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Ask Aunty Annabel: Burnt out and blue? How to manage expectations of productivity

Artwork by Iris Bowdler

How do you manage your time when you always feel like there aren’t enough hours to do what you think you should be doing? It’s hard to find the balance between feeling unproductive and burning out.

To a burntout bud 

How apt that I should be answering your letter in the depths of Fifth Week – albeit if you’re anything like me and are a little bit blue from First Week, then Fifth Week Blues is a piece of cake (now that’s what I call logic.) Full disclosure here: this is absolutely the blind leading the blind. I have some of the poorest time management skills around. Take, for example, the fact that I’m busy worrying about your conundrum when I have an essay due tomorrow (is it done? Like hell it is). I’m a connoisseur of spending the entire week procrastinating, beginning an essay at midnight and finishing bang on the deadline at 8am before hitting the hay. It’s a technique which has served me reasonably well, though it has probably taken its toll on my sleep and the life expectancy of my long-suffering mother, who is forever fretting about my notorious all-nighters. So when I say, “do as I say and not as I do”, I really mean it. 

The fact is that the Oxford term is an incredibly intense one, and I’m afraid that burning out is probably always going to be an unavoidable part of that. That said, there are things you can do to reduce the severity and frequency of those burnouts. Firstly, I want you to analyse the language you’ve used here: “always feel like, “what you think you should be doing”, “feeling unproductive”. Don’t ‘should’ on yourself: what your language says to me is that this is as much about managing your own expectations and internal critic as it is the actual workload. You’re almost certainly not being ‘unproductive’, even if you feel that you are. Try to accept that you’re trying your best: you’re not a robot. We all experience lapses in concentration and focus, and very few of us can function at 100% productivity all the time. Reading Sylvia Plath’s journals recently, I was struck by her recurring feelings of inadequacy and sense that there was insufficient time to do all she felt she should be doing: “Oh, I was going to be a good girl and start studying yesterday, and go to the libe this morning… damn you: procrastinator!” she laments, and “I must admit, my enormous ignorances appal me but instead of feeling frustrated, I am slowly going to remedy the situation by reading and reading”, she resolves while at Cambridge. Now I ain’t saying that you’re going to turn out to be Sylvia Plath but what I am saying is that if a genius like Plath can bemoan her unproductivity and lack of knowledge, something tells me this might be about talented people like you simply being too harsh on themselves. 

Putting in the hours to make sure you don’t get entirely swamped by deadlines is, of course, pretty critical, and to an extent that is always going to make you feel slightly burnt out, but try to make sure you’re getting a minimum of eight hours sleep most of the time and taking time out to socialise, exercise, or do things you enjoy. The best advice I’ve ever been given is to treat your degree like a 9-5 job, so when you’re working in those hours, minimise distractions: work in libraries where you’ll be urged to focus by those around you and download the ‘Hold’ app to stop you from going on your phone. Follow my advice (as I wish I could) and you should manage to keep the hideous all-nighter at bay and extend the life expectancy of your mother by a decade at least. Beyond that, I encourage you to be generous with yourself and accept that sometimes the best you can do in the eight-hour day has to be enough. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. 

Yours in agony

Aunty Annabel

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Bella Stock

Bella is in her second year reading English at Teddy Hall.