By Katy Hempson
Time at Cambridge moves faster than normal.
Sure, maybe from a physics perspective it doesn’t (I’m not a physicist, I wouldn’t know), but I’m starting to become alarmed by the number of times I look at my watch, see its 7pm and yet feel as though I only woke up 5 minutes ago. I’ve come to associate term time with this chaotic yet enjoyable blur of activity – whether I’m working, exercising, socialising, cooking – I’m rarely conscious of it until suddenly it’s the evening and time to start winding down before I go to sleep, ready to repeat the frantic cycle again the next day. I thought this would be life for the rest of term, but alas, the announcement of an impending national lockdown has turned the next few weeks on their head. It’s quite difficult to be and/or feel busy when you can’t leave your house, and you’re mostly confined to the same 4 walls for the rest of term. When you have to study, eat, sleep and relax (and possibly even exercise) in these same 4 walls, maintaining any semblance of normality can feel quite impossible.
The workload of a Cambridge student is always rather immense, and whilst I know that everyone’s experience is unique and there are many different ways of managing it, I’m the type of person who needs to make the rest of my life as busy as possible to balance out the academic side. I spent last year going to as many social events and nights out as I could, as well as attending various talks and learning to row at our college boat club. This year, with formals, swaps and events largely cancelled or online, I turned to joining various societies, as well as exercising more and being an LBC, as a means of distracting myself from the ever-present lectures, supervisions, essays and flashcards. It was going OK, up until last Friday, when various news channels began to report stories of a second lockdown. Any notion of retaining this new normal quickly vanished as Boris announced restaurants and coffee shops would be closing (read: no meeting friends for dinner or afternoons studying in Caffé Nero), no university sport would be going ahead (goodbye rowing) and no households mixing indoors. The days ahead quickly began to loom over me, and that expanse of time that I could barely recall occurring most days now felt overwhelmingly vast. I struggled a lot in the previous lockdown – working from home, with no set schedule and no way to escape from work was something I found very difficult, and when you combine that with worry for the health of your family and friends and financial concerns, it became difficult to bear. There’s no shame in being honest when you’re struggling, but I found it difficult to admit to anyone that things weren’t going well, particularly when many people seemed to be coping just fine. In hindsight, I should have said something sooner – I was very much not alone in what I was experiencing and I’ve now got access to resources that I wished I’d had earlier.
Which brings me onto what I actually want to discuss – how to manage (somewhat) during the second lockdown. Arguably, things are a bit different this time – the majority of us are in Cambridge, education is allowed to remain open and there aren’t restrictions on leaving the house for exercise to name but a few things. You also get the sense that everyone is in it together – Cambridge isn’t strictly a campus but the city is very much dominated by students, and there is a sense of unspoken solidarity amongst the colleges and students. Even though the lockdown started in week 5 (classic Boris), I’m not going to try and approach the rest of term like I normally would. Whilst it’s easy to think that a lockdown means there’s plenty of time to get work done and by extension place high academic expectations on yourself, I’ve learned from experience that it’s just not feasible, for me at least. If anything, it’s even more important than normal to prioritise looking after yourself, and to praise yourself for the small things. I can’t speak for what will work for everyone, and I’m very much just trying to get through the term instead of creating this unrealistic routine that maximises productivity. That being said, there’s a number of things that I want to try and do to make lockdown more manageable for me – many of these build on Student Minds Cambridge’s tips for coping over lockdown.
Get enough sunlight and time outdoors – Season Affective Disorder (SAD) is a well-exhibited condition, and most people tend to feel a bit more down in the winter time, even if it doesn’t reach ‘clinical’ levels. I am very much one of those people, so I’ve been trying to get up just before sunrise most days to maximise the amount of daytime I can enjoy. Whilst I’m sure many people will not even remotely consider getting up at 6:45am everyday, I’d urge you all to try and get up slightly earlier than you currently do to make the most of the few hours of sunlight we get. Try and make sure you get outside at least once a day, whether it’s for a walk, a run, or just a bit of time sat on a bench in a green space or by the river, and consider taking a vitamin D supplement if you think you might need it.
Create a routine – the vast majority of my work is online and most of it isn’t live, meaning I can be very flexible about when I work. However, leaving things until I feel like doing them isn’t really an option for me as I’m exceptionally prone to procrastination. Therefore, I’ve tried to schedule a vague timetable for myself, with the early morning for (non-academic) reading as well as exercise, the late morning and early afternoon for working, a break in the evening to relax by myself or spend time with my housemates, then a bit more work before I wind down and go to bed. Alongside this, I make a daily to do list of everything I want to get done in the day, and this includes academic work as well as things like going for a run, doing laundry or finishing another few chapters in whatever book I’m reading. However, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get everything done that you want! Everything is that little bit harder at the moment, and there’s no point in being overly ambitious and expecting a productive day every day.
Make time for the things you enjoy – I cannot emphasise this one enough. Whilst I know that many people will be unable to participate in their usual social, societal or sporting activities, it’s really important to set aside some time each day to do something you enjoy. This might be reading, listening to music or playing an instrument, doing some kind of zoom social event or even watching some Netflix, whatever is a break from work and makes you feel a bit happier. I often find at Cambridge that I feel guilty if I’ve got free time and I’m not working, but it’s unrealistic to expect us to work nonstop. Dedicate some time each day to these things, regardless of whether you think you’ve done enough work or not.
Socialise with others – I’m very fortunate to be living in a house with my close friends, but I know that many people aren’t in this position. Whilst zoom socials aren’t as good as seeing people in person, it’s far better than spending all your time alone in your room! You could also meet up with one friend at a time to go on a walk with, or exercise together if that’s something you both enjoy. Many societies will be running virtual events during this time, and Student Minds Cambridge runs a weekly tea and chat session on Wednesday evenings where you can meet people from across the university and have a chill and relaxing time with other people. If you do live in a household with friends, try and do something fun as a household from time to time – have a film or games night, cook dinner together or order a takeaway, maybe have a cocktail/mocktail night.
Be kind to yourself and others, and seek help if you need it – As I said earlier, there’s no shame in reaching out if you need help. Remember that these are unprecedented times and it’s okay for Academic Rigour TM to take a back seat for the time being. If you need support, contact your college’s welfare officers, your tutor, your porters or find various other resources here: https://studentmindscambridge.wordpress.com/find-urgent-support/
Look after yourselves, and stay safe xx