So please don’t get it twisted, when I talk about a work-social balance, I’m not suggesting that after a 2am pre-deadline library sesh that you should have your friends swing by in an Uber and pick you up on their way to a night out.
Although this will happen from time to time, it’s definitely not the most healthy and sustainable way to balance your studies with your social life.
In following these tips, hopefully, your assignment will have been handed in a week before the deadline, with the TurnItIn email receipt already neatly tucked away in your junk folder, with no need for those anxious all-nighters, allowing plenty of time for those enjoyable days and nights with the interesting people you’ll meet.
I studied for three years at Leeds University, during which time, in parallel to my degree, I hosted several exhibitions, released a few art publications, freelanced fashion photography, and for the duration of my final year, I worked a full-time job in creative direction for an eyewear label. But to me, my greatest accolade amongst it all is that I was still able to get stupidly drunk once or twice a week with my friends.
Through keeping a sensitive awareness of what helped or hindered my productivity, throughout the years I was able to hone down my approach and develop my own personal way of living which allowed me to effectively balance my work with my social life.
Before I jump into the advice though, I think it’s important to acknowledge why exactly your social life is important.
We are social animals
As humans, we have checkboxes in our brains. There’s a list of criteria we need to meet in order to maintain our sanity and avoid our mental health collapsing in on itself.
Among things like food, safety, shelter etc, the social aspect is deeply hardwired into our psyche. We can’t survive well on our own. We are social beings, and connections with others is important for maintaining our mental wellbeing.
Balance is the keyword
Neglecting your close relationships to focus on your assignments is never a long-term solution, and similarly, you may struggle to avoid stress if every deadline is left until the last minute due to too much socialising.
The reality is that you have a lot of free time outside of your timetabled sessions (especially in first year), but that free time is going to feel a lot more scarce if you don’t navigate it intelligently from the outset.
And I don’t mean you have to colour-code schedule every night out with your friends, but as long as you keep a loose awareness of how much work you’re getting in each week, and how much time you’re spending with friends or chilling, it won’t be difficult to maintain the balance between a productive work-life, and an active social life.
Prime your brain
You know when you’re hungover and you’re trying to engage your brain maybe at a job or writing a school assignment and things just aren’t connecting? Nothing seems to make sense? Like your brain’s suddenly been swapped with that of your twelve-year-old self?
Well, thankfully it works the other way too.
As much as we can hinder our mental performance and clarity through poor diet, lack of sleep, mindlessly scrolling through social media etc, there are simple things we can do to swing the pendulum the other way, and kind of supercharge our mind’s ability to perform when we need it to.
Unsurprisingly, the main practices I’ve found helpful in this regard are simply the flip side of the list I just mentioned. It all revolves around not working against your body and mind, but working for it.
At the risk of getting all hippie and spiritual on you, I will say this: ready meals, processed foods, fast foods etc, are not natural and are filled with chemicals and preservatives, so our body struggles more to digest them. Similarly, your body struggles with digesting carb-heavy meals (e.g. excessive bread/pasta).
The reality is, when your body is working hard to process these foods, your mind isn’t going to work as well. And I’m not suggesting you completely reshape your diet and cut out some peng meals, I’m simply saying that it’s of huge benefit to you to be conscious of how certain foods are going to affect you and when to eat, and not to eat them.
Fruits, vegetables, lean meats, salads… We all know what’s healthy for us really, but it’s just a case of maintaining that awareness, and putting it into practice when we need to.
Occasionally, swerving the fast food before your essay and choosing something light like a salad that your body won’t have any trouble digesting will allow your mind to work more effectively — you’ll get more done faster.
If you have a daily word quota on an essay, you’ll hit that sooner each day. If there’s a night out you’re dying to go to in deadline week but not sure you’ll be done in time, practices like this can really help your chances.
It’s all a matter of really making each hour of work count.
This is probably the most important. Once you’ve digested your food, you’re good to go, and when your hangover’s subsided, you can work (usually), but a consistently poor routine of sleep affects everything from cognition to motivation to mental health.
It’s not about the quantity, it’s about the quality. You only need between seven and nine hours of sleep. Any more or any less is usually not the best idea.
Some people work great in the mornings, others are on their grind through the night. A lot of this is in our genetics, and I’m not here to argue that one is better than the other, but I will say that whichever you are, getting those seven to nine hours is paramount for the healthy functioning of your mind.
There’s a lot of rituals and tricks to improve your sleep, but in my experience, the most effective ones are; to not drink coffee after 4pm; to not eat for a couple of hours before sleep (your body can’t rest well when digesting), and to have a semi-consistent time you go to sleep (your internal clock will thank you).
It also helps a lot to not look at screens for an hour before you go to sleep, as the bright light tricks your brain into thinking it’s still daytime and delays your mind powering down into ‘rest mode’. This one’s a little trickier to implement. We’ll talk more on this next.
3. Social Media
I’m sure it’s not news to you that social media and smartphones have had a dire effect on mental health, especially for adolescents.
The reality is that it’s up to you to be aware of how social media affects you personally, and be conscious of how you allow it into your life.
These platforms are extremely new still, and it may be years or even decades before government regulation is implemented to minimise their harmful effects on societal mental health. The reality is that it’s up to you to be aware of how social media affects you personally, and be conscious of how you allow it into your life.
Too much social media can overwhelm our mind with thoughts, making it difficult to focus. You see a photo on Instagram of some old friends, you think about how you haven’t seen them in a while, then you remember you saw one of them outside Starbucks in your hometown but pretended not to see them. You ask yourself why you did that, you wonder if they were doing the same thing… etc etc etc.
Social media is an avalanche of stimulation; the more you scroll, the more it piles up. And each encounter you have with a piece of media on one of these platforms can lead you down another useless thought trail.
All of this thinking can cause overthinking and exacerbate stress and anxiety. Now you’re stressed and anxious thinking about if that one friend is still pissed at you because of that thing you did. Now you can’t focus.
And all of it could have been avoided if you didn’t open the app and see their new profile picture.
It’s unsurprisingly hard to sit down actually engage with your Uni work when your mind has been robbed of its clarity. Thankfully though, there are a few things we can do to curb the allure of the endless scroll.
Aeroplane mode: Try putting your phone in aeroplane mode for periods of time when you really need your clarity. You can still use the alarm, the camera, write notes, or switch it back to normal for emergencies. However, blocking that constant stream of notifications and messages can really do wonders for mental clarity.
Personally, I swear by aeroplane moding my phone before I go to sleep, and only taking it out of the mode at lunch when I’ve got some work done. Your mind is often at its most clear and free as soon as you wake up — it’s been reset. So with that in mind, if you have work to do, maybe try and use the mornings to your advantage by keeping them social media free.
Deleting Apps: Slightly more radical, but maybe try deleting social media apps after you use them. This way you’ll have to redownload them whenever you want to use them.
Increasing the number of steps between the emergence of the urge to go on social media, and actually being on it, gives you more time to check yourself and avoid it. If you have to go to the app store, download the app, sign in etc, you’re much more likely to swerve it and just keep doing what you were doing.
Leaving your phone at home: More radical yet. Blasphemous some would say. Try to not carry your phone around with you when you have a lot of work to do (or just all the time if you’re that disciplined).
This can really supercharge mental clarity, and reduce that temptation to scroll and message. You’d be surprised how not difficult this is once you get over the initial hurdle. People did it for thousands of years I’ve been told.
Fair enough, you may want to listen to music, but is it that bad to just listen to the birds for 10 minutes on your walk to the library?
Actually doing it all… simple, right?
Well, it is simple… in theory. But that doesn’t make it easy to put these things into practice. You’re not always going to be able to follow these rituals and habits, but that’s fine.
The important thing is to maintain that constant awareness of what’s healthy for you, and what’s not. Doing this will naturally guide you through life in a way which is considerate of your health. The improvements in mental clarity that this enables can really make those hours of work count, freeing up a lot more time for the important things in life.
University, of course, is a great infrastructure for academic education, but the Uni environment can also be an equally valuable experience for social education. You’ll forge close relationships, meet a diverse range of people, and gain a deeper understanding of social dynamics.
Through interacting with an eclectic array of personalities with varying values, it will allow you to recognise where your own values lie, thereby providing you with a deeper and more authentic understanding of yourself.
Film, Photography & Media Graduate 2019