New semester, new habits, new work style

By Matt Troher, Assistant Features Editor

Many college students have a strange relationship with productivity. A common phrase perpetuated by mental health circles is that ‘your productivity does not define you,’ and yet those who utter that phrase the most will often turn around and measure their days by how many items they checked off their to-do list. There is truth in that phrase, of course, but it’s not that simple.

Many people place value in their work, and thus their academic success. Divorcing oneself from their work ethic is tough work, especially in a culture that prioritizes output and often doesn’t recognize the work of self-care and maintenance.

It can be tough to want to succeed in your studies while also wanting to cultivate a life that doesn’t revolve around measures of productivity. With a new semester about to begin, now’s the time when plenty of students implement new habits and work styles. Here’s some advice on how to work toward this balance:

Achieving academic success

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all advice for devising a study system that works for you. What works for one student may not work for another — not to mention the inherent differences between studying for an engineering exam and writing a history paper. While there is more to college than getting good grades, the truth of the matter is that for most of us, academics is why we’re here.

The biggest thing is organization. At the end of syllabus week, block out an hour or so to do a deep read of all your syllabi, and make note of each important date, whether that be a quiz, an exam, a project due date or the assigned reading for a class. Compiling this information in one place will eliminate the confusion of having to sift through multiple syllabi as the semester really kicks into gear and due dates start piling up.

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Once you know what you have to do and when you have to do it, the hard part is actually getting it done, and with plenty of distraction a tab away or sitting heavy in your pocket, it’s easy to not get a lot of studying done when you’re studying. To circumvent this, put breaks into your schedule.

When it comes to actually doing the work, pacing yourself is important. The Pomodoro Technique recommends 25 minutes of distraction-free work followed by a five-minute break, repeated four times. Another common division is the 52/17 rule, where 52 minutes of deep work are followed by a 17-minute break. The exact time division isn’t important, but pacing yourself and allowing yourself breaks will make getting stuff done all the easier.

Know what you want to do

Having a good semester is more than just being a good student. There’s more to college than just classes, and while aiming to achieve academically is a large part of college success, it’s just one piece of the bigger picture.

Guide yourself by figuring out what exactly you want to get out of the semester. Do you want to get better grades? Do research? Get out of the house more often? Meet new people? Make use of campus resources while you can.

Know your own goals, and devise ways to work toward achieving them. This is basic advice that sits at the back of everyone’s head, but becoming cognizant of it can help with actualizing the abstract. Write it down so you don’t forget.

Start with the big picture: ‘I want to get all A’s in my classes,’ ‘I want to work out more,’ ‘I want to focus on my social life.’ From there, break each piece into small, measurable goals that you can track: ‘I will study for at least three hours a day,’ ‘I will go to the gym three times a week,’ ‘I will join one new RSO.’

There’s no better time to reflect on what it is you want out of the semester than the days leading up to it. Deliberately thinking about what it is you want to do instead of just going through the motions hinting at some vague notion of “doing better” will help you get a clearer picture.

A bad day is just one bad day

It happens to all of us. We have plans for the day: a monster study session, time with friends, a home-cooked meal. But, without even noticing it, nighttime comes with virtually nothing accomplished. That’s OK.

Even the biggest workaholics will have their off days. When you define yourself by your productivity, it’s easy to let a bad day get you down and impact not only your work but your self-esteem as well.

Let yourself have bad days. Remind yourself that just because one day fell through the cracks, it doesn’t mean that the next day has to follow suit.

Find a way to create a “reset” button for yourself if you can tell the day is getting away from you and you want to shift gears. Sometimes, a cold shower or a walk around the block can be a great way to break up the day and get back on track if you’ve found the first part of your day to be less than ideal.

Think of rest as productivity, if you must

It’s easy to dichotomize your time in terms of what’s productive and what’s not; to measure each hour of nonwork in terms of its opportunity cost. Why would I go to bed an hour earlier if I could use that hour to get ahead in my class, learn a new skill or pick up a side hustle? Why would I cook at home when eating out saves me 45 minutes that I could spend at the library?

If you find yourself falling into these thought patterns, try to recategorize rest as a form of self-maintenance. After all, we’re here to be, and carving out time and space to just exist with no expectations of creating or doing anything will not only help you relax but keep you feeling better in the long run.

You’re not a machine. Rest doesn’t need to be seen as a time to recharge for it to be valuable; it has value in its own right. But, if you structure your life around a notion of productivity, seeing it as a way to build a stronger schedule can be helpful.

A semester is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t wear yourself out at the starting line.


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