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May 17, 2016


As a teenager, I thought structure was something imposed by school, parents and clocks. The words ‘routine’ and ‘structure’ vaguely irritated me.  I preferred spontaneity, freedom and maybe a little chaos.  Although I wouldn't admit the fact, structure was something I needed. Little did I know at that time, structure could also be created by me. In fact, I didn't realize how much I looked forward to routines. I kept every Friday night for painting and art work. Summer mornings for hiking and reading. I benefited from routines early on and later learned structuring my time wasn’t such a bad thing. Many young people might find the word routine to mean literally ‘boring’. Others may feel turned off because setting routines feels unrealistic in their lives.  There is no magic formula for organization, and many who lack routine are successful. I do however, notice a connection between those college students who know how to enjoy routines and those who make peace with academic life.

Routines don't have to be boring or impossible to keep up with. They can help us look forward to things and connect us to the natural rhythm and order of life. Whether daily exercise with a friend or morning coffee, routines can help us balance and prioritize, improving our time management. Order and routine can feel safe and comforting.  So why do some young people resist routines? Many students have yet to build the skills and independence required to make routines work. As students take on more independence, they are free to build their own schedules. Learning to follow self-imposed routines is an art and skill. As young people take on more responsibilities, they lose free and unstructured time.  Even students who like scheduling and following routines may struggle as college demands new skills. Students work though decisions about how to use time after class by learning the hard way. Students stay up too late, too often learn they will miss morning classes.  Students who spend weekends socializing may miss out on important weekend study groups. Technology can tend to warp our sense of time as we click through 'one more thing'.

Counseling can help young people talk through priorities and encourage healthy routines. Here are some ways counselors can support independence and skill building for routines:

  • Set boundaries and stick to them, learn to say 'no' to urges to skip out on a routine.
  • Help recognize time suckers- hunt for free time
  • Build reliability- people, places and things.

Setting boundaries in favor of caring for one's own needs is tough in college.  Imagine declining an offer for a concert with a new friend because of an exam the next morning.  Saying no to one's own desires and urges is also a challenge. It’s beautiful outside and the library has florescent lights.  Arriving on a college campus can feel like an attack on the senses. Demands for students’ time and opportunities to relax and have fun are built into and expected from the experience. It’s very easy for students to lose structure among the college norms of study all-nighters, weekend parties, pressures of exams and final group projects. I'm not saying students should never be flexible with their schedules.  We should all be allowed to take a break from routine, but having the structure in mind makes things happen. Routine keeps things from falling apart when the going gets tough.

When students feel overwhelmed and chaotic, anxiety may stop them from feeling in control of their schedules.  One concept presented in Laura Vanderkam’s  book “I Know How She Does It” is how logging time can give a clearer picture of how people actually spend their time.  Through her Mosaic Project, Ms. Vanderkam studied the time-logs of successful career women with children.  She points out that a week is made up of 168 hours. While most busy people schedule their time and devote most of the day to work, if we log our typical week and actually see the hours in front of us, the free hours emerge. Although our time is limited, we do spend more time enjoying life than what we hear in the dominant story of ‘busy’ and ‘back to back’ schedules.  

Young people often can't count on the new people, places and schedules of their daily life. They realize the 'real world' 9-5 would be a relief from the odd schedules they maintain.   Among pop quizzes and schedules that change every three months, routine can build reliability. Skype dates, movie or craft nights ensure people spend time together and don't have to think of a new plan on the fly.

Helping young people create and stick to routines that work for them is part of developing a rich and meaningful life. Many young people live life like they are making up a song as they go. When I first learned to play flute, I tried practicing notes and solo ‘jam sessions’ (sorry family!) Although some improvisational musicians are experts and create wonderful music, most of us would struggle to craft a coherent jazz solo or freestyle rap. When we live life without a rhythm, our week can end up feeling chaotic and unsatisfying. When we are planful and structured about our time, we can recognize how to regularly fit in weekly yoga, morning waffles, movies with friends and studying for major exams.


Vanderkam, L. (2016). Manage Your Time. Retrieved at: 
________________________________________________________________________Amy Rosechandler, MS, LMHC is a counselor in Rochester, NY working with teens and adults at a local university counseling center and in her own private practice, Clarity Mental Health Counseling.  Amy adores group counseling, youth development, and strengths based approaches to therapy. 

Read more about Amy at


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