Sunday, August 28, 2011

Time Management: Are You Squeezing Your Priorities?

A student came up to me last week and said she was really stressed out and overwhelmed because of everything that was going on in her life – school, job, clubs, family, etc. – and that this semester she was going to have to work really hard to try to “squeeze in” her homework.

A red flag went up in my head and it sparked an epiphany. I told her immediately – “in college homework is not something to be ‘squeezed in;’ if you’re investing your time in college you must set aside a sacred block of time for homework. Homework is never something that should be done in a rushed manic fashion.”

Easier said than done, right?

The most popular topic I’m asked about is time management and how to overcome feeling overwhelmed and out of control.

Too often when life becomes overwhelming it seems students’ grades or health suffer most. And it’s no wonder as today’s college student – especially community college students I think – often have to work to pay for tuition and sometimes even to support their own families.

You’re trying to balance school, work, family, college involvement, internships, and trying to figure out who you are and what you want to do with your life.

Yes, it is often said college can be the most leisurely time in your life, but I think for many college students, especially in these economic times, this isn’t as true as it used to be.

The truth is you do have a lot going on. And it breaks my heart when a student comes to me with a GPA that doesn’t reflect their intelligence, but instead reflects their discombobulated priorities and their struggle to meet all of the demands on their life and their time.

Time management is all about priorities. And as you get older your life will most likely only become more overwhelming and overflowing with tasks, goals, deadlines, and responsibilities.

So the earlier you develop the skills needed to manage time (i.e. your priorities) the more balanced and content your life will be.

You might actually enjoy it.

Prioritizing is about so much more than organizing your to-do list. It is about placing your values and your goals in the correct order so that when (not if) life gets overwhelming and something has to go, you aren’t “squeezing” in the wrong things.

Because “squeezing” something in means it’s at the bottom of your list. And when life gets crazy (and it will) the things on the bottom will suffer.

You can’t always do it all, and sometimes something just has to go in order for your life and priorities to remain in tact.

Because no matter what something will go (e.g. your health, your grades, your relationships) but the difference is when you learn time management you control what goes and what stays.

And if you do it right, what you let go of will give you freedom instead of grief.

While you may think “grades” should be at the top of every college student’s priority list, that is not necessarily the case. Every list is different, because it must be based on your individual values and goals.

What do you want out of life? What is really important to you? Why are you doing what you’re doing? What do you care about?

But before you think about that, start by making what I call a “time list” based solely upon what you spend the most time on to the least. Be honest with yourself because that is the only way this will help you (start with general terms like work, grades, health, happiness, leisure, friends, family, faith, money, etc.)


Now imagine your list is a giant tower on the coast and a tidal wave comes and floods the last 3 things on your list (e.g. the bottom floors). How would you feel? Would your life still be going in the direction you want it to be going? Would you be fulfilled? Would your tower still be able to stand strong and accomplish its goals?

Those waves of busyness and chaos will come into your life often and the only way to make it through is if your list is in the proper order.

Otherwise, when those waves come the important things in our lives suffer and we don’t understand why.

It’s the workaholic going through an unexpected divorce. It’s the student who spends so much time busing tables to pay his tuition that he ends up failing out of college. It’s the lovable life-of-the-party kid who’s struggling to get a job because he didn’t take classes seriously. It’s the straight-A student who falls ill because she’s not eating or sleeping well.

So what do we often do to try to keep those important things at the bottom from being washed away? We try to “squeeze” them into the top of our list at the last minute – do some quick rearranging so that everything will be okay.

But in the end those things get squished mercilessly by the unimportant that we’ve allowed to steal our time, our goals, our dreams, and our values.

Now make a list of what you really want your priorities to be. If you lost all but one, what would you want that one thing to be? That should be at the top.

What are the things that  -- if you lost them (e.g. health) -- would make the other things important to you almost impossible to achieve? What are the things that you truly value and want above all else?

There are no right or wrong answers here. They just have to be right for you. 

And you have to actually let them guide your choices.

And what goes at the bottom? It can still be things that are important to you, but they have to be things you could live without when the tidal wave comes.

Because too often in life people lose what matters to them and it is such a great tragedy when they could have prevented it.

Too often bright and talented students whose gifts we need in the world aren’t able to rise above because the demands of life keep washing them away.

Are you squeezing anything truly important in your life? Rearrange now and don’t ever try to squeeze because it doesn’t work.

 And when you feel like you just don’t have enough time to do it all – you probably don’t.

So don’t wait for the tidal waves to erode your life. Take control, put everything important at the top, and don’t be afraid to wash some things away yourself.  

Time management is a constant process as your life ebbs and flows.  And it is so much more than to-do lists, planners, and calendars. 

It is about investing your time and energy in what really matters -- in what will really yield you the results you want for your life and in what will sustain you to do and be what is truly important to you.

Because in the end, it’s not really about managing time. It’s about managing our lives to be what we want them to be, and guarding against the constant climb of the unimportant.

You can have it all. You just can’t do it all. The key - is defining your “all.”


  1. I love this Isa! I read it at just the right time, life does get stressful and time management is especially hard. Thanks for this reminder to focus our priorities. Life is a series of choices and its important to make choices that benefits one's goals in life. Its also important to realize that not one person is expected to do it all.


  2. This is such wisdom! I have managed to gain and keep a high GPA, and even become president of my school's Phi Theta Kappa chapter. Yet I am definitely one of those people whose health and grades have suffered at times due to mishandled priorities.

    I often share your posts on my chapter's facebook page, and I think this will be one of the most important ones I've posted yet. :-) Thanks again!


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