When Commitment Becomes Overcommitment

I start out each semester taking six courses, because I hit my head as a child and I don’t understand how time works. Despite the fact that it never works out for me, I do it anyway. The beginning of each semester fills me with the manic, joyous, delusion that this semester is going to be the semester that I get my act together and actually manage to pull it off.

I have spoken with my registrar, with professors, with the learning strategists at the ASC, and with other students in Arts & Science. In my experience, nearly everybody considers six courses to be unnecessarily stressful and difficult, and many consider five courses to be a lot as well. On the other hand, my schedule isn’t as full as students in other programs, or in the Faculty of Engineering, so I get the sense that somehow it must be possible.

But this is a trap.

It is important to understand your own limitations. Deep down, I want to do everything. Sometimes I even feel that I can do everything. But, intellectually, I know that I can’t do everything, and that, often, trying to do everything will lead to nothing being done. And, although for many years now I have been trying to discover my limitations, I have yet to really come to terms with this basic fact of my education: I have to budget my time and effort, and I have to decide which things I cannot or will not do.

So I take six courses at the beginning of the semester, because I can’t really decide what I want out of my undergraduate degree. Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if I actually managed to complete each of my courses. Usually, I would have wasted effort in a course that I would drop within a few weeks, and as a result possibly have lost ground in a different course, in which I can no longer make up the lost material, and so begins a vicious feedback loop that results in a handful of courses being left over, possibly with a poor performance in each.

Nevertheless, I subject myself to this painful cycle because at some fundamental level I enjoy “learning,” a word which I put in quotes because it feels deficient to describe the lifelong educational ideal which captivates me and drives me to take all of the courses I can, despite not really being able to.

Still, if you try to learn everything, you will end up learning nothing.

Here’s what I am going to be doing over the next little bit to decide, ultimately, which courses I am going to remain in and put towards my degree. If you find yourself in the same situation, maybe you can follow these steps in see what you get.

1) If you have substantial progress in a Major or Specialist program, rank the courses you are currently in based on how relevant they are to your program.

2) Rank the courses you are currently in based on how enjoyable they are.

3) Map out your time commitment (both in-class and out-of-class) for each course.

4) Map out your time commitment for all other things, like your life, or your friends.

5) Keep track of how you actually use your time, not how ideally you would use it.

6) Be honest.

And the end of this, you might end up with the brutal truth that your schedule simply is not possible. I think I have, and I think I might be in denial about it.

Ultimately, you have control over your destiny at U of T. If you want to take six courses, or even seven, then the University will not stop you (though you will have to ask permission to take seven courses). If it works for you, then I wish you all the best of luck. But if you can’t take six courses, or you can’t take five, or you can’t take four, or even if you can only take one, don’t let external pressures cause you to overcommit. Take a risk and push yourself; but don’t break yourself in the process.

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