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Zeng '20: Break away from being busy

On Saturday, I spent a whole afternoon doing nothing in my room. I justified this period of indulgence with the thought that I had just finished three midterms and was running on seven hours of sleep over the span of two days. This was supposed to be a time of recuperation, relaxation and self-care, but instead I spent the entire afternoon suffering from an undercurrent of anxiety and self-admonishment: All I could think about was that I wasn’t being productive enough.

I have always envisioned the ideal Brown student as someone who has good grades, extensive extracurricular involvement, a superb social life and — most importantly — the ability to combine these three traits effortlessly. But this stereotype comes with its own host of issues. We have normalized the culture of overcommitment, but in doing so we have largely overlooked its problematic implications on student health and well-being.

For me, the race to high achievement has only intensified since coming to college. At Brown, admitting that you can feel the strain is like admitting that you are falling behind. The best students seem to show no weakness. They are simultaneously high-achieving and unburdened by the pressure. They leave no trace of coffee cups, no signs of exhaustion. They are admired for their work ethics and respected for their stuffed schedules. They seem to have it all figured out, but odds are they’re just as strung out as the rest of us.

One of the most problematic aspects of this busy culture is our propensity to act like we’re unaffected by the never-ending waves of work. This attitude contributes to an environment in which everyone is stressed out and drained, but no one ever talks about it. Instead of showing any sort of vulnerability and exhaustion, we isolate ourselves when we need support the most. We overwork instead of prioritizing self-care. We swallow caffeine and pretend we feel recharged. And all the while, our struggles — though perfectly normal — suddenly feel like a reflection of our own inadequacies. Busy culture erodes our self-worth, and for that we hate it a bit. But those feelings, too, are hidden away.

We romanticize being busy and productive because this has become our new definition of success. It’s the minimum expectation for anyone trying to stay afloat in a pool of stellar and driven students. The phrase “I’m so busy” has become a low-key assertion of accomplishment. It’s addicting and validating because it justifies the emotional and physical burdens we endure.

The fact that Brown is such a socially rich, diverse and active environment doesn’t help. With so many interesting events taking place every day, there is pressure to attend everything and make the most of the Ivy League experience. This may sound familiar. FOMO — the fear of missing out — includes pressures to go out, attend parties and generally be busy. It makes you feel like one day of hibernation could mean failure at the academic, social and professional levels. One day of inactivity, and you’re left behind to flounder.

Busy culture even infects our downtime, prioritizing certain forms of relaxation over others. When you’re not working, you’re expected to relax in decidedly extroverted ways. After a long week of the academic grind, there is a lot of peer pressure on weekends to socialize, attend parties and casually hang out in large groups. Some people might genuinely enjoy these events, but if you’re like me, that’s not relaxing — it’s emotionally draining. And yet the busy culture has made me believe I’m missing out on something unidentifiable if I don’t engage in these forms of fun.

Admittedly, the constant drive to be productive is not without its merits. In the real world, the balance between work and free time can be difficult to manage, so the busy culture could actually prepare us for intense workloads and the hypercompetitive job market. But there’s a difference between being busy out of necessity and being busy for the sake of it. I love that so many Brown students are ambitious, idealistic high-achievers, but we don’t need to inundate ourselves with items on an endless to-do list. Overcommitment may be idealized, but it is not sustainable. One of these days, we’ll just run out of steam.

It’s important to realize that you don’t have to be everywhere all the time. Missing one presentation here or social event there doesn’t mean that you’re not “doing college” as well as everyone else. Alone time might be less visible on campus, but it is as valuable as studying and socializing. So don’t feel anxious about doing something to mentally recharge. After all, there will always be another party or study session to go to.

Cindy Zeng ’20 has finished her midterms and is finally getting some well-deserved sleep. She can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to


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