I'm a Workaholic, and I Hate Saying No To Being Busy

With only less than two weeks until graduation, my friends and I were tackling our college bucket list. We gathered everyone into one room to figure out what the plan was.

As we all listed out the activities we wanted to cover before graduating—hiking a mountain, a day trip into the city, decorating our caps—a trend began to emerge. Everyone was too busy to make time for the list.

We all had the same very real excuses:

“I have a meeting for my major that day!”

“I’m at my internship.”

“I’m spending that day studying for my final.”

In the end, we weren’t all able to do every single item on our bucket list. We had to split up; some of us made it to some events, and others went to others. I took a midnight walk around campus, but I didn’t go hiking. There was too much to do at once: say goodbye to friends, enjoy our time on campus, and also prepare for the future. I had job interviews lined up, and I was preparing for a post-grad move into a new apartment. I was researching new cars and thinking about whether or not to buy one, since my 1998 Buick was nearing 200,000 miles. I was planning my graduation party and thinking about graduate school classes for fall.

How do we balance it all? How do we decide that it’s time to say “No,” and enjoy life in the moment?

This was a question I struggled with throughout my four years in undergrad—and to be honest, as a full-time graduate student with a full-time job who also writes and volunteers on the side, I’m still struggling with it. There were times in college when I spent a late night with my friends and stayed up until four in the morning, only to wake up at eight to go to my internship, exhausted and drowning in yawns, because I couldn’t choose.

I’ve always believed that our friends, family and happiness are the most important things. My mom died young, and it really shaped the way I make time for the people I care about. I’m also a hard worker—and if I’m being honest, a bit of a workaholic.

It was easy for me to learn to say “No” sometimes when I was in college. My rationale was that my time there was limited; it had a definite ending. I only had four years on campus, four years with my friends all living within walking distance. There were times that I did homework as much as a month in advance so I could free myself up for spontaneous movie nights. It was possible only through intense time management; I kept track of as many deadlines as possible as early in advance, and if surprises came up, I sometimes sacrificed sleep and my own free time so I could make schoolwork and my campus community my priorities.

For some of my friends, it wasn’t easy. Depending on the demands of their coursework, their major, their internships or co-ops, not everyone had flexibility to always hang out. And I didn’t understand why—until I graduated.

Now that I’m out of undergrad, life doesn’t seem so short. There is no time limit, no “I only have four years here.” Instead, everything seems pressing, like I need to do exceptionally well in my graduate coursework and in my early career choices, because these decisions will decide the trajectory of the rest of my life. I’m in a competitive field—publishing and online media—and there’s a constant pressure to be the best of the best. And I’m not the only one. One of my friends is in law school, my girlfriend works and is a graduate student and another friend is in a rigorous occupational therapy graduate program. When I asked him about hanging out this summer, there were only two dates he was free because his program is year-round—and one of those dates didn’t work for me, because I work full-time during the week.

As college students and young adults, how do we decide when to put our work away and spend time not only with our friends and family, but also alone? Being alone is critical, and even as an extrovert, I really value it as time to recharge my creative energy and brainstorm ideas. Some of the best creative moments happen during downtime—when I’m not busy bombarding my brain with signals, when I’ve given myself a few hours to just live.

It sounds sad, but the only way to hack this is through scheduling. I hate the idea of scheduling my friends into my life, but I do it. Because I work, go to school and volunteer, if I don’t make time for fun, it won’t happen. My friend who’s studying to be an OT recently joked, “Sometimes, when I have more than an hour of free time, I still can’t relax, because I keep thinking, ‘What am I forgetting about doing?’” He hit the mark completely, because that’s exactly how I feel, especially during the throes of finals and big projects at work. But I force myself to carve out time. I schedule blocks of time to spend with my girlfriend, my friends, my family and by myself.

It’s difficult for me to leave work early—even if I’ve come in early that day—so I can meet friends for a book signing event, but I make myself do it. We all need relationships with the people in our lives, and downtime with ourselves, to prevent complete burnout from doing too much at once. If I have to schedule my time in order to say “No” to taking on too much, then I’ll keep doing it as long as it works for me.