I remember my freshman year like it was just yesterday. I was the girl who was always a step ahead — turning assignments in long before the deadline, doing work the day it was assigned, and never quite understanding why everyone found the IB program so unmanageable. Fast forward to today when I am studying flashcards while eating a bowl of cereal and listening to an audiobook of Hamlet believing that I can truly retain it all. It has now been a while since I have had a moment to sit down and just breathe, let alone journal or read for pleasure or watch a movie guilt-free. I have recently realized that I am at a major loss when it comes to work-life balance and managing stress. I feel disconnected from my organized, diligent identity and stressed out by the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day.
These days, my to-do list is filled primarily with tasks like math assignments, group projects, and college applications. At the bottom of that list, I naively list self-care tasks and hobbies that never seem to get crossed off. The truth is that many of these hobbies are not a priority; they have no time limit or anyone assigning them to me. But, that’s also not the way I want to live– according only to the rules set by others. My life, and yours, should be a balance of work and play. Stress management is just as, if not more important than, managing my time or tasks because, without it, burnout is just around the corner.
Over the next few weeks, months, or I guess a lifetime, my goal is to cultivate a strong work-life balance that keeps me excited to wake up each morning and allows me to be both successful and happy. Here are my rules to cultivate this presence of mind and maintain healthy coping mechanisms under pressure.
Firstly, to prevent being consumed by have-tos, you must prioritize get-tos. What this means, is making time each day for you (and only you). This time must be non-negotiable and given as much importance as that test you have tomorrow or the inbox full of taxing emails. One way I try to carve time out for myself is by splitting my day up: mornings/afternoons are dedicated to school and work, evenings are dedicated to physical activity, clubs, or volunteering, and nights are purely for me. Once the sky goes dark, so does my laptop screen. Instead, I use this time to read or play music or watch an episode of a TV show with my mom. Sure, doing this takes a great deal of planning and can only be done by ridding yourself of procrastination entirely. But, this is not the only method of creating personal time… It could be as simple as turning off your phone for half an hour, and instead dedicating some of that scrolling time to yourself.
Secondly, is planning your life as much as you plan your work. Most of us have calenders filled with due dates and meetings, but there aren’t always as many slots filled with stress-relieving or fun activities. My advice is to use your planner as a visual representation of your work-life balance. Ensure that your weeks are composed equally. I like to do this by sitting down at the beginning of the week and scheduling relaxing activities. These activites will vary from person to person. I enjoy going downtown with a friend, cooking dinner with my family, or even just ordering Chipotle and watching a movie at home. Whatever it is, if not written down or set in stone, it is easy to overlook it and classify as unimportant.
Lastly, finding this stability in life is only possible when we are realistic with our own capacity. Essentially, there comes a point when managing stress becomes impossible because we pile our plate with too many tasks, spreading ourselves too thin. Although it can seem incredibly difficult, the number one thing we can do to preserve our mental health is to simply say no. Can you complete the extra credit? Sure. Can you attend your third meeting of the day? Of course. Can you take on another class? Why not? But, the real question is: should you? Most of the time, especially if you are already having difficulty finding time for things you enjoy, you should not be attempting more tasks. At the end of the day, you can always do more, but my newfound mantra is to “work smarter, not harder”. This statement is often used by those who want to avoid work and take the easy route. Still, I see it in a different light. It is not being lazy, but rather avoiding tasks that serve no purpose to your personal development. We should always be aiming to help others, but also must value our own health and needs.
Along with the few tips I have listed here, there are numerous ways we can find contentment with our levels of productivity and rest. I urge you to create your own list of activites that comfort you, and of course, never forget the value in the little things like sleeping in or making yourself a nice meal. Above all, always keep in mind that any task you have to complete is just one stepping stone on a long journey. Not everything you do will be perfect. There will be some long nights of studying, and also some long nights of laughing with friends. In the end, balance means feeling out of sorts at times. As long as we remain aware of the larger picture, anything is manageable… even the most stressful days.
“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities” -Stephen Covey