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.