Last Wednesday night, I sat down at my dimly-lit desk to finally start chipping away at my pile of homework for the night. After a day filled with classes, I knew I only had a couple hours to put in some serious academic effort before I needed to start getting ready for a party that night. After an hour had passed by, I realized my to-do list wasn’t getting any smaller, and that if I had any intention of honoring my commitment to go out I was going to have to sacrifice doing my hair. Another 15 minutes elapsed and I realized make-up was no longer an option. Once the possibility of a shower starting looking slim, I texted my friend to preface (and justify) the lack of effort I was putting in. She immediately responded, reminding me that if it was really that much of a hassle I should just stay in and finish all my homework.
…wait…I can stay in?!
This moment of realization came to me way later than it should have. After spending two quarters at Northwestern, most freshman have probably figured out the beauty of the word “no” already, but for those of you that haven’t, I want to share my new-found wisdom with all of you. YOU CAN SAY NO. Want to stay in bed instead of going to that 8 am gym class? You can! Want to eat in the dining hall instead of blowing all your weekly money on a fancy dinner? You can! Want to call your mom and do your laundry instead of spending your Sunday in the library? Okay, that example is mildly pathetic, but still—you can!
However, before you get carried away with this newfound freedom, you have to remember that sometimes, saying no isn’t the way to go. If you’re on the fence about what to do, here’s some advice:
Extracurriculars: Chances are, you went to that overwhelming activities fair in the beginning of the year and you put your email down to be on a million listserves (because your high school self is used to being unbelievably involved) and now you’re getting emails from clubs every day. Here’s a great place to start saying no, but not to everything. Pick two or three activities that you are really passionate about, and keep up with those. Extracurricular involvement can really help enhance your experience at Northwestern (and help connect you with people who share your interests), but if you do too much, you’ll find it really difficult to obtain leadership roles and maintain commitments.
Going out: Now, this one is tough coming from someone who hardly turns down a night out, but guess what? There will be other times for you to go to the same frat party, to see that new movie that will still be in theatres for another month, to go out to dinner at your favorite Evanston restaurant, or to drink overpriced watered-down cocktails at a bar. But don’t start passing up too many of these nights. So you’re choosing between studying for that big test and going out? Please study. However, try and make a goal for yourself to save one night a week for doing something special with your friends—whether that means getting together with some microwave popcorn to watch the newest episode of Scandal or going out to a party.
Group studying: “Let’s go to the library and study together.” I don’t know about everyone, but for me, saying yes to this sentence pretty much always culminates in spending three hours at a table in Mudd and reading about five pages. When you have a big test or problem set, collaboration has a pretty good chance at boosting your grade. But if you’re just writing a paper or reading a textbook, it’s okay to turn down the offer of falsely-advertised productivity to sit in a quiet space alone and work (I may or may not have locked myself in my dorm room for 24 hours to finish a final project last quarter). Just be sure to reward yourself with some human contact after so you don’t go insane.
Trying new things: If you get an offer to go downtown, try a new restaurant, attend a great concert or do anything that’s not necessarily part of your daily routine, say yes! College is all about having new experiences, so don’t pass up an interesting adventure because you’re feeling lazy. With valid reason, say no (i.e. don’t join in on the trip to the zoo if animals—or the smell of animals—really freak you out); but for the most part, keep an open mind when you’re confronted with these opportunities.
You can’t realistically do it all, but you can control what you choose to do. Hopefully, you’re now a little more empowered to introduce “no” into your daily vocabulary. I’m sitting at the same desk under the same harsh lighting that I was a week ago, looking down at my half-painted nails to see the results of my forgoing a manicure to write this article—and I can’t help but feel somewhat proud. Seven months into college and I’m finally learning how to prioritize—even if it means saying no to something as small as a fresh coat of polish.