A True Story
I’ve been preaching recently about the importance of simplifying your college life. To help put some faces to the theory, I want to share with you the story of Kristianne (not her real name), an undergraduate at a western university. Inspired by my recent post on How to Be Happy, Kristianne shared with me her own story of transformation. In this tale, she took a machete to her overcrowded schedule and pruned it down to a few points of meaningful focus. The results have been nothing short of outstanding.
Kristianne details the whole saga in the following interview…
What were you involved with before you simplified your life?
During my freshman year, I tried to join everything (and I mean everything). I was the VP of the Asian-Pacific American Association, staff writer for the student newspaper, in the Honors program, a member of the Alpha Epsilon Delta pre-med honor society, giving tours, hosting students for admissions, and, it seemed, constantly volunteering to do all these small things for people.
Ignoring my already frustrated self, I took on even more during my sophomore year. I moved up to associate editor with the paper, gained a leadership position for AED, and became a liturgical minister for masses throughout the week.
What was your life like under this big load of commitments?
I was definitely hard-pressed for time. Add that to my perfectionist mentality for my homework, and — surprise — I was barely getting enough sleep. I often pulled double all-nighters and once, even, a triple all-nighter!
A lot of people didn’t know the frustration I felt trying to keep up. I think trying to keep my unhappiness a secret was perhaps the most tiring of all.
What made you finally reevaluate your lifestyle?
The worst came last semester. I had agreed to be editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, and, for some reason, agreed to become the Intern for Admissions, while still doing everything else.
There were just too many times last semester when my “energy reserve” simply ran out. I soon found myself requesting extra time on even small assignments.
Enough was enough.
Describe the changes you made.
This semester, I definitely took control over my own schedule and lifestyle. I resigned my leadership position for the APAA — too much time required for too little actually being accomplished. I also blocked spots in my schedule (especially at night), during which I refuse to work. That time is for me to sleep, watch T.V., cook…or whatever I want, so long as it’s not school or extra curricular related. For the AED honors society, although I am still a member, I’ve cut back the amount of time I’m obligated to spend. I’m good friends with the president, so I can still keep up to date and help out with activities when I can.
With the Admissions internship, I’ve learned to say: “I have enough for this week, can I get this to you by next week?” I still get things done, but without feeling so overwhelmed.
I still serve as a liturgical minister, but only specifically chosen days where I know I don’t have something big coming up, like a test or paper due.
How did these changes affect your daily life?
All the small changes added up to a lot more free time, and generated confidence-boosting results.
Do you fear cutting back will make you less accomplished?
Not at all. Since cutting back, I’ve received a competitive summer scholarship at Notre Dame. I also got research grants to work with my Organic Chemistry professor, and another scholarship to attend the Democratic National Convention (something that usually costs $10,000, and is also very competitive). And that’s not all, I also got into the Jesuit Honor Society (also extremely competitive, only accepting less than 4% of the top 15% of students).
The big revelation is that now I don’t feel so obliged to fill my resume with mediocre extras. I can finally accept what my teachers were telling me in high school, and my professors have been telling me since freshman year: I am a smart, capable student and shouldn’t worry so much about my abilities.
What activities are you focusing on now that you’ve simplified?
I’m in the honors program, I have an interdisciplinary academic focus, and I now focus seriously on just two extracurricular activities: the paper and the admissions internship. As my recent awards attest, this is more than enough.
In fact, I’ve arranged to drop my internship for next year to take time to spend on my upcoming honors thesis. (Last semester, I would have just added it on and let the stress pile.) I realized that producing a great thesis is more important to me than worrying about an Internship that takes too much time (9 hours a week), and which won’t contribute to my future interests.
Taking control of my schedule has been one hell of a confidence booster. It’s not as scary as you think. Try it.
Some Points to Notice
There are few interesting lessons lurking in Kristianne’s tale. First, notice how she suffered from the incredibly common undergraduate apprehension that the way to be successful is to do as much as possible. I see this all the time. Indeed, it is probably the most common cause of problems when I talk with students. Being busy is fine. It’s when you get to that point that you lose control of your schedule that the real stress (and triple all-nighters, and unhappiness) takes over.
Next, notice how after she simplified her schedule she realized that she needed only a small number of core activities to show off her abilities (and earn her a huge number of awards). In Kristianne’s case, here is what makes her impressive:
- Good grades.
- An interesting, interdisciplinary major.
- Her role on the student newspaper.
The other stuff was fluff. Sources of stress that didn’t add much to her life or her story.
Finally, I think the biggest point: Kristianne did not abandon all of the other activities that she was interested in. She did no stop giving masses, or resign her AED membership, or quit the Internship (yet). Instead, she simple transformed them from obligatory to non-obligatory. She renegotiated her involvement such that she could be involved when she had time, and not feel guilty about ignoring them when her schedule gets tight.
This a crucial subtlety to the Radical Simplicity Manifesto. You don’t have to do very little. You just need very little that you have to do. Kristianne demonstrates this beautifully.
Think about her story for a moment. Then ask yourself an important question:
How would your schedule change if you were to tackle a similar program of simplification?