I have never been so busy in my (relatively short) life.
When I flew away from home and landed at university three years ago, I was pleased and terrified to be trying something new. Whenever our class had complained to our high school teachers about the work, they responded by saying, “Wait until you get to university. That’s really hard!”
They were right.
This ever-busy university experience almost had me convinced that I need to rush my way through life. It almost hid the girl who took her time to appreciate life behind a pile of work. It almost had me thinking there’s no time to meditate or do absolutely nothing for half an hour. Almost.
But there is always a way to slow down when the world demands that we speed up.
I learned this as I took elephant journal’s course in writing, social media, and journalism. The material they offered was balanced: alongside assignments were tips on meditation, managing stress, finding our voice, communicating authentically, and connecting the mindful life with our fast-paced world.
As my time in the course progressed, I began to see the benefit of having a mindful approach to how I go about my work and goals. University can be so fast-paced that eight months feels like two. We jump from one task to the other, always trying to escape the work for a few moments of freedom before the next wave of obligations hits.
With the new addition of the online elephant journal course, personal growth became part of my homework. I’ve learned to take my spiritual health as seriously as my intellectual health.
These tips have helped me to balance a hectic workload and stay centered at the same time. Hopefully, they’ll help others from disappearing behind the work, too:
1. Rewiring our brains for the positive:
In order to start thinking positive, I’ve found it helpful to do daily check-ins on my mental, emotional, and spiritual states. It’s important to have a healthy diet, which is already a big struggle in university, but it can be easy to forget to feed our minds, hearts, and souls as well.
Taking charge of these aspects of my life allows me to be more present and less overwhelmed.
I do my best (I don’t always succeed) to watch TED talks instead of TV shows, meditate instead of scrolling through Facebook, and reach out instead of shutting myself away. Some days are harder than others because all I want to do at the end of a long day is reward myself with mindless tasks like watching a few episodes of a show I enjoy. Or I’ll tell myself that I’ve spent the whole day around people and so I need some alone time. While these things are fine, they tend to also leave me slightly dissatisfied. But when I decide to take a more mindful approach to the tasks I use to recover, it leaves me feeling happier than I was.
Telling a friend about my struggles reminds me that I have people in my life who care about me and who are often facing the same struggles I am. Watching something informative or motivating makes me ready to face a new day with a fresh perspective! Doing yoga or taking the time to meditate on the bus re-establishes the connection between my mind, body, and spirit.
I recently watched a TED talk by a hilariously charismatic man named Shawn Anchor. He ends his talk with five tips to help us rewire our brains for the positive. This is extremely important for productivity because it turns out that our brains function more effectively when we are in a good mood! The tips he outlines are journaling, listing three reasons for gratitude every day, exercise, meditation, and random acts of kindness.
2. Being open to enjoying the challenges:
I know a lot of people who, years or decades later, would love to revisit their education. Chances are, we will look back on these years and smile. Like that time in childhood, we are growing so fast that there are a few growing pains along the way. But this is a great time to learn how to embrace challenges as they arise.
I strongly believe that the universe or some higher power is at work behind the scenes—everything we encounter is part of our journey, and there is a reason for every joy and sorrow that comes our way. We have to be ready to learn whatever lesson is presenting itself, or life will keep presenting us with the opportunity to learn it.
3. Being aware of the collective mindset of the students, faculty, employees, and so on:
Many people are riding the wave of energy in a university. Like any physical place where people go to be productive and collaborate, it has a hive-mentality. There are collective phases happening on each campus, affected by everything from the levels of productivity to the weather. These phases seep into the lives of everyone in a variety of ways. It’s no coincidence that everyone gets sick during the busiest time of the semester.
I often find it easier to work in the quiet rooms in the library where most people go for strict and intentional focus. (I repeat, most. There is the odd person in there who is watching a funny show or listening to music a bit too loudly on their headphones, completely misunderstanding the proper use of a quiet room.) Quiet rooms or study rooms have a productive energy to them because nearly everyone goes there with the intention to get some work done. I like to tap into that collective energy and use it when I really have to focus on my work.
Being aware of both the large overall energy of a campus and the smaller pockets of energy can help us manage our stress and energy levels. When the people around me are busy, overworked, and worried, it’s tempting to want to take the same approach. But this means that I’m acting on a subconscious level, letting others set the tone for my feelings, reactions, and perspective.
4. Reaching out and communicating our struggles:
It’s okay to have tough days. We might have moody days and not be nice people to be around. These are the days when we have to communicate our struggles and needs to those around us.
If you can’t do an assignment perfectly because your week or month or semester has been extremely overwhelming, tell your professor that you were under a lot of pressure. You shouldn’t expect a better grade, but plan to do better next time. Take the opportunity to learn from mistakes.
My struggles are sometimes more mental or emotional, and they affect my communication with those I love. It helps to be aware of how these relationships can enable or alleviate stress based on the happenings of the other person’s life. I also do my best to be aware of how I enable or alleviate the stress of those around me. This is a complicated dance, but we can only control our reaction to each moment of these relationships, not the reaction of the other party.
Let’s say I’ve had a great day and am in a solid place within myself—I can use this as a foundation for enriching the lives of others. This can sometimes start a reaction of random acts of uplifting kindness being passed back to me right when I need them.
And let’s say I’ve had a tough day and am feeling drained but still have to soldier on. I feel snappy, disconnected, and under pressure. First, I must be honest with myself. “Okay, I’m having a sh*tty day.” That’s okay! This is where I learn.
Be friendly with yourself. And then you can reach out.
5. Befriending ourselves, also known as maitri:
I was recently introduced to the concept of maitri, which basically means making friends with the person you spend all your time with—yourself! I realised that the voice in my head can be quite mean, especially when I fail at something important to me. It took me quite some time to separate my self-worth from my grades, but our grades do not represent us!
We all have pain and shame, but this is okay. We must face it and acknowledge that it is just as much a part of us as the joy is.
This part takes a bit of honesty—with ourselves and others. First, we need to be honest with ourselves about what we do and don’t want or need in our lives. Do I really want to go out with my friends, or would I rather stay at home and work on a personal project? Do I really want to face that pile of work tomorrow, or do I want to sacrifice some free time to get some of that work out of the way? These can be tough choices, which is why we have to be honest.
I recently went out with friends for two nights in a row, even though I had explicitly stated (to myself and others) that doing so would throw off my sleep schedule and set me back in my plans for the upcoming week.
Not only did that weekend throw off my sleep, but I got sick for the first time in at least eight months and was bedridden for three days, barely able to even check my computer. Everything in me told me not to go out that second night, especially since I was already feeling the onset of my illness. But I had been looking forward to going to certain events and seeing people I had not seen in a while, so I went against what I knew I should have done.
I failed to prioritize my health over fun, and friends, mostly because I was already invested in my plans to go out.
7. Realising that trying again is more important than failing:
I recently asked a friend how she deals with the struggles of being a student. Of the thoughtful insights she had (many of which inspired parts of this article), the one thing that stood out to me was how at peace she was with her mistakes.
Like everyone, she sometimes fails. But unlike everyone, she does not take that failure personally. More so, she made sure to put herself first when she was struggling. Even though she was running out of time to complete a task, she took the time to do something for herself by going to a show and dinner with some friends and made sure she got enough sleep.
This is part of self-love, which is extremely important in times of crises. We need to put our self-care ahead of our professors, our bosses, and anyone else who has the ability to impose their expectations on us. Yes, we do have to put in effort in order to succeed, but it should never be at the expense of our overall health. Make the decision to do better the next time. Learn from what went wrong, but don’t beat yourself up about it!
Life is simply a dance of energy. We can join in the dance to evolve, and we can withdraw from it to recover.
8. Growing (and learning) outside of the classroom:
It is important to take control of our education and teach ourselves the things that we are passionate about. Teachers are a great sources of information and can provide guidance, but we must fill in the gaps they leave. This can mean anything—taking an online course, reading a book, going to a workshop, talking to an expert, volunteering, or gaining experience.
I also believe that personal growth and learning should be practiced as often as intellectual growth. We don’t have to have it all figured out, and we probably never will, but that is beautiful! The more I learn, the more I realise I have left to learn and experience.
We can appreciate the beauty of constantly improving and evolving without letting the tough times turn us away from seeking every kind of internal and external knowledge.
Author: Katila Whiteman
Editor: Catherine Monkman