Stress is par for the course when it comes to surviving the rigors of a top-ten university. One 2008 study found that 80 percent of college students reported feeling stress daily, with 34 percent having felt depressed in the past three months. A lot of us assume that this is unavoidable. I know I used to. “If I didn’t feel on the verge of a nervous breakdown then how would I know that I was pushing the limits of my academic capabilities?”
Recently, though, I started to realize that there must be some other way to exist. Simply surviving from project to project and looking forward to weekends as beacons of light in the encroaching darkness isn’t what I want to do for the next two-and-a-half years of my life.
If we can agree that survival is no longer the goal and instead living well and enjoying college has become number one on the agenda, then there is an unavoidable next question: what is the best use of our time? The answer to this question is going to vary based on a wide variety of factors. If you’ve spoken to your parents recently then it’s likely that they refocused you on academics. If you uncovered a new project or passion then you probably want to burrow down that rabbit hole.
Regardless of your current interests, one rule trumps them all when it comes to managing time and enjoying life: the most important goal is that you spend the most time on what you want to do and the least time on what you have to do. This is a recipe for excitement and pleasure, living life with utmost happiness. A Forbes article from earlier this year discussed research that links happiness with experiences, not things. We instinctively know this to be true—buying more things isn’t going to make you happier. In the same manner, spending your time to buy more academic “accomplishments” and “résumé-builders” instead of spending it on memorable stories will be ultimately unfulfilling. What this research means is that you need to reclaim your time.
Still, while logic tells us to “max out” on those things that we enjoy, it is nonetheless all too convenient to fall back on the classic excuse, “I don’t have the time.” How sad that we so easily convince ourselves we have no time for the things that make us happy. It’s true that we attend a top-notch university. Academics are rigorous, social output is exhausting and competition is high. It makes sense that the time commitment stresses some of us and overwhelms others. And yet, thousands of individuals before us have gone through the same circumstances and achieved far more, lived far more and enjoyed far more than we have.
Are they doing something differently? What do you need to do to reclaim the time you so dearly miss? To begin, maybe you should try being effective instead of just efficient. You may first need to discover that you’re wasting a lot more time than you realize and still achieving substandard results. Reaching the (somewhat ego-bruising) conclusion that I have been wasting a massive percentage of my life required me to read a very relatable passage from Tim Ferris’ bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek:
“Since we have 8 hours to fill, we fill 8 hours. If we had 15, we would fill 15. If we have an emergency and need to suddenly leave work in 2 hours but have pending deadlines, we miraculously complete those assignments in 2 hours.”
This is the difference between being efficient and being effective. Efficiency is the art of getting any task done in the most economical way possible. Effectiveness is only doing the things that bring you closer to your goals. (When I realized the distinction, I almost requested that my tagline be changed from “more percent efficient” to “more percent effective.”) Efficiency is a well-practiced skill among many college students—we’re masters of managing one million and one commitments, to-do’s and assignments while juggling social life and dealing with inevitable moments of late-teenage angst. Effectiveness, on the other hand, has been relegated somewhere down in the dark, musty bowels of a dungeon-esque library, its secrets lost for too long. Efficiency is non-discriminatory. Effectiveness is stringently selective. Having developed efficiency, one can work ten- to twelve-hour days and go to bed exhausted every night having conquered a monstrous to-do list. Having developed effectiveness, one can work four-hour days and enjoy a good book before sleep having accomplished just one or two major action steps. The biggest difference? Being effective reduces stress while boosting your productive output massively.
So what am I saying? Stop creating huge daily task lists? Yes. Stop signing up for more clubs and meetings and conference calls and listserves and committees? Yes. Stop doing homework? Maybe...
We’re surrounded by people who are ambitious, driven and passionate. The temptation to compete can be overwhelming. But it’s important to realize that everyone is fighting in their own arena. Your job is to battle your own beasts and let everyone else focus on theirs. Set strict personal deadlines, this will force you to minimize non-essentials. Carefully examine tasks and, yes, even assignments that try to make their way onto your schedule. Ask, “Is this completely necessary?” Above all, know that doing less is not a sign of laziness, it’s a sign of well-balanced priorities. Your time is valuable. Start spending it effectively instead of just parsing it out efficiently.
Jack Dolinar is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “more percent efficient,” runs on alternate Fridays.
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