For those of you who don’t already know this, I spent my entire college career working in student affairs, and I enjoyed it so much that I interviewed to go to graduate school and get my degree in it. Not only did I enjoy working in student affairs, but I really appreciated the work that I was doing as well. Helping stressed out college students was so rewarding, and as someone who struggled acclimating to college myself, I felt as though I was well-equipped to help them.
One of the largest issues that I feel faces college students today is the immense amount of stress that is placed on them by the college and subsequently their peers. When I was in college, I called this phenomenon “The Busy Competition.”
It seemed like every time I talked to someone around campus, as soon as I vented about one test or paper, I was suddenly in a competition that I never had planned to enter. The other person would give me a look that said “oh, you think you have it bad,” and then rattle off at least five assignments and two ways that their physical health was deteriorating from the stress.
I almost felt ashamed. Was I not doing enough? I had taken the time to sit down for a meal, to workout, to get a full night’s sleep. Should I have sacrificed one (or more) of those in favor of my schoolwork?
It’s almost as if your value is suddenly measured by how much you have to do, and how little sleep you’ve gotten. You must be shirking all of your responsibilities as a student if you’re also able to take care of yourself! This undoubtedly encourages an unhealthy lifestyle in college students. When you feel like you’re always competing for who is busier, you start taking pride in how little you’re able to take care of yourself. And that’s messed up.
At least for me, this mindset originated in high school. We were raised to believe that in order to get into a good college, grades weren’t enough anymore. You needed to play at least one sport, be in at least three clubs, and volunteer for several hours. Doing all of these things became enviable because of the future that they supposedly guaranteed.
What does it profit a stressed out student to gain the entrance into an excellent college, yet forfeit their soul?
Besides going to a great school, you also got a dysfunctional way of seeing the world. Doing all of the things was necessary to get ahead, so when those excellent students got into excellent colleges, they felt compelled to continue on that path. Trying to get into honors programs, taking on multiple jobs, taking extra courses to graduate early. Students are encouraged to fill all of their waking hours with extra-curriculars, and because of the added pressure, they feel as though time should come out of their personal care, not the time they set aside to study. After all, they worked so hard to get into this school. Can’t screw it up now! In reality, I don’t think that college courses are even that much more difficult than high school courses — it’s this overworking culture that we’re perpetuating.
And it doesn’t stop there. As they say, old habits die hard, and this overworking impulse doesn’t stop after graduation. By the time we enter the workforce we are so conditioned to overworking ourselves that we start feeling bad only working 40 hours a week (you know, a normal workweek?). The system is set up in such a way that, since the few people who want to get ahead and make a lot of money need to overwork themselves, even the everyday worker is expected to kill themselves at work. No one should have to feel guilty about working a normal workweek and going home at 5pm on the dot, yet we still do.
Like any other student, I got swept up in this mindset my freshman year. I was pushing myself to my limits, and my health was suffering. I distinctly remember calling my mom on the phone one day and cry-yelling at her about something. Knowing me better than I knew myself in that moment, she asked me how much sleep I had been getting. I paused despite myself to think about what she was implying. You know, I really hadn’t been getting much sleep lately…
And the worst part is that it’s considered “just what you do” in college. You pull all-nighters and drink your fill of caffeine and eat french fries for at least three meals a week. That’s how it’s supposed to be, right?
My mom pointed out that I’ve always been sensitive to a lack of sleep, ever since I was a kid. Sometimes the habits that we have as children are just precursors to how we will be as adults, really. Case and point: I still hate having things on my head. My mom says that I used to rip headbands off my head as soon as she put them on, and nowadays I can’t keep a hat on my head for longer than two minutes.
In that moment, I started really considering my lifestyle. Did I want to walk around like a zombie and not have any balanced meals? Hell, halfway through my freshman year, I started getting headaches from being protein deficient.
I needed to make a change. I couldn’t continue to abuse my body and assume that it would still work the way that I wanted it to. I started prioritizing myself again and working with my body’s natural rhythms to get my work done. People were always surprised by how early I went to bed, but I knew that, as long as I had a good night’s sleep, I could tackle anything.
I promptly exited the Busy Competition, as well. I allowed anyone who wanted to compete with me to “win.” But let’s be honest, the Busy Competition has no real winners. The prize for the winner of the Busy Competition is a stress-induced heart attack by the age of 35. Congrats…?
If someone wanted to out-busy me, they were welcome to. I didn’t want my value to come from how busy I was. Did I still get pangs of doubt occasionally that I wasn’t doing enough? Of course I did. As a freelancer, I actually still do feel guilty whenever I am doing something that I don’t deem “productive.” I just remind myself that everyone needs breaks, and that my work will be even better for it if I allow myself a break every once in a while.
Things like sleep and meals are not optional. They’re what we require to live. The next time you find yourself caught in a Busy Competition, just let the other person win. Honestly, the real prize here is in losing the Busy Competition. The real prize is valuing yourself and your health, not how busy your schedule is.