4 Tips for Finding Balance: How to Study and Still Have a Life
The expectations placed on high school and college students are perhaps greater today than they ever have been before. Top-notch colleges expect high school students to have amazing grades, standardized test scores, and extracurriculars. It’s no wonder why so many teenagers today feel overwhelmed. In fact, seventy percent of teens identify anxiety and depression as “major problems” among their peers, according to a February 2018 Pew survey.
In the face of increasing academic and social pressures, it’s typical for teenagers to make more time for school at the expense of their social lives. So, how can you maintain a social life with such high academic expectations?
First, let’s discuss why you should cultivate a work-life balance. Even if you’re singularly focused on academic excellence, cutting out your social life isn’t a good solution. In fact, for most, socializing is a necessary ingredient for optimal brain function.
A 2008 study out of the University of Michigan found that socializing makes us smarter. According to the authors of the study, "social interaction helps to exercise people's minds … as people engage socially and mentally with others, they receive relatively immediate cognitive boosts." A key component of increasing cognitive function is to get the brain reacting to various stimuli, interpreting the needs and meaning of others, and responding in real time.
Long story short: if you want to get smarter, you can’t just spend all your free time staring at a screen.
Socializing needs to be factored into an overall time-management plan. The key to studying and eating better, to exercising, socializing, and sleeping more is coming up with a schedule and following through on it.
In order to do your best on the tasks that really matter to you, you need to carve out time for the tasks that will help you fire on all cylinders. Plan your sleep time, your exercise time, and your socializing time with as much care as you plan your class schedule.
To get started, begin with this 4-step process, adapted from The Spruce:
1. In a planner or notes app, list out all the short-term, medium-term, and long-term tasks you need to complete. Don’t differentiate between school, work, and daily life.
An example of a short-term task would be something like “write AP Lit paper.” A medium-term task might be to study for the SAT, if you’ll it in the fall. A long-term task could be your college application materials, or more abstract goals, like socializing more, playing more basketball, or forming better study habits.
2. Structure your time.
In your daily to-do list, list out each short-term task and plan when (by the hours and minute) you’ll complete it.
If you’re a procrastinator (read this, maybe later?), you might wonder about your ability to follow through on a schedule, but don’t worry about that. The first step is to quantify your time to see how much—and how little—you actually have. That way, you can make decisions about how much of your life should be devoted to different tasks.
If you have time in a given day, chip away at your medium and long-term tasks. These can’t be completed overnight, and you don’t want to leave them for the last minute (cramming doesn’t work).
And make sure to schedule social time. Your brain needs it.
3. Make sure to leave spaces for the unexpected.
When scheduling your day, make sure to leave gaps between tasks. Sometimes, a task might take longer than you think, or you might be so engrossed in it that you don’t want to stop, or your sister might put gum in your hair, or your dad might ask you to walk the dog, or you might just need a break.
You’re not a machine, and your life won’t always obey what the clock demands. You want to plan your time ahead of time, but you can’t be rigid. That’s only a recipe for frustration.
But, if all is going smoothly and you’re feeling ambitious, fit in some medium and long-term tasks in the gaps. Meet a friend somewhere for an hour or go for a quick run.
4. Trial and error.
Work on following your schedule one day at a time. Don’t beat yourself up for failing one day—you can’t expect to succeed at anything right away. The key is to keep making yourself a schedule, keep checking in on your medium and long-term tasks, and make adjustments to suit your needs.
This can be difficult to realize, especially when you’re young, but your present and future selves aren’t actually different people. To succeed academically and avoid burnout, you need to take care of both your present and future selves every single day. Neither of those selves benefit from cutting yourself off from friends and family.
Scheduling your time—even social time—will help you take back control in the face of so many pressures and expectations.
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and reading at Elite Prep Los Angeles since 2010.