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As I sit down to write this column, a familiar war is raging inside my head. I’m exhausted and am in major need of a nap, but also have a growing list of midterms to study for and papers to write. Often, I feel as though I’m being pulled in 20,000 different directions at once. Free time is rare to begin with, and when I do decide to take that fleeting, beautiful break, I tend to feel a painful stab of guilt. How can I complain about being so stressed all the time, and then take a break at a time when I could be productive? 

It turns out I’m not alone in my battle with this perpetual guilt. In fact, the sentiment that leisure time is wasteful is quite common, particularly among college students. This shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise. Students are often swamped with workloads so immense they simply aren’t feasible even without breaks. For just one four-credit course, students are expected to spend around eight hours each week studying. Two people’s time management skills are rarely the same, so this number varies, but even the low end of this figure is startling. 

Meanwhile, a full-time student at the University of Michigan typically takes around 15 credit hours — a hefty load as is — but a student can choose to take up to 18, especially if they need to fulfill time-sensitive requirements for their major, meaning they can be expected to spend up to 36 hours per week on school work. This intense workload, along with the fact that more and more students are working in college, can lead to a schedule that leaves little time to breathe. 

Rationally, a student has no reason to feel guilty about taking time for themselves. Everyone — no matter how dedicated they are to their schoolwork or their job — needs free time. In fact, free time — if not taken excessively — can benefit us greatly. Studies have shown that our brains utilize leisure time to further process information we may be trying to commit to memory, so breaks can actually be beneficial to a person’s academic success when trying to absorb large amounts of information. Yet, when someone is overwhelmed by a never-ending to-do-list, taking even just a few minutes to themself can feel entirely counterproductive.

There are countless reasons why someone may feel this way. At the University of Michigan in particular, a student’s identity is often intrinsically linked to their productivity. Many of us were at the top of our classes in high school, and may feel as though working hard is what we have to do in order to preserve this status in college. We view our work ethic as something that separates us from the crowd and therefore may subconsciously label leisure time as indicative of laziness, which we’re driven to always avoid. In other words, we feel guilty about our free time because we fear it could erode a key piece of our identity. 

On top of that, hard work is deeply ingrained in American culture. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ideology, a key part of the American Dream, rests on how hard one works. While younger generations have begun to reject this ideology, students may have families who push it on them anyway, claiming that they must work hard not only for themselves, but for their family. If a student feels as though they “owe” someone success, existing pressure to be constantly working can be multiplied tenfold. 

Additionally, much of the guilt around free time stems from the fact that many students do not understand, or choose to disregard, the vast benefits of taking a break. This university in particular possesses an intense “work hard, play hard” mentality that puts no value whatsoever in the peaceful, in-between moments that are just as crucial to a student’s success. According to U-M culture, if you’re not studying, you’re supposed to be out, being social. While this can encourage students to get out and meet more people — an important step to enjoying college — it also leads students to believe that by taking a break, they are wasting their college experience. For those who have quickly-drained social batteries, socializing is not always a leisurely activity, leaving many students with little to no time to take a real break. 

The benefits of free time, as stated above, are endless. We need it to feel okay — mentally and emotionally — and to function efficiently throughout our day. It is extremely important that we all find and take advantage of the leisurely activities that we enjoy, so as to maintain our mental health. A recent study asked 199 college students to rate how much they enjoyed particular leisure activities. The more they disliked these activities — watching TV, hanging out with friends, reading — the more likely they were to be depressed, anxious and stressed. We must combat this emotional deterioration by prioritizing self-care.  

Marsha Benz is a wellness coach from Wolverine Wellness — a University Health Services program set up to help students and other members of the U-M community foster personal well-being — and she laid out some helpful tools for how students can put themselves first . “Take breaks when you study: walk around the block, have a snack, call a friend,” she said. “You’ll do better letting off a little steam every day through taking a walking break, reading a book, meditating — something that gives your brain a rest.”

These self-care practices are key to success. Pushing yourself until you are overcome with exhaustion does not help anyone, least of all you, and this does not just pertain to studying. Time spent outside of school-related commitments can be valuable moments to take for yourself, but often, social pressures cause us to give those up as well. Studies have shown that — regardless of whether you are an introvert or extrovert — constant socializing can be incredibly draining. Boundaries are key — it is okay to say no to social gatherings and spend the day treating yourself, whatever that may look like. The “fomo” will wear off, I promise. 

Obviously, we do not always have this freedom. Sometimes, no matter how much you need a break, school or some other commitment has to come first. Still, just picking one day out of the week to let yourself take a real break can be a solid step in the right direction. Pick something that you really enjoy — whatever that may be — and allow yourself to do it, no matter how many papers or exams you have due the next day. It is likely that it will not worsen your performance, but improve it. 

So, next time you’re choosing between continuing to study or going on that mental health walk, choose the walk. Soak up that free time whenever you can, and you will begin to see the benefits of putting yourself first. 

Rebecca Smith is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at