Alexandra Harmening is a recently graduated writer who loves avocados and is currently living 365 Days of Pride and Prejudice.
While trying to squeeze my undergraduate degree into three years, things often seemed more than a little bit hectic. I frequently informed professors that I was working on discovering how to be in two places at once. But that one never really panned out.
Sometimes it is hard to keep your sanity as a student. From homework to internships to some semblance of a social life squeezed in between, the undergrad years brim with busyness. Fortunately, there are four healthy habits that can help students survive school and still succeed, even without a time machine.
1. Jumpstart Projects
One of the only ways that I made it through school with my grades intact was starting papers and projects as soon as they were assigned. For my senior these this meant breaking ground on research six months early. For end of the semester papers, this typically meant checking out resources from the library during the first or second week of school.
Working ahead is probably the inverse of a common collegiate plague called procrastination. Where procrastinating leaves you sleepless and stressed for the last month of school, completing projects ahead provides time for editing, sleeping every night, meeting to consult your professor, time to print out the paper and freedom from stress during finals week. (In fact, finals week used to be my favorite because by then everything was almost wrapped up—well, except for exams. Sound crazy? I dare you to try it.)
“There’ll be time to sleep when we graduate,” friends and I would tease as we typed furiously. Unfortunately, sleep is easily overlooked in the long list of assignments to check off during the day. But most of the time, it is easier to pause in the middle of a project, go to sleep and wake up with a fresh brain and new ideas in the morning.
Complex brain functions such as updating working memory, planning, attention, sense of time, dealing with novel situations and verbal fluency are dramatically affected by sleep-deprivation because the brain is forced to overwork, notes Jim Horne, PhD, who directed a sleep research laboratory at England’s Loughborough University.
“Sleep deprivation is bad for your brain when you are trying to do high-level [thinking] tasks” confirms University of California, San Diego researcher and author Dr. J. Christian Gillin. And sleep deprivation “may have serious consequences both on performance and on the way your brain functions.”
The lesson here: sleep is probably more valuable than we give it credit for being as college students. And in some cases, the key to success on that test tomorrow morning might actually be crashing on your pillow rather than enduring a caffeine induced all-nighter.
3. Know When to Say No
The trickiest thing about college for me was all of the amazing opportunities that sprang up each and every week. I wanted to grab them all in case it was the last time anyone ever asked me to be on the library committee or go on a hike or play in the pit orchestra for the spring musical or work as a part-time tutor or join student government or go out for coffee or—you get the picture. But one of the greatest life lessons that you can start learning while still in school is when and how to say, “No.”
Not to sound like a homework Nazi because it really is important to work towards a balanced life with fun activities and breaks, but there are too many possibilities to answer yes to them all. Unless, of course, you have a time machine.
Identifying your goals for coming to college is a realistic way to begin checking your list of commitments and deciding what are valuable priorities and what can actually be cut. This might be painful, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t ever be involved in amazing and enriching extracurriculars. It just means that you can’t be a member of every single school club or work three and a half jobs while taking 18 units.
4. After a Hard Day of Writing, It’s Good to Write Some More
When you’ve spent the last seven hours writing, memorizing, reading and then writing some more, it is great to relax with a little more writing. Yes, that does sound crazy, but if you are a writer, then you probably know what I mean.
The idea here is to make time for your passion because sometimes, in the midst of pursuing a degree in the subject you love, it becomes easy to forget why it matters and what there is to like about it.
For me, this manifested itself in scribbling out thoughts for my own blog once a week called My Year with Elizabeth Bennet. It was a great way for me to unwind and process while remembering why I was majoring in English.
Now, an engineering major might feel that sitting down to write is one of the most stressful activities I could suggest. But taking an afternoon to pull apart a VW Bug and then reassemble it on the roof of the dorm building might sound amazing. Finding a creative outlet, one that won’t be graded by your professor at the end, is a positive way to unwind and rest. It’s any kind of practical return to your first love that you can invent.
There is probably no one formula for success that any student at any school can download to automatically work. But remembering the basics or sleep, planning ahead, setting priorities and returning to your interests will hopefully help you to find an efficient balance for your college years. And maybe after graduation, you will have developed the skills to start building that time machine.
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