Goal-setting and time management are some of the more essential life skills that experts try to teach youth in foster care, but one of the first lessons I learned when I entered the field of youth development is that young people—and especially teenagers in care—are extremely present-oriented. Prof. John Immerwahr has written succinctly on the challenges of educating undergraduates. The problem, he says, is not a matter of students being unable to manage their time well. It’s more fundamental than that: There is a conflict between the future-orientation of professors and the present-orientation of most students. When the desires of the present (“I’m hungry,” “I want to hang out with friends”) compete with the demands of the future (“I want to do well in the next exam,” “I want to graduate on time”), the present almost always wins. This present-orientation is exacerbated in foster care, where problems demanding immediate attention (“Where will I sleep tonight?”) crop up frequently.
Immerwahr bases his idea in the work of Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd, who are experts on the topic of time perspectives. In their book, The Time Paradox, they outline the problem of teaching “time management” as follows:
There are already dozens of self-help books that have as their sole purpose enabling futures to achieve more by better scheduling their limited time. They teach ways in which to do more in less time, stressing goals and subgoals, making to-do lists, checking off the did-thats in tiny boxes on one’s day planner or Palm. Presents and pasts do not have to-do lists. They have doing and did lists. So those books are helpful to only a small percentage of people and may actually do more harm than good by encouraging an even greater focus on the future for the future-oriented. (298)
I identified this very problem in a life skills curriculum I was asked to review. Although the curriculum was very detailed and comprehensive, I deemed it effective only for a narrow audience of people who were already self-motivated and attracted to such a systematic approach to life planning. Still, in a longitudinal study (the famous “marshmallow experiment“), researchers found that the ability to delay gratification for a future payoff is tied to many positive future outcomes, such as higher test scores, self-reliance and self-confidence, and the ability to work under pressure and in cooperation with others.
The good news is that although we are each naturally inclined toward a certain time orientation, we can also change. Instead of teaching time management, Zimbardo and Boyd seek to realign clients’ time perspectives in an optimal manner by cultivating a positive attitude toward the past, tempering present-hedonistic impulses, and strengthening an optimistic attitude toward the future. Contrary to psychologists who believe that time perspectives are immutable, they share the conviction that we can change our time orientation in small but habitual ways. To develop a past-positive orientation, for example, they recommend calling an old friend or placing pictures of happy times around the home. To become more present-oriented, you might plan periods of spontaneity or practice yoga and meditation regularly. To feel more connected to the future, you could practice delaying gratification by setting out a bowl of treats and planning when the moment will be right to indulge. Their approach, which I think resonates with (IBM,) should be integrated into any sort of time management workshop aimed youth in care.