Opportunity Overwhelm

An image of a coffee mug sitting atop a monthly planner.
An image of a coffee mug sitting atop a monthly planner. Photo credits: Estée Janssens (@esteejanssens)

“Don’t let any opportunity pass you by.” Whether from parents, coaches, teachers, or other peers, chances are we’ve all had this phrase quoted to us at some point in our high school careers. Before Princeton, I more or less lived by it. I knew that opportunities had to be sought at all times everywhere. One thing I hadn’t planned for coming to Princeton, though, was the possibility of there being too many opportunities. When resources are abundant but time is scarce, how does one choose? How does one take advantage of opportunities that are exciting, meaningful, and fun for them without risking burnout? Read on for four recommendations on how you can make the most of your Princeton experience while maintaining a work/life balance.

  1. You can’t do it all.

I used to have to spend months scouring the internet for any possible chance to get involved in what I was passionate about. Princeton was the first time in my life that it felt like opportunities were coming to me. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to attend an institution where there is so much available to us all the time. But, when we as students have so little free time outside of classes and study, it can also be overwhelming. Every day I’d wake up to a dozen emails advertising clubs, conferences, lectures, paid positions. I couldn’t possibly partake in everything that Princeton had to offer, but I wanted to. I thought I had to go after every opportunity that popped up. But this translated to dozens of hours spent on applications or doing extra work—often for things I wasn’t even that interested in. That’s why the first tip is to acknowledge one thing: you don’t have time to do it all. Often this requires taking a step back, looking at your schedule, and honestly evaluating what you truly want: are you required to do everything on your schedule? Does all of it make you happy, or are you doing it for another reason? And that leads us to step two …

  1. Focus on what you love, not what you think will make you successful.

I had to learn to discriminate against what seemed like something I should be doing versus what I was actually passionate about. For me, that meant cutting out a sport which I had done since I was little to fully dial-in to the academics I was really passionate for. It’s true that I could have managed both, but at the end of the day I knew it would leave me stressed out, pressed for time, and unable to truly engage in either of the two activities. Freeing up my schedule gave me room not simply to do the academics, but to take my time with them. I could now savor each lecture, go in-depth with each reading, and pursue undergraduate research opportunities that excited me even more about the prospect of grad school. I even had the time to try new things that were entirely outside of my comfort zone. 

  1. Take what you like, but don’t be afraid to call it quits.

College is a unique space where you can explore opportunities you may never have had access to in high school, and it’s important to take advantage of that. Whether it’s a club, your classes, or a different field of research, go out of your way to try new things (you never know where it may lead you!). At the same time, however, don’t be afraid to take a step back if it gets to be too much. It’s common for Princeton students to overcommit themselves, and students/faculty are more than understanding when you need a break. If you’re beginning to feel overwhelmed, simply reach out and let them know honestly how you’re feeling. They’ll be glad you’re telling them now before things get harder, and they’ll be happy to work with you—even if that means taking a complete step back from your responsibilities.

  1. Schedule in your free time.

Perhaps most importantly: take time for yourself. Plan ahead and find a couple hours each week which are purely for yourself. This could mean watching a movie, reading a good book, or blocking out three hours with nothing planned at all (take out time for your friends of course). What I’ve found, however, is that you have to schedule your free time beforehand, or else it might not happen. It may seem stressful when the work is mounting, but deliberately taking time for yourself is the only way to recharge and stay passionate. You may even find that you’re more productive when you schedule regular breaks for yourself. If you take a look at your schedule and you’re not sure where you can fit in any space just for yourself, that’s a sign you need to scale back. 

Princeton is a once in a lifetime opportunity to pursue any array of research, service, or academia. But with academic rigor and not enough hours in the day, an overload of opportunities can quickly escalate from invigorating to overwhelming. We want to take advantage of what’s available, but often it’s impossible to make time for everything we’d like in our schedule. And it’s equally important that we prioritize our mental and physical wellbeing. But opportunity overload can be navigated when we’re deliberate with our scheduling, taking time for ourselves, and pursuing what we are actually passionate about. So, take a look at your calendar, and find what may or may not have to change for you to feel genuinely excited about each day. Incorporate new and exciting opportunities, cut out what no longer serves you, and take space for yourself! You might just see that a quick schedule shakeup is your key to revitalizing your semester.

Amaya Dressler, Social Sciences Correspondent