Well, my last post seems to have gone down well. I’m glad my advice on making friends has been helpful to people, and I wish you the best of luck in befriending people, whether at uni or elsewhere! I’m continuing my university-themed posts today, but this one’s a slightly more complicated topic.
I’m combining two questions here: one from Shanti, who would like to know how to find a work/life balance while settling in to a new routine, and one from Laura, who is interested in knowing how to structure work during the holidays. These may, on the face of it, seem like very different questions, especially as Laura’s concern is about the difference between school, with all its externally-imposed structures, and motivating yourself at home.
But I’m an arts student and don’t have a lot of contact hours, so I have to impose my own structures even during term time. Moreover, this ties in to ideas of routine because I have to create my own routine, and it takes a while to figure out what works. I therefore figured I could combine them relatively easily.
However… these are both things I’m bad at. I am chronically unmotivated. When I was doing GCSEs I thought it would be fine once I got to A-Levels because I’d only be doing subjects I liked. When I got to A-Levels I thought it would be fine once I got to uni because I’d care more about what I was studying. When I got to uni I realised I actually hate studying and that’s why I’m never motivated. (There’s a reason I don’t think I’m going to stay in academia.)
I also struggle both with routine and with balancing work and life because of my health. I could have the most rigid timetable in the world and it would do absolutely nothing if I couldn’t get out of bed that day due to a migraine. So this is going to be an interesting one.
#1: Everybody’s work/life balance is different
Some people have the energy and motivation to do hours of work at a time and then go out all night, without apparently being the worse for the wear. Some people don’t. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong. It might just be that you don’t have that much energy, especially if you have any mental or physical health conditions that might be fatiguing. Other people’s tips and tricks might be totally useless for you, and that’s okay.
#2: It’s going to take some trial and error
You don’t necessarily know what’s going to work for you unless you try it, but you might screw it up. While you probably want to get off to a running start once you arrive at uni, it’s much more likely you’ll have a few weeks of feeling like you’re flailing around helplessly. It takes time to get to grips with it. What’s the quickest way to get your reading done without missing stuff? How fast can you write an essay? What time of day is best for working? Where do you work best: in your room, the library, a cafe?
Allow yourself to mess it up and don’t expect the most productive and efficient work right from the start.
#3: Schedule time off
Even if you’re behind on work because of these inefficiencies, make sure you take time off. You’ll struggle to make friends if you spend the first month of uni hiding in the library instead of going to societies: by the time you get there, everyone will know each other. Taking two or three evenings each week to make sure you leave your room and try and do something will help with yoru social life later in the year, but it will also probably make you more efficient. I always get more done with a deadline, so if you commit to going out at a certain time, you’ll probably find you work better too.
#4: Make a timetable, and be flexible but firm
Writing yourself a timetable can help. Designate certain times of day to doing work and other times to relaxing or going out. This will probably help make you more efficient when you are working as you’re aware that it’s going to end — having a fixed goal in mind can help. It can also help if you’re getting overwhelmed by the scale of a task. Instead of telling yourself you have to read everything on a list, tell yourself you have to do two hours’ of work. That’s much more achievable, and will probably stop you from getting as anxious about it. That way, no matter how much you did or didn’t get done, at least you completed your goal.
However, be flexible. Fixed timetables rarely work for me — as I said earlier, my health might throw the whole thing off. Don’t beat yourself up if you have to skip out on doing something because you really didn’t feel up to it, or because something else came up. Treat your timetable as guidelines. Don’t ignore it completely, as you’ll only hate yourself later, but don’t be a slave to it. And, as in #2, if you find you can never keep up with it, maybe try moving things around because something isn’t working.
#5: Have concrete rather than abstract goals
This is more one for creating structure when you don’t have any, but can be useful for creating routine as well. I’ve already mentioned giving yourself a timed period instead of a task to complete, which I find can be helpful when I’m overwhelmed. The other tip I’m often given is to break tasks down into smaller chunks. Don’t write “do reading” on your to-do list: write “read McCone article”. One can much more easily be ticked off than the other, and is less anxiety-inducing as well.
#6: Treat it like a job (your mileage may vary)
One piece of advice I’ve been given about uni (particularly when I wasn’t enjoying it) was to treat it like a job. By setting a number of hours per week you have to work, you can give yourself a fixed end point, after which you’re allowed to stop and have fun. If you’re the kind of person who tends to work obsessively and doesn’t know how to take breaks of have a life, this can be a good way of making yourself stop. Once you’ve worked the requisite hours, you stop, and you enjoy yourself. You can also do this on a daily basis instead of a weekly one, e.g. by working 9-5 and then always taking the evenings off.
Personally, this doesn’t work for me, at all. I’m a fast worker, and I don’t find measuring things in hours is always that representative of how much work I’ve actually done. I’m not sure I’ve ever put enough hours in to make my uni work equate to a full-time job, and this is partly because I’m not physically well enough to have a full-time job. My health means that my ability to do work fluctuates from day to day, so I have to make the most of the good days and accept the bad days, while not overdoing it when I’m capable of working. I also need to take naps, because being upright is exhausting.
However, it works for some people. If what you need to do is treat uni like a 9-5 job, then do it. It can be helpful if you need a fixed structure and routine. You could even set alarms on your phone to make yourself stick to this. But I can’t have a 9-5 job at this point in my life and I don’t know when I’ll be able to, so this mindset hasn’t worked for me so far.
To Shanti, I’d say that the best way to find a work/life balance when settling into a new routine is to make sure you schedule in life just the same as you schedule in work, because both are important, and having a life might well help with your motivation and efficiency when working. To Laura, I’d say that self-imposed timetables and routines can help, as long as you don’t hold yourself so strictly to them that they become anxiety-inducing instead of helpful.
And to everyone else, I’d say that adjusting to uni takes time. You can’t expect yourself to be immediately on top of the workload. (Though, granted, most unis don’t throw you in at quite such a deep end as Cambridge does, and your first time may well be a bit more chilled out.) You won’t necessarily be great at working autonomously instead of within school structures. You might think you work best in the mornings, but after a few weeks you’ll realise you’re actually a night owl. Expect to take time to figure it out, and don’t berate yourself for ‘lost’ time while that happens, because it’s not lost if it teaches you something about yourself.
I don’t know if this has been helpful, and if you need me to clarify anything, please let me know, but hopefully this will give you some ideas on finding balance and routine at university (and might be applicable in other contexts, I’m not sure). :)
This is part of an ongoing series of posts about university life, primarily aimed at those about to start for the first time, so if there’s anything in particular you’d like me to talk about, let me know in the comments!