I finally registered for fall classes a few days ago. I’ve had my advising plan (in a spreadsheet that my like-minded mentor emailed me no less) since May, so I was wondering why I waited until the end of July to complete the process. I told myself I was busy and would eventually get to it. Sometimes, I think I’m waiting for things to slow down to a manageable pace before I can complete any additional tasks, especially ones that involve scheduling for the future. Signing up for fall classes reminds me that sometimes grad school feels like I’m playing Tetris with myself as I allocate my time: one task moves and another quickly arrives to fill the space. The past few semesters, it’s helped to create a visual schedule that contains my weekly tasks written in brightly colored blocks. Somehow seeing everything I need to attend in front of me helps me feel better when school gets busy since I know where I need to be and when.
Waiting for things to slow down to a manageable pace rarely works for me. Things don’t just slow down on their own. I realized that I needed to schedule time to be around other people and do activities I enjoyed, especially as the semester grew busier. Scheduling self-care helps me to avoid isolating myself, which tends to be my default setting when I’m feeling overwhelmed with demands. I try to pick activities where I will be in contact with other people who share similar interests. If they asked about my week, I could respond honestly because these people were familiar points of contact. We had some context from our weekly conversations, but they were separate from my day-to-day life.
Finding free time is most important when I feel like I’ll never have enough time to get things done. When I’m convinced there’s never enough time, I tend to work until I’m exhausted and have trouble recognizing when I’m no longer making progress. I lose myself in research or writing. On those days, it helps to remind myself that there is in fact “life outside my apartment” (thanks Avenue Q). That life might be found in attending womyn’s writing circle or a dance aerobics class. In these places, I can focus on the present moment, the one where I’m responding to a writing prompt or following the instructor’s steps, rather than worrying about tasks later that evening. It’s difficult to worry and dance at the same time, for fear of falling over. I try to remember that taking a break is good; the work will still be there when I return.
I started making my fall schedule and although I’m still trying to wrap my mind around working part-time while attending classes, it’s better seeing things on paper. Does school feel real yet? Not yet, but it’s still a month away. It seems that every semester, I find myself wondering if this will be the one where everything falls apart. But then it doesn’t — I finish the project or make a B in the class and wonder how I’d convinced myself things were going to end so badly. I know by now that I tend to anticipate negative outcomes. When I start to go down the rabbit hole of what ifs, I have a few options to diffuse the worry: I can ask myself how I would cope with the most feared outcome or I can distract myself (sometimes both). Spending time around people helps me get out of my own head either way.
Scheduling free time seems a bit counterintuitive, so far it’s been an effective strategy for me. It’s comforting to glance at the laminated visual schedules posted on my walls reminding me that I won’t be staring at my textbooks indefinitely. There are places I can go and people I can see — people who will earnestly ask me about my week and have stories of their own to share. So dear readers, how do you practice self-care in the midst of busyness?