How to Escape Your Syllabus Prison

College. It’s supposed to be the time when you find yourself, when you make your lifelong friends, when you come to terms with the fact that you’re going to be in debt forever and you’d best get used to the taste of ramen noodles because that’s about as close to luxury as it’s going to get for the next couple of decades. Yes, college is all of these things, but college is also something else.

It’s a two-to-four year period when you have so much assigned reading that it feels like if one more word is transferred from the page to your brain you may explode. So how, pray tell, is reading anything not listed on a syllabus possible when every day is an increased risk to your body’s stability?

It requires sacrifice. But not soul-sacrifice, thankfully, because the ability to find time to read for pleasure would be a fairly mundane thing for which to sell your soul. Save that for the big leagues.

 

1. Prioritize Reading

Between homework, studying, essays, socializing, and some light witchcraft, free time can be tough to find for a college student. This is already horrible because free time is the best time, but it’s even worse because getting free time when you aren’t used to it is a weird amount of pressure. For me, it usually goes something like this:

I have some time! Sick. I’ll just check in on a few things on my laptop….Oh, three years have passed? I’m now legally missing? So much time has gone by that the motivation to search is fading in the hearts of those who love me? Right, of course.

To avoid this Rip van Winkle-esque experience, pick up a book immediately. Your phone can tear that book from your cold dead hands.

You may even have to pass on social plans in order to read, which is always weird. RSVPing “nah” in order to read is so profoundly dorky that the person you are politely rejecting may struggle to conceptualize just what this means. But the only way out is through, my friend, and if you just keep on being a full-on dweeb once in a while your loved ones will take the hint. And maybe even remain in your life if you’re lucky.

2. Carry a Book with You

There are approximately one million pockets of time during the typical class day during which you can read at least a couple paragraphs. Examples: arriving to class early, one of those weird breaks very kind professors occasionally grant midway through a class, when that one student who answers every question finally fulfills their dream of forcing two dozen sleepy young adults to listen to them for a few minutes. This can be prime reading time if you have a book, or an e-book app on your phone, if you happen to be a person who reads for the content and not for the experience of a physical book.

3. Traveling

One fact of life is that people go places. If you are ever going to a place and you are not controlling a vehicle or the movement of your own legs, this is a good time to read. If you live off campus and commute to class on a train or bus or whatever – boom, reading time! If you live far away and find yourself on a plane – that’s reading time, baby. Take advantage!

4. Keep a List and Read Good Stuff ONLY

This point really only needs to be the length of a link, and that link is goodreads.com. Learn it, live it, love it. Make a list of 500 books you’re excited to read and then realize you’ll never have time to read all of them.

5. Try Different Formats

Audiobooks are technically books, and you can do more activities while you read them. You can keep e-books on your phone or laptop or even an e-reader if you time traveled from 2007, and then they’re everywhere you are. Two win-win situations.

Really, finding time to read is a personal thing. This is my way of saying, “Do not blame me if this doesn’t work. You have to do this yourself, and also I just tricked you into reading this whole entire post only to find out that it may not help you at all.” But I hope it does. Happy reading!

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Get Org-anized

“I’m going to a meeting. And then another one after that.”

“Didn’t you just have a meeting?”

“Yeah, but I have more. And another one tomorrow.”

This is kind of how it goes for me. Being a member of four organizations, it’s not uncommon for me to have three meetings in a week. One night I even had three meetings in a row. At a school like Emerson, sometimes it’s hard to say no and it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the stress that your organizations are adding to your already busy workload. Here are a few tips from someone who knows this stress firsthand.

Get Organized

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If you don’t already have a way of organizing all of the work you do, that’s your first step. Since college is so busy, it’s best to have a place to keep everything that you need to do in one spot so that you know all of your obligations. It might be easier to rank assignments and meetings in order of priority or due date so that you know what to do first. I usually highlight all of my assignments based on class or organization so I can quickly spot what I need to have completed for everything I’m involved in. If there’s a lot of things you have to do, it’s only going to be worse if you don’t hand things in or forget deadlines.

Prioritize

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If you find that you’re too stressed, consider doing less next semester or maybe dropping a club that same semester if you can. There are certain clubs, like magazines, where it’s harder to do that mid-semester because you’re on the staff. But if it’s a club where the only requirement is to go to meetings, it might be beneficial to take a few weeks off to get a hold of things or even drop the club entirely. You can always rejoin next semester if you think the workload will be lighter.

Focus on Yourself

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It’s so easy to compare yourself to others, especially when it comes to all of the activities that your peers are involved in. It’s easy to go on Facebook and see the films your friends have worked on or the articles your classmates have written and feel you’re not doing enough. I know I’ve often looked at classmates who are more involved than me and had the thought that I’m not doing enough, even when sometimes I’m way over my head. Having a heavy workload forces you to learn a lot about yourself, about what you can and cannot handle. Focus on what you can handle and not what everyone else is doing. That person in your class who’s in seven different organizations may look like they’re doing okay, but they probably barely have time to breathe, and if you can’t handle that (because honestly who can?) it’s okay to take a step back and reevaluate what you’re involved in.

Don’t Be Afraid to Say No

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Don’t be afraid to say no. Emerson students are especially bad at this because everyone around us is always doing so many amazing things. It’s easy to feel like you’re underachieving if you’re not in seven different organizations. Every person is different and you know what you can handle. If your workload is too much, don’t feel pressured to stretch yourself too thin. It’s okay to miss a meeting or two every once in a while if you’re feeling too stressed. People will be understanding as long as you’re responsible about it.

Take Time to Destress

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If it’s 1 a.m. and you’re in between writing a paper, reading for a class and trying to prepare for meetings and classes the next day, maybe take a deep breath and take a minute to yourself. Take a long shower or watch an episode of a TV show to give yourself time to relax and decompress. The paper will eventually get done, but you probably won’t be successful if you’re too stressed or tired. Remember that your health is your first priority.

Sometimes it seems like attending an arts school pressures students to think that if they’re not doing well in all their classes as well as taking on multiple organizations, then they’re not getting the most out of their college experience. I have friends who go to more traditional schools and they may take more classes that have a larger workload, but I feel like the pressure to be involved is a lot less. It’s okay to not be involved in 101 things; just do what makes you happy and enjoy your college experience the way you want to.

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Managing Your Time

Time management is really hard. I can’t tell you how many nights I’m up until 2 a.m., because I just haven’t managed to get my homework done after work, school, my extracurricular activities, my friends, my boyfriend and whatever else I needed to get done that day. Many students have a reputation for being way too busy and, with how fast the days seem to go by, every minute becomes important. Here are a few tips to making the most of your time.

Write everything down. The first step is remembering everything that you need to do, and if you’re anything like me, it’s probably a long list. Unless your memory is great, you’ll want to write down everything that needs to be done and when it needs to be finished by.

Then, you have to actually look at it again. I have bought and thrown aside more planners than I can count, no matter how many times I tell myself that this is going to be the one I use. There are a lot more options than just a traditional planner, because they don’t always work for everyone. You could try a wall calendar, an electronic calendar, or even a to do list, as long as you will see it everyday, preferably more than once a day.

Photo by jean-louis Zimmermann
Photo by jean-louis Zimmermann

Set mobile alerts. This is the age of smart phones. We use our smart phones for everything, so why not our schedules? There are a lot of benefits to electronic calendars, with one of my favorites being the ability to set alerts. If you don’t think you’ll remember to look at your schedule enough, then set a reminder on your phone.

Use the internet. The other thing our phones do that is awesome is connect to the internet. You can sync your mobile calendar to your computer so you always have it handy. If you don’t have a mac to sync your iPhone to, google calendar has an app and works just fine, too.

Expect to get a little distracted. We don’t live in bubbles, so odds are there’s going to be a person or a text message that is going to want your attention when you need to get something else done. When thinking about how much time it will take you to finish something, you need to add in enough time to allow a couple distractions.

But don’t let yourself get overly distracted. If you find yourself constantly checking Facebook or in a text conversation with four different people when you’re in the middle of your homework, then you’re not working effectively. The more distracted you are, the longer it will take you to finish the task at hand. If you don’t need the internet, get out of your room and go somewhere you can’t connect. Leave your phone in another room on silent so you won’t be tempted to go check it. There a couple of apps and websites that let you block certain websites for a length of time that you choose. Consider downloading “StayFocusd” for Google Chrome. It’s free!

Take a step back. If you always feel like you don’t have enough time, maybe you need to examine what exactly you’re spending your time on. How long are you browsing through your phone or the internet when you’re sitting in front of your computer with a half-finished paper? How many nights have you gone out this week when you know you have a huge paper due on Friday? Besides unplugging, it’s important to determine other ways to get more time. If you’ve seen your best friend/boyfriend/girlfriend four times this week, maybe you should stay home and finish that paper. If you work, go to school and have extracurricular obligations, maybe it’s just not feasible to see every friend every week.

Ultimately, it’s up to you. Sometimes, when you need to be productive, you have to give up the fun stuff for a couple hours. You shouldn’t have it do it all the time though, because having time for yourself is also really important. The key is finding the balance between work and play.

Have you tried any of these tips or have tips of your own to share? Feel free to leave a comment below!