.
Schools can help by talking with parents about what constitutes a reasonable—healthy—amount of extracurricular activities. Schools can also encourage parents to think about “digital policies” to govern the use of digital devices at home and how social media and smartphones should be used responsibly. Most importantly, schools should emphasize unstructured time. The more time children spend in unstructured activities, the more they learn how to structure time on their own. Conversely, if you structure all of children’s time, they will fail to learn how to structure their own time. This makes sense—how would you learn self-discipline if you’re never given the opportunity? You can’t teach proper time management to people if you manage all of their time.
Schools are said to prepare children for real life, an often busy and hectic place. But does school conspire in making life busier and more hectic? That’s very likely. By fundamentally reassessing the way they think about time, schools stand to make future adults—a future society—happier, healthier, and more intentional with their time. Schools have been teaching us the importance of being punctual. Maybe they should now teach us the importance of healthy time management.
A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as It’s Not About Productivity. It’s About Time Management