Increasing courseload in quarantine? Take it easy

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You won’t get as much done at home as you may think

By Hammad Ali, Contributor

Taking courses exclusively online, it seems, will be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future. My first reaction to this realization was that it was a good thing. There’s no need to commute and get around campus, and there might be room for flexibility throughout the day. Over time, however, the challenges also became apparent.

Online classes are a poor substitute for in-person ones. Since high school, one of the biggest ways I learn is by asking questions during lectures, and also listening intently when someone else asks a question I had not even thought of. While this can be done on Zoom, I have to contend that it is not the same.

Even before we get into how to compensate for the shortcomings of online lectures, however, there is another question that should be asked. What is the best way to manage your courses when school is all online? I remember reading once that writers should aim to write the story they wish someone had written. In that same vein, I am writing this piece today because I wish someone had written it for me to read and ponder about over the summer. If this helps some of us think about how to manage our learning, it will be time well spent.

Firstly, many of us have been feeling that we need to ‘make the most’ of the apparent flexibility of school being online, and possibly staying home more than we usually would. We want to take on a huge course load, pick up some other skills, learn another language, and in general feel like we have been productive. This is admirable, but it could easily become harmful.

No one but you knows your situation. If you have the opportunity to work longer hours from home, and keeping yourself occupied helps you feel better, by all means, take on ambitious projects. However, do not feel like you are obligated to. The world right now is scary and uncertain. If all you can do is the bare minimum, and therefore need to unplug and care for yourself, then that is the best use of your time – not learning Spanish, or learning how to code, or finishing two years worth of college classes in six months. I myself took the time to sign up for online classes on things I have always wanted to learn, and it has been very helpful in giving me a small sense of accomplishment. However, there are also days when all I want to do is watch Netflix and nap – and that is exactly what I do. Everyone needs their downtime, some more than others.

I want to emphasize that last point a little more. At the beginning of this lockdown, I figured since I will be home all the time, I could work much longer hours. The hour of getting ready and commuting campus and back is saved. The meal prep times are more flexible. There is no reason why I cannot put in ten hour days, right?

I was wrong, and I think I know why. Physical spaces have mental effects on us. Working in the same space where I usually relax was not the same. Trying to compensate by working longer hours just made it more stressful, and I did not have the option of setting aside a part of the house as my study or work zone. So I would start each morning promising to work till practically bedtime, then feel stressed and unfocused, and before I knew it, another day had come to an end and I was not happy with how much I got done.

Then, I did something counter-intuitive. Instead of pushing myself to work longer, I decided to cut down the hours. I made a clear distinction between work hours and home hours. To quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book The Sabbath (in reference to the sabbath in Jewish observance), I created a boundary in time instead of one in space. I would start my mornings with a clear list of what things I must get done today, what things would be nice to get done, and keep in my mind the knowledge that everything else can wait. I also knew exactly when in the afternoon I could stop working, and have time for myself for detaching and recharging. To my surprise, I started being productive. I was getting more done in those set hours than when I told myself I have all day. In hindsight, it makes sense. When your mind knows there is no break or respite in sight, it rebels. When you tell your mind to focus and get things done, and then it will get to rest, you have given it incentive to get more done in less time.

For those of us feeling like they need to finish extra courses because they are at home all the time, by all means, try it out. But give yourself permission to change your mind, to do less and take time out as needed. At the end of the day, my only suggestion to all my peers out there is this: give yourself time to breathe, to do something you love, to just sleep in or cook a nice meal. A pandemic is not a time to get more done and work longer hours. Not everyone has the luxury to do that anyway. But even if you do, do not feel like you need to overwork yourself or get all your side projects done. You have to stay healthy, take care of your loved ones, and finish the school or work obligations needed to make sufficient progress towards your goals. Everything else can wait, especially with the world the way it is right now.

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