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.