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Tween Time Management: Personality, Gender & School Performance

What do we know about 12-year-olds' time management?

Time management: the completion of tasks within an expected timeframe while maintaining quality through planning, organizing, prioritizing or multitasking. A study to be published next month provides insight into what this means for 12 year olds.

Ou Lydia Liu, Frank Rijmen, Carolyn MacCann and Richard Roberts of the Educational Testing Service (ETS, Princeton, NJ) have a paper in press in the journal Personality and Individual Differences entitled, "The assessment of time management skills in middle-school students." Their paper describes the development of a new scale to measure time management skills in school-aged children. As they note, the existing measures have been designed for adults. Their findings indicate that time management is different for youths.

Their Study
They collected data in two waves (6 months apart) with 814 students (414 females) at Time 1 and 340 (160 females) at Time 2 (average age 12 years). These participants completed the new measure of time management, a measure of the big-five personality traits, a vocabulary test and they also reported their grades.

Sample scale items
This new scale had 8 items for each of four domains of time management. Students rated these on a five-point scale from "Never" to "Always." Here is a sample item for each of the main domains.

  • Planning - "I change my plans all the time."
  • Meeting deadlines - "I complete my homework on time."
  • Effective organization - "I clean my bedroom before I leave for school" (Blogger's question: Do some kids actually do this?!)
  • Mechanics of time management - "I like to make lists of things to do."

The Results

  1. A factor analysis of the time-management scale data revealed two factors: Meeting Deadlines (9 items) and Planning (9 items). The other items on the scale were removed because they did not load on these two factors. It would seem that tweens have a simpler understanding of time management, as the adult scales for time management revealed 3-5 factors, more on this below.
  2. Time management was not correlated with vocabulary scores, so time management doesn't seem to be a part of general intelligence.
  3. Time management scores (total score and the two subscales of Meeting Deadlines and Planning) were related to grades. Better time management was related to better grades overall, particularly at Time 2 suggesting that time-management skills have a sustainable impact on students' grades.
  4. Females scored higher on time management, with a larger effect size for Planning. Females also scored higher on the personality traits of Conscientious, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (3 traits that were also correlated with Time Management).
  5. Most interesting for me as a personality psychologist, Conscientiousness fully mediated the relationship between gender and Meeting Deadlines. In other words, the relationship between gender and time management is an expression of the broader personality trait of how conscientious the individual is, and girls were found to be more conscientious than boys.

The most striking thing about these findings is that the factor structure for the time-management measure was only the two factors: Planning and Meeting Deadlines. This contrasts with adult measures that have as many as 5 factors. For example, the Time Structure Questionnaire has the factors: 1) sense of purpose, 2) structured routine, 3) present orientation, 4) effective organization and 5) persistence.

The authors argue that this difference in the complexity of the measures may reveal an important developmental difference in understanding time management. They write,

"For example, being able to finish homework in time for school may be less challenging than obtaining the most updated information on products, scheduling multiple client meetings, and responding to various client requests (as in the life of a salesperson). The relatively simple routine of middle-school life could lead students to manage their time using only the two dimensions observed in this study. As the task complexity increases and goals become diversified, more dimensions of time management become appropriate" (p. 4 of in press manuscript; emphasis added).

From the personality perspective, this is also the case of how time management is one expression of Conscientiousness, with time management being one behavioral mechanism of this personality trait that becomes more sophisticated over time. Of course, given how important Conscientiousness is as a predictor of career success, it is obvious that facilitating students' time management skills is an important developmental task for future success.

I agree with the authors who note that we need to examine other behavioral manifestations of Conscientiousness to understand students' success, particularly goal-setting and procrastination. I know from the procrastination research literature that students may use planning to try and manage their time effectively, but still not act on intentions due to other psychological factors, often related to self esteem and feelings of competence. Student success and grades are not simply a matter of time management. Time management is one indicator of successful self-regulation; Necessary, but not sufficient.

Finally, the gender differences deserve some comment. The authors note that previous research reveals that boys spend significantly more time on non-academic activities such as computer gaming, television, sports and the Internet. This gender difference in activity may be a reflection of the significant gender difference in the ability to plan effectively. As the authors write,

"That is, poor time management practices may lead boys to spending more time on non-productive activity (if gender differences in time management lead to gender differences in the use of time), or else the greater amount of time boys spend on leisure activities may lead to greater difficulty in time management. Gender differences in academic achievement . . . may be partially explained by gender differences in Planning and other such psychosocial factors" (p. 5 of the in press manuscript).

Concluding comment
Although this research was not meant to elucidate gender differences in achievement, it does raise interesting issues for future research on the role of gender in time management. As well, this study underscores the importance of understanding the role of time management in academic achievement. Certainly students who are unable to manage time well may be at risk for underachievement.

When taken together with other issues of self-regulation (particularly emotional regulation and the development of a sense of competence), I believe that this focus on time management is important for helping youth learn strategies for successful goal pursuit. These strategies are necessarily the foundation for life-long learning.

Liu, O.L., Rijmen, F., MacCann, C., & Roberts, R. (in press). The assessment of time management skills in middle-school students. Personality and Individual Differences. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2009.02.018