College Triangle of Priorities: The 4th Priority


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Study + Sleep + Social Life: Pick only two.

Students all over must have surely heard of this terrifying maxim. New students, welcome to jail! Old students, your term will soon be up! The choice is yours, what you want to sacrifice. You are free, to choose which imprisonment you prefer after graduation: no Career, no Health, or no Personal Relationships! Whichever way, you will be fine like everyone else. In other news, school is the best time of your life!

Oh my goodness.

Fortunately, as with all clichés, this triangle is too simplified a prescription. No doubt these 3 priorities are in contestation, and no doubt formal schooling often demands more of us than we feel capable of. But these priorities are not absolute, separate, or exhaustive. Looking beyond this oft-stated truism may rouse us from our resignation to fight the demons of our school lives.

Before I do that, here’s a quick taste of my own “choice”. I chose Study + Sleep. Study, because I picked what I wanted to study, and I wanted to learn how to think beyond the norm and mess people’s heads up (kidding!). Sleep, because I WILL mess people’s heads up without 7h of beauty rest every day. Besides, I’m not really a fan of coffee.

So am I a hermit doomed to a life of kicking stray stones along pavements? No way. Though I must admit, I do that a lot.

College = More than a Triangle

The first problem with the triangle: the priorities are not absolute. Perhaps I could choose not to study at all, not even for exams. Then why go to school? Perhaps I could go without sleep for days, but then I will annoy everyone and die with less sympathy than those gaming addicts. Social life is the most conceivable sacrifice for non-caffeine drinkers like me. But it’s not all about partying or getting attached. Keeping in touch with a few close friends and interacting with class and CCA mates periodically can qualify as a good introverted social life. We can understand the truism in relative terms, but if it is relative, how can we insist only two is possible? How much of each is required?

The second problem: these priorities are not separate. Like I’ve repeatedly hinted, sleep is necessary to function properly, not least in studying or interacting effectively. Studying often compromises sleep and social life for serious students, but meeting its demands makes us sleep better, while what we acquired will shape our adult social life, whether it’s the people we meet through our jobs or the knowledge we bring to conversations. Similarly, social interactions provide emotional and instrumental support for us to keep at and excel in studies, while feeling rich enough to sleep till sunrise. The 3 pillars of student life do not merely compete; they also feed on each other. None can be ignored for too long.

The third problem: these priorities are not exhaustive. What about, for lack of a better term, Personal Life? This would refer to the time we spend in solitude, from leisure to reflection. Don’t dismiss this as irrelevant for extroverts, because that is as inaccurate as saying that introverts don’t need a social life. We tend to prefer one over the other, but we can’t omit either entirely. Likewise, we might neglect one of Study/Sleep/Social Life, but none of it is dispensable for a student. Now, with Personal Life in the mix, can we pick two or three?

Personal Life =  Personal Leisure + Personal Reflection

Rather than just being another component, Personal Life may be the solution to the 3 original priorities. First, how productive is our “free time”? Most of us succumb to streaks of aimless surfing on social media. I know I do. If we render conscious our inadvertent leisure diversions, we gain more room to tend to a neglected priority. It might be an alternative to Social Life, it might be replaced by Social Life, or it might be streamlined to free more time for Sleep or Study. Yet this cannot be forced, at least not sustainably, because our autopilot behaviours often offer hints that we are not living healthily.

Personal reflection is thus vital to clarifying purpose and raising productivity, not just as a student but as a living being. A common view is that purpose is predefined, when one made the decision to study. But our views are not monolithic. Credential-seeking may be replaced by genuine passion upon studying, and vice versa. The same applies for how we approach and hence interact with other people. Our struggles in college may stem from a reluctance to re-examine the lens by which we view our life as a student. Take reflection as a tool to navigate both student and working life.

Keeping in touch with ourselves helps us to improve what we assume we can do well. It will surface not just different ways of living, but also different ways of studying. I know this through reflection of how I’m studying, how I used to study and how I think I can study. I’ve found my approach towards learning develop from naivety to over-thoroughness, and now starting in the direction of innovation. And I keep sleeping day after day, at least 7h a day. Granted, my social life is limited, but I’m doing a proper job in 3 of 4 priorities. Who says you can’t do all 3 of the College Triangle?

My guess is: Those who can, do all 4.

Can I Juggle All 4 College Priorities?

But then the question again, what does it mean to do any of them? Like who wouldn’t choose everything if they could? But college is demanding. When we choose to forgo one, it’s a choice shaped by many factors, including our personality, health and study skills. It’s a way of coping. Yet the mental decision does not override our emotional impulses. We can pick two, but picking two is not sustainable; the 3rd will not go down even after a fight. (The only one that might is Study, but by that point you should quit school and start working. And it’s not necessarily easier there unless you don’t give a dang about anything.)

The only way to reconcile all 3 is to tend to the 4th priority.

And so, to all students like me, go ahead and work out your plans. But if you tire of fighting yourself, why not consider spending some quality time alone? Like many things, we don’t do it not really because of a lack of time, but because of internal resistance. We cannot force ourselves to stop resisting, but whenever it feels acceptable, give it a go! And again! Then perhaps school will no longer be the prison of our pursuit of happiness.

You need not defy the law of Physics to live like a healthy human being.

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