The Boundary Between Self-Care and Productivity

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I am very disorganised. I happen to have a brain that has no concept of time, jumps from one thing to the other, and often just feels unmotivated for no reason. ADHD is the name for it. For a while it badly affected my sleeping which made me constantly tired and even more unfocused. I have been working on sleeping better and looking after myself.

After having many extensions, despite my best efforts and experiencing serious burnout at the end of the first semester of this year, I have somewhat given up on submitting things on time. In my first and second year and even a few months ago, I used to pull all-nighters constantly to make academic ends meet. I even got good grades for it. Now it feels like I’m getting old, getting out of shape. I simply cannot make myself concentrate for more than a few hours a day.

The question is: should I somehow try harder? Or should I prioritise looking after myself, like I have been attempting to do? Where does the boundary lie between looking after your health and looking after your degree? Which one is more important?

Genuinely perplexed at 2AM, twelve hours before my deadline (that I spent weeks working on and yet still had not done), I googled “should students do all-nighters?” Lo and behold, the search results were mostly tips on how to pull them, with a few articles advising to consider being more organised and procrastinating less instead. Thanks, I’ll go undo my months of procrastination right now!

Obviously, one all-nighter won’t kill me – I would know, having pulled so many previously. It will, however, mess with my already difficult sleep pattern. It will make me non-functional for the rest of the day after the deadline (that I could spend working or doing something else productive). It will certainly increase the overall amount of stress and burnout feelings. The quality of my work will also not be as good as it could have been with some more time. (Did I mention I am also a huge perfectionist?)

On the other hand, extensions are an issue of their own. They push back the time you could have spent working on other deadlines… or, you know, relaxing. Or having hobbies. Or (gasp!) spending time with people. They are also slightly (and by that I mean incredibly) annoying to request with all the forms you have to fill in and make people sign. And there’s always this anxiety about coming across as lazy. Or the anxiety of not being granted it. Even though I pretty much always do, after spending a while worrying and moaning to my support mentor how much I wish I could just be a normal person whose brain can just concentrate and do things on time, I wish I did not have to constantly go through this.

In many ways, it is easier and better not to bother with extensions, get yourself together and get it done. But what if I can’t? But maybe I just convinced myself that I can’t, and I actually can and it’s simply a matter of laziness. These thoughts go round and round. What a ridiculous waste of time.

Does asking for an extension make me weak, or not trying hard enough? Does pulling an all-nighter for the sake of meeting deadlines make me a good student? To be frank, I do not believe in either of those things. But the prevalent culture at universities does not seem to agree with me. We are taught under tight deadlines and given strict penalties for not meeting them. It is not surprising that most, if not all students, pull all-nighters from time to time. We are expected to be organised, but from what I have seen of myself or my peers, no one is that organised all the time. No one is an essay-writing machine, ADHD or not.

I don’t know if there is an expectation on the uni’s side prioritises grades over mental and physical health, but there is certainly peer pressure to do just that. And I don’t know what I should do. I don’t know what I can do at this point – my mental processes are shutting down as I type this.

Oh God, I am a terrible student.

Or maybe I am just tired. Maybe I am just a human. Maybe I should get some sleep and come back to it later, after all.

…I just accidentally procrastinated on writing a bioethics report by writing an article. Well done, Magnus, well done.

(For any potential employers reading this: this is a work of fiction. Any similarities to any persons living or dead are purely coincidental. Everything I wrote in my cover letter about having good time management skills is absolute truth. I could show you my calendar and my planner and my Forest app right now. Actually, please forget this article exists.)

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Postscriptum.

I went to sleep, applied for an extension and went on to have a great day. Some people have also commented on this article when it was just a 4AM Facebook note. The consensus seems to be that there definitely is a culture of all-nighters, but in the end, exhausting your body and mind beyond their limits is not going to do your degree much good. Occasional stress happens, but if it’s constant, you might not even feel happy about your degree. Personally, I’d much rather enjoy what I’m doing. If that means I need a little more time, then what’s wrong with that?

This actually has helped with the concentration issue. When you give yourself space and sleep better, your productivity and your work will naturally improve as a result. I’m okay with working at a slower pace than others if that’s what is sustainable for me.

I would also like to present a thought to you. If we think our current work culture is unhealthy, shouldn’t we be the ones to change it? The uni seems to be on our side more often than not, so a big part of it is about confronting your own anxieties about underachieving. I wish to see more students prioritising their mental and physical health (and sleep!) when they can. In the end, you only have one body and one brain.

Taking care of yourself should be a long-term priority. I can’t say if it will result in more academic or life success, but it might bring you a different kind of success.

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