By Hao Shi PLA Team Leader
A guide for dealing with those responsibility-laden times
Everyone, at some point during their university career, have felt/will feel overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of work that they must complete in a responsibility-heavy time of the year – appropriately labelled by many as “hell week” or, in the extreme, hell month. About 99% of the times, these gruelling times are self-imposed, even if done so with the best intentions.
Last semester, I had experienced one of the most responsibility-ridden periods of my life. I am a person with a wide range of interests (at least I’d like to think) and a juvenile obsession with being a model student. Naturally, I involved myself with several extra-curricular activities – six to be exact. However, I realized in hindsight that, between the mid-October and November, I was going to be involved in all six activities at once. Oh, and just to add to the fun… it was midterm season. I call this the nuke. Fortune has it that my 1.65 years as a PLA has taught me a thing or two about time management and stress relief. It took every trick in the book to get through these 6 weeks, but I managed to pull through with minimal physical and mental damage. Here is a brief guide on how you, too, can survive your nuke when the time comes.
STEP ONE: Do not panic – strategize.
The realization that a nuke is headed your way gives anyone a frightening and uneasy feeling. It’s easy for someone to say “don’t panic” or “don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” but words can only give so much reassurance. There is, though, one simple method to quickly cast aside your panic – make a plan. You have the advantage of knowing exactly what needs to get done and when it needs to be done by. Take out an agenda, mark off the times that you absolutely cannot use for anything else (classes, meals, sleeping, important meetings), and then allocate chunks of time to the remaining hours of each day to deal with an appropriate task, keeping deadlines in mind. Starting from present day, plan out every hour of you awake-hours week by week until Liberation Day. It may seem a little extreme, but taking 30-60 min to do so will grant you instant relief in knowing that you will be able to complete everything eventually and that you have a plan for doing so. Suddenly the nuke seems a bit less intimidating, doesn’t it?
STEP TWO: Optimize survival tactics – prioritize.
One of the most important things I learned as a PLA was to prioritize. Knowing what to do and when to do it will help you get through your current ordeal and avoid repeat occurrences. Making a to-do list is a good start. To take it to the next level, you will need to make two decisions on each item – whether or not it is urgent and whether or not it is important. Right now, most of the items on your list are probably both urgent and important. Ideally, you want most of your items to fall under the important but not urgent category – keep this in mind after all this is over. The other two categories are of less importance, so you can attend to them after everything else. If your urgent and important list is too much to handle at once, try re-categorizing each item relative to each other using the same system to determine what to do first. The next suggestion is to tackle the hardest task first (early in the morning)! Even if you do not finish an entire project, just getting a start on it empowers you to get through the rest of the day with a sense of accomplishment. Plus, you know that the day only gets easier from there. With a well-tailored strategy, your victory is guaranteed! (PLAs in Stauffer Rm 143 are available to help you with your game plan too.)
STEP THREE: Avoid the full impact – delegate.
Rather than engaging the nuke head on, a smart strategist would try to evade its full blast. Dodging the missile entirely is not in the best interest of a responsible student, but knowing what you can and cannot sidestep will reduce both physical and mental strain. Things that can be delegated include: cooking, volunteer work, and various errands in student groups. I only included the foremost example because placing a phone order has saved me hours of cooking time – time that was essential in allowing me to finish my assignments punctually. This alternative isn’t ideal for everyone, as ordering takeout often has a trade-off of developing unhealthy eating habits. Nevertheless, I want to bring attention to the latter two options. Many students consider it a taboo to rest their own responsibilities on a friend’s or a teammate’s shoulders, forsaking the idea as the start of a downward spiral to becoming a negligent idler. Think about it this way, though, if you were on the other side, would you feel compelled at all to help out a friend (or a fellow group member) who is suffocating from an endless list of responsibilities? As long as you are aware of how much you are delegating to others, your guilty conscience won’t let you go too far. Just remember to reciprocate when everything is over!
STEP FOUR: Postpone the launch – request extensions.
If dealing with one giant nuke is just too overpowering, break it up into smaller warheads and stagger their dates of impact. A lot of students are intimidated about asking their professors for deadline extensions. They’ll shoot me down and remember me as an irresponsible student who cannot time manage! That is not true… unless you really set yourself up for it. Professors are very understanding. If you are truly overwhelmed and ask for a reasonable extension, they will be more than happy to alleviate your suffering. When asking for an extension, describe your situation well (but keep it brief). Show them your proposal for how you will handle your workload (the strategy you devised in Steps One and Two would be nice). It is nice for them to know that you have a plan for dealing with the status quo and that you are not simply taking advantage of their generosity. If they think that your plan is substandard for receiving extra time, they might sit down with you to revise your strategy and offer their two cents on how you might be able to deal with the situation. If they oblige you, show your gratitude with a personal thank-you.
STEP FIVE: Get your R&R – take breaks.
Rest is a vital part of the battle that should not be overlooked. It’s great if every single space in your battle plan from Step One has been filled up, but that should include both work and relaxation time. For those of you who adopt the must-tank-a-task-til-it’s-done philosophy, listen to me: breaks are good for you. They can be long or short. A good break can be as simple as shutting your eyes for 10 minutes, walking a few laps inside Stauffer, cooking, chatting with a friend, or doing pushups (as inspired by a student present at my inaugural PLA residence presentation). Avoid seductive traps like YouTube or Facebook, as they can draw your attention from what’s important for much longer than you would like. I have to admit, though, that I am also guilty of falling into these traps. The main reason for breaks is to give your mind a break and to give your body some activity. How often do you find yourself staring lifelessly at a screen waiting for paragraphs to magically appear your Word document? A secondary reason for regular breathers is that you work most effectively during the beginning and the end a given time-block. The strategy here is to maximize your “beginning” and “end” times by adjusting how often you pause to unwind. Some people can only stay alert for 20 minutes at a time while others can go for 2 hours. Keep in mind: even tanks need to stop and refuel once in a while.
STEP SIX: Celebrate small victories – reward yourself.
Every victory counts! Once you have completed a major task, a treat is in order for getting that much closer to overcoming the nuke. Rewards work just like breaks. Sometimes, they are the breaks. They take your mind off of work for a while and allow your mind to recuperate. At the same time, rewards are so… rewarding. Not only do they signify a triumph over your hardship, they also serve as a concrete goal to work towards. When a reward is in sight, your mindset changes from I want to get my work done to get through this nightmarish week/month to I want to get my work done to <insert gratifying incentive here>. Finally, when you have conquered everything, give yourself a medal. You just survived a nuke.
STEP SEVEN: Brace for the aftershock – wrap it up.
The nuke has landed. You have handed in your major assignments. You have written all your midterms. You have reached the finale of your extracurricular activities. Liberation Day has arrived. Although the strike is over, you cannot forget about the aftershock. Having previously prioritized your tasks to accommodate for more urgent matters, it’s time to deal with the less urgent/important items that got pushed to the bottom of your to-do list: any coursework for which you have received an extension, minor errands that you have put off for a long time, and responsibilities that you had to relinquish to manage yourself during the assault. Since these tasks have received less of your attention in the past few days/weeks, they now become part of the aftershock. If left ignored, they will easily accumulate to produce a new nuke. (Remember the urgent and important classification of tasks?) I recommend postponing a major celebration event to a week after the nuke has landed to wrap up any unfinished business. You have just spent a week (or maybe even a couple of weeks) mustering the strength to uphold your work ethics at its finest. Ride this momentum for another week to draw a close to the battle. Afterwards, you can finally celebrate worry-free, as if everything has reset.
STEP EIGHT: Control chain reactions – re-evaluate your work habits.
Now that you have officially survived your nuke, let me offer one last piece of advice: never put yourself in that position again! It would be wise to look back to see how the nuke had formed, and it would be wiser to change some habits so that it does not happen again. Sometimes, the nuke stems from not knowing how to time manage, in which case, some of the advice above may help. Sometimes, consecutive nukes can result from neglecting to deal with the aftershock. To prevent a chain reaction from happening, refer to Steps Two and Seven. Sometimes, the nuke can originate from testing your limits. Challenging yourself is something that I endorse, but I strongly encourage you to do so in small, manageable steps. Finally, nukes often arise from a lack of willpower to time manage. One of the best ways to overcome that is to work independently beside a very self-motivated friend. Do your best to not look bad in front of him/her. The best guidance I, personally, can give you is to become competitive – not against others, but against your former self. Strive for self-improvement each year, no matter how much or little, and things would only get better with every passing year. For those of you who come to strengthen your will, perhaps you’ll find some inspiration from Randy Pausch’s talk. Randy is a professor who had been diagnosed with cancer and was told that he had “3-6 months of good health left.” This is his final lecture – appropriately given on the subject of time management. Whatever your reason may be, a lifestyle change may be in order to prevent the self-inflicted launch of another nuke.
Hopefully, this guide was somewhat useful for those who currently despair overwhelming amounts of responsibilities. You have everything you need to overcome hard times, and you are capable of getting through it.
Here’s Randy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTugjssqOT0