Jeff Bell
October is always an interesting month at the University. For most, this is the time when school really starts. Students are facing their first round of midterms with little relief on the amount of homework they have due. I find that the month of October is particularly challenging to first-year students, many of whom have never had a proper midterm exam before.

It is very important to stop and take a moment to reflect this month. It’s all too easy to get swept away in all the work that continues to pile up. The following are a few things I have found ground me as school gets more difficult.

Keep a schedule

Logging tasks and upcoming events is a very easy first step towards feeling more comfortable when things start to get hectic. I keep a daily log of the events and tasks that I have coming up, as well as which things I completed that day. I also keep track of certain daily habits such as making my bed and brushing my teeth. Keeping track of these simple things helps to keep me feeling like I am accomplishing something each day.

It’s very important when creating a schedule to keep items small and digestible. When tasks are too large or too vague, they become very difficult to check off and you are left with a long list of uncompleted items. During the middle of a month like October, when school is particularly difficult, opening your to-do list and seeing a massive list of things you still have to do will not be good for your morale.

For example, consider that you have a deadline coming up for a project. It would be easy to put something like “complete project” on your schedule the day it is due and be done with it. There are some issues with this approach, however.

The first is that an item like this is very vague. What project is it? Is this for work or for pleasure? There are a lot of questions left around this undefined project which can inhibit productivity.

The second is that “complete project” is an enormous task. Keeping a schedule with items like this will make it very hard to stay organized with your project. Having smaller more specific items on your schedule will help you feel more accomplished because you’ll be able to check things off more frequently.

As an example, It is much better to label tasks like so: “create repo for cmake demo”. Notice that in five words I have managed to identify the specific task I need to do, create a new repository, and what it’s for, a CMake demonstration project.

I want to be clear that I am particularly trying to make a distinction between a deadline calendar and a daily schedule. Maybe your doing this project on GitHub and are keeping track of all the detailed tasks there. The point is, somewhere you should try to break down large projects into smaller detailed items. Doing so helps create a feeling of accomplishment because you will be checking more items off of your list more frequently.

Find a way to relax.

Figure out something that you can do that helps to take your mind off of school, work, and all of the “bad” things going on. For me, I play music. I have been playing guitar for a long time now, and have been in the Longhorn Band during my 4 years at UT.

Music helps me relax and calm my mind. It demands my attention, so I am still focused, but when I’m playing I try not to set expectations and simply lose myself in the music. Sometimes this is me laying on my bed, guitar in hand, piddling around playing nothing in particular. Other times it is me browsing the internet listening to some 1940’s big band music. Regardless, I am engaging myself with the song, rather than passively having it in the background.

I want to make it clear that this is different from practicing. While I can say that I definitely love learning a new song and working hard to make every note perfect, it is just as valuable to take a time to do what you know.

For example, I’ve recently been trying to learn the guitar solo in Renegade by Styx which, if you haven’t heard before, is fantastic but also fantastically difficult. There’s something about slowing down a solo like that and taking it one measure at a time that is really satisfying. In thirty minutes I can go from knowing nothing to being able to play a few bars at almost full tempo. While this is incredibly satisfying, it’s also a ton of work. Whenever I’m stressed, I find it much more beneficial to turn on a jazz backing track and make up my own solo.

Keep your fun things fun.

There’s a time for work, and a time for play. I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times, but I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to give yourself a break. The best way to maintain your productivity and sanity at the same time is to make sure that you separate the two spaces.

I’ve been very fortunate in my college career to be able to take a number of classes simply because I wanted to. For example, last Spring I took a tennis class. We met twice a week at the IM courts north of campus. It wasn’t the most convenient class to get to, but to this date, taking that class was one of my favorite decisions I made in college.

What I really appreciated about the class was that it gave me three hours a week where I wasn’t working. That same semester I was taking what is arguably the most rigorous course for UTCS students. I firmly believe that taking Beginning Tennis kept me going that semester. There was something about having a scheduled time during the week for me to just be outside enjoying the day that made the semester way more enjoyable.

Additionally, it was very interesting to me to see the attitude of other people in my tennis class. There was a pretty clear distinction between how some students handled the class as the semester got involved. A lot of students would show up obviously stressed about school. Whether they had a quiz coming up, or a lot of homework to do, there were many people who would let the stress of school impact their experience in the class. The most telling aspect of this was how many students stopped showing up once the semester got more difficult.

I had made the decision early on that whenever I was in tennis, I would not think about school. The result was surprisingly enlightening. When I took care not to let stress and anxiety enter my thoughts while I was playing tennis, I noticed that the days I had tennis I felt really good. I felt good about the exercise I was doing, I felt about the school work I was doing, and most importantly I just felt good about myself. By keeping my fun class separate from my work, I was able to stay happy with how things were going.


It’s way too easy to let work get in the way of your happiness. By slightly changing your approach to each day it is possible to become more productive and feel better about the work you are doing. Furthermore, you can do so in a way that helps to eliminate stress, and propel you through rough times of the year.