To-do: Be Perfect

Frustrated Student StudyingThe other day I gave my backpack a much needed cleaning and came across this to-do list:

Wednesday To Do:
1. 2 hrs AP US reading: Get as far ahead as possible
Study for APES test/finish review questions–1hr 3. Hamlet Annotations (Act III and re-read/annotate Soliloquy)—1hr
Math Worksheet/get ready for quiz—1hr
Spanish Subjunctive Packet+Check Answers—20 min
E-mail Jamie about fundraiser plans
7. Check out volunteering for Chesapeake Bay Foundation
8. Plans for weekend??
9. Model UN research-1hr
10. Start WOOSH! Blog Post-:30min
Practice Guitar/Music theory sheets
If there’s time: Outline Kenyon essays
And this was only one of twenty or so old to-do lists, scribbled on old scraps of paper and notebooks corners. As I looked them over, I noticed an unnerving trend: I hadn’t finished a single one.

I remember writing this list. I was in history class. I couldn’t focus because of the nagging voice in my head that was berating me for getting a low grade on a math quiz.  And so I wrote the above list of to-dos in an effort to redeem myself, and my math grade. At the time, the over 7 hours of work on this list seemed like what any hardworking, motivated student is supposed to get done on a typical school day. Writing out this list lifted a huge weight off of me. I could focus again. I had it covered.  That’s why I’m a compulsive to-do list maker. Whenever I get bored or nervous, I write up a list and it makes me feel better. On that sheet of paper, I see my life achieving the perfect balance between work and social life. In the world of my to-do lists, I’m a total rock star.

When midnight rolled around,  I was too tired to focus anymore and my to-do list was still quite unfinished. I stared at my History textbook for another half hour and decided to go to bed. Then came the guilt. I set my alarm for 4 a.m.

I’ve never considered myself a believer in overachiever culture: the land where success is measured by grades and an rejection from an Ivy means a career in the service industry. I’d always described the competitive culture of my high school as superficial and annoying, and thought somehow I was above all of that. Now, I’m realizing that, while I still don’t consider myself a believer,  I definitely play by the rules. I genuinely want to push myself, to do my best. And there’s the rub. How do I define my best? I see my crazy friends “doing their best” by not sleeping,  devoting every second to being productive, and forgetting whatever effects it might have on their mental and physical health. We all realize that this system is crazy, but we live in a world where the definition of success is a 4.0 GPA; where not “succeeding” means laziness, and laziness is ugly. I’ve started to let my self worth be defined by these to-do lists and, more specifically, how many of the ambitious items on those lists I’m able to cross off each night before I collapse into bed. I know that I’m trying to live up to unreasonable expectations, that it’s unhealthy, but it’s the model I’ve been taught to follow. I guess I don’t know how to be driven in a way that’s not going to make me go insane in the process.

The tendency to define success in black-and-white, unachievable terms is not just at my school. It’s universal. Whether that definition deals with beauty, social status, or grades; our generation is obsessed with going overboard to achieve it. From an early age, kids are told that if they try hard enough, they can do anything. It’s a well-intentioned message, but when people inevitably fall short along the way, they think the blame lies with them.

As for me, the results of my new level of drive have been pretty disastrous. I’ve let my (already modest) social life disintegrate, I’m not happy and I’m constantly dissatisfied with myself. Oh and my grades aren’t even much better than they were before they became my obsession. I’ve been making myself sick. I’ve been missing school and when I am at school, I’m often so tired that I can’t focus. I know I need to reprioritize. I’m not sure quite yet how to do that, but for now I’ve resolved to go to bed by midnight on school nights, no matter how many things are left to-do. And to give myself at least an hour everyday to do something that won’t get me into college. Go to Yoga, take a walk, read a trashy magazine, whatever. It’s a start.

  1. Maddie Alpert

    Hey Bella!!
    Thanks for the comment! I completely relate to everything your saying and totally sympathize. I’m a pretty terrible procrastinator too. I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but I generally don’t let myself do anything fun, or take a nap when I’m too tired/unwilling to work, so I wind up going on facebook or something equally dumb and then never feel like I’ve actually had a break. And then as an added bonus wind up feeling more guilty than I would if I were doing something actually fulfilling. Not good.  
    I think another issue is that we compare ourselves to our friends too much. You say that your friends get way more done than you do, and I generally feel the same way, but I don’t know if that’s actually true. For me, I think that a bunch of my friends exaggerate the amount of work that they have and the minuscule amount of sleep that they’re getting. Anyway.
    Good luck surviving the rest of Junior year!!  

  2. Bella

    I know when people say this they usually don’t mean it, but I’m going to say it because I do-I understand what you’re going through and totally agree. I’m only a junior, but I am constantly appalled at how late I am staying up even to do the bare minimum of homework assignments I need to. I stay up so late that focusing and staying awake in classes is almost impossible by the end of the day. Moreover, I see my friends getting so much more work done than me, but they don’t sleep, and I know I would never be capable of pulling an “all nighter” just to finish my work. I seem to be always doing things now just so that I “look good” for college, but at the same time I feel as though I constantly procrastinate. I feel like the problem with a lot of students today, certainly including me, is that I feel like whenever I sleep in, have fun, or don’t get work done, I need to feel guilty that I am not being productive.

    Your idea of doing something un-college related for one hour each day, however, sounds essential and I will definitely do that when school starts up again and I need to worry about exams. I think that will help keep me sane! 🙂

    Thanks for your blog-post, it reminds me that other teens are enduring similar issues and still surviving. This awareness is most definitely what I need to keep me going.


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