Posted in Work

Life offline

Today’s blog post explains what life has been like during the past three months.

I’ve had a really busy semester, with eleven pieces of course work due over the twelve week period. I’m nearly finished for this half of the year, and then I’ll have three weeks off with the family, and an additional week off with my mother, sunning ourselves on a Rarotongan beach.

I changed how I approached university this year. 2016 was my first year as a full-time student (this time round, anyway), and it was hard. I felt driven by a lot of self-imposed pressure to achieve very high grades, partially because I was fixated on whether I might want to pursue post-graduate study, which would require scholarships (which are usually contingent on grades), and partially because I have a healthy ego and had fooled myself into thinking that I should do really well at everything. The outcome was good grades, but at the expense of a lot of personal happiness for me and for those who are closest to me: I worked a lot, had many late nights, and was permanently tired, which was stressful for all concerned.

But this year I got some help from an amazing counsellor I know, and devised a strategy that would better enable a reasonable work-life balance. Amongst other things, this included:

  1. Treating uni like a job: working there all day, but not taking work home with me in the evening;
  2. Acknowledging that, when my degree is finished, nobody will care what marks I received for each assignment, or even what my grades were for each paper I sat; and
  3. Recognising that, while it is important to be ambitious, it is equally important to be happy.

For the most part I have managed to keep these guidelines in mind. I’ve left my laptop in my locker at the end of the day from Monday to Thursday most of the time, with occasional assignment-related exceptions. I’ve only had three or four very late nights of assignment-writing, and I’ve even managed to cut back on the amount of weekend work I was doing.

The change has been transformative. Although this past semester has been the busiest one to date, I haven’t felt stressed out by it – I’ve had none of that horrible, overwhelmed, ‘the slightest thing is going to reduce me to tears’ kind of feeling that was pretty much my default throughout much of 2016. I think the most fruitful change I’ve made was the decision to stop work at the end of each day. I am at uni from 8am until 4.30pm, Monday until Friday, and I spend most of that time in lectures, or working on assignments.

I’ve also learned about opportunity cost from a personal perspective. At the moment, I have to prioritise university, because I don’t have the time and energy to juggle it with a busy social life, for example. This means that the kids and I have far fewer play dates than was the case in 2016. Although I miss my friends, and really enjoy it when we do get to see each other, I know that this period of my life won’t last forever, and I’m better off being realistic about how much time I need for study, rather than cutting my uni time short and paying the price later. Luckily, my friends are lovely, understanding people who totally recognise what I’m up against. My husband is endlessly supportive of my workload, and my children are very tolerant and accepting, and cared for by a wonderful au pair who ensures that their non-kindy time is filled with fun. And I did manage to squeeze in a weekend away with four twin mum friends a few weeks ago, which was just what I needed.

I found it easier to focus on my work after learning about the benefits of mindfulness. I wanted to improve my ability to do one task at a time, instead of attempting to multi-task and not doing anything well. I picked up some tips via the free courses provided by two apps – Calm, and Headspace – and both were excellent. During the first few weeks of the semester I’d listen on my phone during my morning bus ride, and would sit there with my eyes closed and my headphones in, meditating. My habit is now to meditate each evening, when I go to bed. It definitely helps me get to sleep very easily. I need to get better at meditating each morning, to set myself up for the day ahead.

I’ve also tried to eat more healthily this year. My attempts to be a sugar-free abstainer still face occasional hurdles, and I seem to have morphed into a 90% moderator, but I will continue to work on this habit. Another habit I’m trying to develop – regular exercise – remains elusive, and although I’ve been able to link this to a lack of time throughout the semester, I now have time while on study leave, and am still not running every day like I’d intended.

The last change I’ve made this year is the decision to consciously spend less time online, specifically on Facebook. I love Facebook because it enables me to keep updated with my friends’ and extended family’s lives, and because I’m in some fantastic groups, full of amazingly smart and interesting women. When my uni work is going well I don’t find it difficult to be disciplined about staying off Facebook during the day, but if I’m struggling with a tough assignment it is too easy to go online and become embroiled in a fascinating conversation, or mindlessly scroll through people’s updates. To combat this, I’ve asked Tristan to change my Facebook password, so once I’ve logged out, I can’t get in again. I’ve also removed the Facebook app from my phone, so I’m even less tempted. For a few weeks I just had Facebook on our iPad at home, but recently, with two huge deadlines and an exam within ten days of each other, I’ve logged out there as well. I find that, after a day or two, I barely miss it.

Facebook isn’t the only online distraction, and to stop general time-wasting I’ve found a cute app called Forest, to help me be more mindful of the time I waste reading online news when I should be working. It enables you to grow virtual trees while you don’t use your device – and if you give in and leave the app, your tree dies. It’s a visual reminder that you really don’t want to waste time online when you could be working. It’s helped me to keep my phone out of my hand, and my mind on my work, so I think it was $2.99 well spent.

The changes I’ve made are working for me: less stress, better sleep, fewer late nights – and, very surprisingly – higher marks for my course work. I had braced myself for my grades to take a dip, and had told myself that this was an acceptable trade-off in light of the benefits of my new approach. Yay for happy side effects!


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