According to the Daily Beast, Columbia University, my school, offers the most stressful undergraduate experience in the country.
Admittedly, taking a tour of any campus library during midterms or finals is enough to set your nerves on edge. Under-eye bags are as common on campus as Longchamp bags. Many students (especially first-years) constantly complain about their work overload. However, during my three years here, I have never pulled an all-nighter, missed a deadline, asked for an extension, or taken Adderall, caffeine pills or any type of energy drink (though, admittedly, I was studying abroad during the era of Fourloko).
Is this some sort of miracle? Am I a genius? Do I have photographic memory? No, I wish, and that actually doesn’t exist. But that’s another story. What I am is organized and realistic. And successful.
Here are some of my tips for keeping it all together.
My first tip applies to registration. Try to choose at least one class that will lift your spirits. Whether it is a new language class, an art class or a P.E. class, getting credit for something you enjoy will make your whole course load feel lighter. You might even think about taking this class Pass/Fail.
Secondly, buy a planner or agenda and do everything you can to make sure you use it. For me, this means colored pens, stickers and the compulsion to always have it in my bag and write everything down as soon as I find out about it. Knowing where you need to be can make your day feel less cluttered and give you peace of mind.
On the subject of clutter, keeping your living spaces organized and clean can free can be therapeutic. There are a lot of nice things in the world that are expensive, but the one nice thing that is absolutely free is cleanliness. On a day where nothing seems to be going your way, organizing your dorm room, desk drawers and clothes can be a step in the right direction. (Don’t know where to start? Check out organization expert Peter Walsh’s tips for organizing your space.)
Try to take really good notes. Focusing on making them look nice can keep you from zoning out in class. Resist the urge to check your email or Facebook on your phone. Doodling on a notebook is better than connecting to the outside world. This is why I don’t bring my laptop to class; the act of physically writing down key lecture points keeps me engaged. Skyping your long-distance boyfriend during that history lecture is a bad use of your time and will only make it harder to study down the road. Trust me – I’ve done it.
Take care of your body. Eat well, keep a fairly regular sleep schedule, exercise and meditate. A half hour of cardio is a great way to work through stress. It clears your mind, boosts your self-esteem and gives you the energy to help you attack the rest of the day.
Laugh! You don’t need to have a crazy late night out to have fun. Get dinner with friends, share ridiculous YouTube videos, have impromptu karaoke competitions or dance parties in your hallway. These are the moments you will always remember…and the moments that will keep you sane.
Try to always look presentable. Sure, slumping to class in your sweatpants is comfortable, but taking five minutes to put on jeans and a cardigan will make you feel more put together and less stressed. A scarf and a headband can be the perfect final touch to your messy bun.
There was a great article in the New Yorker about procrastination last October. It differentiates between people who procrastinate out of laziness and those who do it out to self-sabotage. If you are in the second category, you need set your own attainable standards. Maybe you should strive to get A’s in the classes you excel in and A-‘s or B+‘s in the classes you really struggle with. Be accountable to someone, either a tutor or a study group and feel the satisfaction of checking off to-do lists on your planner.
If I am dreading working on something, a problem set or an essay, I divide it up into manageable portions spread out over several days. It is easier to work on something if you know that you will only devote an hour to it per day than to sacrifice a whole Sunday. I also find it easier to do my work in the mornings. I also like to pretend that my deadlines are a day or two before the actual day so that I can get someone (a professor, T.A or savvy friend) to look over my work to make sure I haven’t missed the mark. Additionally, moving your deadlines forward is an insurance policy against the unpredictable.
This technique also applies for studying for exams. I take the time about two weeks before the exam to figure out what I’m going to study on what day, leaving the last two days before the exam open for review sessions and study group meetings. Remember that studying in a group should help you polish what you already know and fill in gaps of things you didn’t completely understand. It is a compliment to, not a substitute for, time spent studying by yourself.
Talk it out. If you are really feeling overwhelmed, try to figure out where the pressure is coming from. Talk to a trusted friend, family member or a counselor. Furthermore, keep noxious self-deprecating thoughts out of your mind. Ask yourself if you would criticize a friend the way you criticize yourself.
Sometimes I joke to my friends that I feel like a school robot. In fact, I feel more like a high-performance athlete. Following all these steps and taking care of myself sets me up to perform my best and take the time to enjoy this time in my life. My strategies, though arguably elaborate, ensure that I don’t have to pull all-nighters and I am always free to go out Friday or Saturday night.
And that’s just the thing I need to stay sane amid this sea of stress.