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My Stanford Years: A Guide to Reducing Stress
Stanford University. My dream school. A prestigious university that would challenge me intellectually. A place where I could meet others who also had a joy for learning. A place where I would be stretched to my limit emotionally.
With mountains of homework to complete conflicting with a desire to have a social life, stress was a constant companion. I needed to find ways to minimize my stress while maintaining a strong work ethic. I graduated, so I believe that points to some level of success. Here are a few tips I learned to help manage my stress levels while in school, tips which should be easily adaptable to other stressful situations.
Make a List
A rudimentary skill, making a to do list can have far reaching consequences when it comes to reducing stress. Making a list gives two benefits:
1. You can ease your mind from the burden of remembering everything that has to be done.
2. The act of marking off completed actions can improve your mood drastically, better enabling you to tackle the next item on the list.
That said, there is a wrong way to create a to do list. If you think too big, you can end up putting together a list that intimidates you into non-action. I often do this to myself; I will need to clean a room, but I will delay that until I have the time to completely reorganize my storage. After all, I tell myself, how can I effectively clean and organize if I do not have the proper organization scheme in place? What I should do instead is start small and organize a single drawer of bookcase when I have the time. In the end, it is best to break down bigger actions into smaller ones so that everything seems more manageable and actual progress can be made.
For example, when I needed to write a paper at Stanford, I would often break it into sections. My to do list would look something like this:
- Write intro
- Write body
- Write conclusion
- Write bibliography
In essence I am breaking a larger project into smaller actions. By giving myself small, concrete steps to completion, I am setting myself up for success. It also has the added benefit of giving me more to check off on my list, so I can feel like I am making substantial progress.
Make It Easier to Focus
Stressful situations are one part work to be done and another part the circumstances under which you are completing that work. The work cannot be changed, but the circumstances can. Have you ever heard of the phrase "set yourself up for success"? Changing the circumstances under which you are completing the work does just that (the opposite is just as true, as you can easily set yourself up for failure by trying to complete your work in the wrong environment).
Students go to libraries when working in the dorm becomes impossible with the number of distractions present. But with so many libraries on campus, there are many different choices with different "vibes" if one is seeking the perfect place to get work done. I always preferred Green Library.
Green Library is the main, general library at Stanford. It is very much like any other library, with stacks and stacks of books complete with studying cubicles (or more open reading rooms if you prefer). I liked the darkness of the library, but not so much the quiet. I would always have my earphones in with music on low. The darkness, the cubicle isolation, and my sound barrier created a little world in which it was just me and the work. When I really needed to buckle down and get something accomplished, this is where I would go. My roommate preferred the law library, a much more open environment with comfy chairs, when she had to do her studying. To each his own. Find whatever helps you focus and stick with it.
But do not forget that even with all external factors set to your liking, one thing can still be in the way of completing your work: yourself. Human beings to have varying attention spans, and it is good to recognize and work around your own. Whenever I studied in Green Library, I chose to do so on the second floor by the windows facing the coffee kiosk outside. If I was reaching a breaking point, I would be reminded that a trip downstairs to get a cup of coffee would be the opposite of counterproductive.
In essence? Find a place in which you can be productive. This is a personal choice. And if you are still having trouble concentrating? Find a place where you feel comfortable and go there, without your work.
Take a Moment to Get Away
Sometimes the easiest way to deal with stress is to run away from it, at least temporarily. I often find it difficult to remain calm when literally staring at the mountains of work before me. Go somewhere calming, where you can relax. Do something beneficial, like exercise (as long as exercise is not a stressful activity for you). Whenever I felt particularly stressed or overwhelmed, I would take a midnight stroll or bike ride.
Now I would not suggest that you go out in the middle of the night in an unsafe area just to cure your stress. That sounds like a recipe for more stress, in fact. What I do suggest is that you find an activity that is calming and peaceful for you. My midnight bike ride was exactly that for me.
Stanford during the day is filled with people everywhere, but at night most people are in their dorms, leaving the campus beautifully empty. At night the lights illuminate the gorgeous architecture of the school, creating another type of world to explore. I would usually pass by the Cantor Arts Center to stroll around the Rodin sculpture garden, watching those statues, and the Gates of Hell in particular, come to life. This exploration of campus eased my worried mind, the exercise increased my endorphins (which simplistically, make you happy), and I felt better equipped to do what needed to be done.
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Great Ways to Take a Break
If you cannot take the time to get away, take the time for a mental break. This might seem counterproductive, as you are taking away time that could be spent accomplishing what needs to be done, but taking a mental break will allow you to return to work with a better mindset, ultimately making you more productive within the time you have.
This trick with this is to make sure you do not get too distracted. The internet is a wonderful resource, but it can also trap you in the most ridiculous time consuming activities. Watch one or two videos on YouTube, not twenty. Play a game that has a specific endpoint, not one where you constantly try to improve your score (try some of the escape games at the link to the right). Use these breaks as rewards for accomplishing something on your list or for working for a given period of time.
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