Illustration by Ruby A.

So it’s January, and many of us are probably still getting our bearings after some sort of well-deserved vacation from school or work. Usually by December, I feel super busy and just plain exhausted, and I really look forward to sleeping in and zoning out. But now it’s back to the grind, and I’m not ready! It’s not like returning to school at the start of the academic year, when you’ve had months of recuperation and are looking forward to seeing friends again and got a whole bunch of new school supplies and feel ready to commit to new classes. Your friends just saw you, your teachers already know you, and by now they expect you to be working on bigger projects and taking harder tests. I generally start to hate homework immediately and fall back into bad habits, like procrastinating on big assignments by marathon-watching television shows on Netflix until 2 AM.

Now that the holidays are over, what stretches before us looks like an endless sea of bleakness, but this Game of Thrones-y, “winter is coming” feeling won’t last forever. I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions—they are too easy to break, and then you feel like a failure before the end of January. But I do love to change my routine, and setting small goals helps me do that. You can reinvent yourself and your habits at any point, and this is as good a time as any to start. Even if the first half of the school year sucked because you failed a class or you never quite got around to studying for the SATs, the second half can still be awesome. Here are a few tips to get back on track:

Get motivated.

This is easier said than done, but a good way to start is by creating a moodboard, just like we do here at Rookie. You can do this online with Pinterest or Tumblr, or you can get some old magazines and look for pictures that make you feel calm or are purely decorative. For these purposes, I recommend going the Leslie Knope route: find pictures of people you want to emulate or words and thoughts that inspire you. When I was applying to fashion design programs for college, I wrote the name of my favorite designer at the time, Todd Oldham, on a piece of paper in big letters and taped it to my sketchbook. Any time I did work, I was reminded that I wanted to be him one day.

I also find it motivating to read biographies, autobiographies, and articles about people who have overcome something major, even if it has nothing to do with my goals. Sometimes my ambition is zapped because I just cannot imagine the hardships of my life ever relenting, and it’s good to get some perspective. No, I don’t have any interest in rock climbing, but when I read about the guy who sawed his own arm off to get out from under that boulder, I realized what real motivation was, and suddenly writing a massive paper didn’t seem that bad.

Finally—and this one is going to sound terrible so hear me out—I also make a list of enemies on the regular. THIS IS NOT AN ACTIONABLE LIST! I’m not casting spells or wishing ill on them. But let’s just say I told someone an idea I had that I’m really excited about, like writing a play or learning judo, and they told me I’m naïve or way too old to do it. Well, they go on the list, because I want to succeed even more out of spite! Some people thrive on pure positivity, and they are higher beings than I—I find imagining that roundhouse kick, when I do the thing I set out to do and can say “in your face” to my naysayers, immensely helpful.


I’m sure a bajillion people have already told you that organzation is the key to life, but they’re saying it because it is TRUE. You need a schedule—not to confine you, but to make your days less stressful, and eke out more free time to enjoy yourself. Mental organization is just as important as physical organization, so the first thing you want to do is get a clear idea of your responsibilities and goals so you can balance out the fun stuff with the stuff that’s sort of a drag. Do not just guess at what is making you feel so overwhelmed, unproductive, or tired; sit down and figure it out.

You need a planner, or at least some way of making sure you’re on track most of the time. This planner doesn’t have to be fancy—it can be a notebook or Google Docs or color-coded Post-It notes, whatever. I find a few tools really helpful in preventing my schedule from swallowing me whole: TeuxDeux is good for daily to-do lists; it’s free to use on your computer, and the iPhone app costs about $3. They sync up, which is helpful, so if I add something to my list on the bus, it shows up when I log in to my computer at home. I also like Evernote for keeping track of school-project stuff, like books I want to remember or tasks I need to complete. It acts like a cataloging system that lets you set up different folders to store everything from web pages to images to lists. I also really love the Eisenhower app, named after a system used by the former U.S. president, which breaks up your tasks by importance (do first, schedule, delegate, don’t do).

Whatever system you choose, fill in your calendar with everything you have to do (homework, jobs, studying, cleaning your room, babysitting), and everything you want to do (join the school newspaper, find a summer internship, play World of Warcraft until 2 AM, take a nap, be less stressed out about homework). If you’re using a simple system that doesn’t break up your tasks automatically, I recommend color-coordinating. Use different colors (highlighters, notes, pens, fonts, whatever) for each category you create. Fill in your calendar by the day, week, and month. Now step back and look at your work. I bet some days are empty and others look like a Pride Parade, right? This is why you needed to write it down! If you can see that you have eight homework assignments due on Tuesday, you’re probably not going to go out with your friends on Monday, and it might not be a good idea to collapse on the sofa for all of Sunday, either.

The best part is that when you set aside time for all the tasks you have to do, it allows you to wallow in the free time you have without worrying about them. Otherwise, even your leisure days or nights can be cursed by anxiety over whatever you’re not getting done at the moment.

Shed your psychic weight.

Maybe last semester or last year sucked, because you had a bad fight with a friend or you have a teacher who hates you. The emotional and mental toll of those types of things can bring you down just as much as a hectic schedule and lots of homework, and are just as good at keeping you from moving on to the next big thing. It’s not too late to address some of these issues. If you have relationships that need to be mended, is there anything you can do to reach out? Even if you’re not the cause of the problem, you can still step up and clear the air. Be sure that your goals are realistic—you might not ever be friends again, but maybe you can at least say hello to each other when you’re walking through the halls, and wouldn’t that make you feel better? Don’t force yourself to reunite with someone who deeply harmed you—you’re right to avoid them. But if your rift seems surmountable, see what you can do to unburden yourself.

The same goes for teachers—is there a teacher with whom you just did not get along? Try to wipe the slate clean. It can be really simple, like walking up to them after class and saying, “I’m really excited about this quarter and I’d like to talk about what I could do to improve.” Most teachers want you to succeed. Go to study groups, ask questions when you feel stuck, and if you don’t understand an assignment, talk to them about it before the due date.

And if you’ve been struggling with any other issues and feel like you’ve needed to talk to someone, whether it’s because you’re depressed or stressed or troubled, do that for yourself. Reach out to a parent or counselor or trusted friend and tell them what’s going on. I guarantee that will be the first step in making you feel better.

Change routines that don’t work.

If you are having a hard time achieving goals, it helps to look at the possible causes, and to change a routine that isn’t working:

  • If you’re falling asleep with a textbook in your hand at night, try studying first thing in the morning instead.
  • Do you feel like you’re not getting the grades you want after you study alone? Try to form a study group with friends or classmates, and find a regularly scheduled time to meet. Or if you’re in a study group already and feel like it is ineffectual or distracting, work on your own instead.
  • As tempting as it may be, don’t wait until the last minute! Even if you get good results, it’s almost never worth the stress it causes.
  • Change your environment. If you’re finding it difficult to work in your bedroom, move to a different location, or go to the local library for an hour or two.

Maximize your weekend.

If you’re like me, you use the weekend to catch up on the sleep you’re not getting during the week, and then panic on Sunday night because there is SO MUCH TO DO and your whole weekend now feels like it was wasted. Instead of setting myself up for this weekly panic, I’m trying to use my weekends to get a little bit ahead in my work. Weekends should be fun, of course, but they can also be a good time to prepare for the following week so that it isn’t so exhausting. Since you usually have more time, why not use the chance to relax as a reward for getting some work done? For instance, if you can stay up late on Saturday anyway, there’s no harm in devoting a few afternoon hours to some homework or chores. Or maybe take advantage of the week’s momentum and finish up some things on Friday so that you’re not dreading Sunday.

Weekends are also perfect for trying new things to break up a winter funk. Take a class, travel to a part of town that you’ve never explored, look for a job, or get some friends together to play a game you completely made up, like my friend Jon did when he created Ultimate Team Cardboard Fortress Battle.

Get more sleep.

My fellow Rookie Stephanie wrote a great article about sleep last year. I don’t have too much to add to it, I just want to reiterate how important rest is to your overall life. No computers or texting an hour before bed, decrease your caffeine, do a little meditation—these are all things that contribute to a restful mind, which will make your life easier as you move through your busy days.

Start looking forward to summer.

Looking ahead is a good way to motivate yourself right now. If you’re thinking about summer jobs, start asking around and give yourself a head start. If you’re going to spend the vacation reading books and relaxing, put together a reading list. Talk to friends about a small trip that you can maybe take together, or see if there are any other travel opportunities through school or charitable programs. Trust me, a long-term goal can help alleviate the gloominess or stress you feel today. ♦