Reflection: Finding Your Balance

Connor Allen ’25 finds satisfaction in learning how to organize his life.

by Connor Allen | 1/11/23 2:20am

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by Emil Liden / The Dartmouth

According to an average Instagram scroll, there are a couple different types of winterim available to Dartmouth students, all of which have their pros and cons: 

1. Travel Europe via train. Have plenty of fun, but burn out your wallet and residual energy from the fall term. 

2. Type 1, but with family.

3. Stay home, visit college and hometown friends here and there, and relax your way to healthy but eventually uncomfortable boredom.

Like most, I opted for but really didn’t “choose” the third. Having a “Type 3” winterim experience is like returning home from weeks of musket battle in the hills to the homestead; we feel initially relieved but then unsatisfied by the mundanities of everyday life. This is certainly a hyperbole; maybe the sudden retirement of a traveling circus clown who specializes in juggling while unicycling for hours at a time is the more appropriate analogy. 

Either way, it feels odd to push the pause button after living 10 weeks of life at 1.5x speed. The sudden liberation from coursework, social time and extracurricular activities can feel disorienting and even unsettling, evidence of a Dartmouth term inducing a sort of Stockholm Syndrome. But all of this can be avoided with an important step, one that eluded me the previous winterim: self-scheduling. 

I’ve never really had to create my own schedule, with the permanent stack of coursework and extracurricular commitments serving to structure my time. Canvas even goes so far as to send me due date reminders and create a tidy calendar, making sure I never need to practice the incredibly valuable life skill of blocking out my own time.

The unique sadism of the quarter system not only creates the fast-paced lifestyle during the term, but also renders our breaks long and largely antisocial, due to the total misalignment of winterim with most winter breaks at other colleges. So, in the case of the type 3 winterim (i.e. not traveling to Europe), a free day can be made all the emptier by the hilarious lack of college-aged people at home. 

In my small-ish town, in early December, I walked into the grocery store and heads turned — I am the first 20-year-old seen in weeks and surely must have dropped out of school. I visited our classic hometown deli, certain to run into high school classmates, only to recognize two Dartmouth ’24s who happened to be passing through my town. To go from nearly exclusive interaction with 19- to 22-year-olds to none at all was jarring and surreal. 

So, rather than aimlessly float around in the winterim void, I did something that felt bizarre: I scheduled every day. I did all of the same things that I would have done regardless, like devouring TV shows and cooking and learning a new piece on piano, but this time it was done with structure and intention. It made all the difference. I finally felt what not being exasperated was like — uncomfortable but soon incredible. Since high school, I’ve thrived in a high pressure environment, with a never-ending stack of due dates hanging over my head. This is cortisol (the stress hormone) with a purpose, tuning my focus all the way up and increasing my productivity. I’ve gotten so used to feeling constantly frazzled, rushed and overwhelmed that, oddly enough, it is the headspace I’ve become able to channel into productivity and resolve. 

But this, I’ve since realized, is incredibly unsustainable, explaining why burnout hits me so intensely at the end of every term. Stress cannot be a stable long-term motivator. This winter was a perfect time block to experiment: Could I be as productive and fulfilled with a healthier schedule and a greater sense of balance? 

The answer, overwhelmingly, was yes. By externalizing all the due dates, plans and responsibilities that had been hanging over my head onto a simple Google calendar, I was able to be as productive and not even slightly bored at home, all without a constant, pounding feeling of stress. Oddly and incorrectly, I always subconsciously prided myself on my lack of organization; somehow, amid a whirlwind of assignments and activities, I’ve been able to get everything done — like some mad savant with crazed eyes and an aura of mystery. This thinking is silly and useless.

My default response to “How was your break?” is the honest and polite reply: “Pretty fun, relaxing but a little boring.” It really is true, though. I had a downright pleasant break, regardless of how unsexy it appears on paper: I learned the merit of organization and structure. I practiced a balanced, calm lifestyle. I tried out new routines and found good ways to make my days less stressful. I now understand the point of buying materials at Staples. I now have more than a laptop and a pen in my backpack. 

Lingering in the back of my head was the suspicion that this might be great practice for my adult lifestyle: organized, routine-intensive, balanced, responsible and fulfilling. But I sure hope my future self still holds on to my young twenties sense of opportunity and adventure, and is able to work spontaneity into the aforementioned balanced schedule. To imagine a wholesale abandonment of all things immature, disorganized and cheaply fun is nightmarish, potentially rendering the rest of my day-to-day professional life as exciting as an efficient Staples trip. Though I’m happy to have used this break to finally discover the numerous benefits of organization, discipline and routine, even as I mature and my responsibilities grow in magnitude, I hope to — in some ways —  forever remain a college sophomore. 

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