They sit in front of me, a u-shape of formica desks girding them, giving them space from the professor, from that person who – in their minds – holds all the power, all their potential success or failure.
We’re in study skills class, all of them here because their assessments show them not quite ready for college-level work. It is my job – according to the administration – to make them ready. It is my job – according to me – to show the students if they are ready or not.
We talk about victim mindsets verses empowerment – what choices they can control and what they cannot. A flat tire – beyond their control most of the time. Running out of gas on the way to class – within their control. A diagnosis of Mental illness – beyond their control. A hangover – entirely their own.
They get it, maybe, I think. I see it sometimes in the way they sit up straighter. In the way she comes to class on time more; in the way he owns his choice to sleep in. I don’t see it, too, in the empty formica slabs that become more and more vacant as the weeks continue.
We do an exercise on time management and priorities. I ask them to make a list of all the things for which they are responsible – everything from jobs to children to pets to classwork. Then, I tell them to prioritize those responsibilities – most important on top, least important on the bottom. I urge them to be honest. Almost every class, someone finds that work and family and church and housekeeping and refurbishing antique cars comes before school. I tell them that this is okay – their priorities are their priorities. But I also tell them that if school doesn’t make the top 5, probably the top 3, then maybe they need to either reprioritize or reconsider school (I can feel the administration cringing from their corner offices.).
Then, I ask them to make a list of what they spend time on each week and give a number to how many hours they spend on each thing. Again, I urge them to be honest – if they watch four hours of TV a day, say so. I also remind them that they need time to eat, sleep, and bathe.
We take those hours and total them. Sometimes their totals are 130, 140, and sometimes, they total well over 180, which – of course – is impossible given that each week only has 168 hours, no matter what we may wish.
They take their lists and put things in the order of the amount of time they give. 40 hours to work, 15 hours to spending time with their children, 4 hours to television or Facebook. Then, they compare the amount of time they spend to their priorities. The numbers are almost always mismatched. A priority of time with children does not correspond with two hours a week. A priority of finishing an AA degree in two years does not correspond with 15 hours a week.
Our penultimate step is a challenge from me to them – consider their priorities, evaluate if they need to change, and then make a chart that assigns every hour of the day for one week to their priorities, in order. More time to schoolwork if that’s what they want. A paring away of work hours if that’s possible and desirable. Less time to Facebook, perhaps.
Finally, I ask them to come back and report on what has changed. Then, we make concrete goals based on their priorities – finishing that degree in spring, spending 20 hours a week with their children, receiving a promotion at work, completing the restoration of that Dodge Charger by year’s end.
Almost always, someone doesn’t even come back, and while I miss them, I take that as a victory because – well, school is a waste of time for anyone who doesn’t make it a priority. Almost always, too, someone finds a structure and a balance that works to get them closer to their goals.
It’s my favorite exercise to teach beginning college students . . . and writers. This exercise works for everyone.
If you want to be a writer, you need to make writing a priority in terms of your time. We all have 168 hours in a week – the question is, how will we use them?
Give this exercise a go, if you will.
- Make a list of your priorities
- Rank those priorities.
- Assign hour values to everything you do in a week – work, writing, children, church, pets, TV, blogs.
- Compare those values to your priorities.
- Consider adjusting your priorities or your hours.
- Make a schedule for one week and allocate your time according to your priorities.
- Then, evaluate and adjust.
Where does writing fall? Is it important enough in your life that you would give up other things? Or is it something you want to only give a little time to? Any choice is fine, as long as you own it and don’t blame “time” or “children” or “work” or “busyness” for your lack of writing. It’s always a question of priorities, and those priorities will flux with changes in life. The key is to know to adjust and quit guilting ourselves or blaming other things for what we don’t do.
If we want to write, we will find the time. It’s as simple as that.
So what do you think? You up for the challenge of this exercise. If so, comment below, and we’ll check back here at the end of next week to see how it’s going.
By the way, if you’re looking to see a model of a person who made time for writing, even when he was swamped, check out Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft.