4 Hidden Causes of Poor Time Management | The Prudent Professor

4 Hidden Causes of Poor Time Management

“Dr. C., here’s my paper. Sorry I didn’t have it in class today.”

I looked up ​to see Kayla standing at my office door. At that point, I wasn’t worried about her paper.

“No problem. It’s not late as long as you turn it in by the end of the day. But you looked really stressed. Are you okay?”

Tears welled up in Kayla’s eyes; she sat in the chair by my desk and started crying.

Students crying in my office didn’t happen often, but it wasn’t that unusual, either.

We started to talk. Kayla told me about everything she had to do and how she felt overwhelmed. She finished by saying, “I really think I could get it all done if I wasn’t so bad at time management.”

I’ve had lots of students like Kayla. They’ve tried everything. They’ve bought planners. They’ve used apps. But still, they just can’t seem to stay on top of things. They’ve accepted that they’re just bad at time management.

But you know what? A lot of those students are wrong. A lot of them have issues that look like poor time management but are actually something else.

In this post we’ll go over four problems that students often mistake for poor time management. You should read this before you buy another planner or download another time management app.

After we look at the four hidden causes of poor time management, we’ll look at a question that has tortured students since the beginning of time: why is time management so hard???

I’ve seen students get really frustrated with themselves for not being organized or for not managing their time well, but it isn’t entirely their fault. Be sure to read the last ​part of the post if you want to know why you struggle with time management​, organization, planning​ and lots of other important stuff.

But for now, let’s focus on four hidden causes of poor time management.

​4 Hidden Causes of Poor Time Management

​#1. You Don't Have Clear ​Time Management Goals

Having clear goals is critical in helping decide how to spend your time. When you don’t have clear goals, everything on your to-do list seems equally important. This often leads to “analysis paralysis,” where you waste time trying to figure out what to do first.

The more time you spend figuring out what to do, the more stressed and overwhelmed you feel. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed leads to ​poor decision-making. ​You might choose to do the easiest thing on your to-do list instead of the most important thing.

This is why you suddenly decide that you need to clean your room or ​do your laundry when you should be ​writing your English essay. If you haven’t already identified which of those tasks is most important, they all seem like equally valuable ways to spend your time.

Choosing to do mindless chores instead of working on a big assignment certainly looks like a time management problem, but often it’s a goal setting problem. If you have clear goals about how to spend your time, you don’t waste ​it figuring out what to do and don’t fill your important work time with unimportant stuff.

​#2. You Waste Time Because You're Unmotivated

In other words, you procrastinate. Students who procrastinate usually know what they should do and when they should do it, they just don’t. As a result, they're often rushing to finish things at the last minute.

Procrastination is often ​labeled poor time management, but it should be ​labeled poor motivation management instead​. The truth is, people don’t procrastinate on stuff they like to do.

If you really love your biology class, you're usually ​pretty motivated to do the work for that class. But when you have to do work for a class you hate, procrastination may kick into overdrive.

Because procrastinators have trouble generating motivation to do tasks they dislike, they tend to rely on external motivators, like deadlines, to spur them to work. So they live in a cycle of calm and chaos, veering between periods of low-stress and then high-stress when a deadline is approaching.

The key to overcoming procrastination is learning to rely on internal instead of external motivators. But no calendar, planner or time management app will help if lack of motivation is the root cause of your poor time management.

​#3. You Don't Plan Your Time Well​

Poor planners are not procrastinators. They have goals and the motivation to complete tasks – they just don’t know how.

Poor planning skills show up in different ways. Some students have difficulty breaking big projects into smaller steps, then planning ahead to make sure the project is done on time. As a result, they're​ often rushing to finish at the last minute.

Poor planners can also have difficulty grasping the “big picture” of everything they need to do. They're surprised to realize that they have two tests and a big project due on the same day. They may have known about this for months, but their minds treat each as a separate event, so it never really gels that all three are happening at the same time.

​Poor planning vs. procrastination

Students with poor planning skills are often grouped in with procrastinators, but these are really two separate issues. Unlike procrastinators, poor planners don’t wait until the last minute on purpose. They would be happy to finish their work early, if only the steps needed to do so were laid out for them.

Unfortunately, poor planners assume the solution to their problems is to buy a planner. In fact, they may have lots of planners – each half filled-out before they realized it wasn’t working and gave up. The reality is that planners only work if you have planning skills. If you lack the underlying skills needed to user a planner effectively, it won’t help you.

Planners only work if you have planning skills. If you don’t have the skills to use a planner effectively, it won’t help you with better time management.

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​#4. You Have a Poor Sense of Time

Unlike poor planners, students with a poor sense of time know exactly what they need to d​o, they​ just seriously underestimate how long it will take to do it.

That math homework you thought you could finish in 30 minutes? It took an hour. That history chapter you thought you could read in 45 minutes? It took 90. That paper you planned to write over the weekend? ​Still not done.

Students with a poor sense of time chronically underestimate how much time tasks will take. They often feel like they're falling behind. These students may feel overwhelmed, not because they have too much to do, but because they're trying to do too much in too little time.

Students with a poor sense of time study a lot; they may feel like they study all the time, because everything is taking twice as long as they expected. This is different than having a true time management problem, where students have enough time to complete tasks, they just don’t use time effectively.

I created a free time-task activity to help those who chronically underestimate the time they need to spend on tasks. You can get the activity in my free resource library by signing up below.


​The Truth About Time Management

If you recognize yourself in one (or more) of the four hidden causes of poor time management, please know that you're not alone. You’re not genetically programmed to be bad at time management. You're not a flake or a bad student.

The truth is, time management is hard. And there’s a reason why it’s particularly hard for high school and college students.

​See, time management is what neuroscientists call an executive function. Executive functions are the skills and processes we need to start, work through and finish tasks.

Goal setting is an executive function, and so is the ability to plan and prioritize. Being able to stay focused is an executive function​, as is the ability to estimate how much time is needed to finish a task.

​The primary cause of poor time management

​High school and college students typically struggle with executive functions like time management because of how the human brain develops. Executive functions take place in different parts of the brain, but they're all coordinated in the prefrontal cortex​, located right behind your forehead.

​​For most of us, the prefrontal cortex doesn't finish developing until ​​our mid-20s. This is one big reason why high school and college students often struggle with executive functions: the part of the brain that controls those things hasn’t fully developed yet!

Does this mean that high school and college students​ can’t be organized, manage their time well, and achieve goals? Sorry, but no.

It’s kind of like a fish swimming upstream. The fish can still swim, but he’ll have to work harder at it. Similarly, high school and college students can build good executive skills, but they’ll have to work harder to do it.

Good executive skills, like time management and prioritization, are essential to academic (and life) success. Building these skills ultimately comes down to creating and maintaining good habits, a topic we'll look more at in the future.

Do you struggle with time management? Have questions about how to better manage your time? Or have some really great time management tips? Let me know in the comments section.

The Prudent Professor

The Prudent Professor is the alter ego of Amanda Coleman (BS, MS, PhD), who has taught, advised and mentored students for over 20 years. Amanda has worked with students in high school through graduate school, at schools ranging from community colleges to large state universities. Amanda spends most of her free time bookmarking crafts she’ll probably never make and planning trips she’ll probably never take. She also outlines plots for novels she will eventually write (maybe).