Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
As Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes in the New York Times, Marie Kondo’s name is now a verb. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and its requisite Netflix television show have sparked (to use one of Kondo’s famous verbs) a national tidying trend. But what about those facets of our lives that fill our schedules, not our houses? What about the “stuff” that weighs down our spirits, not our bookshelves?
Overcommitting, or “the curse of constant busyness,” has become a hallmark of life in college and after it, and the tendency can lead to burnout. It’s time to cull our schedules for that which sparks joy — or, if not joy, meaning, insight, and growth.
Researchers and writers point to many reasons why we overcommit. Some suggest that we don’t want to disappoint the people in our lives (bosses, family, friends); others reveal our human tendency to assume that our future schedules will afford more time; still others point to a fear of success, poor follow-through, or the feeling of not being enough (which too often correlates with the feeling of not doing enough). Maybe we are running away from something while feeling as though our commitments will help us “run” towards a better future—one in which we are wiser, more social, more successful. No matter the root cause, overcommitting is more often a treadmill than a ladder, and it leads to psychological and physical stress that can sacrifice our future well-being under the guise of assuring it.
So, what is there to do? How can we combat campus cultures of busyness and inject into our lives a little more space, a little more calm?
Set aside a few quiet moments to try the following tips, and encourage a friend to do the same. Together, we can fight back against the pressures to do and be more, and share reminders — to recall my last Thrive article — that we are all already, inherently, “enough.”
Make a categorized list
Find a blank piece of paper and create three columns: Personal, Social, and Academic/Professional.
In each column, write in the various commitments that fulfill each category. Personal might comprise paying bills, exercising, running errands for family members, scheduling date nights with your S.O., and self-care; social might include extracurricular clubs, teams, and commitments; and academic/professional should encompass courses, homework, jobs, and internships.
At the bottom of your paper, take the advice of Harvard Business Review writer Elizabeth Grace Saunders and note your “fixed expenses” for sleeping, eating, and grooming. She suggests the following allotment:
Once you’ve completed your list, highlight every commitment that is a “have-to,” meaning nonnegotiable and fixed in your schedule (yes, this includes sleep!). Then, circle everything that is elective, such as extracurricular involvement or a volunteer internship.
Next, make a list of your top three priorities for where you are in your life right now. Are you feeling heavily weighted in your academic life, and lacking in your social circle? Are you seeking to cut back on party-going and take your studies more seriously? Jot down three overarching goals that encompass — not what you think you should be doing, or what others’ imply you should be doing — but what you, personally, hope to achieve and/or focus on at this moment in your life.
Once you have three goals in mind, go back to your list and put a star next to every commitment that fuels each goal.
Cull your commitments
You may find, from the above exercises, that some of your commitments don’t have notations next to them, meaning that they aren’t necessary and don’t fuel your goals. These are “low-hanging fruit” for cutting down on your commitments.
However, our schedules are often brambly and interwoven, not so easily distilled or reduced. Knowing this, challenge yourself to revisit your schedule with the requirement to cut three commitments from it. Revisit your circled “electives” and consider which fuel you, what you “get” from them, what you “give” to them, and why you keep them in your life. If you had to eliminate three, which would go and why? Are there activities in which you know you’re not putting in your best effort because you’re overwhelmed? What do you do for your CV, and what do you do for your heart?
Cutting things out of our lives can be difficult; the action requires us to synthesize and redefine the varying connections and commitments that fill our days. However, once done, you might find at your fingertips more time — more space — to focus on what brings you joy.
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