This time last year, I was wound tighter than a two dollar watch. I was juggling a full-time job with being a full-time graduate student. By my last semester, my stress levels were at an all-time high. I looked awful. Tension took up permanent residence in my forehead. The bags under my eyes were not designer. I forgot to eat. I wasn’t exercising. Nothing about that last semester was healthy.
My 12-hour days consisted of work, school, homework, repeat. In retrospect, practicing mindfulness would have helped.
Mindfulness has been a buzzword for the past few years, its principles appearing everywhere from professional literature to books like “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo. But does it actually mean anything?
Yes, it does. Mindfulness originated from Buddhist tradition, but I’m neither disciplined enough nor qualified to talk about that deep level of self-reflection.
I like this definition from Psychology Today:
“Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”
Very rarely did I live in the moment during my last semester of school. During work, I was stressing about my night class. During class, I was thinking about my school assignments. And while I was doing my assignments, I was thinking about how tired I would be the next morning at work.
Practicing mindfulness means staying in the moment. Constantly thinking about what’s next caused me more harm than good. The time spent worrying about everything other than the task at hand could have been used to complete my work more quickly. I was on auto-pilot, and my plane was taking a nose dive.
Once I graduated, having free time back again certainly helped me regain balance in my life. But these days, I’m making a conscious effort to be present in everything I do. I avoid multi-tasking. I map out every workweek in a detailed to-do list, and complete each item one at a time. I block off time on my calendar to have work sessions. I cherish my daily routines—having a peanut butter and banana English muffin every morning, and getting to work a few minutes early to have my coffee and settle in. I take time to stretch my legs and give my eyes a break from the glare of my computer screen. I have scheduled gym days. My personal favorite: At my desk, I have a framed picture of my dog in a graduation hat. Looking at that furface recenters me every time.
If you let it, work will try to consume you. Whoever you are, whatever you do—we all experience stress. It’s up to you to be mindful, and remember to chill the F out. We can’t burn out now. We have our whole lives ahead of us.