High schooler Michelle’s weeks are a delicate balancing act of part-time work and practice for at least two different bands, four choirs, symphony orchestra and netball.

That’s on top of 30 hours of school, plus homework, but the 16-year-old from Adelaide finds joy in her many commitments.

“[Music] is really my whole life. It’s the thing that recharges me,” she says.

“Giving something up … isn’t really an option to me because I enjoy everything.”

The pressure to do so much isn’t coming from her parents or teachers.

“It’s more like an inward pressure — I want to be really good at the thing that I love,” Michelle says.

But her dedication can have a cost during particularly busy times at school.

Michelle plays the saxophone and flute, as well as singing in several choirs.(ABC: Lincoln Rothall)

“Sometimes I’ll be really stressed if it’s too much or worried if I’m able to balance everything,” she says.

“I just don’t think there are enough hours in the day to practise [music], come to school for six hours, rehearse and then do things for yourself as well.”

It’s common for teenagers to feel this way, according to UniSA researcher Dot Dumuid, whose work explores how people use their time.

But finding the line between a busy but fulfilling schedule and an overloaded one can be challenging.

Time well spent

Dr Dumuid says extracurricular activities offer many benefits to young people, from fun and social interaction to an additional support network.

“You can develop skills through activities that might not be offered at school … and these skills might give you opportunities in the future,” she says.

From sport, music and dance to activities like coding or learning a new language, some students can find it hard to fit everything in.(ABC: Sharon Gordon)

Dr Dumuid says having some structure can also help teens avoid less desirable activities.

“Often what kids tend to do when they’re not busy … [isn’t] that good for them,” she says.

“It might be scrolling on your phone, sitting at home alone being sad, or it could even be getting into mischief and trouble on the streets, maybe doing drugs or alcohol.”

Too much enrichment?

There’s evidence that problems can also arise when there is too much pressure on young people’s time.

A study by University of Georgia researchers, published in the Economics of Education Review last month, has found excessive time spent studying or on extracurricular activities can have negative impacts on high school students’ mental health.

The researchers believe the ideal number of “enrichment hours” — time spent on structured activities outside school — varies between students, but too much is linked with anxiety, depression, aggression and antisocial behaviours.

Michelle’s extracurricular activities bring her joy and are a chance to socialise.(ABC: Lincoln Rothall)

And one in four young Australians says they struggle to balance their school life and other commitments like sport, music and socialising, according to a Mission Australia youth survey conducted last year.

Dr Dumuid says it’s important for teenagers and their parents to know the warning signs of an unbalanced lifestyle.

“Perhaps you’re not getting enough sleep, or you’re finding it hard to sleep because there’s so much going on in your head,” she says.

High-level sport requires teenagers like Amelia to have strong time management skills.(ABC: Cale Matthews)

“Perhaps you’re not getting time to spend with your family or your friends — these signs may be saying that you’re trying to cram too much in.

“There definitely are long-term risks if you continue to not get enough sleep and exercise over many years. 

“We know [an unbalanced lifestyle] leads on to chronic disease.”

The ‘time suck’ we don’t account for

The number of hours in a day hasn’t changed, but in recent years young people have had a couple of extra drains on their time, according to Dr Dumuid.

“I think the real issue is that we actually have less time available in our day — and that probably, largely, is due to the fact that we’re now struggling with limiting screen time,” she says.

“Especially since COVID, screens have become part of our lives.

“They’re everywhere, and we need them, but it’s amazing how fast time goes by and you can spend two hours scrolling through social media or watching YouTube.

“You don’t even know it’s gone but suddenly your day’s got 22 hours.

“It may actually be even harder now for young people to balance what they need to do because there’s this time suck time void that’s happening because of screens.”

Screens are stealing time from our days.(Unsplash: Steinar Engeland, standard license)

She says research has also found commute times are increasing for some students.

“[When] there’s more time on public transport or being driven to and from school, there’s less time available for other activities,” she says.

Chasing the ‘Goldilocks’ day

For Adelaide year 12 student and elite swimmer Amelia, following a “hectic” schedule is necessary to meet her sporting goals.

“Swimming is a very demanding sport,” the 17-year-old says.

“Being able to time manage has been a really big part of my life since I was little.”

Amelia’s swimming training often starts at 4:30am.(ABC: Cale Matthews)

As she trains eight times a week ahead of the national championships in April, other activities sometimes have to take a back seat.

“[My friends] might be going out on a Friday night, and I’ll have to say, ‘Look, I’ve got training tonight and I’ve also got it early tomorrow morning, so I can’t come out’,” she says.

Dr Dumuid says that variation in teenagers’ schedules is to be expected.

She says the “Goldilocks day” — one with the perfect balance of work, play and rest — looks different for everyone, but should meet the Australian sleep and physical activity guidelines for a person’s age group.

“There is always going to be the need to make choices about what you want to do and what’s important to you,” she says.

“But as a regular practice, you can’t sustain … not allowing enough time for relaxation — you need time to just be and recover.”