Reviving The Walking Dead
I meet a wide variety of students in my capacity as a professional advice giver guy. The type that most concerns me, however, are those who are completely overwhelmed. Having worked closely this fall with several students in this state, I have learned an important lesson: extraordinary stress cannot be eliminated by extraordinary organizational strategies.
After a certain point, a schedule becomes too full: smarter to-do lists and more efficient review tactics, like a band aid on a sucking chest wound, will help slow down the bleeding, but miss the larger problem.
What does work? In this post I offer a simple prescription for those students who feel they are just a small step away from tumbling into a stress-fueled breakdown. It’s a devious little bastard of a tactic that I call the activity vacation.
The Activity Vacation
This strategy is simple. If you feel overwhelmed by everything you have to do as a student, commit yourself to the following: during the next semester you should be involved in exactly zero extracurricular activities. That’s right: nothing. No school newspaper. No volunteering at the hospital. No eco-rep position for your dorm or activity council for the student government. Revel in the luxury of answering every request that comes your way with a sonorous “nooooooooo.”
But that’s not all. Not only should you cut every extracurricular activity from your life for this one semester, but you should also choose the absolutely most interesting possible slate of courses. (If your custom-designed triple major doesn’t provide you this flexibility, consider also cutting out one or two of those majors!)
How to Cut Activities Without Burning Bridges
There is some subtlety to temporarily cutting activities out of your schedule. A couple rules to help prevent lasting damage:
- If the activity is one of the most important activities in your life and represents something that you really enjoy and that you want to focus on and build up to become a real skill during your college career, then politely inform the relevant parties that you need to take a break for one semester to focus on your academics and that you look forward to returning during the semester that follows. This is college, not the Navy: they’ll understand. (Important Caveat: Do not apply this rule to more than one or two activities! Focus, focus, focus…)
- If the activity does not fit the above criteria, cut it for good. This is a time sink. Remember the laundry list fallacy: more is more stressful, not more impressive. The activity vacation is a good excuse to do some house cleaning.
The activity vacation provides three powerful benefits:
- Immediate stress reduction: Your schedule is open and your courses are manageable. You have plenty of time to get things done. You can sleep. You can read. You can watch dumb TV. You can get a girlfriend and master guitar hero (preferably in that order). Life is good…
- Re-engagement with your academic side: When you’re overwhelmed, it’s easy to develop an antagonistic relationship with your courses. They become the demon bastards that keep forcing you to stay up all night. You grow to resent them. And after this, your quality of life takes a turn for the worse. No fun! By instead adopting a slate of courses that you really enjoy, and then, and this is crucial, giving yourself the time to actually engage them, and get into the material, and do extra research and connect the assignments to other things you care about, you’ll rediscover that intellectual spark that can make college so enjoyable.
- Discovery of the serendipitous: A common theme on this blog is that a lot of the most powerful (and non-time intensive) accomplishments arise, in part, from exposing yourself to randomness. The lack of regular activities during your activity vacation gives you the free time to seek out the random and interesting; e.g.:
- Meet interesting people.
- E-mail random bloggers, read random books, and go to random talks and conferences on campus.
- Hang out in the media room in the library and browse random magazines.
- Write lists that use the word “random” as many times as possible.
- Pitch a freelance article.
- Learn how to write a screenplay.
- Hang out with people who are smarter than you.
- Audit interesting courses.
- Choose a course you love and start reading about cutting edge research or publications in the field. Chat about these with your professor.
If you want a role model in this regard, consider freshman Ben Casnocha, who recently posted a list of his notes from the 14 different speakers he went to hear speak this spring.
But Wait! If I Drop Activities for a Semester I’ll Never Get Into Medical School!
Cue The Zen Valedictorian
I hope you didn’t think you’d get away with a major idea article that didn’t tie back to the Zen Valedictorian! You know better. But this is, in fact, a key hidden benefit of the activity vacation. Because it’s temporary, you’re more likely to give it a shot. Once in your vacation, however, you are, in essence, trying on the Zen Valedictorian lifestyle for size.
I’ll bet that once you’ve tasted what student life could be like, and get a glimpse, from your randomness exposure, of the type of cool, focused, innovative, and low time-intensive activities that you could be doing instead of your standard stress-inducing slag heap of boring extracurriculars, you might just become a permanent ZV convert.
At the very least you’ll learn to chill. A worthy goal.