Whoever said senior year of college was laid-back must’ve been hitting the PSLs a little too hard, because your schedule is the opposite of laid-back. Between writing your senior thesis or completing your senior project, working at your part-time job, applying to grad school, studying for standardized tests, participating in extracurriculars and trying to spend quality time with your friends, family and SO before you enter the real world, you’re living the lives of two people, not one.
Basically, instead of senioritis, you’re infected with the equally potent do-it-all-itis. However, while you may think you can balance quantity and quality, pushing yourself too hard will eventually lead to burnout. Here’s how to reevaluate your priorities so that you can be focused on what’s really important—and, you know, stop every once in a while to breathe.
1. Recognize that you’re doing too much
First, it’s important to recognize that you are trying to do too much. Some common signs:
- You’re always daydreaming about just one night of good night sleep (Eight hours? What’s that?).
- Your resting heart rate is about as high as Mount Kilimanjaro.
- You rely on an extremely complex system of planners, to-do lists, Post-it notes, apps and iPhone reminders to keep everything under control.
- Thoughts of the weekend are the only things keeping you going.
- You’re constantly anxious, and your friends know that if they want to hang out with you, they have to secure a time slot at least two weeks beforehand—and you reserve the right to cancel 24 hours in advance.
Do any of these sound familiar? A little bit of stress is normal, especially as you prepare to graduate. But if you’re spending the majority of your time feeling panicky or overwhelmed, that’s definitely not normal. While the local coffee shops may benefit from your hectic schedule, it’s important for your health and happiness that you cut down.
“We live in such a fast-paced culture with such high expectations that it’s no wonder so many people are struggling to find balance,” says Andrea Wachter, a psychotherapist with more than 20 years of experience.
Your sanity is more important than your resume or GPA—but while you may cringe at the idea of doing less, Wachter says it’s okay to start small.
“Finding balance is an art,” she says. “The good news is that we don’t have to do it perfectly, and a little change can make a big difference.”
2. Write everything down
With your jam-packed days, time is as precious as Louboutin stilettos, so we’re guessing you haven’t taken any time to sit down and lay out all of your obligations. Grab a piece of paper and a pen and list absolutely every recurring obligation or activity in your life.
If you try to see your SO at least four days a week, write that down. If you go on a 45-minute run every morning, write that down. And, of course, include the standard stuff like going to class, studying, working a part-time job or internship and so forth. You should also jot down how many hours or minutes each activity takes.
“I often ask my clients in my therapy practice to take a realistic look at their schedules and see what can be deleted, shortened or shifted,” Wachter says. “They laugh at the irony of them having to find the time to even look!”
Once you have a visual representation of all the things you’re currently juggling, it’ll be much easier to see what’s taking the biggest drain on your time and energy. Then you’ll be ready for step number three.
Now it’s time to figure out which items on your list are non-negotiables. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you want to do them or not: They have to happen. If you’re applying to graduate school, you have to spend a certain number of hours per week working on your applications and studying for the entrance exams. If you’re writing a thesis, you have to set aside space for doing research and working on the draft. Organize your list of obligations in order of importance, with non-negotiables at the top, important-but-not-essential things next, “extra” activities after that and finally, all of the ways you spend your time that aren’t necessary but keep you sane.
For example, a sample list could look like:
- Going to class
- Searching for a full-time job
- Participating in my honors fraternity
- Being an active member of French club
- Taking spin class
- Hanging out with friends
- Going out on Fridays
You can also try making a list of your goals for the next month, semester and year. Maybe you want to graduate with a 3.5 GPA and then travel for a little bit before finding a job. Or maybe you want to secure a position before you graduate. Or maybe you want to network like crazy while you can still pull the “student card.” Whatever you’re hoping to accomplish, putting it into concrete terms will help you track of which of your current obligations are helping you toward those goals—and which are subsidiary.
Now it’s time to take your list of obligations and see what you can drop. If even the idea of reducing your workload freaks you out, imagine you’re helping a friend figure out a saner schedule as opposed to yourself.
“So many people are really hard on themselves and so compassionate and kind to others. Learn to get off your back and get on your own side,” Wachter says. “You should be motivated by kindness and passion and health rather than an internal whip.”
Although it’s difficult to drop activities that you’ve already started, also keep in mind the choice between quantity and quality. You can either do a billion things somewhat decently or a couple of things really well. In other words, you’re not quitting—you’re choosing the best way to invest your energy and time. Your first priority should be your mental health and your happiness. If it’s impossible for you to stay healthy and happy with your current schedule, you don’t just want a change, you need one.
When trying to decide what to cut, Wachter recommends distinguishing what you feel like you should do versus what you want to do. For example, do you want to be secretary of the marketing club—or do you feel like you should be because no one else will give the role as much attention? Do you want to run a half marathon with your SO, or do you feel like you should because he’s always talking about how cool it would be? If your primary reason for doing something is because someone else wants you to, that’s not necessarily a valid reason to continue.
This is also a great time to go back and compare your priorities with your short-term and long-term goals. Make sure your obligations are helping you make progress towards those goals!
Now that you’ve simplified your obligations down to the most important ones, it’s important that you treat yourself to a little R&R.
Working out, meditating or doing yoga can do wonders for your stress level. However, if you’re already super busy, they can start to feel like yet another drain on your time. Wachter offers a couple of ideas for how to be more Zen that aren’t time-consuming.
“Bring yourself back to reality. Practice feeling the surface underneath you, noticing your breath, noticing the sounds you hear and what you see,” she says. “There are [also] infinite YouTube podcasts people can download on mindfulness meditation. So if you find yourself struggling to quiet your mind, you might turn on one of those for a few minutes.”
Other quick and dirty ways to relax? Try taking a short deep-breathing break, watching a stand-up comedy show on Netflix, making a cup of green tea or taking a whiff of lavender or tea tree oil.
After making your schedule more manageable and showing yourself some love, you should be in a pretty good place. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be immune to the stresses of the upcoming years, so make sure to periodically check in on yourself and make sure you’re not falling back into the overdoing-it trap. Graduating from college will bring some huge life changes and new experiences; make sure you’re not too busy to enjoy them!