How Failing to Meet My Goals Made Me Happier

At the beginning of this semester I set some goals for myself. The previous semester had been stressful, and I wanted to become a better, healthier, happier, more efficient version of myself. My goals included things like “be on campus and working 9-5 every day,” “close your laptop by 10 pm every night,” and “don’t do homework in bed – use a desk like a real human.”

Needless to say I failed to meet just about all of these goals – not just a handful of times, but pretty regularly. And yet I think I have succeeded in becoming a healthier and happier version of myself, just not in the ways I expected.

The biggest change in my emotional well-being came from really establishing friendships. I started making more time for friends and the activities that make me happy. I sometimes went to karaoke on a weeknight. I went to cookouts to take a break from endless homework on the weekends. Grad students are not robots. We need more than just fuel to be productive. Having fun times to look forward to (and reflect on) makes the hard work of being a grad student so much more bearable.

Part of making time for fun activities meant learning when to put my work away and say “no more.” A younger me hated the thought of handing in an incomplete homework assignment. Accepting the fact that I might not finish my homework actually made me much less anxious about working on it. It no longer seemed like a looming task that would never be done. A friend reminded me that the point wasn’t getting a good grade; it was understanding the material. I started to see value in struggling with problems, even if I couldn’t solve them before the deadline. When working on research, too, it can be very beneficial to step away from it when it starts to become frustrating; when you come back to it with fresh eyes you’re likely to better understand the problem at hand.

Time management seems to be one of the most challenging aspects of grad school for me. As math grad students, we often have the freedom to decide when and where to do our homework, grading and class preparations, and research. That freedom can make it difficult to fall into a regular self-enforced schedule, like getting to the office by 9 am every day – something I accomplished just a few times this semester. My failure to adhere to that schedule told me that perhaps it was not the best schedule for me. In fact, often I worked at home in the morning before heading to campus for my afternoon classes, enjoying the quiet solitude. I learned that I could be most productive by finding the times and places that made me actually want to work.

Lastly, I started exercising regularly this semester (something I had done as an undergrad but let slip when I got to grad school). While it can be difficult to make time for exercise, it has many benefits to offer – including improved sleep, a better mood, a break from academic work, and a sense of accomplishment. I got into new activities by signing up for phys ed classes and by exercising with friends, both of which made exercising more fun and held me accountable for actually working out.

I am by no means a perfect grad student (after all, nobody is). I have bad days and weeks when I’m really stressed out. I still procrastinate and wish I’d managed my time better. And toward the end of the semester I didn’t get many workouts in. But I’m learning that an important part of being a successful grad student is being a happy grad student, and a happy grad student I most certainly am.

About Lila Greco

I am a first year graduate student at Cornell University. I received my BA in mathematics at Kenyon College, a small liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio. I am studying probability (probably).
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2 Responses to How Failing to Meet My Goals Made Me Happier

  1. Isaac says:

    Yeah I totally identify the part where you came to a place of accepting when you can’t finish homework. While I am not a huge fun of working out, I totally enjoyed having to visit the gym 3 times a week, a routine I struggled to stick to. However I constantly played soccer which helped in recalibrating my thoughts and emotions. I am definitely a happy grad student too…

    And thanks for sharing!!!

  2. decko says:

    balancing one’s time is important. I defenetily cannot do all the hw by myself. The toughest part is putting my ego aside and know when to ask for help either to a peer, prof, stranger online. My questions are welcome as long i make an honest effort. If i ask a question and I make a good effort, I get a good answer back. If I ask a stupid question I get a stupid anwer.

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