Recreating yourself

At the end of every fall semester, I ask my first-year Paideia students to write a self-assessment. Looking through all their papers and reading responses from the entire semester, they write a two-or-three-page letter to themselves or me, discussing what they notice – improvement or lack thereof, places where a time-crunch turned into a grade-crunch, or a growing confidence and maturity, including the ability to make original arguments out of what they notice when they read. "Take this seriously," I tell them, "because you’ll use this to set goals for next semester – and we will spend some time on them when I see you again in the spring."

Thus begins an official experiment with a college student’s – or anyone’s – most challenging and absorbing ongoing task: figuring out how to make things happen in your life in a healthy and organized way. I don’t call that process "time management," since that phrase feels artificially breathless and pressuring. Time is infinite and doesn't need to be chopped into blocks.  It’s bigger than us, and can "manage" just fine on its own. Therefore, I have steered students toward the phrase "energy management" instead; if you prioritize a) what must get done and b) at least one thing that "keeps you going" by increasing your health and energy level, all your other tasks will fall into place around those things, and a healthy, invigorating balance will emerge and maintain itself in your life. For instance, for my students and I, each of our classes plus one essential "recharging" activity – writing, a sport, church, walking – belongs on our must-do list, while other things (particularly recreation involving an electronic screen, which tends to consume oceans of time and/or add anxiety – hello, Facebook!) can get slotted in as time is available. If you think about what adds energy to your life and what drains it away, decisions about how you spend your time become easier to make, and it gets easier to push back against intrusions on you that involve things people can do for themselves – a friend of mine with children is working on this right now to avoid the Mom-at-everyone's-beck-and-call syndrome. 

Students may think they need "time management" strategies to help them meet deadlines and get work done. Yet lately, "self-management" is becoming my preferred name for this process, because that phrase goes beyond even "energy management" to remind me of what living a healthy, productive, thoughtful adult life really means. It means being able to stay more or less on track when everything from the frivolous to the serious to the life-changing is always threatening to tug you off – up, down, back, sideways, everywhere but the present moment. It means being able to settle down and brush aside the shrieking voices of habit, fear, neurosis, consumer desire, imagination or self-involvement to see and deal with only what actually is and what you can actually control and what is actually the best decision to make. It means understanding, in the kindest way possible, that sometimes you need to just get over yourself, get real, get a move on and look beyond yourself into the wider world. Developing this grounding of inner stability just may be the central, multifaceted challenge of human life – spiritually, emotionally, financially, professionally, academically – and given how much those of us approaching 40 (ahem) still struggle with it, it's no mystery that 19-21-year-olds grapple with it even more than we do. Yet now is the time for students to begin practicing it, even though it is never "finished" or "solved," and even though the years beyond college will present further challenges: aging parents, growing children, and career and financial planning.

"There are no guarantees," writes Dr. Meg Jay in her book "The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How To Make the Most of them Now." "So claim your adulthood. Be intentional. Get to work. Pick your family. Do the math. Make your own certainty. Don't be defined by what you didn't know or didn't do."

College – especially in the digital era – is rich with excitements, stressors and distractions, real and imaginary, and consequences for making the wrong choices are real. Yet college is in some senses the last "safe place" for making mistakes and correcting them. This is why self-management is the invisible stream of skills faculty and staff are always teaching students alongside "content." This is why I tell students I don't write recommendation letters unless I can write really good ones, because it's their job to present themselves well and "make the case" for professional recommendability over the whole history of their relationship with me. This is why colleagues and I build in workshops and multiple deadlines on big projects over the course of the semester but don't negotiate final due dates.

And it's great to see students respond – showing up cheerfully and on time for a work-study job, writing four drafts of a paper instead of one, giving up Facebook for Lent (and never going back), leaving video-game consoles at home instead of bringing them back to college after Christmas break. They draw on their increasing maturity in more serious challenges as well – a parent's illness, a personal illness, a crisis of faith or identity – because they have recognized that college is not a staging ground for "real life," it is a stage of life, as real as any other. And then, self-management becomes the self-recreation that we all engage in moment to moment, doing the best we can – and, surprisingly often, succeeding.

Amy WeldonAmy Weldon, native Alabamian, is associate professor of English at Luther College. Her essays, short fiction and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Best Travel Writing 2012 (Solas Press), Cornbread Nation 2: The Best of Southern Food Writing (UNC Press), Shenandoah, New Haven Review, Keats-Shelley Journal, The Millions, Bloom, and Southern Cultures, among others. She regularly blogs on sustainability, spirit and self-reliance at http://cheapskateintellectual.wordpress.com.

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Comments

  • January 23 2014 at 8:15 pm
    Tabita Green
    I *love* this! Especially the much better term of "self-management," because you're right, that's really what it is. We're talking a lot these days about the Internet and what it's doing to our brains (especially related to attention). I believe that if we are mindful of how we use this amazing tool, everything will be just fine. Thanks for including this in your teaching. Your students owe you big time! P.S. I'm giving you full credit for the self-management term in my upcoming Beyond the Bubble workshop called "Less Is More: Getting (Important) Things Done in the Age of Information Overload."
  • January 24 2014 at 4:02 pm
    Amy E. Weldon

    Thanks, Tabita! Glad this was helpful. I appreciate the credit. :)

     

  • January 27 2014 at 5:12 pm
    A Luther Student
    I find it slightly amusing that the only way for potential readers to find this blog post--a genre of writing which would not be were it not for the internet--is via the very same electronic screens you are attempting to get them to devote less (and, eventually, possibly even none) of their time, energy, and attention towards. Also ironic is that I personally would not be reading this, nor known of its existence, were it not for Facebook posting a link to it. In the end, this is good advice, and oftentimes a pipe dream as well. The problem a lot of people face is not that there is a lack of prioritizing in life, or that the information provided here is unknown to them. The problem that I see many adults having, and also many of my own friends, is that there is simply too much needed to be done in order to survive. You say that one must figure out and prioritize what must get done, and one additional activity that keeps a person going and sort of 'recharges' them. That is certainly excellent advice, and for the most part good ol' common sense, but unfortunately the problem that often arises is that after doing all that must get done there is no time left for that second activity. Further, that is only if one actually has enough time to adaquately accomplish everything they must do in the first place. I have yet to hear anyone address the more serious problem many people in America, even students at a school as like Luther, still face today: furthering themselves and their lives, when they can barely keep themselves financially afloat. How is a student supposed to be a student when they must work 20+ hours a week to afford this 'opportunity'? After all, though a student chooses where they attend school, their choices are limited to the schools which choose to accept them. I know a few who couldn't get accepted to the less expensive state schools, but did get into schools in the same price bracket as Luther. So, in those cases, going to a cheaper school actually wasn't an option. What of those potential students who have a family to take care of? Other nations have less work days per year than America, shorter work days, government subsidized or even free education, proportionately lower costs of living than America, and they don't seem to need to be told how to live happy, 'energy-managed', and 'self-managed' lives. As far as making mistakes is concerned, I personally have learned that Luther is actually not one of the "safe places" to make and correct mistakes that you speak of. All of my courses constantly tell me that it is not okay to make a mistake in learning, recalling, or the practice of using material, as a mistake results in a lowering of a grade--and more often than not there are no opportunities where those mistakes can be recovered from or 'corrected'. A failed class still reflects badly to potential employers or graduate schools, even if it is retaken. The list can go on. But in the end I suppose it is important to realize that most of the dedication and work put in during these precious years won't actually go noticed or rewarded in the ways we might be led to believe, so I guess we both happen to have fallen victim to recreation on electronic screens, which seem to have consumed time and energy that probably could have been better managed.
  • April 10 2014 at 9:24 am
    Dale Ullestad-Heneke '75

    I very much value your insights into those activities that both move us into mature adulthood and hold us back.  Self-management is, indeed, a much better term for the process of engaging one's energies in a meaningful direction that is useful to self and others and also protects the individual with thoughtful self-care.

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