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MIT student blogger Shuli J. '22

sophomore fall (sophomore decline? sophomore roman empire?) by Shuli J. '22, MEng '23

(actually the word sophomore comes from Greek but shhhh)

part i

it’s been kind of a hard fall.

all mit students are different, and each of us has a different capacity for extracurriculars, friends, classes, activities… but most of us are probably doing too much.

for me, four classes (one of which is secretly like 1.75 classes), doing a urop, la-ing,01 lab assistant, aka office hours staff trying to blog (…the operative word is perhaps ‘trying to’), and having responsibilities in a couple different clubs was too much.

it’s been mostly a semester of working all day and into the night, and snatching thirty minutes of relaxation at the very end at the cost of thirty minutes of sleep; a semester of realizing that of the x things i have due tomorrow, only floor(x/2) of them are getting done; a semester of scraping by in everything that matters — not just classes, but friends and sleep and all those things that make you feel alive.

every week i think to myself, well, this week was hard. but next week should be better! and every week something comes up and everything somehow gets a little bit worse, and i cut out one more thing that was keeping me afloat (like cooking dinner, or going to the gym, or the minutes of sleep i was previously getting between 1 and 1.30 am) just to turn in floor(x/2) of my assignments.

some days are good. there are sunny days, and ones where i have almost enough sleep, and one pset fewer than usual so i can pretend for an hour that i’m not hosed and go get some exercise. and sometimes when it gets warmer i open my window and breathe in the fresh air; and sometimes when i’m walking through stata i see a baby so cute that everything else seems a little less bad too.

and i tell myself that it will get better next semester, it will have to, because i can’t let this happen again. when i look at the date it feels like i’ve missed months of my own life, stuck in a haze of needing to move on to the next thing, and the next thing, and only in that one hour i steal from work each week on friday afternoon having enough energy to look around me and feel joy.

but already the lists of things i could do next semester stack up. if i stop doing this, then i could do more of that; if this class will be less work, then maybe i could take that class too? and then i shake myself gently like a bad puppy — no! you need to do less, you dumbass. the cognitive dissonance is strong, but my awareness of it doesn’t make it go away. i desperately want to do so much that i will never get the chance to do, and that hurts in an entirely different way, sharper and more immediate, than the blunt ache of overcommitment and sleep deprivation.

part ii

I wrote that last Friday while staffing a (thankfully very quiet) 9 am office hour, and looking down the barrel of a horribly over-scheduled weekend. It was indeed a bad weekend, but I have survived it! And now, at the other end, I am having the best week I’ve had all semester. With Thanksgiving coming up, I have no real deadlines until next week, and I’ve been re-remembering so much that gives me joy: cooking, sitting outside in the sun, singing along to music, getting to choose which of my tasks to tackle next instead of being forced to pick whatever’s most urgent. [See: Appendix A.]

I’ve been noticing over the course of the semester that these tasks have an interesting quality: it doesn’t feel like I am “choosing” to do them or not based on how much time I have. Instead, when I’m stressed and busy and sad I feel like I don’t “want” to do these things. Then I have long conversations with my friends about “am I really happy? How do I know if I’m happy or not? I mean, I’m not “un” happy…”

And boom, as soon as the weight of overcommitment and hosage is lifted off my shoulders, suddenly I find that all these things are more interesting again: I want to do them, and I do them, and they bring me joy, and I feel certainty that I am happy.

I don’t want to spend another semester wondering if I’m happy, now that I know that that means I’m not. I want next semester to be full of these same joys I’ve had recently, of doing the things I want to do (things that are good for me!) and feeling in my bones that this life is a good place to be.

part iii

So I started doing some math. My previous work-life balance strategy was mostly based on letting commitments hang nebulously in the air, and just estimating, well… this probably won’t be that much work… and that’s sort of a lot of work, but only some weeks… Unsurprisingly, following this strategy proved ineffective at keeping me from agreeing to too much.

I realized that what I needed was some kind of line in the sand, a quantitative way of keeping track of my future hosage. To find it, I started by just playing around with my schedule. I wrote down all my commitments this semester, classes and otherwise, and how much time I spend on each one. Then I just kind of stared at the numbers. They seemed kinda big, but, like, not that big… Where did my time actually go?

That was the question that led me to what I think is the strategy that will work for me. I’m not a big google calendar user, unlike some people you might know; I use it to keep track of non-regularly scheduled meetings, but not for things that are the same every week like my classes. I went back to my gcal for the past three weeks and I filled in every single place I had to be, classes and meetings and extracurriculars, and also lunch and dinner. And then I said, well, what’s left? Uh… not a lot, it turns out.

A picture of my schedule one week in November. There are many things scheduled each day and very little empty space.

Looking at this really brought home to me why I’ve been struggling this semester, in a way that I hadn’t realized before. (It’s very forest-for-the-trees: I was so busy going from thing to thing that I didn’t have the time/energy/mental brain space to evaluate the bigger picture of what I was spending all my time doing.) I’ve been struggling because I have no damn time to do anything!

In a typical week, I probably have to do about 25 hours of homework for class, plus another 5-8 hours of work for my other commitments. And yet, in this particular photo, I have approximately 25 hours of unscheduled, not-asleep time in total. Obviously, there are also weekends, but this time doesn’t take into account the entire rest of my life that I need to live: talking to friends, going grocery shopping, taking half an hour to relax and catch up on the internet02 I know you do this too, don't judge after a rough day, going to fun events, or being, like, a freaking human.


I think my plan for the spring semester is to try to keep these specific numbers more balanced. In a typical school week, almost all of my commitments fall between 10 am and 9 pm (with an occasional 9 am class or 10 pm meeting). In the week pictured above, I had ten hours of unscheduled time in that interval. In contrast, when I did the same gcal analysis for freshman spring (what a beautiful, faraway time, when I thought I knew what it meant to be hosed and I was so, so wrong), I typically had about 20 hours. 10 am to 9 pm, minus an hour for lunch and an hour for dinner every day, gives 45 hours. So I need to try to limit class time and meeting commitments to 25 hours, total.

This seems… hard. As I’m starting to plan for next semester, I’m discovering that that number is really difficult to hit given all the things I was hoping to do. But what that tells me is that my hopes were too high; that, in fact, I need to reconsider the way I assess commitments and classes. (E.g… maybe I’m not a person who wants to take five classes every semester. For a whole host of reasons related to the culture here, that’s kind of hard to come to terms with.) But I think having this number to hit, this 25 hours a week, is really helpful. It doesn’t let me wiggle out of things, or lie to myself about how much I can take on just because I reallllllly want to do a particular activity.

I’m going to try my best; I’m going to rearrange things, and drop some things, and drop some other things, and realize that my life would be a lot easier if I had fewer interests, and text my friends sadly about all the things I can’t do, and try to comfort myself by thinking about how much life there is left after college for learning, too.

And hopefully, next semester, I’m going to enjoy myself.

Appendix A: Things I suddenly start doing once I feel less stressed, which it turns out are probably the things that make me happy (quelle choque)

  • Go to the gym / lift weights
    • run to places I’m going for no reason other than that I feel like running
  • Cook myself dinner
    • try a new recipe or a fancier03 for me, 'fancy' usually means adding back in one of the ingredients I originally took out, since I'm only willing to use like five ingredients per meal as opposed to the fifteen the New York Times cooking section seems to feel is necessary. version of an old recipe
    • suddenly have cravings to try new foods and flavors I haven’t had before
  • Clean up my room
  • Open my window / sit outside / enjoy nature
    • go for a walk / visit the rest of boston / see the city and refuse to shut up to my walking partner(s) about how beautiful it is
  • Put on music / sing along to music
    • bonus round: I know I’m at like the 85th percentile of joy when I start making up my own songs as I go along
  • Wander into an aimless conversation with whoever happens to be around
  • Reorganize some aspect of my life which honestly didn’t really need it (is this a call-out for this very post? Perhaps)
  • Write! Easy level: replying to my emails; medium level: blog posts, hard level: poetry, bonus round: stories
  • Get very philosophical about life, my purpose in it, why we’re all here, etc. etc. etc.

More of this is coming: that’s my promise to myself.

  1. lab assistant, aka office hours staff back to text
  2. I know you do this too, don't judge back to text
  3. for me, 'fancy' usually means adding back in one of the ingredients I originally took out, since I'm only willing to use like five ingredients per meal as opposed to the fifteen the New York Times cooking section seems to feel is necessary. back to text