Every year around the middle of June, the hallways of my high school teemed with excitement for the incoming summer. Much like the opening scene of High School Musical 2 (minus the dance number), after the last bell goes off, everyone eagerly left school ready to relax for three months.
I was always able to opt out of taking final exams based on my high school’s exam policy, so reaching summer was more exciting because there was more time to spend with friends. In college, I was usually too tired from the semester to feel much excitement, and instead I felt overwhelming relief after getting finals over with and escaping the hectic days of winter semester.
Michigan summers have always been my favorite time of the year. Looking forward to long days, warm weather and new spare time, I spent the dark winter days dreaming of wasting days away on a beach, going on spontaneous adventures across the country, and trying all the local activities I never got around to during the year.
However, that last advantage of summer days — the extra time — too often became a trap for me. Time I thought I’d be spending living like a teen movie was actually spent watching those movies on my living room couch and looking for other mind-numbing activities to do around the house.
As I got older, I devoted this free time to part-time jobs. These gave me a sense of productivity, but also made it harder to travel and spend time with friends who also had jobs. I would try to make group plans, but it became increasingly difficult, and more often, I would see my friends in spur-of-the-moment plans.
I was never one to set a schedule for my days, preferring to take the day as it came, like with my plans with friends. However, this school year I shared a bedroom in a five-person apartment. This living arrangement left me little room to separate my work life from my own time. Not only did I not have work-life separation, but my bed and desk were literally the same unit, with the bed lofted over the desk to turn a 100-square-foot room into a semi-livable space for two people.
When it came to studying outside of my apartment, most buildings, libraries and coffee shops that I used to frequent until well past midnight had limited seating and closed early due to COVID-19 restrictions, if they allowed indoor seating at all. I resorted to studying in the bedroom I had been in most of the day or going to my partner’s room for a change of scenery, but neither option gave me the separation from my personal life that I craved.
I was also confused by this new feeling of needing separation. For someone who never made a schedule or plans before, I was frustrated at my brain being seemingly extra and refusing to be productive unless I was in a good environment for it.
My potential plans for this summer were hampered by the uncertainty of the pandemic’s future. I decided to stay in Ann Arbor and stick with some of my extracurriculars from the winter, such as research and volunteering, hoping that this would perhaps leave me enough free time to decompress from the mental strain of the year.
Struggling to find a balanced summer schedule, I found myself spending the majority of May doing nothing, as most of my commitments were up in the air. This was also my first summer living away from home, which I hoped would give me additional freedom to schedule my day how I want.
While I thought this free time would make me feel relaxed, this lack of structure in my day made me more anxious than rested. Despite having asynchronous classes for the spring semester, I still felt unsatisfied with my lack of schedule, and yet, the looming one or two simple tasks I had on my to-do list overwhelmed most of my ability to enjoy other activities throughout the week. I hit a mental wall.
I’ve always had this issue of not being able to fully relax if I had any tasks in the back of my mind, even when I just had simple chores around the house as a kid. This is where my need for work-life separation comes in, something I didn’t appreciate until the pandemic pushed all aspects of my life onto one computer screen. If I do my tasks at the beginning of the day, or carve out a block of time in my day specifically dedicated for that task, I’m much more inclined to be able to relax knowing that those tasks are accounted for and will get their time to fully occupy my brain.
I appreciated places like Starbucks reopening indoor seating for the summer, but I found myself having to relearn how to utilize spaces on campus in order to give myself that separation. I would spend half the day in my apartment trying unsuccessfully to study for my classes, until I remembered how much time I spent studying in coffee shops and the UGLi prior to COVID-19. It was hard at first to leave the comfort of my room, where I had done most of my learning for the past year, but once I got back into the habit of doing work elsewhere, it made me look forward to that time.
But to blame the pandemic entirely for the lack of balance between productivity and relaxation in my life would be laughable to anyone who’s known me for longer than 18 months. Even when I was younger, I put off any chores my parents gave me as many days I could get away with, only to be bored or unsatisfied with my day.
Being aware that I hit this wall despite having nothing in my way was frustrating. I felt the internal push and pull between wanting to relax and not being able to do so without some sort of structure.
This seemed counterintuitive to me, but having routines can serve as an anchor to each day and a way to check in with our mental health. It also can provide a sense of accomplishment, which can feel necessary for someone like me who is fueled by a need to feel productive. Even spending a couple of hours doing something as small as catching up on emails or filling out an application I’ve been putting off gives me a feeling of achievement. That feeling from checking one thing off the eternally long to-do list in the back of my mind makes me feel like I’ve earned my relaxation time, and allows my brain to block out work-related stress.
I’ve also started going to the gym regularly to try and work on forming these habits. It’s been giving me something productive that I enjoy working into my schedule, but I’ve also struggled with maintaining a habit once I start it. I was shocked when I didn’t drop going to the gym after the first week, which can perhaps be attributed to knowing that I’m paying for the membership, or maybe because it gives me time to work on myself.
With this new habit, I’m working on actively being more forgiving of myself and maintaining a flexible schedule, rather than forcing myself to go every day on a rigid schedule and feeling like I’ve failed when I miss a day or two. I never thought I would look forward to exercising, but now I can’t wait for the end of the day when I can spend an hour at the gym. Rather than feeling forced to go, I freely choose to go more often than I expected, appreciating the time for myself. Allowing myself to go four or five times a week and at whatever time I want makes the activity more something of enjoyment in my head, rather than feeling like a task to check off.
By focusing more on how I use my time, I’ve also been able to get into podcasts, something I’ve tried for years with no success. I now listen while I run or do research, making me look forward to both of those activities more than I did on their own. I’ve also stopped putting pressure on myself to find the best and most productive series out there and listen to it all the way through. I find myself taking away more from listening to a variety of episodes and genuinely enjoying the learning process.
Maybe the year of struggling through a lack of structure with the pandemic had a silver lining. I think it’s given me a different perspective on having structure in the summer in order to relax and understand my own needs when it comes to the day-to-day. Rather than seeing structure and relaxation as mutually exclusive entities, I am much more self-aware of how giving myself structure for a few hours in the day makes me enjoy the free time the rest of the day that much more. Instead of considering productivity as things that look good on a resume or projects that are working towards a concrete goal, the pandemic has shifted my focus towards taking care of myself in order to better succeed in my professional and personal life.
This shift came about a month into summer, after weeks of doing nothing and feeling more stressed than ever. When I started even just verbally scheduling things like a walk or a Grey’s Anatomy marathon with my roommates for the next day, I found myself looking forward to that day and feeling mentally better than I felt in weeks. By having this time for enjoyment, I was also happier to go do research and volunteer for longer hours than before, because I knew then when I finished those tasks I could go home and fully relax.
Starting the exercising habit has also helped me look forward to other little things, like walking to Blank Slate for ice cream at sunset, going to Roos Roast in the morning when I would usually have class during the semester, or even getting to nap for two hours after work without worrying about homework. I might have been too stressed to enjoy or consider these activities in the past, as much as I wanted to do that kind of stuff. Getting to clear my head and work out for a bit slowed down the pace of my day enough to reflect on what I actually wanted to get out of my day.
I still find myself searching for the perfect summer vibes or being jealous of what other people seem to be doing with their summer, but I’m now able to check myself when I notice my mind wandering down that path. Maybe this is a love letter to romanticizing the mundane, or just tips to getting past that mental wall that stops us from enjoying the day-to-day of summer before Michigan winters hit again. Either way, I’m testing how much structure I need in order to feel content with my summer, and learning to accept when that structure needs to be broken.
Statement correspondent Iulia Dobrin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.