Before moving to Montreal to start my MA in political science at McGill in September, I was anticipating a stressful year ahead. Why? Like most type-A personality high achievers who put way too much pressure on themselves, I was a neurotic stress ball for most of my undergrad. I find university does that to lots of people. School infiltrates your psyche every moment, to the point you feel guilty enjoying yourself because you're not being productive. It's a weird, messed up competition where "I'm more stressed" means I must be doing something right. This year, I decided that was bonkers, and it resulted in the most wholesome existence since I was 14.
I learned some of the most valuable lessons this past year, and they weren't from any one experience that was particularly life-changing, but from a conglomeration of small daily practices which resulted in liberating mental shifts, summarized in 2 points:
1. Making school part of my life, and not my whole life
I changed my priorities from getting an impossible GPA to spending my time in ways that kept me energized. This was facilitated by the fact 1. I was a TA, which meant I finally realized how absurd it is to associate a grade as your self-worth since grades are super subjective, and 2. This was my MA and I have my bomb undergrad GPA I can fall back on.
This meant I spent less time being frantic while doing assignments, since my focus wasn't so much on the grade but on learning. Yes, I continued to work hard on assignments like always. However, if I needed a brain break, I'd take it to go for a run or do something energizing, rather than pushing through and being miserable. Since I spent less time actually DOING school, I found that I could more easily stop the incessant background anxiety THINKING ABOUT DOING school when I was doing other things.
Essentially, my definition of "productive" changed. Before, productivity was equated to working on assignments or studying. This meant that any time I was not thinking or doing schoolwork, I would feel guilty or bad or unproductive. This occured to the point I would feel bad taking too long a break for dinner because I'd be anxious to get back to work. How nuts! Whereas during my undergrad I rarely ever went a day without working (or when I did I would feel extremely guilty), I sometimes got so busy this year with doing other things -- like seeing family, or going to the gym, or cooking hearty meals, or going on a date for goodness sake -- that I was able to do no work for an entire day and not feel that pit in my stomach. Imagine? Feeling guilty for having a life beyond school? This year, by reminding myself that it was okay to enjoy the moment, l actually did.
The most interesting part of this experiment was that by taking more frequent breaks doing things that kept me in a healthier mental state, I learned that I was more productive when I actually was working. This means that MY GRADES ENDED UP BEING THE SAME! How crazy is it that precisely because I was spending less time thinking about school, I was able to re-charge and think more clearly while doing school?
Perhaps this is why the word "productive" started to bug me when I heard it being used by friends. I realized that when I'd ask "how was your day?" many student friends would say "I wasn't productive." They could have had a full day with friends and re-energized their mental health, but it wasn't "productive" academically, so they didn't feel good about their day. And all for what? An impossible GPA? A piece of paper at the end of four years that quantifies your intelligence? For the first time this year, it didn't make sense to let myself accept that logic, so I didn't. It took some work, and at first it was hard not to touch my essays on Sundays, but I got there.
I now gauge my productivity by a different definition: how many things did I do today that made me feel like a full, happy person? Advancing on an assignment is still part of that definition, because of course it feels good to make progress on an essay. But it also feels good, and makes me feel like a full person to go to the gym and sweat until I can't move my legs. It also feels good to cook an elaborate dinner for friends I haven't seen in a long time. It also feels good to explore a new part of the city I didn't know before and write a poem about my bicycle. By expanding my definition of what "productivity" meant, to include productively taking care of my well-being, I became a healthier person.
2. Balance comes from taking care of myself.
Although taking care of yourself comes in different forms for different people, these are some of the activities I prioritized this year which energized me. I think I am writing this list to remind myself to do these things in case I ever fall back into the monotony of work, work, and work some more.
a. Exercise: I did some kind of intense physical activity at least 5 or 6 times a week for the entire 8 months. Exercising clears my mind. Some people get that from dancing or singing. I get it from physically exerting myself until I can wring out my rag with sweat. That may be gross, but it's true. Whereas before I exercised less often for longer periods each time, this year I learned that even a 30 minute jog can set me up for the rest of the day, meaning exercising more often for shorter periods works best for me.
b. Creativity : Creativity is a big part of who I am, and if I don't make time for creative activities, I'm not making time to fully be myself. The first semester I took an Italian class, which I consider creative because it allowed my brain to work in a fun, non-academic way. Languages allow me to be creative. The second semester I took a pottery class and spent 6 hours per week at the pottery studio. Although I enjoyed both, pottery was more meditative, and I met some awesome non-school people who reminded me of life beyond the academic bubble. Throughout the year, I also made jewelry and wrote poems when I felt the urge.
c. Family : One of the primary reasons I chose McGill over Oxford for my MA was to be closer to family. I am extremely lucky because my family re-energizes me every time I see them, which I realize is not the case for everyone. Just being in Montreal, a 2 hour drive away from each of my sisters and my parents (closer than in the past 4 years!) allowed me to have the option of visiting them for an afternoon or a weekend. PLUS my extended family on my Dad's side lives in Montreal, and I deeply enjoyed being able to spend time with my aunt, uncle, and cousins on a regular basis. When spending time with them, I wouldn't stress about school, but focused on re-energizing myself with their positive presence. What a positive change!
d. Eating well : Easily the most life-changing book I've read in the past 5 years for my mental health was "Always Hungry" which I read this past summer. It essentially encourages eating more healthy fats and less sugar by de-bunking every food myth we've been brain-washed into believing since the 1980s (take that sugar industry!), and providing recipes to keep you full longer, which literally retrains your fat cells. By changing my eating habits, like cutting out processed foods and taking time to cook proper well-rounded meals, I was 100% more energized throughout the day (aka I miraculously never felt that post-lunch lull like every other year of my life). Perhaps most importantly, my relationship with food shifted into a much healthier one, as I no longer thought about reducing calorie intake and I didn't feel guilty about having chocolate every now and then. Plus, in the process I learned to love cooking wholesome meals.
e. Spending Time With Energizing People: Although this goes back to the point about spending time with family, it also includes friends who make me feel good. I enjoyed planning activities to look forward to, and also going on spontaneous outings, even if they meant not doing homework that night! This point implicitly suggests not spending time with people who drain your energy. Everyone knows what I'm talking about when I say that, right? The great thing about adulthood is that you don't need to force yourself into friendships that don't give you a peace of mind. I found that I found energizing people while doing things that brought me joy, such as at language exchange events.
f. Doing Energizing Things Alone: I'm a social person, and I've had rough patches where being alone for too long has made me feel antsy. This year, I learned that spending time alone can be energizing for me when I do things that are interesting and fun. In other words, spending time alone in the house for days on end is obviously going to lead to stints of sadness, which is why putting yourself in situations that make you happy will make you feel more energized. For me, this meant going for solo bike rides to new parts of the city, exploring new cafes, writing poetry in those cafes, reading books in Spanish, listening to Portuguese podcasts, going for walks in the forest, and meditating.
These combinations of activities allowed me to enjoy the moment more than in years past. Although the schoolwork stress sometimes crept up on me from time to time, I would make a conscious effort to change the physical and mental space I was in when that happened. Over the months, that neurotic energy which absorbed a lot of my time in undergrad (you'll find that energy in McGill's libraries during exam times, which is why I never frequent the libraries during exam times) came up less and less. The mental shift freed up headspace to stop and enjoy a bird song rather than making impossible to-do lists in my head.
Another important lesson was with regards to the winter (*dramatic music signaling seasonal affective disorder taking over Montreal like a blanket of snow*). While the lack of sunlight indisputably sucks, I tried my best to go about my daily activities even despite the darkness, including running to the top of Mont Royal 3 x per week in the snow and going to coffee shops past dark. That kept my mood much more stable than in past years. This is a reminder that being outside is good for me, even during the winter, when my first inclination is to coop up inside.
In Sum, Attitude is Everything
Basically, these past 8 months taught me a lot about myself and what I need to be happy. I put into practice what people around me have been telling me since I was 14 ("Don't work so hard!" "Don't put so much pressure on yourself!" "Happiness is not an end solution but a daily practice!"). There were undoubtedly some factors which played in my favor on this funny little journey. For example, my housing situation could not have been better, my MA course load is less intense than my BA course load, and I had no worries about financial troubles because of the TA position and reasonable tuition prices. I also had family I could rely on every step of the way.
This being said, the mental shift came from finally allowing myself to define balance as a wholesome existence, and not measured by achievements or grades.
I am far from achieving a perfect balance, in part because "perfect" is a word that bears connotations beyond human capacities. This being said, I had more balance this year than I have ever had. What a relief.
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