Balancing School and Self-Care (Part One)

The most difficult part of my university experience so far has been learning how to balance. Every September, I am thrown off my feet by my new schedule, and just when I feel like I have a routine set up, midterms hit. As the type of person who insists on combing through every single reading, I often find myself overwhelmed by schoolwork and unsure how to fit in any much-needed self-care activities.

However, spending 8-hour blocks on studying or writing has never worked for me either. I lose focus after a few hours at most, and often end the day cranky and tense from so much studying at once. Last winter semester, during a particularly difficult academic period, I went to see my college’s learning strategist for help. Here are some memorable tips that I learned from her, as well as some personal ones that work for me.

"Midterms" carved into pumpkin
Source: Rusaba Alam

  1. Don’t plan for full days of work. Instead, factor in breaks, food, and fun activities ahead of time. I feel comforted when I have full days, especially weekends, with absolutely nothing in my calendar. I expect that I can sit down all day and write, and that I can be entirely caught up on work by the end. However, what usually happens is this: I sleep in, take a long shower, make a nice big breakfast, gather my books together, find a spot, and sit down; by then, it is around noon. Half my day is gone. I feel like I accomplished nothing, and I have to get up for lunch shortly after. By the end of the day, I am often still overwhelmed and frustrated at myself for how little I’ve accomplished. Instead, as my learning strategist recommended, scheduling only 2-3 hours of work at a time removes the guilt from sleeping in, making food, or showering — which are all just as important as studying. Even better, planning a fun break sometime during the day — coffee with a friend, a movie, a run to the gym — usually motivates me to get work done more efficiently in the time that I have. I feel more inclined to work so that I can enjoy myself later.
Hands around coffee cup
Source: Rusaba Alam
  1. Expect reasonable things and make your planner reflect that. On a similar note, I often have 10 huge things on my to-do list and am disappointed in myself when I don’t get to all of them. Likewise, I will schedule various extracurriculars in my calendar — clubs meetings, a drop-in fitness class, a team social — and feel guilty when I have to cancel. Unlike one of my friends who likes to have things in her calendar so that she’ll feel encouraged to follow through, I find that making social commitments, and that too during the busiest times of the year, stresses me out even more. Instead, when I set more reasonable expectations for myself, I am able to end the day feeling happier with what I have accomplished, however small or big it may be.
Planner and coffee
Source: Rusaba Alam
  1. Ask for extensions. I have asked for an extension at least once every single semester of my academic career at U of T. Every single time, my professors have granted me up to ten extra days. Some have asked to see an essay outline; others have asked for a note from the registrar, but all have surprisingly said yes. I believe that my success rate is largely due to how early I ask: at the start of every term, I put all my assignments into my Google calendar and can immediately see which weeks have coinciding evaluations. If I start to fall behind close to those weeks, I will ask for an extension at least ten days in advance of the due date and show my professor my calendar, to prove that I’m thinking ahead as opposed to slacking. So far, all of my professors have been extremely understanding. Knowing that I have this option never fails to put my mind at ease when in a crunch.

I have several more tips to share, so come back next week and don’t forget to try different things and see what works for you!

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