Agony Aunt – Second Semester Has Worn Me Down: How Do I Push Through These Final Weeks?

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Although some of us may be more prone to it than others, there’s always a time during the second semester when we all feel that ‘mental fatigue’ which has been accumulating since the start of the academic year. It’s normal and it’s simply the result of attending lectures and seminars, taking notes, doing day-to-day coursework, preparing for exams and assignments, and so on. Sadly, our internal rhythm is not necessarily aligned with external commitments, and while we feel perhaps ready to pack our bags and sprawl under the sun, there is still some time before the end of the semester and with it, a few more things to attend to. 

I remember that, a few years ago, when I was doing my Master’s, I reached that stage of ‘mental fatigue’ VERY early on. It was only November and I genuinely felt exhausted. It was then pointed out to me that I should probably move towards a more ‘sustainable approach’. Over the years, I have found my own definition of what is ‘sustainable’ for me and I still use that now, in the second year of my PhD. It’s important to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but hopefully some of you will find some inspiration in this. 

First of all: stop for a moment to acknowledge that you’re tired. Sounds weird, I know, but it really is the first step. Most of the time, we are so caught up in our routines and to-do lists, that we start to ‘resist’ that feeling of exhaustion, probably because we fear that it might slow us down. However, it is crucial to pause, take a deep breath and simply admit to yourself: ‘I am tired’. There’s almost a sense of liberation in it and it allows you to tune into what your mind and body are trying to tell you: you’ve reached a new stage and it’s time to make some changes. 

My advice is to start looking at how you distribute your workload during the day. Be gentle to yourself and embrace a certain degree of flexibility. You might find it tempting, as spring approaches and days get longer, to just be outside and go for walks. Do it. Go for a walk just after lunch, for example, then come back and continue what you were doing. You might end up finishing later, or having more to do the next day, but at least you have listened to your body (and mind) and you have taken a break when you most needed one. That is, for me, the key to productivity.

Most of the time, we think that in order to be productive, we need to sacrifice things. But when you’re feeling mentally tired, you need to start from what makes you happy. Instead of rewarding yourself at the of the day, start your day with that reward or ‘sprinkle’ it throughout. Take regular breaks, go for a walk or a run, call a friend or listen to your favourite podcast, and then bring that sense of playfulness into your work.  

If you’re interested in more ‘technical’ time management tools, you can try the ‘pomodoro technique’ (just Google ‘pomodoro technique’ and you will find the official website along with other resources). Simply put, this technique helps you break down your working day into smaller intervals of 30 minutes each. You work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break, and you keep repeating that until you take a longer break. You can adjust this to your own pace, but what is crucial here is that knowing that you will have a break every so often helps your brain feel more active and gives you something to look forward to. 

Finally, on the importance of looking forward to something, always try to visualise an end point, no matter how long or short-term. It could be your last assignment before the Easter break or your final exam in May; think about that and what comes next, maybe that holiday that you’ve been waiting for, or just some well-deserved rest, full of your favourite activities or catch-ups with friends. Life is stressful, but it should also be ‘sustainable’.   

Giulio Bajona