College During COVID: Balancing Academics & Fun
College is about a lot more than just academics – it’s about gaining independence, learning leadership skills, figuring out how you want to begin your career, engaging in extracurricular activities, meeting new people, and of course, having fun along the way.
When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, colleges and universities had to pivot almost overnight – campuses shut down, students were sent home, and classes went fully remote. The balance of work and play shifted heavily toward academics, leaving many students feeling like they were missing out on a huge part of the college experience they expected and wanted. Many moved back home to their families and away from their friends, extracurriculars weren’t happening (at least not in their typical capacity), and the college experience became almost entirely reduced to classes and schoolwork.
Being Back on Campus
If you’re physically participating in classes on campus, there are a lot more opportunities than last year to have fun and experience college in a way that isn’t solely centered on academics. Maintaining a balance between work and play is essential. Though it’s tempting to make up for lost time, it’s not feasible to swing in the opposite direction from last year and make your year all about fun and social time rather than academics. Pushing back against your brain takes a lot of work, especially when it involves doing something that you find time- or energy-intensive – like hours of challenging coursework or studying.
Having Fun in Moderation
If you have the chance to enjoy the social aspect of college that you’ve been missing since the pandemic hit, it can be tempting to tune out your responsibilities and party or socialize nonstop. Determining what a reasonable amount of fun is may take some trial and error (be gentle with yourself as you adjust!) – but here are some things to think about as you figure it out:
- Identify your responsibilities. Before you can give much time to fun, you need to make sure your “must dos” are taken care of. In addition to your classes, you have obligations to yourself: getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, doing laundry, keeping a clean-living space, and taking time to relax are all crucial to make time for. You might also have other important responsibilities like a part-time job, a leadership position, or family duties.
- Think about your priorities. This varies from person to person. Maybe you’re a freshman and beyond academics, really want to throw yourself into meeting new people and exploring your new home. That’s okay –being a social butterfly isn’t a bad thing as long as you’re being COVID-safe and are staying on top of your other responsibilities. Or maybe you’re a senior focused on landing a job in a competitive industry and hoping to get your GPA up a bit before graduation, so frequent late nights out just don’t fit into your lifestyle right now.
- Be honest with yourself as time goes on. It’s important to consistently reevaluate if what you’re doing is meeting your needs. Maybe you’ve been going out with the same group of friends every Thursday, but you recently noticed that you’re always tired and unprepared for your Friday morning study group. Some things may seem like a good idea, but in practice, they just don’t work out for you – be flexible and willing to adapt when these situations come up.
Figuring out where your line is between a realistic amount of fun and going overboard is only the first step – you still have to do the work of sticking to what you know is best for you, even when it’s the more boring or difficult option.
- Think about it like self-care. A lot of the popular self-care ideas we see recommended on social media are things like an at-home spa treatment or treating yourself at your favorite restaurant. While those are great ways to extend yourself some extra appreciation, self-care isn’t always so fun. Prioritizing your classes, sleep, or other needs over a night out can be self-care too – boundaries with yourself are important, and you are worthy of honoring those boundaries.
- Make friends that have similar priorities. It’s a lot harder to motivate yourself to focus on schoolwork when you feel like you’re missing out on all of your friends spending time together. You don’t have to ditch your current friends, but finding a new community of people that put studying before partying can be a game-changer.
- Avoid all-or-nothing thinking. It is common to fall into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking: “I can’t go out until everything is done” or “If I don’t ace this test, then I can’t do fun things for a week before the next one.” While setting goals is important, so is tackling work in manageable amounts – maybe you can get your urgent chores done, still hang out with friends, and finish the rest the next day. Be realistic about what you need to succeed, but don’t punish yourself.
Keep in mind that on many college campuses, binge drinking is the norm – it can be hard to know when your drinking is at an unhealthy level, especially when it seems like everyone is doing it. Make sure you’re informed on basic information about drinking, like what a standard drink is, how alcohol affects the body, and when alcohol use becomes problematic.
No matter how much time you make in your schedule to dedicate to academics, studying doesn’t get done by itself. If you’ve found yourself staring at a blank screen or barely reading a paragraph before losing focus, you aren’t alone. There are many reasons that your motivation may be lower than it used to be, especially related to school:
- You’re still grieving. While being pressured to act as if things have returned to normal, many people are still grappling with a number of losses – loved ones, social connections, and more than a year of the “normal” college experience. Because classes never stopped, it’s easy to forget about the loss caused by the switch to remote schooling. It can take a while to process, accept, and move forward from what you missed out on.
- You’re burnt out. The pandemic pushed most of us into survival mode, which takes a tremendous amount of energy to exist in; humans aren’t designed to operate from this headspace for an extended period of time. Not only have you been surviving and facing pandemic-related stressors – you have also been expected to keep up with the duties of your pre-pandemic life, including academics, but without a community of peers nearby for support. Most people are exhausted, and students feel like their struggles are being ignored as they are pressured to keep performing.
- You’re dealing with a mental health concern. A common factor in lack of motivation is experiencing a mental health challenge. Conditions like depression and anxiety can make you freeze up, zapping your energy and drive. Rates of depression and anxiety skyrocketed throughout the pandemic – if you think you might be dealing with a mental health condition, take an online screen at www.mhascreening.org.
Sometimes getting to the root of your lack of motivation is the best way to move past it – if you know where your resistance is stemming from, you might be able to address the core issue. Other times, you might not be able to identify the underlying cause – or even if you can, you might not be able to change it in a way that helps your motivation. Fortunately, there are research-backed tips to help you find (and keep) your motivation.
- Visualize completing the task. Take some time to really imagine the process of doing and finishing the task at hand. The brain isn’t great at differentiating between what’s real and what’s imagined, so visualizing the experience can make actually starting much less daunting. It’s also a great way to remind yourself of the positive feelings you’ll likely experience once it’s done.
- Change up where you study. Sometimes gaining motivation is as simple as switching environments. If you usually work from your dorm room, try the library, a coffee shop, or an empty classroom. If you don’t have a go-to study spot, maybe your brain is craving more structure – set up your desk with the supplies you need (and maybe some inspiration, like quotes or a vision board) and create a regular study schedule that works with your other obligations.
- Remember your “why.” The reasons behind doing something are the primary driving force of everything you do. Those reasons need to be strong for you to push through the challenge of accomplishing the task. Try to find an emotional connection to what you’re struggling with. If it’s academics in general, reconnect with why you’re pursuing your degree and where it will get you in the future. If it’s a specific essay for that required class you hate, your “why” might be that the topic will be foundational to your future classes or just that you want to maintain your GPA.
- Lean on others. While we can’t exactly borrow motivation, words of encouragement can go a long way, and someone else’s drive and hard work can be contagious. Let your support system know that you’re struggling to get motivated and see if anyone is around to study together, share tips, or even commiserate – complaining with a friend while you both work on assignments you don’t want to do can help make getting through it less painful.
Academics are important, but they aren’t everything. The pandemic still isn’t behind us, and it’s completely normal to be struggling with motivation right now. Give yourself grace, put in the effort that you are able to, and let that be enough.
If you’re frustrated with your lack of motivation but just can’t seem to get it back despite trying, there may be something deeper going on, like a mental health condition. Take a screen at www.mhascreening.org to find out if you’re experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety.