January 06, 2023

Macro Meets Micro: Time Management

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

I’d like to think I’m pretty good at managing my time. At least until I start thinking about time as linked with structural forces, and then I realize there are a lot of factors at play in the regulation of time that are not solely up to the individual.

Personally, I am fortunate to have a full-time job that allows me to manage my time based on my personal preferences. I can teach morning classes, so my commute takes place early, before both morning and evening rush hour. I can work from home several days a week and choose my hours accordingly. I get paid breaks that amount to about 4 months a year to spend my time as I choose.

To others it might make it seem like I am a wiz at managing time, but I am aided by these privileges. And along with the privilege to choose when and where I work most days comes reduced stress and increased productivity, furthering my privilege. Even colleagues with the same position might have more family responsibilities that dramatically limit their work and leisure hours.

When we think about time management, we seldom think about how much time we have to manage, and how that varies a great deal based on our social position, most notably socio-economic status, age, and our other social roles and responsibilities.

Many students sometimes struggle with time management, but some students have less time to manage to begin with. Some of my colleagues presume that college means living on campus and balancing partying, staying up late, and schoolwork. But this is a relatively privileged position for a student.

Here are just a few examples of things that might reduce the amount of time students may have to manage:

  1. The need to work, full or part time;
  2. Family responsibilities, including caring for siblings, parents, or their own children;
  3. Commuting, sometimes long distances, to attend classes;
  4. Athletic training, which can take up to 4 hours per day or 20 hours per week for college athletes;
  5. Emergencies related to health, housing, or overall wellbeing.

A combination of any of these responsibilities can dramatically limit the amount of time one can devote to school. So simple tools and tricks for time management—some that I follow and regularly suggest to students, like making to-do lists of tasks on calendars and starting assignments early—can be less useful for someone who doesn’t have as much time as another student. And tasks will take people different amounts of time, particularly those who have special learning needs, are distracted, experiencing stress, or have other mental health challenges, managing time can be a privilege that not all can control.

Social science research focuses a lot on time use; the Bureau of Labor Statistics has conducted the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) since 2000, assessing how much time Americans spend on various activities such as work, childcare, and leisure. Time use surveys like ATUS can give us valuable information about long-term trends and demographic differences in time use. It’s how we know, for example, that mothers in particular faced a time crunch during the stay at home order in 2020, and that teens spend more time in the summer on their schooling now than they did ten years ago.

While we can exercise some control over how we spend our time, some things are clearly out of our control. Having resources can mean that we pay others do take some tasks off of our hands: domestic tasks, such as cleaning, childcare, and repairs are things that some can regularly pay others to do. Those who can afford to dine out or order takeout can avoid some cooking and cleaning. Conversely, those who have time can do these tasks and spend their money elsewhere.

On the micro level, we do have individual choices and strategies we can employ to manage our time, so this is not to say that we have no personal control over our days. But these choices might be much more limited for others than they are for us, and vice versa.

And then there’s the really big picture: the illusion that we really can control time, particularly when our health and other events are often beyond our control. Time is not money; while people with resources may have more options about how they spend their time, in the grand scheme of things even the wealthiest person cannot buy more time.

How challenging is time management for you? How is your time management aided—or challenged—by your social location?


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