by Ellen Tsay
Hmm… how to not be that overwhelmed freshman? It’s difficult not to: you are bombarded by a barrage of events, opportunities, and tasks; there are constant midterms and exams (especially on a quarter system where things move fast), you are living away from home surrounded by new people and new friends. It’s no wonder many freshmen become exhausted, stressed out, and burnt out. So, how do you prevent this from happening to you?
Here are several common-sense, yet often overlooked things I did to stay sane in college:
1) Set aside alone time for yourself.
Halfway through my freshman year, I began suffering some peculiar symptoms. First of all, I could barely remember what I did the day before. I was so busy that I was forced to live entirely in the present, dealing with only the most immediate tasks and never dwelling on anything for long. Like Dory, I just kept swimming from one agenda item to another and quickly forgot even the most exciting events. In addition, I began to lose my sense of self. I was surrounded by people 24/7 and the little voice in my head was being drowned out by a wave of other people’s thoughts and opinions.
This is when I knew that I needed to set aside time for reflection. I was running on autopilot, doing things without stopping to think about why I was doing them, experiencing things without stopping to think about what they meant. I began biking to a quiet spot each morning, to sit for 30 minutes and “do nothing.” During this time I would reflect upon whatever came into my mind – I would wonder why I hadn’t had the nerve to ask my professor a burning question or ponder the dynamics of the new friend groups I was forming. Sometimes I would ponder The Big Questions – what I wanted to do with my life, how I wanted to spend the rest of my four years in college. Other times, I would simply people watch and feel at peace. Ironically, by setting aside time for nothing, I was much more productive (and happy) the rest of the time.
2) Don’t do something just because you think you ought to.
For much of my freshman year I committed the fallacy of Y.O.L.O. If there was a talk by some distinguished professor who I’d never heard of but who apparently won the Nobel Prize, I would feel obligated to go, because when would I ever again have the chance to? If there was a posting about an internship at some hot new startup, I would feel obligated to apply because it seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity. If there was anything at all that sounded cool, I would feel obligated to do it, because when would I ever again be able to do such a combination of X Y and Z? After all, You Only Live Once.
It is easy to fall into this trap. Yet it is exactly because you only live once, that you want to be especially selective in how you choose to fill your time. Do things that truly make you happy, not things that will impress your friends because of their cool factor. First identify what you want, and then use that to guide you. Or, if you don’t yet know what exactly you want, here’s another approach: when an opportunity pops up, search inside and see how excited you feel about it. If it really gets you excited, then go for it! If not, look elsewhere – following this rule will simplify things greatly and prevent you from overpacking your schedule.
3) Be clear in your goals.
When I asked one of my friends what his goals were, he answered, “I want to get into entrepreneurship.” When I asked him what that meant, he elaborated, “I want to join a start-up, or start my own company. You know, that whole thing.” When I asked him what sort of company he had in mind, he said he wasn’t sure yet. “I just really want to be an entrepreneur.” For my friend, he had a lot of work still in store as he hurtled along a vaguely defined path. Our conversation prompted me to think long and hard about my own goals. I wanted to be a doctor, but what kind of a doctor? Did I want to be someone like my family doctor, who owns a private practice and primarily treats patients? Did I want to be one of the doctors on TV, who reaches millions of anxious patients via the media? Or did I want to be a doctor who change the entire field of medicine, by inventing a new surgical technique or a new hospital system? Many career paths are much less clear-cut than they appear. In addition, there are many goals that are even bigger than career goals. What did I ultimately want to accomplish, through my life? What mark did I want to leave on the world? By seeking the answer to these questions, you will gradually realize the steps you need to take, and as you align your daily activities with your vision you will feel fulfilled and imbued with a sense of purpose.
4) Stop comparing yourself to others.
Comparing yourself to others can be a good motivator. For example, some of my friends will say, “If Mark can do it, then I can,” or “Cathy is so amazing. She’s inspired me to ___.” However, I’ve also seen the opposite happen: “It’s so unfair – Mark can get away with being lazy, because he’s a genius,” or “Cathy is so much smarter/prettier than me. I’m so dumb.” In fact, I’m pretty sure one of my friendships was ruined because my friend’s parents constantly compared her to me and she naturally reproached me for it. All too often, comparing oneself to others results in low confidence, strained relationships and general unhappiness. So my advice is: don’t do it. Don’t measure yourself using someone else’s yardstick – use your own.
5) Don’t overcommit yourself. Dedicate yourself to a few things you are passionate about.
For those with less rigid constraints on their schedule, it can be easy to get carried away and get involved in too many things. And with too many activities, the quality of your contributions to each activity suffers. To prevent overcommitting, I’d suggest following a strategy used in computer science. In your freshman year, perform a breadth-first search (BFS) and explore as many things as you like. Then in your sophomore year, narrow down the activities you are involved with and transition to a depth-first search (DFS): devote yourself fully to several activities and explore them in great depth. This is also a good time to gauge how much volume you can handle; if you find you aren’t able to dedicate yourself as fully as you’d like to a particular activity, you might consider cutting down on your other activities. By following this BFS->DFS algorithm, you’ll safely commit yourself to just the right amount of activities.
A visual of the Breadth-First Search->Depth-First Search strategy you can use when choosing which activities to commit yourself to in college, and which ones to cut.
6) Keep things in perspective
Finally, if there is anything I want you to take away from this post, it is to keep things in perspective. College is tough, classes are tough, breakups are tough, life is tough, but it’s not the end of the world. If you ever feel like your back is up against a wall and there’s nowhere to go, remember this image:
At the end of the day, college should be stress-free – you’re essentially in a little bubble safe from the realness of the outside world. In the real world, a mistake can mean losing your job and income. But in college, the worst that can happen if you fail a class is a small blemish on your transcript. If you steal food from a dining hall, no one is going to handcuff you. And if you really really need a break, you can simply take a leave of absence and come back when you’re ready. Looking back on your college years, you will realize that many of your struggles then appear trivial now. (as a soon-to-be-graduate, I’m already realizing the truth of that). So, just keep things in perspective.