You’ve embarked on four (or more) years of study. What will you do with your years in college?
How can I balance my studies with everything else I want to do?
Some questions just beg to be picked apart because the words are so strong and important. This is one of those, even if it looks benign on the surface. “Balance”? “Everything”? “Want to do (or have to do)”? Wow. Let’s take a closer look.
First, take the notion of balance. Life resists balance. Think about those days you hoped for balance, and instead spilled a drink on your best outfit, lost a document on your laptop and missed an important call, all on one day. Or those days you plan to catch up with homework and got interrupted by a tearful friend or received some sad news from home. Balance is ultimately unattainable. And it’s undesirable, because if it were attainable, life would be unbearably boring. We would lose the chance to take risk-filled choices. The gritty lessons that work to polish us into gems would be absent. In Jesus-speak, the salt would lose its flavor. God never called us to be balanced, but rather to be alert to the adventures he’s creating around us.
Second, as unlikely as balance is, priorities are important, and keeping to those priorities (and adjusting them as needed) will help us keep from burning out. That’s where the other myths of “everything” and “have to do” enter the conversation. Where did we get the notion that we have to do everything? Or, if “everything” is just a throw-away word for all the stuff dangling off our lists, when did we decide we “have to do” it all? Face it, our lists are full of fun stuff we want to do, required stuff we must do, and the nagging stuff we think we “should” do.
Sometimes it helps to say, “Okay, fresh take: Why am I at this particular school right now? Did I not choose to be here? And why?” As blunt as it may sound, students are at school to study. That’s priority number one. A lot of students are also into activism and volunteering. And a lot of Christians are concerned about doing effective ministry, which, for many, has fuzzy boundaries. Can we do all those good things and still maintain good study habits? A professor we talked to said, “Bottom line, don’t be a doofus. Don’t be so busy and disorganized that you end up being the one who falls asleep in class or always asks for an extension. Who’s going to respect you for that? Is that a credit to your reputation or your cause or the faith you claim?” Part of being respected on campus involves managing ourselves well.
Finally, as important as studies are, there is much more to life at school. Reacting to busyness by choosing to pull back and do nothing but study is both a copout and a denial that we have much to offer fellow students. Whether we’re Christian believers or not, to pull completely out of extracurricular activities risks closing ourselves off from opportunities that allow God to shape us in community and use us in the lives of other people. Be available to people where you are, in your classes, your dorm, your cafeteria, your small group. Don’t be lazy, and avoid idolizing studies. Burnout doesn’t happen if you’re about the right things.
Remember, too, that Jesus said, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34). We are people with full lives to lead, surrounded by people whom God loves and put there. As the psalmist wrote, “For he knows how we are made and remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). That simple truth can be energizing if we are careful with our priorities and watchful about how God may want to use us to care for people we intersect with daily.
A few suggestions
Practically speaking, how does all this work out? Here are some tips we put together that you might find helpful:
1. For starters, decide to be a good student. The hours will vary, but it can help to have a plan to keep up with homework and test preparation. One idea is to keep a folder for each class on your desk. Keep a matching set of folders on your laptop for online notes and assignments. Every day after classes and before you head for the cafeteria, go over the notes you took that day, marking areas where you still have questions and making sure you got the homework assigment. File your notes in the folders for each class. If you have a few minutes before dinner and a little energy left, start the homework. Try to keep up with daily homework by doing it immediately and not putting it off toward the weekend. You may have to get settled into homework earlier in the evening than other people, but you won’t have to pull all-nighters. And you’ll be able to take it easy on Sunday when everyone else is hard at work for Monday classes! When tests roll around, your notes are easily found and anything you still need to have clarified is in the notes.
2. Realize you don’t have to fix the whole world, but you do get to do some pretty awesome stuff with people around you. If your studies are under control, it’s actually exciting to be a part of campus organizations and small groups. Paying attention to global issues and service opportunities becomes something you want to do.
3. If you’re really struggling with all this, especially feeling loaded down by the cares of the world and the culture around you, try removing the “oughts” and “shoulds” from your vocabulary for a week. You’ll notice the difference as you catch yourself taking on burdens, starting to say, “I ought to — .” Instead, start using “could” and “can” and “choose” when possible. Practice asking, “What does God seem to be doing around me today? Are there any ways God seems to be inviting me to partner with him?” You may start to see what a gift the situations are (even the interruptions?), and you’ll be more easily able to set aside activities that are not priorities or not your responsibility.
4. Get help from friends or an adviser. Older students, grad students, pastors and campus ministry staff can be very helpful. One InterVarsity chapter president told us he has friends in other campus groups he talks to about some of his leadership, time and energy issues, “because they can be both understanding and objective when I’m feeling overwhelmed.”
5. Speak freely with God. As O. Hallesby wrote in the classic book, Prayer, talking to God is like spiritual breathing. Just as air surrounds us and is essential to our very lives, prayer is essential and should be as natural as breathing. So don’t hold your breath. God already knows how busy you are and all that you want to do. Let God into your being and get a conversation started with the One who made you and gave you your days.