FLEMING: Tipping the scales

Annelisa Leinbach_Illustrations Editor_Sleep and Work Balance_1018
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

In my suite, we joke that my roommate and I never sleep. It’s true; we don’t sleep a whole lot. We actually decided we’d be good roommates because we always saw each other in the library at 2:45 a.m. Sometimes we shared a couch.

My mother, when I explain my daily routine, usually sighs and tells me I need more “balance” in my life. “OK, Mom,” is my response. “Balance” and I have been around the block.

The end of my freshman year wasn’t a pretty sight. My Google Calendar bulged. Black-blue circles sat permanently under my eyes, and I slept a couple of nights on the futon in the common room with the sole intention of preventing myself from feeling so comfortable that I slept through class. This all culminated in one — or I should say, two — head-reeling days in which I stayed awake for a total of 41 hours. Madness, you might be thinking. Sheer madness.

Or you might be thinking: That sounds like something I would do.

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose Gcal resembles elaborate bathroom tiling. Not everyone pulls all-nighters regularly, but, let’s face it, some do.

Over the summer, I decided the madness was over. Next year, I resolved, I will get eight hours of sleep a night. I will eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. I will not start any new extracurriculars. I will go for long walks! I will be so damn balanced. I will be perfectly serene and I will make those scales hang perfectly straight.

So I did.

And I was miserable.

This is not how serenity is supposed to work, I fumed as I declined another extracurricular invitation and set my alarm for 8 a.m. When I overslept, I felt guilty. When I stayed up until 3:00 a.m. discussing metascience with my friends, I felt guilty. When I sat staring out the window instead of reading, I felt guilty. When I missed lunch to finish a paper and plan a cappella rehearsals and lingered too long in the Yale Bookstore, I felt guilty for not feeling guilty enough.

Still, I tried to make everything fit. When I had the opportunity to join a new extracurricular activity, I wavered and put it on the scales. Did they tip? What if I join but drop my fifth class to make up for it? No, no, better not join the group. Look at the scales. They’re leaning … they’re leaning …

Which is when the scales just fell apart, because I wasn’t using the right scales.

Yes, I tried to sleep more and work less and eat more regularly, and all of these were good things, on their own. But I was forcing myself to adhere to some definition of balance that I’d memorized in middle school health textbooks. It didn’t allow for late-night bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches or listening to the 2 a.m. whispers of the library.

So I scrapped the scales.

Instead of questioning how many hours of sleep I would get a night, I started asking: Will I go to sleep excited for tomorrow? Will I go to sleep knowing I learned something today? And most importantly, will I wake up feeling guilty? Or feeling fulfilled?

Rhythm is important; as a musician, I will be the first to embrace that. But routine? Routine can become monotony, and as Josh Foer wrote, “Monotony collapses time.” And yes, sleep and food and rest are important. But don’t let anyone tell you what balance means. Balance comes from within, from feeling that you are where you are meant to be, sitting with a friend in the basement talking about mythological elements of Genesis — or whatever it is you like talking about. And don’t worry that it’s 3:00 am, and you might sleep through breakfast.

And no, I don’t advocate filling your Gcal with endless meetings. Fill it with real color, and yes, that could mean empty space. Don’t be busy for the sake of it; be busy because you’re doing what you love and if you walk away from it the scales will tip because there’s something missing. It’s not all about balancing out the hours in your day — it’s about balancing out the different parts of yourself, the passions that make you whole.

Perhaps my mother is right. I wouldn’t call my life — or a typical Yalie’s life — balanced in the traditional sense. But it’s balanced for me, and that’s what matters. A few weekends ago, my roommate and I went to a party, to the gym and to the library, in that order. And sure, it’s madness, sheer madness. But somehow, it fits on the scales, and they keep rocking, back and forth, until we stumble back to our room in fits of giggles at our crazy, wonderful lives.

Lucy Fleming is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact her at lucy.fleming@yale.edu.

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