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Advanced Student Stress Relief: The Activity Vacation

Reviving The Walking DeadActivity Vacation

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:

  1. 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…)
  2. 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 Benefits

The activity vacation provides three powerful benefits:

    1. 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…
    2. 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.
    3. 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!

Sigh. I think we’ve covered this territory before; i.e., here and here and here and here and here and here and, of course, here.

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.

12 thoughts on “Advanced Student Stress Relief: The Activity Vacation”

  1. This whole extracurricular activity is quite weird to me. You seem to be obliged by the job market to do all kinds of weird extra activites in high school and college, why is this? The only analogue here in Sweden is some college students who volunteer for the fraternities or some annual cultural events, but they hardly do that for their CV:s’ sake. Please explain.

  2. @Random:

    It is wierd. The thing is, however, that a lot of the hoops students jump through are invented by the students themselves without real verification. This idea that you have to have a whole mess of activities to get into college or get a job, is built on rumor, selective anecdote selection, and fear. The reality I’ve found is that it often helps if you have one thing that you focused on, got good at, then innovated. This provides an indicator of the type of abilities not captured on a transcript; e.g., creativity, practical intelligence, social skills, etc.

  3. Stretching that a bit farther, couldn’t one say that college itself is overrated? Well, except for cases where you must have a formal verification of proficiency (doctors, engineers etc).

  4. @Random:

    I don’t agree. A student who engages a quality liberal arts curriculum will develop a sophistication of thought, exposition, and understanding of the world that basically goes unmatched by all but the most exceptionally autodidactic non-college educated individuals.

  5. The point about compulsory extracurricular activities being weird is interesting. I wonder if this is really just a US phenomenon. I live in the Czech Republic and here if you want to get into a university (universities are still basically free), you must do well on your entrance exam (usually, but not always, written & multiple-choice), everything else is completely irrelevant. This applies to bachelor-level and masters-level studies.

  6. It’s the same here. They look at your extracurriculars but that isn’t really a factor. The entrance exam and interview with the department chair is what makes or breaks your admission into university.

    I’ve turned down so many extracurriculars here, and so have my friends. It’s no big deal.

    On the post, it’s an interesting thought. I don’t think I’ll be taking an activity vacation anytime soon (not that burned out so it’s not needed), but I’ll be stricter about cutting out some time sinks. 🙂

  7. I will NEVER take an activities holiday. There are too many things on this campus and in life that piss me off! How the hell can I just sit back and let organizations continue to be crappy or get away with what they do with out listening to my opinion? Hell, no! If I took a vacation, it’d be a terrible one because I’d feel EXTREMELY frustrated.

    But that’s just me.

    Maybe other people do activities for the sake of doing activities.

  8. Hello! This is my first day reading anything that you have published (at the recommendation of a college friend), and I have spent a better part of this morning just searching the blog and being amazed. You have given me such hope! I am exactly one of the people that you advise against–busy, overcommitted, lacking academic spark, stressed, etc. I could go on. The thing is, I’m starting to feel dread when I think about school, activities, or anything on that campus, and an “activity vacation” sounds kind of amazing!

    However, I don’t think I’ll be able to do it. My main activities revolve around volunteer work, so if I quit something for my own sanity, what I am I doing for the community? Though I’ve cut out practically everything else from my schedule, I can’t seem to cut out the volunteer stuff because I feel as though it is way too easy to sit in my college campus bubble and enjoy my life without truly understanding what’s going on just outside the bubble. So here’s my question, and maybe someone can help me with it: where do I cut stuff from my schedule and focus without becoming a myopic college student who is selfishly out of touch with the world?

  9. @Alyssa:

    Welcome to the gang. I’m glad to hear you’ve found hope!

    A brief thought regarding your situation: just because something is good — in the sense that it helps other people, not just yourself — does not mean it can’t cause stress. I really admire your commitment. What makes the activity vacation work, however, is to really feel a release from any regular obligation. There are ways, I would argue, that you can still feel connected to the world without connecting your schedule to a lot of obligations. One possibility is to keep an aresenal of one-shot volunteer opportunities in your quiver. That is, have options such that, if you see, for example, that an upcoming Saturday is pretty open, that there are places you go and offer your services and be useful. At the same time, however, you don’t feel an obligation that every Saturday you need to be somewhere.


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