It’s 5 a.m. The sun isn’t rising quite yet, but you know it won’t hesitate much longer. You flip the switch of your bedside lamp and set your laptop down on the nightstand. Coffee stains adorn your notebook like stars on the inky sky of your hand-written notes. You’ve done it yet again: you won another round of the burnout olympics.
As a college student, it can be difficult to keep a good sleep schedule and find time for activities that are neither academic nor CV-building. This is especially true considering the looming uncertainty of whether one can make it in the current [job market] (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/10/28/why-it-really-is-harder-to-get-a-job-than-it-used-to-be/) and the fear that perhaps one’s efforts will not be enough to graduate, get into graduate school or find suitable employment. This is understandable; at a time that can determine so much about one’s future, academics tend to come first. I am the last person to endorse a “bare minimum” approach to education, and I strongly support being committed to one’s goals and working toward obtaining them.
However, there is a difference between being focused, productive or hard-working (whatever your definition of this ill-defined term may be) and romanticizing a culture of overworking. The need to be constantly busy can be damaging and a kaleidoscope of rectangles in Google Calendar, while colorful, may not be something to boast about. Burnout — a persistent feeling of mental and physical exhaustion — can be a result of continued exposure to [stress] (https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/burnout-symptoms-signs), especially in relation to one’s studies or professional life. Burnout has become even [more prevalent] (https://hechingerreport.org/burnout-symptoms-increasing-among-college-students/) among adolescents and young adults during the Covid-19 pandemic. This condition should be a cause of concern and a warning for us to dedicate some time for other activities, rather than an indication of superiority and academic prowess.
While I try to be more mindful of how I spend my time and how I set my boundaries for academic work, I will not pretend that I have it all figured out. On a campus like this, with limitless opportunities for volunteering, research experiences, student activities and other extracurriculars, it is easy to overschedule and get caught up in back-to-back meetings, lab shifts and rehearsals. Having many options is something to be grateful for, but the true art lies in knowing when to say “no, thank you” and getting those extra hours of sleep.
The problem does not simply lie in working too much, but in valuing being overworked and incessantly occupied to the point of incessantly comparing ourselves to others. Conversations about all-nighters, weekends filled with assignments and early morning meetings fill the hallways and resonate across the Highline. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as “burnout olympics.” We compete for the gold medal each time we compare our work schedules, caffeine intake, skipped meals or how long we’ve been postponing any non-academic gratification. We count our work hours and measure the dark circles under our eyes with a precision second only to the exact landings of figure skaters. I don’t think I will ever fully understand why it feels so good to know that you did, in fact, stay up working later than your classmates, but the feeling of being “soooo busy!” seems to be a niche collegiate satisfaction.
But these issues often affect people beyond the university setting. They affect adults at work, even when they’re far advanced in their [careers] (https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210507-why-we-glorify-the-cult-of-burnout-and-overwork). Our glorification of being overworked will follow us well into the future if we don’t try to change before it is too late.
I am writing this piece not to critique my peers, but as an honest reflection on what I wish were different in my own approach to academics. It is so easy to get caught up in a competition with yourself – sleeping one hour less than others, taking those extra two credits, telling everyone how many coffees you’ve had and how much you needed each one. At some point, it becomes more about how much you work than what you achieve during that time and the joy it brings you. Maybe, just maybe, this is the one competition we don’t have to win.
Morgane Motlik is Columns Editor. Email her at email@example.com.