How to Help Teens Manage Time and Focus on What Matters

This Q & A almost didn’t happen. Cassie Holmes, professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, just came out with her first book, Happier Hour: How to Beat Distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most, and her schedule was tight.

“I could do 2pm PT/5pm ET on Monday, if that’d work for you,” Dr. Holmes offered to me in an email. “Otherwise, perhaps we could find a time after the new year?”

Needless to say, I made the time work. I was on deadline and decided that whatever else was on my schedule that day, at that time, would just have to be rescheduled. In that moment, I became aware that time is both inflexible and flexible and that Dr. Holmes had just schooled me in effective time management. She was clear about her availability, and by extension, her priorities. Dr. Holmes joined me for a meaningful discussion about how teens can get a better handle on their time. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Allison Gilbert: You say that helping teens better manage their time not only increases their sense of confidence but boosts their overall well-being. How so?

Cassie Holmes: When we feel strapped for time, it makes us less likely to exercise, and not exercising is not good for our health. Constantly feeling time-poor can also make us less nice, less happy, and more stressed. We may also feel less confident in our abilities to achieve what we’ve set out to achieve. So, for all of these reasons, the skills needed to manage our time are important to develop.

AG: What are the first three strategies you recommend for creating a sense of control over time?

CH: The first is carving out time for “no phone zones – putting the phone out of sight. I am not saying to get off phones and social media altogether. But when we spend time on activities that are important to us, it’s essential to feel fully engaged and enjoy those activities as much as possible. Here’s an example. In one study, among friends who were eating together, a few were allowed to have their phones on the table, while the others were required to put their phones away. For those who had their phones away, they enjoyed the dining experience more. The reason is they were able to be more engaged and less distracted. 

Another strategy is to volunteer. This may sound odd – giving away time when we feel we don’t have enough of it — but when we help others, it makes us feel that we have more time to go around. This is because spending time helping others makes us realize how much we can accomplish within the time we have. As a result, we expand our sense of what we can accomplish more generally.

The third is having experiences that give us a sense of awe, a feeling of wonder. One way is going outside into nature, going on a hike and taking in the magic of the outside world – the sounds, smells, and beauty. Of course, to receive these benefits, we can’t also be talking on the phone or listening to our favorite podcasts or music. We have to stay open to our surroundings.

We’ll never find pockets of time, we have to create pockets of time.

AG: Between going to class, participating in extracurricular activities, and doing homework, students may feel they don’t have time just to relax. How do you suggest adding time back into these types of busy schedules?

CH: It’s essential to realize that we’ll never find pockets of time. We have to create pockets of time. Our time gets filled, often very unintentionally. One solution is carving out time to rest and reflect, making sure we’re disconnected from outside information while we’re doing it. I do this during my morning run. I purposefully don’t listen to anything while I run. This is how I make time for thinking and reflecting. For others, it might be as simple as closing a bedroom door and getting a pad of paper. You might write. You might draw. It doesn’t matter. The only goal is creating time to think and reflect.

AG: One obstacle to time management is distraction. How do you suggest adolescents manage interruptions?

CH: We have to protect ourselves from interruption. Perhaps it’s figuring out where we can close the door and make it quiet in our homes. Or, if there isn’t a door to close, we might put on headphones with white noise, instead of listening to music that introduces new information. It’s also helpful to express our needs. It’s important to let those closest to us know when we might need more quiet to get the tasks that are important to us done.

AG: Responding to texts and emails can consume an entire day, crowding out the kind of work that allows us to achieve our goals. This is the kind of problem we can all relate to! Is there a solution?

CH: Yes, the solution is being proactive. We must carve out the time and space to do the things that matter to us. If we don’t create the time, and protect the time, it will get filled. It requires being intentional.

AG: How does mindfulness make the day feel longer, actually make it feel like time is being stretched to fit all we have happening in our lives?

CH: Being distracted and thinking about all the things we have to do, increases our sense that we’re limited by time. But when we’re in the opposite state — fully engaged in what we’re doing and not thinking about what’s next – we feel a sense that time is expanding.

AG: You suggest that not all time is created equal. Meaning, teens can use time to make themselves happier. What do you mean?

CH: Teens, like parents, can work purposefully to invest their time in activities that feel worthwhile and minimize the hours that are filled with activities that feel wasteful. This takes effort. It requires an honest review of how you’re spending time. Additionally, when we are in those activities that do feel worthwhile, it’s critical to be fully engaged. Minimize distractions. In this way, we’ll be able to experience all the joy that’s coming our way.

This interview guides us about important conversations we can have with our teens about time management.  You can expect resistance at first because sometimes anything but doing work can feel like a waste of time to a person feeling overburdened. Some of these ideas are only brought home after real experience with them. Here are a few casual “scripts” to use to get conversations started: 

  • For a teen with a packed schedule: “Feeling overwhelmed is not a good feeling. It can feel stressful to have pressure coming from friends, family, school, work – or many things at once. Sometimes talking things out can help you identify what you really care about and what you can give up to carve out more time in your schedule. Deliberately scheduling “down time” for yourself may also help you become more efficient in areas where you feel stressed. If you want to talk through things with me, I’m here to listen – judgment free.” 
  • For a teen concerned with wasting time: “I know you feel as if doing chores is a waste of time. Can we talk about this? There may be some different ways of looking at them. You may discover they’re more valuable in your life than you think.”
  • For a teen with big gaps in their schedule: “It may seem odd, but sometimes having too much extra time on your hands can make you feel less productive. You seem concerned about the empty space in your schedule. Maybe there is something new you might want to add to help you feel more satisfied? Now could be a great time to volunteer for a group in need, take on a new hobby, join a sports team, come up with a new exercise plan, or spend more time with friends. Those are some places to start. What seems interesting to you?”

About Allison Gilbert

Allison Gilbert is Senior Writer for the CPTC. Her pieces cover an array of topics including self-care, bullying, grief, and resilience. Allison is author of numerous books and speaks across the country to corporations, non-profits, and community groups. You can learn more by visiting

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