Ditch the Hustle Mentality: 3 Tips for Students Struggling with Self-Care in an Academically Grueling Environment

Salsabeel Hodge (’23) reflects on her own self-care journey and gives some practical tips to balance academic success and happiness and health. “…students need to take a step back from the noise and learn to care for themselves, so they can show up fully for the important people and areas of their lives.”

Self-care, a word that usually invokes images of a warm environment, lighted candles, and soft music. It’s a way for people to get relief after a tough day. The more adversity someone faces, the more self-care they likely need. 

In an environment like school, which is challenging not only academically, but emotionally, and potentially physically, self-care is vital. Most students turn to instant gratification as a means of self-care, likely because it’s easy, and they might not know better.

However, this can be useless or even more damaging, because instant gratification doesn’t allow you to examine your needs, and determine how to meet them in the future, but rather provides a short temporary fix to turmoil. 

So before I get into suggestions for upping your self-care game, we first need to understand what self-care is. 

Care as defined by Oxford Dictionary, is providing sustenance to maintain someone’s health, well-being, and protection. Self-care, as suggested by the name, is providing that for yourself; Which is not an easy task.

We live in a world, where we’re encouraged to pursue our goals with a ruthless passion, regardless of the effect. Even if that means inflicting pain on ourselves. 

For many students, that means doing anything to get an A, even if means neglecting their health. 

However, this mindset leads to a path of destruction. And to prevent this, students need to take a step back from the noise and learn to care for themselves, so they can show up fully for the important people and areas of their lives.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been trying to implement this practice in my life. I haven’t figured everything out yet, but I did want to share what I’ve learned so far; in hopes of helping others get to a place, where they can achieve their goals, and prioritize their well-being. 

Tip One: Redefine Your Goals

Do well on all your assignments, in order to get good grades, in order to maintain a high GPA, in order get into a good college, in order to get a good job. 

Now when I write this out, it sounds absurd and ridiculously ambitious; but this is the sentiment of many students, even if they don’t want to admit it. 

And regardless of how you look at it, this harsh mindset is damaging l to your well-being. 

Now, I’m not saying to do badly in school; you should strive to do your best work. But what I am saying is this perfectionist mindset is impossible to achieve. 

There is no way you’re going to be able to do well on all your assignments, no matter how hard you try. And if you make the above description your goal, you’re implicitly tying your worth, and likely your confidence to outcomes outside of yourself. 

And if that’s not enough to convince you then consider this. Extrinsic goals, tend to be less fulfilling and decrease your happiness.

I’m sure at some point, we’ve all thought “If I get an A in *insert class* I’ll be happy,” or something along those lines. But after you achieved that goal, you were satisfied for a hot minute, and on to the next goal. And then the next one. Chasing happiness in things that are outside of yourself.   

What you need are intrinsic goals. Goals that are personally related to you, and whose success only you can define. And bonus, they’re are a lot more fulfilling extrinsic ones. 

For example, some of my intrinsic academic goals are:

  • To become a more efficient and skilled problem solver than I was at the beginning of the year.
  • To be able to hold an educated conversation about as many topics as possible. 
  • To build relationships with people I wouldn’t normally talk to in my classes

As you can see, all of these goals are related to things that I value and can carry over in many aspects of school, not just one class.

And even though they’re not outcome-based, I’m still succeeding academically. One, because I’m actually enjoying the process. And two, because these are all goals that are motivating me to learn, and therefore become proficient in my various classes. 

Another bonus is that I get a boost of confidence when I make progress toward these goals. Meaning how I feel is determined by me, and less so by a Powerschool notification.

Because let me tell you, letting external sources define your happiness can lead to a roller coaster of emotions. It might even put you in a state of constant stress, fight or flight mode, which is horrible for your health. 

That’s the opposite of self-care. It’s self-destruction. 

Tip Two: Take Care-Centered Action

Now, let’s say you’ve changed how you frame your goals, first of all, congratulations! You’ve taken a massive step towards becoming a healthier student.

But here’s the hard part: you have to take care-centered action toward your goals.  

Tough love if you will.

This comes back to the instant vs delayed gratification conversation. Are you willing to do the hard things that will benefit your future well-being?

A strategy that I use, albeit a little odd, is thinking of my future self as her own person. 

I ask myself, would future me be seriously irritated, stressed, or have to sacrifice sleep if I didn’t do these assignments now? If the answer is yes, then I’ll begrudgingly complete the assignments, sending love to my future self. If not, then I’ll usually break down the assignment, into smaller parts, setting a “due date,” for each part, so I can complete it in a timely and less stressful manner.

Now, this might seem like a basic strategy for being a productive student. However, sticking to a general deadline, is what makes this an act of self-care. 

Emphasis on general deadlines, because strict deadlines can make you feel guilty for not achieving them, and don’t take into account the need to rest, which I’ll talk about later.

However, it’s important to differentiate between a lack of discipline and the need to rest. 

For example, I tend to fall prey to scrolling on Instagram for hours, instead working on the hard assignment I’ve been dreading all day. This is not needing time to rest, but rather prioritizing the good feeling of scrolling over the better feeling I’ll get from completing the assignment. 

It’s not care-centered, because I’m willingly harming the well-being of my future self. When I should be taking care of her.

That’s why, whenever I don’t feel like doing an assignment, I just try to start it. And usually, once I do that, I’m more likely to finish it, as the assignment becomes less daunting.

This is care-centered because I’m doing what’s best for my future self, even though it’s slightly painful in the moment. Because, no matter what, I’m still going to have to do the assignment. And the struggle of doing it in the moment is usually less than the struggle of doing it in the future.

Tip Three: Know When and How to Rest

There are sometimes, however, when it’s better to do something later and rest instead. So when are these times?

Unfortunately, that’s not a question I can answer for you. It’s something that you need to figure out. 

I suggest becoming mindful of your body. Ask yourself, are there periods of time that you need more rest than others? What type of situations leave you drained? At what times do you function best? Worst?

Once you identify these situations, look at your schedule, and see if you can prioritize this time for rest. Continue to check in with your body, and use it as a guide for this schedule.

It’s important to note though, that rest doesn’t always have to be planned; it can be impromptu. We’re all human. 

Some days your body might feel like giving out. Or it might be emotionally drained. Whatever it is, listen to your body, especially when it’s stressed, and honor it.

Remember, resting is also an act of self-care, and it can do miraculous things for your well-being.

Taking time to rest, however, is half of the battle. How you rest is the other half. 

Before I learned how to rest, I would notice I was exhausted, and decide to take a break. But then, I would spend that time scrolling on Instagram (can you tell this is my crutch?), Only to still feel drained, and overwhelmed, regardless of how long I spend scrolling.

I needed to figure out good ways to recharge, because hint hint, social media is not one of them.

So what are activities that will help you recharge? For some, It could be exercising, for others, it might be talking to a loved one, sleeping, meditating, listening to music, or doing something creative. 

A quick note: self-care doesn’t haven’t be something extravagant. It could literally be sitting in silence for five minutes, and allowing your thoughts to wander. You’d be surprised by where your brain goes without the noise of the world.

Anyways, the key is to do something that puts you in a relaxed state and makes you feel energized. Again, listening to your body can help you figure out what the activities are. 

While resting, however, you may notice that you feel guilty for not being productive. I know I struggled with this a lot. So how do you get that pesky emotion to leave you alone?

For me, it was realizing that resting is actually productive. 

For example, recently I noticed that whenever I do homework for hours on end, I start to get unfocused, or even a little sleepy. In the past, I would push through this, in order to get through my long to-do list. However, more recently, I started taking breaks and I noticed that I worked through my to-do list even faster.

It seems counterintuitive, especially since I believed resting was a waste of time and would slow me down. But it actually allowed me to work more efficiently. 

I would implore you to think about what beliefs make you feel guilty for resting. Is it that hustle mindset, that equates being a workaholic with success? Is it the idea that you don’t have time to rest? Is it pressure from people around you to always be “productive”?

I suggest journaling, meditating, or some other reflective practice to get to the root cause. 

It’s important to realize, though, that you won’t stop feeling guilty right away. But rather, it’s a process. And eventually, you’ll get to a point where you can rest without any guilt.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this post allowed you to see that it’s possible to achieve personal well-being and be academically successful. 

Intrinsic goals will allow you to control your happiness, even when you have to face a little adversity to achieve them.

And most importantly, you’ll know when it’s time to call it quits, and how to make the most of this time. 

This process is not a linear one. But the best thing you can do is to continue to show up for yourself, every single day. And hopefully, with time and effort, you’ll be in a better place than where you started. 

I wish you luck on your journey. 

It’s the monkey’s fault

Joshua Lee (’24) discusses some strategies for self-control from Kelly McGonigal’s book The Willpower Instinct. “…individuals can strengthen self-control, similar to how muscles become stronger through exercise.”

I often find myself procrastinating when confronted with a writing assignment. I find writing to be more convoluted than other subjects, such as mathematics. In mathematics, there is one—and only one—correct answer. The subjective nature of writing was causing me to set aside writing assignments until the very last minute. I was searching for remedies to procrastination when I stumbled upon the book The Willpower Instinct. This book has been of tremendous help to me, and with courses increasing workloads, I wanted to share some valuable insights from it.

Kelly McGonigal, the author of The Willpower Instinct, explains that two sections of the brain constantly clash: the monkey and the rational self. The monkey is the obstacle that prevents humans from becoming more fit, spending less, and losing weight; it is the part of the brain that prioritizes instant gratification. The monkey is the reason people binge-watch Netflix shows instead of doing math homework. In contrast, the rational self reflects a person’s true desires and goals. McGonigal asserts that the only way to restrain the monkey from controlling decisions is to strengthen self-control.  

To successfully practice delayed gratification (the act of resisting an immediate reward for a more valuable future reward), people must utilize self-control for the three powers listed below:

  1. The “I will” power: the ability to make decisions that improve quality of life;
  2. The “I won’t” power: the ability to prevent decisions that may hinder success or happiness;
  3. The “I want” power: the ability to make choices that align with long-term goals, not instant gratification.

It takes people immense willpower to consistently make decisions that bring them closer to fulfilling their long-term goals. Fortunately, individuals can strengthen self-control, similar to how muscles become stronger through exercise. Self-control is critical in living a successful and fulfilling life, so what are some strategies to improve it?

Meditation is an effective method for building self-control. With just 11 hours of meditation, the brain begins to increase neural connections between regions of the brain that are important for staying focused, ignoring distractions, and controlling impulses. Most individuals avoid meditation because they claim it takes too much time, but five to ten minutes is more than enough to yield fruitful results. Referred to as the “miracle drug,” exercise is another way to train willpower. Not only does it increase gray matter (brain cells) and white matter (nerve fibers that enable communication within the brain), but it serves as a powerful antidepressant. The intensity of exercise can depend on the person. Not everyone is a marathon runner: walking five minutes is better than no exercise. Although strengthening willpower is essential to defeating the monkey, becoming acquainted with the monkey’s deceptive tactics is just as important.

Moral licensing is when the brain justifies a bad behavior by praising good behavior. For instance, a shopper who restrained themself from purchasing fancy clothes may go home and enjoy sweets, or a student who worked hard on a project at school may justify playing video games for the rest of the day. Another common trick the monkey uses to make people relapse back into addiction or break good habits is recognized as the What The Hell Effect. The effect occurs when a person indulges in harmful behavior. For example, if a person on a diet ate a slice of cake, they may feel ashamed that they ruined their diet. The emotions of guilt and shame cause the dieter to indulge in even more unhealthy foods in an attempt to make themselves feel better, resulting in a downward spiral back to their old self.

The information and strategies I shared in this blog post only scratch the surface of The Willpower Instinct, so if what you read here sounded intriguing, I highly recommend reading the entire book for yourself. 

How Powerful can our Clothing Choices be?

Elena Mychaliska (’23) discusses how design choices-from fashion to interior design-influence both our perceptions of others and how we feel. “…enclothed cognition …is the effects of clothing on cognitive processes. Studies show that our mood can be affected depending on what we wear.”

As the premier of the new season of The Crown nears, and Princess Diana’s iconic, and symbolic, style makes its way back into the media, I cannot help but find myself fascinated by the power of clothing. Whether it be her iconic black sheep sweater or the famous revenge dress, it was one of her most notable forms of communication with her audience: communicating happiness, sadness, and even rebellion. 

Princess Diana’s life can serve as a case study of the influential role clothing plays in how a person is perceived: used as a tool to communicate aspects of a person’s identity, their emotions, and their goals. This phenomenon, or better yet strategy, of careful fashion choices is so influential it has been used as a tactic by the most wealthy and powerful people in the world throughout history. Independent of Princess Diana, newly elected, far-right Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, has been seen consistently wearing Armani, since her swearing in. Georgio Armani’s position on dressing controversial politicians is that fashion “goes beyond politics”. As a classic, politically neutral, “made in Italy” brand, it is hard to criticize, making it the perfect choice for the controversial new Prime Minister. But the impact of our clothes does not stop there.

Not only do clothes heavily impact how others view and treat you, it also impacts how people themselves behave. In 2012, a study was conducted at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in which people were asked to perform tasks while wearing a white coat. Those that wore a white coat, believing it belonged to a doctor, had sharp increases in their ability to pay attention. Whereas, those that wore the white coat believing it belonged to a painter showed no improvement in their ability to pay attention. 

This phenomenon is called enclothed cognition, which is the effects of clothing on cognitive processes. Studies show that our mood can be affected depending on what we wear. Moreover, it has been observed that our emotion upon waking up can have an effect on what we choose to wear on that given day. Happy clothes, or clothes that evoke positive emotions, have a tendency to be flattering and made from bright, beautiful fabrics. Sad clothes, or clothes that evoke negative emotions, however, are just the opposite. Although, this is subjective. Generally, positive clothes are ones that the person feels the most comfortable in. When I think of school design, color palette and furniture selection play a significant role. There are many conscious choices regarding what evokes calming and productive feelings. Green, blue, and beige. Couches, lamps, and rugs. In thinking about how to encourage success in an academic setting, clothing could have a similar effect, following school design as being a new piece of the academic success puzzle, amongst a good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast. Making this a conscious element of school preparedness and success could significantly improve how people feel when taking a math test or completing an English essay, or even socializing with their peers. So next time you go to bed, do yourself a favor and pick out your outfit for the next morning-it could help you on your next assignment!

The Cherry on Top

Nina Taleb-Bendiab (’23) reflects on how a pervasive attitude of perfectionism impacts student learning & writing. “It is not sustainable for our motives to solely be based on outcomes. We need to learn how to accept failures as opportunities and realize that perfection doesn’t automatically equate to extreme success.”

Most people know the saying “the cherry on top”. Which refers to that one detail or factor that makes something already good, better or maybe even perfect. While I do like a good cherry on my ice cream, the figurative meaning of this phrase is overrated. 

Now why would I think that? First off, the implication that one defining thing can make something perfect is unrealistic. Secondly, this phrase gives false notions that perfection exists. There are many misconceptions about perfectionism and not enough knowledge on why it can be harmful. The concept of always trying to improve isn’t a bad thing; but, the motive behind perfectionism is. Learning that improvement is only good for some sort of successful outcome is what creates this negative outlook. A lot of the time kids are exposed to this mindset from a young age. Especially with this generation, the pressure of getting a perfect SAT score, 5 on an AP exam, 4.0 gpa, etc. has become extremely harmful. Many think that pushing someone to always strive for a desired outcome is the path to success. In reality, it’s teaching people to always yearn for some intangible product and frequently leaving people with a feeling of dissatisfaction, even if so much effort has been put into their work.

I find that perfectionism is highly prevalent in high schoolers and more specifically when they are writing. I personally have struggled with it for a lot of my life. With college essays, AP classes and more advanced writing pieces there is this pressure looming over people making them extra critical and anxious about their work. After researching on the topic of perfectionism in writing I came across an article from the NIH which looked at the science behind a growth mindset. In a study. children were tested through a game where they were incentivized based on effort and persistence. Results indicated that the children ended up doing better at the game when they started at a low performance and worked their way up to mastery.

Most people have become familiarized with the term “growth mindset” and have noted it as a good thing. But going even deeper, studies have shown how important learning to strive for improvement instead of perfection is.

In today’s day and age we live in a world where everyone is always striving for perfection. It’s time we rid ourselves of that negative mindset and stop putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves. It is not sustainable for our motives to solely be based on outcomes. We need to learn how to accept failures as opportunities and realize that perfection doesn’t automatically equate to extreme success. To be successful it requires growth: personal, social, academic, etc.

Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there

Rory Brater (’23) advocates for teachers and administrators to have greater understanding for students impacted by concussion. “…concussions can be just as serious as a broken ankle or torn ACL. Just because you can’t physically see an injury, doesn’t mean there isn’t one.”

According to the CDC, one in five high school athletes will experience a concussion every season. A major issue is that concussions can be injuries that people don’t know they have. This is because they’re hard to diagnose and doctors still aren’t sure exactly what they are. A concussion is different from say an ankle injury, in that there’s often no physical change in appearance, like swelling. The Mayo Clinic  refers to a concussion as a traumatic brain injury(TBI) that affects your brain function. This injury can cause countless symptoms such as: headaches, pressure in the head, nausea, balance problems, dizziness, sensitivity to light and noise, confusion, and a feeling of “being down.” These are just a few of the many symptoms that a person can experience if they have a concussion. Frequently, victims of concussions may relate their symptoms to dehydration, not eating enough, not sleeping enough or in some cases, depression. 

In a volunteer survey that I created, I found that 92% of respondents were unsure about what a concussion was before they had one. Through this same survey, I also found that 89% of the respondents saw dropping grades. One person said that their grades took such “a drastic fall” that by “the end of the trimester and [they were] healthy, there was not enough time to improve [their] grades that [they] had to take a pass/fail.” The issue here is that there is not enough information about concussions for students, parents, teachers and even administration.

I was one of these students whose grades dropped while having a concussion. As I was playing varsity soccer for Skyline last spring, I endured three concussions within 4 months. When I got my first concussion, I was confused as to why my head was pounding so hard and why I couldn’t open my eyes without excruciating pain in my head. I went to Neurosport at the University of Michigan to receive treatment and therapy for my brain; this consisted of vestibular therapy(for my eyes) and neck therapy, because of the incredible strain on my neck that had been caused by less strength in my head. 

I tell my story, not for pity, but to educate others. To show others that concussions can be just as serious as a broken ankle or torn ACL. Just because you can’t physically see an injury, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Beyond this, my experiences with concussions have taught me that you can’t see everything about a person on the surface; you never know what one is going through or the pain they feel past the smile they put on their face. Something important to keep in mind is that kindness and understanding should always be at the forefront of your actions. Without these two things, accommodating others’ situations is not possible and neither is creating a “safe” space. 

All I truly want to say is this: Always be understanding because you never know what’s happening beneath the surface.