Dear Recent Grad: It’s OK to Slow Down
I’m a recent grad with a Health Sciences degree who is facing difficulties with slowing down. Does there need to always be something I am working on? Do I need to always be working on all of my projects? Keeping on top of everything? Growing and improving in measurable ways? It feels like my mind is not in my control, and that I cannot stop it from running at full speed.
It has been this way for a long time and to be honest with all of you, it has been extremely difficult to write anything cohesive as a result for over a year. Here I am, trying to unpack it through writing. Let’s see what happens.
Photo by Yuvraj Singh
Exhibit of Racing Thoughts: October 19, 2019: 2:25pm
My thoughts: What should my writing app be? It needs to have export features to WordPress. It has to be smooth and easy to use. Simple. Oh, it needs cross-platform use. Shoot, then this one won’t work. I’m trialling 3 different apps right now and one of them has to work. Well, maybe I could try writing a post on each and see which one makes the most sense.
Why am I even thinking about this so much? I could literally just write using a plain old text editor. I know markdown language. Wait… do I? Should I look up a Wikipedia page? Ooh, look at this productivity YouTube video. I love Thomas Frank. I should write notes.
Which notebook? I have so many. I think this one I wanted to use as my idea notebook. It’s so pretty. I am so glad I bought it. Why am I wearing my Fitbit? I’m literally sitting at my desk. Taking it off.
Ok, back to the notebook. Darn, it doesn’t stay open very well. Where’s my… oh yeah, here it is. I can use this clamp to keep it open. Isn’t typing more efficient though? Oh wait, which tab was I on? Why do I have so many windows open? Here’s the video. I don’t remember what he was talking about. Should I start from the beginning?
Wait, wasn’t I trying to find a writing app to use? What happened? Ok, back to the writing app. This one has dark mode which is nice when I’m writing night posts, exports to WordPress, and is formatted in a way that is inspired by Ulysses. This might work. But I don’t really have good ideas to share right now.
Shoot, it’s already 3:20. I haven’t done anything productive today. I just did laundry. I should eat soon. There’s some leftovers in the fridge from yesterday’s dinner…oh wait but I need to use my rice and my pasta sauce soon. It’s going to go bad if I leave them too long and I hate food waste. You can’t really make a dish using rice and pasta sauce at once though…I’ll have to get crafty. Should I get more tupperwares? Darn, I was supposed to bring some from home. But they might be packed away in the storage cube anyway.
I should have some lunch.
What am I noticing?
In general, there is this overall theme in my mind that if I am going to do something, even something that I have done before well and in a way that was useful for others, I need the perfect setup. I think this is especially the case when I want to return to doing something I love that I hope will serve others in some way.
This is a mentality that has been carried over from my years earning a health sciences undergrad degree. I remember the constant pressure to find the best possible way to complete my tasks in the least amount of time. I used writing as a way to practice being more accepting of the highs and lows of my productivity – to practice accepting myself in the moment.
You see, I love writing. Writing is something that has genuinely helped me in the past to cope with some of my toughest times. Part of my struggle in 2019 with my mental health stemmed from my difficulty to come back to this safe space (my blog) from a long writer’s block. There was some trauma that made things complicated for me. The messaging I was used to putting out on my blog no longer resonated with me as a result.
Taking a break from things that are linked to trauma is understandable, and so I am trying to see the situation for what it is and work from self-acceptance.
In this self-acceptance, I am noticing several things.
1. My inability to slow my mind down is coming from a place of self-imposed urgency.
One of the struggles I have had with my own perfectionism is never feeling like what I am doing is productive enough. I noticed in my free write of my thoughts that I was constantly looking for both the ‘most urgent’ task and the ‘best method’ to tackle that task.
But my mind could not settle itself on any one task because within any task would come a large number of micro decisions, all of which I was attempting to find the ‘best answer’ to. And while I was trying to find the best answer, I would be pulled into something else that was distracting but potentially ‘more productive and more urgent than what I am currently doing’.
I think that the root of all of this is that I have been very non-accepting of inefficiencies for most of my life and especially in undergrad. It is another form of the classic, “I won’t start because it won’t be perfect” conundrum that many individuals with perfectionism face.
In this day and age, with new amazing productivity apps popping up on the daily, it is easy to get sucked into the culture of finding the best of the best. For myself, it has been extremely difficult to imagine ‘wasting time’ on using an app that is not the best for my use case, or spending time on something that won’t bear any important fruit. I always wanted to produce at maximum capacity and at maximum efficiency, at all times.
I had to ask myself… how come? There is absolutely no one breathing down my neck telling me that I need to write. That I need to create. That I need to read more, produce more, and be more. It is all self-imposed. How come?
2. A manifestation of my anxiety is trying to over-control everything that supposedly is in my control.
The terrible thing about the perfectionism spiral is that it does the exact opposite of what you want if it gets to the extreme. By imposing impossibly high standards on myself all the time and inevitably missing my own targets, I become more and more resistant to trying new tasks. This causes some degree of stagnation, and this, for me, feeds my anxiety.
Once my anxiety is fed, it makes everything that I do, productivity-related or not, a source of immense stress. I would then usually blame it on my lack of a solid productivity system that ‘actually works for me’, and then think (usually falsely) that my life is in disarray, and then I would sprint to try and fix everything from the ground up.
Am I using my apps effectively? Am I getting all my household chores done? Do I know exactly when my pasta sauce has to be used before it goes bad? Is there zero lint on my clothes when they come out of my dryer? How do I stop the lint? Do I need to go out and get something for daily living that’s nagging my mind because I keep forgetting to buy it? Are yellow lights better than white lights? Do I need to tidy my room Marie Kondo -style again?
…You get the idea. And, I definitely would not accomplish the tasks that I would typically set out to do as well as I might have if I had slowed down. The concern with this as a recent grad is that now, the targets are oftentimes immeasurable (save for if you have a position with clear targets). As an undergrad, one could see the ‘effect’ of one’s ‘effort’ through grades, and it was somewhat easier to modulate and experiment when we knew we could reliably see the ‘effect’.
Now, as a recent grad, I am finding myself trying to work toward an immeasurable standard in every area of my life. I suddenly want to control all the variables I can about how I live, work, and play, and there is no reliable ‘effect’ that shows the fruits of my effort. All I have is my perpetual anxiety, which does not seem to be ceasing no matter how organized I am making my life. There are simply too many uncertainties once you leave the structure of the traditional educational system, and my attempts to clarify all of them have flopped.
3. I am resistant to slowing down because I am constantly trying to make time for something else by doing something else more efficiently.
I notice myself in a flawed “if, then” loop.
I seem to believe that “if I do x, then I will have time to do y” is a phenomenal way to live. It may very well be, but not when it happens more like, “if I do A, then I will have time to do B, which will then allow me to do C…” and so on and so forth in this infinite stream of wishful productivity.
This is not healthy for me, because thinking about my life tasks in this way ultimately means I never pause, and I never reflect, and I never appreciate my accomplishments. It is always, ‘on to the next!’. It is a constant flow of dissatisfaction.
Realizing this made me wonder where this mode of thinking arose from. It didn’t take long for me to see that it was yet another natural result of my transition from life as an undergrad student to life as a recent grad in the workforce.
As an undergrad, I was used to routines. Although I battled with very unhealthy routines (i.e., allocating very little to no time on rest) for much of undergrad, my life was predictable. I knew what my deadlines were, I knew who my group members were, and I knew where I had to be at any given time.
But now that I have graduated, suddenly all my time has become my own, instead of someone else’s. I have a job for the next two years before I continue my education, so apart from the 20 hours a week I dedicate to this job, my time is entirely my own. There is no homework. No group members expecting me to do more (real or my perception). For the first time in 23 years, it isn’t me in a school, it’s me in the whole world.
I am used to there being an end to my “if, then” line of thinking. The endpoint was the deadline of the assignment. The purpose of all of my efficiency-seeking in life tasks was to have more time to contribute better quality work toward my school assignments. But right now? There is no endpoint. So the “if, then” never ends.
4. I have anxiety about branching out and trying new things, so I am trying to be the best I can possibly be at things I already know how to do…and as quickly as possible.
I am imagining that right now, the biggest “if, then” I harbour is that IF I can get all the things I already know how to do to a near-perfect level, I can then feel safe to go beyond my comfort zone and explore. Because, I think to myself, if I fail, I can hop back to my comfort zone where I know that I am competent.
Although I have done plenty in my new position that are outside of my comfort zone: co-facilitating a class of about 150-200 students, advocating for more hours/week, and addressing rooms full of high ranking university officials, I have yet to do anything truly outside of my comfort zone.
All my energy is currently going toward building a version of myself that can maybe handle rejection and failure outside of my comfort zone, when perhaps, I need to put some of my energy into deciding to try new things.
After all, if I can recall for just a moment one of the reasons why I decided to take my current job… I wanted to explore what life is like outside of being a student. My identity was extremely rooted in being “a 4.0 GPA student”, and I wanted to finally, FINALLY explore who I was outside of this.
5. I have incredible anxiety about financial security.
And this is the touch of reality to the post. I am a recent graduate with about $25000 of OSAP debt, and that is including the $3000 I was able to pay off over our 6-month grace period (where interest still accrued).
I realize that this is a very typical scenario for recent graduates in Ontario, and that students attending other schools may be digging into much deeper debt, but it does not rid of the fact that I face distress as a result of my debt.
Moreover, my current position involves doing work that I find very fulfilling, but I do not have enough hours to cut away at my debt, save, or go on little outings.
I budget 2 months in advance because of my anxiety when dealing with money and because I have depression. I am constantly mired by fear that I will face a time where I will not be able to afford my rent, or pay for food because my health will fail for an extended period of time.
Dear recent grad, it is OK to slow down. It is HARD being a recent grad. Your struggles are valid.
Recent grads, we are in a tough time of transition! My main message for you all is that you don’t have to figure everything out immediately. We have developed our student muscles of hustling hard every single day… but not all of those muscles are transferable to life outside of education. And that is OK!
It is 100% OK to slow down. To contemplate where you are, and where you’d like to go from here. Take a step forward, sideways, maybe three back and then four diagonally.
Save for pragmatics such as making sure you are making enough income to pay your rent and your debt payments, if any (i.e., to survive in this world), it is 100% OK to slow down and take some time to think. You have a degree, but that degree probably didn’t give you a step-by-step for how to live the rest of your life (wouldn’t that be nice!!).
I am hoping that perhaps some of the things I am living through in terms of my thought patterns may help those with a similar experience. For students heading into graduation soon…please don’t be scared by the struggle I’ve depicted here! All life transitions throw difficulties at you… but remember that you are not alone.
In terms of the large gap in my posts… I think what is most important for me to remember is my core value of authenticity. If I hope to assist others, I will need to continue practicing writing about all types of life cycles I go through – not just the ones where I have a clear positive message. This too is a practice toward embracing imperfections.
Always remember to love (ARTL),