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Back to Reality

Tips for starting over (again).

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.

Organize.

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. ♦

35 Comments

  • Isil January 2nd, 2013 3:14 PM

    My finals are about to finish and semester holiday will start in 10 days for me. This is a very helpful article because I’ve decided to plan my life. Some of my grades are not good, I stopped drawing-sketching things that I like very much, and I became lazy last semester and I want to change that. I think everyone needed a motivation article like this. Thank you!

    http://isilnoir.wordpress.com

  • jenaimarley January 2nd, 2013 3:15 PM

    This is perfect.

  • Alienor January 2nd, 2013 3:49 PM

    OH THANK YOU SO MUCH, this is so helpful, i hope i’m strong enough to make this work, and have a good year, finally !

  • Emma January 2nd, 2013 3:58 PM

    thank you thank you thank you! I am actually procrastinating right now on Rookie, but this has inspired me to get stuff done :)

  • salalou January 2nd, 2013 4:16 PM

    Reading this article actually motivated me! Thank you for all these amazing tips!

  • AmyL January 2nd, 2013 4:16 PM

    I’ve been meaning to finish this one drawing for like a month now, and this FINALLY inspired me to do it! Thanks so much Rookie! ♥

    intergalactic-dragons.blogspot.com

  • WitchesRave January 2nd, 2013 4:42 PM

    Thanks i really needed this. I always feel more depressed and stressed after new years than i did before. January is always a crappy month.

    witches-rave.tumblr.com

  • Pearl January 2nd, 2013 4:44 PM

    The last one is what I really need to work on. Sigh.
    http://www.pforpearl.blogspot.com

  • daisyauthority January 2nd, 2013 4:46 PM

    This was really helpful. My best friend and I have our own method for organization. Every month, we get a big calendar from dollar tree, write every single concert, due date, rehearsal, and sporting event on it and then highlight them based on importance. Then, we replace the picture at the top of the calendar with a collage of things that inspire us that month. We get together every 1st to organize our calendars. It’s a tradition.

  • Eryn January 2nd, 2013 4:48 PM

    Sooo so helpful. Thank you!!!!

    http://fashionfledge.blogspot.ca/

  • RhiaSnape January 2nd, 2013 4:56 PM

    I’m really glad for this article – I’m still a bit in the dreary ‘nooo school’ stage, and it doesn’t help that my holidays have been quite stressful! (though fun too)
    Thank you, it helped me put things into perspective. I’m looking forward to getting organized now haha

  • Maren Elisabeth January 2nd, 2013 5:04 PM

    I cannot stress enough how much I needed this right now

  • Hannah January 2nd, 2013 5:16 PM

    I literally just started homework that is due when we get back next Monday and this article totally rocked. It makes me want to organize and be motivated!

  • azultardis January 2nd, 2013 5:21 PM

    perfect,I’ll start my 8semester at uni on february,so I still have some time to get ready,but I’m so scared,it’s my final real semester at uni and then I have to get a real job,and be an adult….

  • Promesa January 2nd, 2013 5:30 PM

    Thanks thanks thanks! I really needed this right now, I procrastinate too much

    http://littleswayingdaisy.tumblr.com/

  • babyybat January 2nd, 2013 9:03 PM

    procrastinators unite. kidding, journaling/mood-boarding really helps me!

  • LilySew January 2nd, 2013 9:17 PM

    This is soo helpful, I need to bookmark this for when school starts at the end of the month. In Australia the new school year starts at the beginning of a year and our long holidays are in our summer (december-january) :D
    http://sewoverdressed.blogspot.com.au/

  • Kate January 2nd, 2013 9:21 PM

    I use a composition book with a page for each day as a planner. It gives tons of room for assignments, lists, doodles, plans, etc. highly recommended!

    • parkergolightly January 2nd, 2013 10:50 PM

      That’s such a cool idea! I think I’m gonna do that too!

  • Carolineeeee January 2nd, 2013 9:37 PM

    Thanks!! This helped so much(:

  • parkergolightly January 2nd, 2013 10:49 PM

    I was having an awful panic attack this morning about having to go back to school and this article became my self soothing tool, so a huge thank you to Danielle! I also (thanks to one of the Rookie playlists) have some new motivation in the form of song ~This Year by the Mountain Goats~ so what I’m saying here is that Rookie has once again become the best form of self-help. Now I don’t feel quite as icky & sad about going back to school. This reminded me that summer will be here before we know it! And only one more year of HS for me! Whoooo!

  • zhajean January 3rd, 2013 12:32 AM

    this is really just in time! school break is coming to an end and now i’m starting to work on my homeworks :)

    thanks for this article!

    czarina♥

  • Dick January 3rd, 2013 2:11 AM

    Get motivation – I wanted to add something to this. In our school we have these assignments where we have to reflex on our participation, progress and, performance and EVERYONE and I mean EVERYONE HATES THEM except me (well I did at one point) but the reason why I don’t anymore is because when I did I found out that the root cause of this problem was because of lack of motivation and boredom. So I decided I’m going to make this as fun as possible so I started writing these reflections as creative stories. Stories like, how my cat was crying a river because I haven’t been participating and how he was going to text me during class every hour to remind me to text.

    So now not only did I have a fun time but I completed the assignment, BAM!! Sometime you just have to get creative with it, find a way to enjoy the assignment (even if it means dressing up like a character from your favorite show or book) so it wont be a drag and you wont be pulling it off last minute.

    Also you may want to talk to your teacher about this just in case. Make sure you have a plan on what to say, some teachers aren’t open minded enough.

  • savsavlovesyou January 3rd, 2013 2:30 AM

    LOVE THIS!
    Really, amazing things are being added to the world with rookiemag.com(:
    Keep it up…<3

  • littleredradio January 3rd, 2013 6:14 AM

    Yes, this is very helpful! I have a thesis to finish and need to be more organized/focused this year.
    I am definitely using TeuxDeux!
    Thanks for the tips!

  • J93 January 3rd, 2013 12:40 PM

    Love this so much! I’ve been dreading going back to another semester of university, but this makes me more optimistic, especially your point about having long-term goals :)

  • Toilets January 3rd, 2013 9:14 PM

    This is the friendly kick up the backside I needed, ta Rookie!

  • Caden January 3rd, 2013 10:27 PM

    I’m starting my last term of school on Monday and like everyone am very stressed about it! I loved this article. I’m going to make an inspiration board now and will definitely be trying to keep organised this term! Thanks. All the best xoxo

  • Betsy January 4th, 2013 2:05 AM

    Thankyou Danielle!!!! this article is AWESOME here in Australia it is about 4 weeks until the holidays end and i am starting year 9. Aparrently since there is four years until i need to get a job to survive i should probably try and get organised and start working hard, this article will help me so much!!! seeing as last year i was a lazy unorganised slob, who did homework for 5 to 6 in the evening and then again in 2 oclock in the morning until three o clock in the morning.

  • disfordelightful January 5th, 2013 9:17 AM

    I READ THESE TIPS AND TO BE MORE PRODUCTIVE AND ORGANIZED I MADE A TEUXDEUX ACCOUNT
    BUT THEN I STARTED READING THE FAQ AND ITS SO ENTERTAINING I HAVEN’T DONE ANY WORK IN THE PAST HOUR

    DON’T READ THE FAQ
    DON’T
    DO IT
    ~this has been a cautionary tale, save yourselves while you can~

  • Mary the freak January 6th, 2013 4:17 PM

    Oh this was so helpful. I am trying my best to not look like a shit when school starts, and most important, to feel good.
    I feel giulty, I should have not spend my weekend with anything but no school stuff. I hate piano lessens, this was needed to be said as I really hate them so much. anyways, thank you!

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • Minella January 6th, 2013 4:48 PM

    This could not have at a better time! Thank you!
    I hope these tips will help me to finally get something done
    xxx

  • Jean January 9th, 2013 12:45 PM

    This has come at the perfect time! I am in my last year of high school in Scotland I am applying to fashion/textiles courses in universities here, and I am sending off portfolios this month… very scary prospect!!

    For me, I stay organised with a Filofax! A Red Metropol in personal size to be exact. I just love love love it because I am so fond of using paper as a way of organising.

  • meels January 14th, 2013 8:12 AM

    Damn this is useful, rookie, you life saver