Jeremy Côté

Balance As A Student

As a student, there’s no shortage of things I could be doing to help my academic career. I could do some side research, I could read more about my field, I could network with other researchers, I could study more for my upcoming exams, I could work through another textbook, I could volunteer for any number of academic events, and the list goes on. There are so many things I could be doing to advance my career and invest in my future that I could be busy every day for the rest of my life. If I wanted to, I could fill my schedule up with these activities and never be done.

Let’s take a simple example: practice problems. If I wanted to do really well in my classes, I could do extra problems every night in order to be prepared for my exam. I wouldn’t get “rewarded” for doing this, except that my exam scores would probably be higher. I’ve done this before an exam, but I could do this throughout the whole semester in order to improve.

I won’t do this though. In fact, I do almost none of the things in the list I gave above. Even if those items would advance my career in academia, I forget about them. Why? Because if you don’t achieve balance in your life first, you won’t be able to do anything else.

Balance is more than just an athletic skill

The problem with that list is that it’s incredibly seductive. If I do just a few more things, I will be giving myself a much better chance at fulfilling my goals in the future. This is the thinking that leads to the slippery slope of spending too much time trying to “advance” your career as either a student or a researcher.

The truth is that your pursuit isn’t going to be fun all the time. There will be times when you’re frustrated, exhausted, and maybe even sick of your work. But if all you do is think about your work, you don’t have an outlet to ponder other things. You then end up telling yourself that you should be better and more disciplined, before soldiering through.

This may sound like the way to go, but it isn’t. Pushing through when things aren’t going your way is a good skill to have, but you can’t do it all the time. At some point, you need time to recharge. This is why balance in your life as a student is so important. You can’t just keep your focus on academics all the time, or else you will risk burnout. And make no mistake, burnout doesn’t mean you take an extra bit of time to recover. Burnout can be catastrophic, killing your desire to do the activity that you once enjoyed. I think it’s safe to say that none of us want that.

As a student, I feel this pull to do more all the time. Even now, when I’m still on summer break, I feel like I should take some time to start reading ahead and working through the material. My reasoning is that this will lead to better results in my courses, so it seems like a good investment. However, I’ve been fighting this urge for the last few weeks, because I know that I will have plenty of work to do as soon as the semester starts. Do I really want to inundate myself now?

The answer is clear: I want to enjoy my studies, not have them feel like a burden.

So what’s the fix? How can we avoid burnout and the urge to keep on working all the time?

There are two things that work for me. The first is to establish clear boundaries, and the second is to find side projects or hobbies that you enjoy doing.

Clear boundaries

The most important thing to do in order to protect your personal time from your work time as a student is to create boundaries. The clearer, the better. The goal here is to make sure there’s no question about whether it’s “work” time or “personal” time.

You might think this sounds simple, but I’m serious. For example, I know many students who say they are going to do homework in the evening. What this ends up turning into is a marathon session in which they work a little bit on homework while also doing other things throughout the whole night. By midnight, they find themselves still working on their homework, with no end in sight. This happens because homework tends to take longer than one session. But, if you aren’t careful, it can end up taking over your whole life outside of class.

I get it, homework is important. You don’t have to make a sale’s pitch to me about the importance of doing the homework in a class. That being said, I have strict boundaries on my time with respect to homework.

Here’s what that looks like for me. When I get home, I eat dinner. After that, I start doing homework, and I’ll work until 20:00. Once 20:00 rolls around, I stop working. I don’t say, “Oh, I’m almost done this problem. I’ll just do a bit more.” No, when it’s 18:00, I stop. I used to be bad at this, but now I’m at the point where I won’t go further.

What I’ve done here is set a clear boundary. There’s no question as to when it is “homework time” and when it is “relaxing time”. The boundary is at 20:00, and I stick to it. By doing this, I’ve made sure that I never do school work beyond that point. This is even true when preparing for tests and exams.

Why don’t I make an exception? The reason is that I find that people tend to work within their timelines. Give someone a week to do a project, and most will take that full week. Give them the same project but with only half the time, and chances are (assuming it’s reasonable) they will still get the project done on time. This happens because we fill our time within the constraints we are given. If I let myself work past 20:00, you bet I would end up working until later. But, I know two things. First, if I set myself some reasonable, sharp boundaries, I can get my work done. Second, I want to be healthy and prioritize other aspects of my life too. In order to do this, I need to acknowledge that my studies aren’t everything.

I also want to note that this isn’t my only boundary. I also have one in the morning, which is the period when I run. Therefore, I never do homework in the morning before class. I don’t finish assignments, and I don’t cram in some extra studying. Even if it’s the final exam and I know my classmates are spending their morning studying, I’ll be out on my run, because it’s what I do.

Setting boundaries is important, but it’s also crucial to plan ahead. What I mean by this is that you still need to get your work done. If you have projects or homework with deadlines, you need to work with those. Yes, sometimes those deadlines can be inconvenient. As such, you should have a system in place to accommodate that. For myself, this means doing homework in the evening, and also in-between classes or in the late afternoon. Despite my sharp 20:00 cut-off, I still spend a lot of time doing homework. It’s just that I make sure there’s an end in sight. If I leave it open-ended, I will naturally go past my usual time.

The worst thing you can do is try to get things done whenever you can fit them in. I’m not saying this can’t work, but it encourages you to work more than you should. If something isn’t done, it’s easy to tell yourself that you will spend another hour on it instead of figuring out a way to finish within the timeframe. By establishing clear boundaries and planning how you will accomplish things ahead of time, you’re ensuring that you won’t let your academic life infiltrate the rest of your life.

Take things in chunks

Related to the idea of planning ahead from the above section is to take things in chunks. What I mean by this is simple. If you have a week to do something, please don’t wait until a day before the deadline to start working on it. It sounds like a bad idea no matter how you say it. This is why many of my classmates end up having to work through the night in order to do homework. It’s not that they had to do that. It’s that they didn’t plan ahead to finish it during reasonable hours.

I want to take a moment here to acknowledge that not everyone is in the same situation that I’m in. I have the luxury of coming home to prepared meals and only having to worry about my school work. I don’t need to work a job on the side, and I don’t need to worry about a million other tedious tasks. I can focus on my homework from the moment I’m done dinner to the time before I go to bed. As such, I realize that I’m very lucky.

That’s why I don’t think it’s realistic to expect for everyone to take up my specific schedule and boundaries. Rather, it should be something everyone reflects about. Am I planning ahead of time? Am I establishing clear boundaries? These questions should be asked again and again.

Instead of waiting until a few days out to finish a project or homework, start it right away. Don’t wait until you’re pushed up against a deadline, because that’s when your boundaries start to break down (out of necessity). Instead, if you do a bit every single day, it becomes a lot easier to finish things on time and without worry.

In fact, I’m at the point where I’m done a lot of my homework way before it’s due. This may seem like overkill, but I like doing this because it lets me relax before a deadline comes. By being done super early, I can be comfortable with the upcoming deadline. If it turns out I need to make a change in my work, I can do that without a hassle. Plus, being done early lets me review my work so I can make it even better. For me, it’s the best scenario.

The point here is that you don’t want to take projects or homework as a huge commitment that you leave until the last minute to do. Instead, you want to break it up into chunks, because this lets you deal with small, manageable parts. Plus, it means you don’t have to worry about deadlines as much. The result is that the boundaries you have settled on won’t be tested, because you will be done your work on time.

Finding a hobby

Finally, if you want to achieve balance between your academic life and the rest of your life, it helps to have something to balance your studies with. This is where having a hobby comes in. The goal of a hobby is to let you relax and disconnect from your academic life. You shouldn’t be worrying about your projects and commitments during the time you dedicate to your hobby. Your hobby is the chance for you to enjoy yourself, without any expectations and pressure associated with it.

For example, my main hobby is running. I’ve been running for years now, and it has been a fantastic way to disconnect from my homework, upcoming exams, and any other stress. In particular, I enjoy that running is a physical activity which is completely different from my studies in theoretical physics and mathematics. I think this is a good way to go when choosing a hobby. Find something that is different than your focus in academia, since it will make the boundaries between the two clear. If you have a hobby that’s too close to your academic life, it could lead to thinking about your work all the time.

Of course, you can still make it work. Another hobby I have is writing here on my site. I write about a bunch of topics related to mathematics, physics, and academia, which is about as connected as can be to my education. Still, I make it work because writing is a different kind of activity than going through an intricate calculation. That being said, I think this arrangement works because my main hobby of running is so different from my other interests that it helps balance things out.

The other great thing about finding a hobby is that it lets you practice setting clear boundaries. If you commit to going on a run every morning like I do, there’s no possibility for doing homework or trying to fit in extra work time. Instead, you learn to plan ahead and make sure that every activity has its own time slot. This prevents your academic life from “spilling” into every part of your life.

Related to this is the fact that having multiple interests lets you “forget” about all of your commitments. When I’m out on a workout during my run, I don’t have the capacity to think about my upcoming deadlines or exams. I can only think of the effort I’m giving right now to move fast. I get to live in the moment, and forget about the rest. This feeling is quite liberating, and it doesn’t have to come from running. It only requires you to find an activity that demands your focus. Through the act of focusing, you learn to give yourself a break from all the rest.

A hobby also gives you something else to look forward to in your day. It gives you a way to look at the day as a “success”, even if other things go wrong. By running each morning, I get to start my day at school feeling that, even if everything else goes wrong, at least I have my run to be happy with. That can’t be taken away from me. In this way, my hobby lets me find other meaning in my life. Of course, this can also be found through family and friendships, but I wanted to point out that a hobby is a great way to find success as well. This doesn’t mean you have to turn a hobby into a “professional” success, but it means you can set yourself small goals and be proud as you achieve them.

Achieving balance between your academic work and the rest of your life isn’t easy. It’s an unstable equilibrium, where any small nudge can send the balance out of whack. In order to combat this, you need to be vigilant all the time about how you’re spending your time. Letting yourself drift through your life is a recipe for ruining the balance (if there was any to begin with).

Instead, you want to erect clear boundaries between different aspects of your life. Don’t let yourself be ruled by your commitments. Establish a plan and stick to it. This is helped by doing tasks in smaller chunks, since you won’t be in “panic mode” to get things done. Finally, it’s easier to balance your life when you have a hobby or some other pursuit to focus on. Ideally, it’s something outside of your academic interests, but if you’re creative you can still stick to your interests.

In the end, the goal I have for you, the reader, is to be happy with the way you spend your time. It might seem reasonable to “supercharge” your career by spending all of your time on it, but I would argue that this is a recipe for burnout. Sure, if we were robots that never needed different stimuli, we could do the same thing every day with zero novelty. However, we are human, and novelty is what we crave. I know as well as anyone else that it’s important to focus one’s attention if you want to succeed (whatever your definition of success is), but we need some novelty. This is why it’s important to find balance, or else you will quickly become disenchanted by your academic career. And, if you’re anything like me, this is something you don’t want. We all got into academia because we loved learning and asking questions. It would be unfortunate to leave because we did too much of it.

If you want to be in academia (long past being a student) for a long time without burning out, my suggestion is to find a way to achieve balance as quickly as possible. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, forgetting about this is risking your future health.