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What on earth is a healthy work/life balance?

by Cherry Rothwell about a year ago in college

Nights out and library all-nighters – finding time to sleep as a student

'The Ziggs' - Student accommodation at the University of East Anglia

A healthy work/life balance, by definition, is a state of equilibrium in which the demands of both a person’s job and personal life are equal. As a Uni student this balance can sometimes feel impossible to achieve.

Teen movies and nostalgic adults tell you these 3 years will be the best, craziest, most memorable, iconic, and DEFINITELY the happiest time of your life ever. Your adviser, tutor, and well practically any teacher you talk to will tell you it’s the hardest you will ever work and that ‘you won’t get away with mistakes like this at university!’. Looking ahead to your future, the requirements for any graduate job will suggest that if you haven’t got years of significant work experience in a field outside of your degree then why are you bothering to apply?

From all this guidance, a Uni checklist forms in your mind:

1) Meet the best people you have ever met who will become life-long friends.

2) Go out and party, travel, do all these hilarious and fun things which will make up the stories you will be telling for the rest of your life.

3) Buy and read every book on your course reading list then stay up all night in the library and get a caffeine addiction to keep that productivity up.

4) Write essays. Write more essays. Sit exams. Do engaging presentations on fascinating academic topics that you are now an expert in due to all the books and library all-nighters.

5) Join 20 societies and take on active roles within them. Learn a whole new sport. Go to games, training sessions and of course those weekly sports socials that end with you passed out on someone’s sofa in fancy dress.

6) Oh and also decide on your career path, find a relevant job and build up all that professional experience you’ll need once you’ve graduated.

7) WAIT you have a life back home. Call your parents for goodness sake. What about your school friends? It would be so rude if you didn’t keep in regular contact with them so be sure to spend hours each week on the phone to each of them.

Of-course this may not be everyone’s experience, but for me, these are the expectations and pressures that I came to Uni with. As I approach the finish line, just weeks away from submitting my final ever assignment, I look back at this unrealistic checklist and feel content that I actually did do some of these things and equally feel relieved that I didn’t push myself to breaking point by trying to do it all.

University is an exciting time. You are young and likely living independently for the first time, surrounded by others your age in the same position. So much opportunity, excitement and anticipation can overwhelm you in those first few weeks. But it’s important to find that all-important balance in your student life to ensure that these years actually are some of the happiest rather than the most stressful.

What I found to be the most stressful thing about University wasn’t the workload, but rather the overwhelming prospect that I wasn’t making the most of my time there. I was acutely aware that the experience would fly by. 3 short years that had been presented as if they would be the most valuable and memorable years of my life. I didn’t want to take it for granted. Amidst the current pandemic I am thankful that I had that attitude – having the last months of the University experience taken away is hugely upsetting, but I am comforted by the knowledge I didn’t sacrifice the fun stuff when I had the choice.

If I were to give one bit of advice to students starting University (I’m aware no one has actually asked but you’re getting it anyway) it would be to maintain a level of self-discipline across everything you do, but be fair on yourself. This could be as simple as keeping a reasonable schedule. Personally, I am not a morning person. Without any prompts I will sleep in until 11 and would happily stay in bed until midday. However, doing so makes me feel lazy and unproductive for the rest of the day. Getting up earlier gives me more energy and at Uni, gave me more time in the day to get on with work. Plus, it meant I could go to the bar with my friends later in the day and not feel guilty about it, as I’d actually been productive.

When I say, ‘getting up early’, I mean before 10AM. I’m aware this is not actually ‘early’. But it’s what worked for me. Any day where I had to get up before 8, I’d feel groggy and tired by 3, therefore I would let myself sleep in a bit (on the days I didn’t have early lectures anyway – another piece of advice, ALWAYS go to your seminars. They are so helpful, and you don’t realise how far you’re falling behind when you miss a few).

I’m aware this sleeping habit of mine won’t translate well in the real world of work, and it’s something I will one day have to get over. But that’s part of the joy of university – the freedom. You largely have the flexibility to work to a routine that effectively works for you, it’s just a case of working out exactly what that is – and then sticking to it. If you’re someone who works better at the crack of dawn then be all means, start your day at 5AM. Equally, if you work best after you’ve had your dinner at 8PM then embrace it, just as long as you don’t deprive yourself of proper rest and social interaction.

Making time to let your hair down and see your friends is incredibly important. You shouldn’t have to feel guilty about taking the time to make fun memories and form closer bonds with the people you’re surrounded with away from home. In 10 years time you’ll fondly remember the night out, the boozy lunch, the barbecue at the lake. What won’t matter in 10 years is that essay that made up just 20% of one of your 3 modules of the first term of your second year – sometimes it’s more beneficial to take a couple of hours out of the day to actually just enjoy yourself, maintaining your sanity, than it would be to coop yourself up in the library and overwork yourself over an assignment that makes up a tiny fraction of your degree. Social interaction isn’t the only way to do this of course. Taking time out for yourself could mean locking yourself in your room and watching a film, going for a run, or reading a book.

What I am not saying is that you should sacrifice your degree for your social life. That would be equally detrimental as it would be to give up a social life to spend 3 years alone with books and a laptop. Neither is healthy.

University is a time when you learn your own limits, your own capabilities. You learn when you need to let yourself take a break, and that it’s okay and healthy to do so. You also learn how to produce good quality work without burning out because you’ve worked yourself too hard over it. Some of my worst essays were the ones I obsessed over for weeks, over-reading and confusing the argument of the essay. Equally bad were the essays I rushed the day before. I know its annoying to say but it really is all about balance.

Give yourself a routine, work to your best ability, but let yourself enjoy things. Your university experience will be what you make it, not what you’ve been told it should be.

Cherry Rothwell
Cherry Rothwell
Read next: The Unconventional College Life
Cherry Rothwell

University graduate, soon to be an unemployed '20-something'

Welcome to my creative outlet. Sometimes I write informative and occasionally amusing blogs.

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