by Kayla Yurco
Thursday, October 27th, 2022

Among all the uncertainties of higher education today, I find comfort in one strange constant: how we
talk about time. Inevitably, each semester, it seems we hit a point where hallway small talk is filled with
a mix of something like “how is it November already?!” and “how are there still six weeks left?!” The
calendar creeps along at the same pace every year, but we seem to have a funny way of maintaining
surprise at its gait nonetheless. Amidst all this, it seemed a good time to write about how faculty
manage our time—and how our teaching can help students learn time management, too.

For me, despite my understanding of the plethora of research suggesting that time management is
about more than life hacks, this is the same part of the semester where I find myself trying anything and
everything to add extra minutes to my day. In general, I’m a list person who has dabbled in all kinds of
productivity tools (Todoist is my reigning favorite). I use a Kanban board for big research projects—the
old-fashioned tangible kind with post-it notes I can move around. For teaching, I make a new online (and
free) Trello board for each course every semester to prep and update class topics, readings, and
assignments to fit the new schedule. For bouts of writing or grading, the Pomodoro technique helps me
re-correct the non-ergonomic, hunched-over-the-laptop position I inevitably find myself in every 20
minutes (anyone else sitting up a little straighter right now?). I’ll pause here to assure you that my
appreciation for productivity tools does not mean I have it all together: the number of tabs open on my
browser at any one time is concerning (OneTab is amazing, but also terrible, for perpetuating this habit),
and I have largely accepted that I will never reach the elusive inbox zero (but if you do, please teach me
your ways).

These tools help me stay accountable and productive—or at least, they make me feel productive,
especially as the semester seems to pick up its pace. But, disappointingly and unsurprisingly, they don’t
actually add time back to my day. In early 2022, after a particularly challenging, packed semester, I
found myself seeking more balance (I’m a slow study on saying ‘no’, but that’s for another day). Really, I
was seeking more insight not only on how I use time but also on my relationship with my use of time.
Rather than just scheduling my to-dos and time blocking, I decided to formally track my time as it was
spent. The irony that I spent significant time exploring the dizzying array of digital time-tracking options
is not lost on me, but I eventually settled on Clockify (it’s free, easy to get started, syncs across devices,
and there aren’t too many distracting bells and whistles).

What I have now is nearly a year of data on how I actually use my time, not how I think I use my time. I’ll
spare you the stats reports, but what was most surprising to me was that some of the tasks that feel like
they take forever really, truly, don’t. This is why I love mixed methods: the qualitative data about my
experiences are just as, or more, telling than the numbers. Grading doesn’t really take any more time if I
start at 9pm, but, since I’m not a night owl, it sure feels like it does. Writing only manifests in actual
countable words if it happens in the morning, immediately after coffee. Email takes an unsettling
amount of time no matter what time of day I deal with it. (That topic, too, is probably for another day,
but this New Yorker article is a good place to start the conversation.)

The idea of a time diary is not new. But my data helped me see beyond time management as yet
another thing I should simply skill up on. Instead, it made me reconsider the expectations I put on my
time and the presumptions I make about how I spend it. Early this semester, it also motivated me to
reflect on the expectations I place on students’ time in my courses. Students today, like faculty and staff,
are managing incredibly complex schedules—especially with so many transitions over the past few
years. It seemed a good time to reevaluate necessary time involved (required? intended? assumed?) for
my course assignments and activities.

In searching for resources on this topic, I learned that there are plenty of available tips for students to
learn to manage their workloads (including through JMU's Learning Strategies Instruction). But less so
for faculty who regularly face uncertainty in how much to assign to students. There are some interesting
workload estimators that can help us get started, but it can be difficult to learn how to plan the time
required for students to complete academic tasks. The rise of hybrid and online learning options has
made counting the notion of “class time” even more ambiguous.

One easy way to begin the evaluation, though, is to simply ask our students. Anonymous polls and
questions as part of broader feedback can help us gather preliminary data during the semester about
average time spent on assignments, ranges of time spent completing readings, and—in thinking back to
my own time diary of sorts—the assumptions students make about time required to complete tasks. For
example, for first-time assignments, I’ve started asking: “if you were to complete a similar assignment
again, do you think it would take you more, less, or the same amount of time, and why?” This helps
gauge whether high average-to-completion times might have more to do with, say, collective exhaustion
around midterms than the design of the assignment itself. In following up on students’ responses, I
make space for small group discussion in class about what work (aka time-use) habits are working well
for students. I offer ways I’ve organized my own work habits, and I introduce some of the productivity
tools I shared above (with necessary caveats). And, like others, I’ve suggested students experiment with
their own time diaries.

The importance of scaffolding instructional content is well understood. But what would it look like to
scaffold the management of time management into our courses? Easy wins are making space for
explaining the rubrics we use and iteratively returning to them for repeat or low-stakes assignments. We
can later level up on this by asking students to self-assess using those rubrics and against the time they
expected certain activities to take (perhaps based on the average time-to-completion data we collect as
regular feedback). We can consistently check in about how to prioritize medium- and long-term projects
in our courses, especially if we have flexible assignments built into our curriculum. We can talk about
what to do when we get stuck. And we can model different types of study habits directly in our courses
with, for example, one quick review question at the start or end of every class meeting to demonstrate
the importance of distributing the study cycle.

As it turns out, talking to students about the art and science of time management can help with more
than checking off to-dos. It makes visible the hidden curriculum of succeeding in college, especially for
first-generation students (by the way, CFI is offering more programming on this soon). It encourages
faculty to check assumptions that students just know what to do outside of class or that all students
approach tasks in the same way—norms that perpetuate barriers to higher education for historically
excluded groups and for learners with significant caretaking responsibilities. And it underscores the
necessity of embracing universal design for learning, especially in terms of teaching neurodiverse
students who can broaden social perspectives on time management. Indeed, all learners benefit from
discussions about support planning and strategy development for the hows and whys of getting things

While working on managing my time management has surely kept me a little busier this last year, it
really doesn’t feel like one more thing on my to-do list. It might not help me add minutes to my day (or
weeks to my life), but it is helping me rethink my relationship with the clock for all the other things I like
to do. Even better if I can help students do the same.

About the author: Kayla Yurco is an assistant professor of Geography in the School of Integrated Sciences and a CFI faculty associate in the teaching area. She can be reached at

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