Over the past few years, the team at STEMed Labs has had the opportunity to work with many high school students from the Central Texas area and beyond. Across those interactions, a topic that has come up quite frequently is the constant struggle students face with their time and schedules. Sometimes the subject would arise organically during the conversational process of getting to know students better, while other instances occurred as part of actively helping students plan their activities in our ILP Incubator. While we encourage students to avoid simplistic, zero-sum mindsets when thinking critically or strategically, there’s no avoiding the fact that each of us has twenty four hours to allocate each day. The immediate implication is that each hour we spend on a given activity is an hour not spent on another. Said differently using microeconomist nomenclature, there’s an opportunity cost for every minute of our lives, and sometimes that unknown cost can create unnecessary anxiety and stress. We  often find it useful to have students reflect on how they spend their time through this perspective in order to determine where improvements might be made, and oftentimes, so they can simply better understand the decisions they’re implicitly making each day.

When working with adolescents, the first step of any scheduling discussion entails gaining some visibility into where their time is spent. While obviously biased by the sample set of students we’ve interacted with, some common factors I’ve observed over the years:

  • Students rarely have a strong understanding of where their time goes (though this isn’t all that different from many adults)
  • Any discussion around time and schedules usually creates anxiety
  • The values of sleep, exercise, and free time are heavily discounted in practice
  • Time spent on digital media is often difficult to quantify and underestimated

In this post I’ll delve into these issues by way of (attempting to) analyze the teenage schedule. I’ll begin with some simplified models to try and provide some underlying context, and then discuss the points above in more detail. Finally, I’ll conclude with some takeaways in the form of recommendations that both students and parents might find useful.

A persona-based comparison

As a starting point, let’s consider the general composition of a teenage schedule during the school year (assuming they attend a traditional school environment). There’s always a danger of overgeneralization when attempting to analyze a large group, and  a demographic as diverse and large as the domestic teenage population is obviously hazardous in this regard. However, for the purposes of discussion, I’ll adopt a heavily simplified persona-based approach based upon the following label definitions:

  1. Average – The data for this persona is sourced from the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) and consists of average values based upon their analysis [1].
  2. High-achieving – The data for this persona is based loosely upon numbers we’ve informally polled from a handful of students that would be identified as academically high-achieving in the traditional sense (small sample set). This by no means indicates a causal relationship between the corresponding time inventory data and academic achievement.
    • It should be noted that since these data points were collected using estimated recollections versus in-situ tracking, there is likely to be deviations between the data and reality due to recall bias (e.g. treat this as an illustrative theoretical persona versus being statistically representative).
  3. Balanced – The data for this persona incorporates a qualitative balance between the two previous personas along with basic recommended guidelines for certain activities.

Before diving into the numbers, let me clarify the definition of a couple of categories used in the analysis:

  • Education – This category includes time spent in classes, participating in extracurricular activities, and doing homework. In addition, for the “high-achieving” persona, when students estimated their overall time they were instructed to incorporate door-to-door times inclusive of commutes
  • Free time – This category combines both known leisure time activities (e.g. reading or socializing with friends) as well as any unaccounted for “other” time

The graphs above reflect the breakdown of hours spent per activity on an average weekday. Both the Average and High-achieving personas exemplify an unsurprising dominance of time by academics and sleep, though in the High-achieving case there’s a greater majority of time spent on school and extracurriculars versus sleep. The estimated 13.5 hours per day for that persona can be approximately decomposed into 8.5 hours in school (bell schedule plus commutes), 2 hours of extracurriculars, and 3 hours spent on homework. If that sounds extreme, it probably is (see caveats above regarding data collection for the High-achieving persona), but when contrasting against the HHS average, it does lend some potential insights:

  • The zero-sum effect is most prominent in the reduction of sleep hours (nearly 2.5 hours less for the High-achieving persona), but in general the time allocated to school and structured education related activities dominates more than half of the day.
  • It is seemingly the case that students in the High-achieving persona do not spend much time on digital media, but as we’ll discuss later, this is mostly an artifact of the collection process as well as the ease with which this time consumption blends into other categories.
  • As with adults, once students feel time-constrained, items like exercise and volunteer time get thrown by the wayside. Unfortunately these are activities which have been shown to help alleviate anxiety and depression, and removing them can have unintentional negative consequences both short and long term.

Of course, looking at weekdays alone skews the profiles, so the graphs above model the average hours spent per activity throughout the week. While education and sleep continue to dominate time between the two personas, we can see the respective allocations of “free time” are commensurate, albeit at the cost of sleep. Specifically, while both groups of students sleep more than nine hours per night on the weekends, for the High-achieving persona the lack of sleep during the week dominates the overall average.

Having looked at the Average (HHS) scenario as well as an (extreme theoretical) High-achieving profile, it does beg the question: What should an “ideal” profile look like? Of course there’s no single correct answer to this question, but we can construct a loose approximation of a so called Balanced profile based on our first two profiles as well as some general guidelines:

  • Teenagers should get approximately 9 hours of sleep per night
  • It’s recommended that teenagers (and generally everyone) get at least an hour of activity / exercise per day
  • Teenagers should limit digital media consumption to an hour day (on average)
  • Volunteer and service activities are a good way for teenagers to get involved with their communities and adopt a culture of giving back early in their lives (no, this shouldn’t be just to show on resumes and college applications), so I’ll allocate a couple of hours a week to that category

The following graphs depict the corresponding weekday and overall (inclusive of weekends) average daily hours per activity for our resulting Balanced profile. Again, these numbers aren’t intended to serve as a target or benchmark, but instead simply exemplify the integration of desired tradeoffs and goals into a time allocation plan that is hopefully instructive to readers and students.

Anxiety and time management

Here’s a common mindset that any students reading this can likely commiserate with:

In order to [get into college, have a successful career, become a <insert career path I feel I have to adopt>, …], I must accomplish X, Y, Z, … If I don’t achieve these objectives, then some unfathomable failure state awaits me.

While fear can be a strong motivator, and one that we as a species have benefited from tremendously over the course of our evolution, a fear of failure is one of the greatest handicaps we can impose on students. Anxiety is of course a natural part of the teenage experience due to a variety of hormonal and biological factors, but too much can lead to disorders and depression. Time management in general can be a source of significant anxiety for overcommitted teenagers since it creates a pervasive feeling of “being behind” (e.g. why do the math to figure out how many hours I need to accomplish my tasks, when I “know” there’s not enough time). I won’t belabor this point, but suffice it to say any anxiety that surfaces during conversations around time and schedule can be a symptom of deeper issues. I personally believe we can do more to acknowledge these comments and feelings while simultaneously helping students adopt a constructive and positive approach to time management.

The underappreciated importance of sleep, exercise, and free time

There’s a common mentality in high school, and among some categories of adults, that sleep is for the weak and free time (e.g. time not spent on homework, extracurriculars, sports, etc.) is a cardinal sin. After all, “successful” students don’t sleep, right? I’ll defer to the myriad of literature around the benefits of both sleep and free time (and no, watching Netflix or YouTube is not free time, it’s how you divert free time instead to digital media), but I’ll make some comments on these areas here as it relates to discussing time prioritization with students.

Ask a student whether they feel sleep and exercise are important and you’ll get a positive response along with clear knowledge of the litany of negative implications if they’re not incorporated into lifestyles. So why do individuals not act on that knowledge effectively? The immediate answer you typically get when posing this question is that it is because they feel like they can’t. Said differently, these activities take lower priority relative to other concerns. It’s on us as teachers and mentors to help students recalibrate these misguided assumptions, perhaps partially by simply setting better examples.

One of my favorite questions to ask students, particularly when they feel overwhelmed by their workloads, is how much free time they have. Initially they’ll start with some small, non-zero number, but after momentary reflection they’ll begin to revise their estimates upwards. Why the discrepancy? Recall bias is part of it, but a majority of the time, what I’ve heard is that there’s a non-trivial leakage of time to those pesky devices we’ve found we can’t live without.

Digital media usage and the death of reading

Gauging digital media usage is tricky business, especially with teenagers. One reason for this is that in the modern age of smartphones, the use of digital services and social media can interject itself into other activities. It can take a mere moments to send a text or scroll briefly through a social media feed. But these actions aren’t limited to constrained time boundaries and can quickly add up. As an anecdotal example, we were discussing social media with students at an event (or to be more accurate, I was getting a tutorial on the proper usage of Instagram versus Snapchat), when I asked the group to estimate how much time they spend on these applications. After all, sending a picture of what they had for lunch expecting engagement indicates a validated assumption that there are consumers of said images waiting to view them — their friends and peers. None of the students had an immediate sense of quantifiable response, though there was a general qualitative reaction that it was “probably more than I’d think or want to”. One of the students thought to look at the application time tracking functionality on their phone, and doing the math, realized they were on social media for nearly two hours per day!

As it turns out, that magnitude of consumption is aligned with what is common amongst teens today. One of the potentially most worrisome implications, in my mind at least, is that this usage comes at the cost of reading [2]. Perhaps it’s quixotic of me (sarcasm), but I believe reading is a pretty important habit and skill for students to develop. So what’s the answer to this potential dilemma? Again, there’s no silver bullet, but I’ll provide couple of thoughts.

Setting and enforcing limits is a starting point. Whether the particular poison is social media, Netflix, online gaming, etc. all-you-can-eat is a great business model for SaaS companies and ad-based platforms, but not a great approach to supporting cognitive development. Unplugging, like broccoli, is just plain good for you.

When in doubt, put down the phone and go outside (or to a library!). I have uncovered zero instances of teenagers dying from a lack of access to digital or social media. Conversely, we’re struggling with a variety of public health issues related to exercise and nutrition, as well as a regression to the dark ages with regards to the value of knowledge and expertise. Perhaps by advocating more exercise, healthy eating, and a broader consumption of knowledge outside of classrooms and socioeconomic silos, we can reverse some of these trends.

Recommendations for students and parents

Enough pontificating, let’s talk about some ways to move the needle forward when it comes to time management. Here are some recommendations for teenagers and parents that want to take a proactive approach towards students owning their time versus being owned by it:

  • Define a multi-pronged personal development strategy
  • Develop effective time management skills
  • Define success metrics and iterate

Define a personal development strategy

There’s a difference between selecting a restaurant based upon what you want to eat and selecting the best option from the menu of a restaurant that someone else picked. It could be you end up with the same meal in both scenarios, but in the first instance it’s by design, whereas in the second it’s pure dumb luck. Personal development is no different. I’ve yet to meet the teenager that decided where their family lives, what school they go to, and what extracurricular options they have access to. It’s very much an exercise of picking from the menu that’s put in front of them. What students can control, however, is what direction they want to define for themselves. Taking the menu metaphor a step further, you can decide if you’re a vegetarian, vegan, locally-sourced advocate, etc., and that decision will frame the way you look at menu options differently. The same principle holds true for selecting where you invest time in your schedule. Decide on some areas where you want to grow and plan from there. As part of this exercise, I encourage students to include a dedicated goal for ongoing discovery and exploration (e.g. always be trying new things!). The most important thing here for students: Get feedback from parents and mentors and incorporate as you see fit. Don’t let parents and mentors dictate your strategy. This is the time to practice making and owning decisions, and you’ll learn from any mistakes as you go.

Develop effective time management skills

We often ask students how they manage their homework and responsibilities such as household chores, jobs, etc. While some have relatively robust methodologies, the most common answer is:

  • Procrastinate
  • Select next task based upon the next impending deadline
  • Cram / work until you can’t
  • Repeat

Obviously this is not a sustainable approach nor one that prepares students for postsecondary or professional environments. While there are a variety of time management strategies including timeboxing, agile time management, use of calendars to block out time, etc., the key is to adopt one that works for your personality and work style and begin developing good habits. In fact, high school is a great time to experiment with different methods to find one that works for you as it’s an investment that will prove valuable in the future. Parents can help their students by passing on personal lessons learned and finding mentors to provide advice and suggestions. Again, the main thing is to avoid being prescriptive and allow students to learn from the process so they’re self-enabled to adjust as needed later in their lives.

Define success metrics and iterate

A point that I’ve avoided making this entire post is how to quantifiably measure effectiveness in terms of time usage and management. That was a purposeful omission, as any answer or rubric that I provide would be based upon very specific assumptions. There are, however, qualitative success criteria such as:

  • Having a strong understanding of where your time goes
  • Being able to align time investments with personal development goals and objectives
  • Feeling that time is something you control and proactively allocate versus being a slave to your schedule and (ever expanding) task queue

Mapping these to some form of quantifiable metrics which you can periodically evaluate is important to allow for iterative adjustments as things inevitably change, but that is an exercise I’ll leave to the reader for now. The first step is to adopt a proactive approach to your time management, and if you develop the corresponding skills as a teenager, you’ll be in a great position for the future.


1. https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/facts-and-stats/day-in-the-life/index.html

2. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2018/08/teenagers-read-book.aspx 

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