How many plates can you keep spinning all at once? It was a silly talent on the Ed Sullivan show. But it's an apt visual metaphor for many college students' lives. How do you get it all done? How do you achieve any kind of balance in your life? Balancing even one plate and spinning it on a stick is hard work. As soon as it slows down, it will fall. So you have to keep adding spin to the plate. Delicately, though: if you spin the plate too hard or not quite right, it will fall. Then run to the next one to keep it spinning. Soon you'd be staggering around, out of balance... this seems like an insane, frantic way to live. Are you staggering from task to task trying to get it all done? Want to know a better way?
The flexibility of college, especially community college, lets people try to do a lot of things in life all at once. You might be working, maybe even full time. You might also be parenting, raising a family. By my count, that's three spinning plates right there. You do know why 12 hours of college classes is considered full time, right? Just in case, here's that math. For every hour in class, the college administration assumes that you'll need about two hours out of class for study, writing, etc. So 12 x 2 = 24 hours outside of class a week, plus the 12 hours in class = 36 hours a week. Plus clubs, sports, social life, routine chores, and all the other things you want to do.
The secret, then, is how to get it all done while staying balanced and healthy. How can students keep all of these parts of their lives going? Let's look at five ideas now. First, it takes clarity of purpose. It may help to define life roles. These are the big areas of your life. Mine include teacher, writer, son, and so on. I first encountered the idea many years ago and can't remember where, but University of Berkeley has a simple worksheet here (https://hrweb.berkeley.edu/files/attachments/Balancing_Life_Roles.pdf). Steve Aitchison in his blog advises limiting the time in each role and consciously switching to help achieve balance. (https://www.stevenaitchison.co.uk/what-are-your-roles-in-life/).
Choose the ones that are important to you (of course they're important to you. Just be clear which ones are.) Then each activity should help meet one of those life roles. You may find some activities that don't speak to any of those life roles. A little play and recreation are reinvigorating. On the other hand, if I notice that I spent three hours watching TV today that didn't really even provide much relaxation, I should cut down on my viewing. Looking at what you do with life roles in mind will probably point out a few places where you might spend the time better. Alternately, realizing that you covered the most important roles today in the time you had may give you some peace when a few small things remain undone.
Once you're clear on what life roles are important to you, you will be clearer in purpose. Your purpose is to fulfill each life role that you've chosen. That right there should also be motivating. If you're raising a family, for example, you're likely to remember that you're going to college partly for them, to provide for them. (And bonus round! You'll set a hugely positive example by trying your best to learn that will influence your children to be lifelong learners. This is way better than just telling them to stay in school.) When you remember why you're doing all these things, they get easier. Instead of mindless chores, each action you take is a step closer to achieving your purpose. Instead of burning energy fighting procrastination and feeling resentment, you've got all that energy to make progress.
Secondly, organization lets you work effectively and efficiently. How should you organize? You're going to have to experiment a bit to find what works best for you. I've written some about organization elsewhere in this blog. The short recap: manage your attention. That is, save your best attention for your most serious planning and studying, and save your lowest attention levels for very routine things. For most of my organizing, I use a couple of phone apps (calender and a list program called... List. Look for the red check-mark on a white and blue box. You could do the same with paper. Some way to track events (scheduled at a certain day and time) and some way to track tasks (things to do today) will help tremendously. It needs to be simple enough to use and to update that you actually use it. Then you update it, and then you can trust it.
Third, stop making excuses or thinking of reasons why not. Maybe you very rarely make excuses (you're closer to success on this than me, then.) Maybe there are few reasons why you can't do something. (Again, you're way ahead of me here.) I sincerely believe that you can succeed. “But you don't know me,” I imagine you might say.
I don't know you, personally. But I believe everyone can succeed...if they stop listing all the reasons why they can't. Somehow in our culture we've slid into a common practice of making excuses for students, for telling them reasons why they can't do things. Worst of all, for telling them that it's OK not to do well, OK not to even really try. I say this with all the empathy and understanding and loving kindness that I can: it's not OK.
You want to succeed, to achieve your goals, to get what you need and want. These aren't just material things. You want to take care of yourself, stand on your own two feet, and feel good about yourself. Maybe you want to help other people and make the world a better place. Awesome! And you can do awesome things. But not if you don't keep trying because you have some label that makes it OK not to try very hard. Yes, people have some real challenges. Turns out, everyone has challenges, though mostly we see only our own.
The playing field is not level. It will never be level. What can you earn? What can you accomplish? How can you meet your needs, and the needs of those who depend on you? How can you help? By doing your best. That's all anyone can do, and sometimes my best is pretty crummy. Instead of limiting myself with reasons why I can't do something, wouldn't it be more effective for me to work past, around, or through my “challenges”? Would it be better if I didn't worry too much about any labels and just skipped right to the problem-solving? Would it be better for you for you to do the same?
Now maybe you're thinking I've gone too far. That social anxiety, autism, attention disorders, or some other label is a real problem, not a “challenge”. I'm not arguing otherwise. What I'm saying, though, is that you are more effective trying your best to get things done. To try your best, I recommend that you skip the labels and reasons why you can't do something... and go do what you need to do. The only help those labels might offer is maybe other people have figured out some effective tactics or workarounds that could help you. Adapt to get it done. If you're choosing the tasks that you believe are important to reach your goals and fulfill your life roles, then you're on the right track. Of course you can play to your strengths. Of course you can choose how to reach your goals.
For example, one day in college, I found my roommate (labeled ADHD) writing a history essay, building a 3D architectural model, discussing something complex online, and watching birds out the window... pretty much all at the same time. I watched him spend a few minutes on each task and switch to another one. I don't think I could do it like that at all. But he skipped past any labels or reasons why he couldn't do those things well...and did them in his own way. By the way, he earned A's on the essay and model.
Fourth, relaxation and recreation are important. It's tough to be well balanced in life while doing so many different things. As much as you can though, try to balance the focused work with some relaxed play. It's helps you recharge and work better. But it also helps you unwind. Even a few minutes to enjoy some music or a pretty day or a game helps keep me centered.
Also, recently I've been reading a lot about being here now. An awareness of the present moment and oneself sounds very simple. It is, but it's not something most of us do much. We tend to carry around the past like a weight or worry about the future. We tend to remember where we were or plan where we will be. A much better way to achieve some balance is to just be here now. A lot of mindfulness meditation is designed to help with this. Mindfulness meditation is originally a Buddhist practice, but it can be done without any religion overtones at all. It's more of a practice of developing the mind. My favorite way is a phone app called Buddify (which, despite the name, has nothing to do with Buddhism as a religion).
If you want more about mindfulness, there are two more books I recommend, each with a caveat. The first is Waking Up by Sam Harris. He's a neurosurgeon, philosopher, and atheist. Which brings me to the caveat: he is apologetically blunt about how he thinks all religions are superstitious nonsense. He's equal opportunity about it. I needed a bit of a thick skin to acknowledge what he says about religion in order to understand the really simple, step by step guide he offers to mindfulness. He also makes a good case that there's more to reality than just what is explained by science or dogma.
The second book is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. He offers a lot of advice and simple ways to be here now, to achieve presence and awareness in ways that most people don't. Why would that matter? By being here now, we can feel the uncaused joy of being and unshakable peace. Joy and peace, yeah, that's worth looking into. One of the most encouraging things is that he believes everyone can achieve this transformative awareness right away, not in some potential future after decades of asceticism. The caveat is that some of what he says sounds way, way out there to me; he embraces mysticism. The book format is question and answer, though, so the reader can easily just skip to the next question and answer if one sounds too weird. The Audible version has answers read by the author and questions posed by some of his friends and students, which is a nice bonus.
Last, you're not alone. You don't have to do this alone. You don't have to figure out everything by yourself, or do it all by yourself. Tutoring centers, teachers, classmates, online resources. There are lots of people and things to help there. Family and friends (the ones who want to help) are good resources too. Raising a family? Renegotiate chores to free up an hour or two more to study. Maybe you give up an hour of idle entertainment for yourself in order to spend quality time with your kids or spouse. A success coach is a good thing, too. Want someone to help check progress on goals and set new goals? Join the mailing list, and we can do that.
Sometimes communities and churches offer good support and resources, too. Look and ask around. We're all stronger together. Your success in supporting yourself and helping people benefits the rest of us, too. You bring value to the community you choose to work in, so it's enlightened self interest to help you out some, too.
In conclusion, there are five things you can do right now to live more in balance while you try to achieve many things at once. Define your life roles, which will help you clarify your purpose. Manage your attention. (Check out my other blog articles.) Practice mindfulness with the Buddify app (or some other simple daily activity). You can read much more deeply on the topic if you want. Finally, work in groups! Informal peer mentoring is powerful, and some structured mentoring or life coaching is even better. Finally, this is just one article on balance, which many people find challenging and many others have written entire books about. What have I missed? What would you add?
Aitchison, Steve. “What Are Your Roles in Life?” Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life. 2014.
“Balancing Life Roles” University of Berkeley, University Health Services.
Harris, Sam. Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Simon and Schuster, 2014.
Tolle, Eckhart. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Namaste Publishing,
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Gregory Hanks has taught community college for upwards of 17 years. He's helped thousands of students achieve more of their potential, write better, and earn their degrees. In 2017, he left a traditional teaching role to help more people like you get better results, faster.
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