Helping Students Manage Part 3: Common Pitfalls

It can be frustrating for faculty who try to help students manage tasks and commitments, particularly when students seem to "shut down" during the mentoring process. Often, students will ask me to help them to develop a system, but give me the infamous "blank stare" as we get into developing a process. The easiest, and least helpful, way to respond to the student is to is assume that he is lazy or unmotivated - that may be true, but there are other possibilities as well. I've found that it helps to parse the reasons why students shut down during this process, and to think about mitigating the approach based upon these challenges. Frankly, I've seen these same processes at play for my colleagues who have asked for help in developing workflows as well!

1. The "Silver Bullet" Problem

Somewhere between "I want to use your system" and "That doesn't work for me" lies a vast landscape of different options and approaches to time/task management.  Helping students discover a system sometimes means choosing between thirty different methods, and then an overwhelming number of options within each system. I've used the Franklin Quest, the Covey, and the GTD methods in my own career: I don't even know what I would call my current method. And how many apps on the iTunes store claim to be the "perfect GTD solution?" Students can face a choice-paralysis paradigm - I first have to spend all this time finding the perfect system, just so that I can get around to completing all of the work that I needed a system for in the first place. This is, in my experience, the primary reason for the "shut down." I can almost see the language on the student's face; "I'll just work on getting my current assignments done and maybe pick something during the next break." 

Solution: Start really small. I will often ask the student to bring her syllabi to the meeting, and we will go through the assignments and get them into a single list. No software, no fancy system, no clever methodology. Presenting students with software options may be overwhelming, as may the introduction of your own methodology. If a student has NO system, start with paper. If a student has a paper system then needs to be managed by a database, I will often introduce her to Wunderlist, and then encourage her to use that database for a semester. If a student has used several options, I will help her explore the strengths and weaknesses of different software options. If there was a silver bullet for time and task management, we'd all use it - but there isn't. Start small - VERY small. 

2. The "Emotional Intelligence" Problem

When I attended Hyrum Smith's workshop on time management, he encouraged us to write down EVERYTHING we did on a legal pad for a week. That turned out to be a difficult task. I didn't mind writing down things I was proud of doing; "10:15-12:00 - Graded papers." I did, however, find it emotionally difficult to be honest about how I spent other chunks of time in my day; "1:15-2:00 - Stood at the coffee machine describing "Weekend at Bernie's" scene-by-scene with Larry." Having the emotional honesty to write EVERYTHING down can be a difficult, partly because we start to see places where we are less productive. It's much easier to lie to ourselves about what we do with our time, and build a narrative that makes us feel better about our productivity. When a student says, "I've been working on this paper for three weeks," what he actually means is that he worked on the paper for about four hours over the span of the last three weeks. But this emotional honesty is super-important in developing plans that will be productive and effective.

Solution: I encourage students to put "time wasters" on their calendar (XBox, NetFlix binges, Facebook) when they are longer than 15 minutes. If these activities are going to happen, then they are important to the student - regardless of how important they are to other people. The reasons this is valuable for students is that they have the opportunity to make micro-commitments to themselves that they will keep, and also deal rationally with the work that they find less attractive or enjoyable than Candy Crush. If a student unwinds each day with a couple hours of xbox, why not put that on his calendar? He can schedule an appointment with himself to play xbox from 6:30-8:30 p.m., set a timer to remind him to quit at 8:30, and go on to the next commitment. 

Naps are an excellent, and extremely necessary, part of this exercise. I've only known of one student who didn't like naps - and he was a weirdo. Students have infamously poor sleep-hygiene, and will often discount the importance of a good nap in the afternoon. Frankly, I find that the promise of a nap is the only GOOD reason to get up in the morning. I recommend to students that they schedule 90-minute naps as part of the plan, and be good to themselves an follow through with those commitments.

3. The "False Expectation" Problem

I worked with a student several years ago who put everything into a system, and gave a lot of time and energy into crafting what eventually developed into an elegant task and time management solution. I confess that I was surprised when he didn't turn in his major paper in my class. When we met to figure out what went wrong, he launched an interesting complaint - "I did all this planning, but stuff still doesn't get done." Yep - stuff doesn't get done. The passive voice of that verb is really important. Planning doesn't mean that stuff gets done, it merely shows me what needs to be accomplished.

As I reflected on his choice of phrase, I realized that my language contributes to this passive position. I often try to make things sound easy so that students will not feel overwhelmed by the many options (see Problem #1). But things on my task list don't "get done" - I do things. It is possible that my own language in helping him contributed to some magical thinking, deemphasizing the doing, and emphasizing the benefits.

Solution: There are two approaches that I believe help with this problem. First, I changed the way I use language when discussing productivity. I used to tell students that "When I put something on my task list, it gets done." Now I tell my students, "When I put something on my task list, I DO IT." The change from passive to active helps mitigate the false expectation that making lists is productive work.

Second, I help students focus less on "capture" and more on "doing." I read and followed some advice years ago that has paid off immensely (for the life of me, I can't find it to give credit). The author suggested that one start small. My first "task" was "to put my socks on tomorrow morning." I wrote it down the night before, and checked off the next morning when I put my socks on. This was a genius suggestion - because I discovered the joy of crossing things off my list. It also resulted in an awareness and intentionality in completing tasks, even the ones that might get done without planning. It focussed attention on planning and doing - not just planning. I always grin when a student starts putting things on his task list that he already did, and then checks them off. That's the moment when he is focussed more on what gets DONE than what gets captured. Besides, I do that for myself ALL the time (wink).

Image Credit: http://bit.ly/1NaFt1I

Posted on December 5, 2015 and filed under GTD, Task Management, Calendar Management, General.