Personal Stories (These are mostly for me): Stressing in college and how I managed

I wanted to make a post about my personal experience struggling to manage school work as an undergraduate. Burnout and stress is not a topic I hear discussed openly among my peers so I wanted to share this here. Partly for me, so that I can get this off my chest, and partly for you, so that if you’re struggling, you’ll know you’re not alone. 

Here’s the skinny of what I learned from undergrad studying:

  • It’s important to give yourself scheduled breaks
    • I believe that studying is like training for a sport. It’s good to have extended periods of focus followed by periods of mental decompression
  • It’s important to keep morale high.
    • I do whatever I need to do to stay upbeat when working. I listen to music, I’ll watch a youtube video for fun if I have to, buy myself a nice dinner, whatever I need to stay happy in the office
  • It helps to time how long you are working on a problem.
    • I try not to ever be stuck for more than 2-3 hours. If I don’t know how to do the problem then I change to work on a different problem or a different section of my paper. Sometimes you won’t understand something now, but in a few days things will just click.
  • Exercising, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep are all important things for long-term success.
    • I tried something like polyphasic sleep patterns (here’s a link to gist of it: link) and it was miserable for me and I don’t believe it made me more successful at deep creative problem solving. However, I did manage to do a great amount of menial tasks. 
  • I believe that being a researcher is less like a job and more like a lifestyle in that it requires lifestyle changes to be successful 

Here’s a story to illustrate my own struggles with school work in college:

I used to spend a great amount of my time studying. Just for example in Spring 2014 I was taking 3 graduate courses with homework, one undergrad course in differential geometry for which I was asked to help write the homework solutions for, one undergraduate general education required course, and I was a tutor for the MathLab. I was in so many courses, that two of them were even at the same time. I’m not saying this to brag but to tell you that I was burning out. 

For a short time I kept an google docs spreadsheet of the hours that I was studying because back then I was paranoid that I wasn’t working hard enough. Hah. Please see the document here: Hours

(Note that these hours do not include any of the times I was in class. This is strictly a record of the time that I spent working outside of class and MathLab)

I stopped recording my hours after a while because it got too depressing for me to open that file. It was difficult for me. I remember stressing constantly about not making deadlines. I felt self-pressure to work every waking hour. Looking back this really wasn’t a healthy way to live and if you find yourself in this situation I strongly suggest taking a step back. 

I didn’t step back. I would pull all-nighters at College Library, sometimes back-to-back, and my friends would warn me that if one stays awake 72 hours in a row then hallucinations begin. (Disclaimer: this never happened to me, but a friend of mine swore it happened to her – she’s a PhD at UW now, also I had another classmate who said he pushed hard like this once and randomly threw up one day on his walk back from another all-nighter – he’s a PhD at Berkeley now). I was never this bad. 

But I eventually stressed so much that I got insomnia. When I couldn’t fall asleep, I’d sit right back up and continue working on something. I ended up losing the ability to sleep for more than 5 hours at a time. Meaning, if I tried to sleep, my body would automatically wake myself up in less than 5 hours and I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep. As this happened, days and nights would blur and I would easily lose track of what day it was.

As this lifestyle continued I also began to have heartburn. This is when you get minor chest pains from your stomach producing extra strong stomach acid due to stress. I would remedy this by taking antacids. I would eat Tums like candy. Things were bad. But here’s how I got better. 

I started by finally opening up and talking to someone. I had a sit down talk with Evan Dummit. I considered him to be a something of a friend and a mentor by that time, so I just marched into his office one day and told him about how badly I was stressing out. I don’t remember the specifics of what he said, but I remember he was very sympathetic. It’s sometimes nice to have a sympathetic friend who listens. I remember walking away from our discussion realizing that even though math was making me miserable, I still enjoy studying math. You see, 

Even the world’s best job when can be stressful if you work too much.  

For example, being president is an amazing job but being president can still often be stressful.

After I realized this, I decided to take back my life. I did it by taking some scheduled time off my work, just to rest. I also began to take up exercise. Nothing too serious, but some running and a little weight lifting. These lifestyle changes pulled me out of my unhealthy rut in such dramatic fashion that I still incorporate exercise and scheduled breaks into my life today. I’m happy to say that since this harrowing experience, I think I’ve become a more stable person in how I manage my stress. I hope that maybe you can use my experience as an abject lesson in your own work-life balance. 




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