In 2016, I made 18 New Year's resolutions (all of which I considered to be achievable. No comment here on how well I did with that particular challenge).
For 2017, I’m sticking with five. Perhaps, though, they are better represented as (un)resolutions, as my core principle for this year is doing less and focusing more. My learning process has revolved around three main themes (that I will discuss in detail):
- learning to say no (or learning to try to say no);
- reshuffling my obligations and refocusing mental energy towards important tasks; and
- working to shift my mindset (which sometimes boils down to tricking myself).
It’s no secret that MIT students are driven. We arrive at MIT because we are curious, motivated, and enthusiastic. So when you combine the drive of the average MIT student, the thrill of arriving on campus, and the plethora of resources and opportunities available, you have a definite recipe for exhaustion and overextension.
It’s easy to get caught up in the fast-paced campus environment and the energy that students dedicate to extracurricular pursuits. I strongly believe in the importance of community involvement, however you define it. The nature of grad school can be inherently isolating, as you slowly delve deeper and deeper into a narrow topic that may or may not have immediate significance.
There are days when none of your experiments work, and it can be extremely curative and powerful to turn to other engagements to remind you of your strengths and humanity. Arguably, the resources at our disposal make us excellent candidates to be leaders in our community: To apply our thinking skills to big problems outside of our research domains, to share our experiences with younger students, to tutor a local high school student.
Unfortunately, it can be far too easy to become over-involved and over-engaged.
Learning to Say No
As someone who loves such activities, feels compelled to help, and is eager to please, I have found it all too easy to say yes to commitments without critical thought. After all, getting involved with new things brought me to MIT, and once I arrived on campus, it helped me make friends and meet people, learn new skills, take advantage of resources, and feel engaged. It has been hard for me to view such activities negatively.
In 2016, I had to write my Master’s thesis. For much of this process I ran between obligations, felt out of control, and suspected that my nights of sleeping were behind me. I wrote a piece during National Poetry Month about how incredible it would be if I could manage to leave my house wearing matching socks, dressed for the appropriate weather, and on time to catch the bus.
In April I wrote a note in my lab log that stated, simply, “thesis writing has eaten my life.” But through this sock-less, brain-foggy experience, I suddenly found myself prioritizing intensely, working primarily on my own work, and, finally, saying no without feeling guilty.
At the time, I told myself that I was just saying no temporarily, and that I would say yes once my thesis was done. But in the weeks and months after I turned in my document, I found it less and less appealing to reconsider.
Through the course of my Master’s and entering into my PhD, I tried out a wide variety of activities. I learned extensively, had lots of fun, and went through periods of intense stress. Ultimately, I stepped back from many of those initial activities and commitments, honing in on the few that I truly valued and found impactful.
I now work as a Graduate Residence Tutor with the undergraduate residents of Maseeh Hall, as a Graduate Community Fellow on programs for women, and (as of this fall) a mentor for Minds Matter, a program that pairs high-achieving high school students from low income neighborhoods with two co-mentors for three years of mentorship and college preparation. All of these activities add depth to my life outside of lab, and leave me feeling refreshed and excited.
Which brings me to my “un”resolutions for 2017:
- Prioritize health first. (Less late-night junk food to relieve stress, fewer desperate naps, less caffeine as a replacement for sleep)
- Minimize my schedule. (Fewer days of back-to-back meetings)
- Build in reflection. (No more aimless running, no more falling asleep while mentally writing to do lists, no more waking up and panicking instantly)
- Sleep more (Arguably an extension of resolution 1, but realistically this needs its own emphasis)
- Clean out clutter (Less clutter, fewer obligations)
Luckily, my (un)resolutions collectively work well together. Implicit in all of these assertions is the ability to say no. No to external pressures, no to distractions, and no to that one last episode of Grey’s Anatomy. No, rain is not an excuse to avoid the gym for five days. No, it is not imperative to get less than six hours of sleep if graduation feels insurmountably far away. Saying no is NOT easy for me, and all of this is a work in progress that will continue to evolve throughout the year.
The Magical Art of Reshuffling
Initially, I thought that minimizing my schedule meant willfully shedding many of my hobbies and student group involvements (think the Mari Kondo method for clubs), but I’ve learned that minimizing does not necessarily mean removing. It can also mean reshuffling. Minimizing my schedule has meant moving towards de-cluttering my brain, forming rituals out of former stress points (such as cleaning or flossing), and habitualizing decisions that previously caused issues, thus removing those tasks from my “active” brain space.
I’ve frequently been advised to literally schedule gym sessions into my calendar, as unavoidable as a meeting. Workouts would no longer be an item on the post-lab to-do list, and instead be necessary elements of my day. Instead of trying to cram daily cooking in every evening during weeks that feel hectic, I try to prep most of my meals on calmer days, like Sunday (added bonus: Sunday me feels a lot better about vegetables than Wednesday me, so I am left with a healthier option that I would have picked in a spur-of-the-moment decision). On days when cooking feels hard, I Skype a friend or talk to my residents while I cook.
I am also trying to go to bed at the same time each day so I no longer worry about when I will “finish” my work, and I wake up at a regular time (full disclosure, this is definitely a work in progress, and prioritizing sleep is never easy). I know mornings can be a struggle, so I pack jars of yogurt and fruit in advance so I simply grab one and go. I’m not actually spending more time on these tasks, I’m just rethinking how and when I complete them as part of a systematic process- which sometimes involves altering how I think about these tasks.
Being a Trickster
Sometimes my (un)resolutions require outright trickery to outwit my inherent propensity towards schedule overload.
Recently, when I come across opportunities that I would normally feel compelled to seize that are simply too much, I recommend the opportunity to someone else who I think might benefit or be a good fit. I “trick” myself into cleaning my kitchen and bathroom by reserving it as “me” time (something I do not reserve much of as a GRT).
I listen to beloved audiobooks or fascinating podcasts, shifting my mindset to replace boring chores with refreshing, relaxing, and achievable tasks.
My most recent act of trickery has been to slowly acquire coloring books, one of the only ways to coax my mind into sitting still, cooling off, and finally reflecting.
It turns out, my extracurricular life is starting to mimic my research trajectory. In my first year, I tried to explore everything and I struggled to say no. As I’ve progressed through grad school, I’m doing less and focusing more. In a similar way, with my research, I now get to think about impact rather than quantity.
While I only choose to engage in one activity with the greater Boston community (outside of my MIT work), it’s one activity that means a lot to both me and my mentee.
So what has saying no led to so far? It means that I have more time more genuine connections. For example, if I see one of my students in the hallway, I can stop and genuinely listen without secretly worrying that I am late.
I have more time for spontaneity. I no longer need to constantly drink coffee (and incidentally I feel less panicked and spend less money, the ultimate grad school goal). And, perhaps most importantly, I sleep more. Planning ahead and reducing the immediate “clutter” in my brain gives me time and space to think about things I actually want to prioritize, like the environmental impacts of my food choices, or friends from home I’d like to catch up with, or new places in Boston to explore.
For me, it is crucial that these habits and rituals go hand in hand with flexibility; I don’t enjoy the process of adhering to rules. Removing clutter, both mentally and physically, is a time-consuming, deliberate, and sometimes exhausting process. It takes time and energy to determine what is really valuable and necessary, and it gets difficult to longer you proceed with the activity or continue to add papers to that giant stack. There are definitely days during which I struggle to maintain these “un”resolutions (I stayed up far too late writing this post because I couldn’t decide what to write about, thus breaking both 1 and 4), but on the whole these five principles are guiding me pretty well, and I’m increasingly excited to dig into my own research and projects.