Harvard is Great When You’re Not Stressed Out

Coming back from Thanksgiving break can be a bit of a shocker. Turkey break is a wonderful time to chill out, eat food, ignore homework etc. etc., but getting back onto campus can be painful especially if you’re facing a mountain of work.

Somehow, this is one of the few times, I’ve managed to come back from break without actually facing a mountain of midterms / papers / psets / blahblah. I’ve discovered, funny enough, that Harvard is a fantastic place to be when you’re not stressed out.

There are interesting people about, good conversations to be had, fun events to go to, lots of ways to amuse yourself. But when you’re stressed, Harvard just seems like a dreary place.

If Harvard is lame, it’s because you’re making it that way.

1) It’s all in your mind

Seriously. Harvard is [adjective] only if you make it [adjective]. What this means is that if Harvard is a stressful place, it’s because you’re making it an intentionally stressful place. Literally, this means you’re taking stressful classes, participating in too many activities, and in general, making your stressed out about whatever you’re stressing out about.

Keep in mind, no one is actually forcing you to do X, Y and Z. If you’re doing X, Y and Z and are unhappy about it, then you only have yourself to blame.

2) Stop taking things so seriously

This is the one piece of advice my roommate consistently gives me. Granted, I’m actually not that good at listening to anyone’s advice (or my own for that matter), but she does make a solid point.

If you went through high school with a “I’m going to take everything seriously” attitude, chances are, you’re going to take a good too many things too seriously at Harvard. There are times when you do need to get down to business when that deadline is looming on the horizon, but there are other times, when you just need to be able to let your responsibilities go, a little.

For instance, I have a funny habit of not attending “mandatory” meetings for some of my organizations. Really, not the end of the world. Given that the organization most likely wants to retain its members, and given what it is that I want out of said organization, there’s really no harm done if I don’t attend that “mandatory” meeting. If it really is that important, I’ll get an email about it, with another nagging follow up email reminding me.

3) Prioritize, but don’t make everything “IMPORTANT”

It’s easy to prioritize some things as “super important,” other things as “really important,” and some things as “important.”

You need to be able to be able to differentiate amongst your priorities. If you’re least important activity is still labeled as “important,” then you’re going to live a naturally stressed out life.

I have about 3 buckets where I try to put all of my obligations. My Important bucket includes things like Academics, Work, Family, Friends, Health and God. This bucket should get much of my attention, and if a crisis of some sort arises in said bucket, I’ll switch gears and devote my energies to dealing with it.

My Somewhat (Important) bucket includes much of my extra curricular activities. Generally, when life is going along, I’ll be able to take care of all the things in the Important bucket and most of the stuff in the Somewhat bucket. But, when push comes to shove — e.g. 3 midterms in a week! — then my Somewhat bucket gets ignored for a while. But that’s okay.

Keep in mind that very few extra curricular activities should actually be in the Important bucket unless you’re in a leadership position AND it is crunch time etc.

Just remember that your Somewhat bucket is actually full of stuff you do actually want to do.  For instance, I really do want to research blog technologies for one of my activities, but I’d much rather resolve a hideous pset than tackle that research first.

And finally, your Whatever bucket is filled with random stuff that you do want to do sometimes. I usually put random IOP events, author readings, special lectures, shopping, food etc. etc. here. It doesn’t really matter what you have in your Whatever bucket so long as you understand what’s in your Important and Somewhat bucket.

4) Try to de-stress your life via the pruning method

In other words, unless you have an explicit obligation (e.g. enrolled in a class, have a leadership role), feel free to prune things out of your life if you’re just a regular old member. Harvard kids shop activities the way they shop classes.

If you can’t prune this semester, just make sure you formally drop it next semester.

Commitments are great, but sometimes, you just need to cut back. And the earlier you can cut back, the better. It’s very easy to add commitments as you progress through a semester than it is to cut back. Trust me, there are a number of opportunities that have popped up on my email lists that I would have loved to grabbed, but alas! no time.

5) Less is More, because less will end up becoming more

Always commit to doing less than you think you are capable of! Always! Always! Always!

This is the one lesson I wish I picked up on earlier. Because whatever it is that you are committed to, the actual time commitment and effort required will be more than what you expected it to be.

CS50, for instance, ends up becoming much more of a time commitment than I expected.

Very few things in life actually take less time than you expect.

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