I have an orange post-it note that is pasted on the wall behind my computer. On it, there are two words written in black ink: “Slow down.” These two words have defined my college experience so far. As a chronic overachiever, learning to slow down has been the most important – and the most challenging – lesson that I have learned at Penn.
“Slowing down” can mean different things to different people. For example, someone might want to “slow down” in a relationship, with the work in a difficult class, or with their future goals. For me, I instantly think of my extracurricular activities. It can feel exhilarating to juggle a bunch of commitments, yet the drive to reach our goals can actually be self-destructive.
When I arrived on campus as a first year, “slowing down” was not on my mind. In high school, I was very active in extracurriculars, and I intended to move full speed ahead to find my people at Penn by joining student organizations. Early on in my first semester, however, I found myself in the Penn Bookstore, and my eyes drifted a book called “U Thrive: How to Succeed in College (and Life)” by Daniel Lerner (a 2012 graduate of Penn’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program) and Dr. Alan Schlechter.
The book was incredibly helpful as someone starting out in college, but one exercise was particularly noteworthy. On my phone, I created a two-column list, labeling the top column “Essential” and the bottom column “Wouldn’t it be nice.” Below each title, I listed activities that I felt matched each category to help me prioritize what mattered to me the most. What I discovered after completing the exercise surprised me.
It turns out that very few things are essential to me: it’s essential that I take classes that interest me, continue performing theatre, and socialize with friends outside of club-related settings. On the “wouldn’t it be nice” side of my chart, however, there was a teeming list of extracurricular activities, some of which I eventually tried and others I decided not to.
Although the exercise helped me think more deliberately about which clubs to join and which ones could wait, the number of clubs on my list still grew over my first year until it became untenable to stay involved in everything.
Starting my sophomore year, I took on a few leadership roles, including producing a musical. During the fall 2019 semester, I began feeling burned out and had to take a step back from some of my responsibilities. The red flag I noticed was that when I sat down to work, I often prioritized my club responsibilities before my classes.
Whenever I talk to people about my Penn experience, I say that my biggest challenge is balancing my time between classes and everything else I do, from theatre rehearsals to giving campus tours. By going to therapy, I learned the importance of “slowing down” by continuing a morning meditation practice and journaling about my thoughts, feelings and what I am grateful for.
Mindfulness (the act of observing one’s thoughts rather than instantly reacting to them) helped me cope with stress. Before I discovered mindfulness, I would often use “should” and “must” statements, thoughts that obliged myself to do things rather than seeing mundane tasks as opportunities for growth. Practicing mindfulness helped me undo some of the patterns of thought in which I judged myself harshly. The ability to catch myself in counterproductive thought patterns and stop them helps explain some of the documented benefits of mindfulness, such as relieving stress and sharpening focus.
When the COVID-19 pandemic led to our collective hibernation in March 2020, I had plenty of time to reflect on how I could improve on mindfully living in the present moment. I had more time to read books, journal and go on walks with my mom and sister near home. I realized that slowing down can actually help me get in touch with my thoughts and emotions.
Someone may disagree and say that slowing down only hinders one’s productivity, but here’s an analogy. Imagine you are driving a car. When you drive fast, the world around you starts to blur, and you are less likely to appreciate the world’s finer details. While it may be fun to drive fast, you also run out of gas quicker. When we choose to mindfully move at a slower pace, we have the energy to go the distance while also enjoying the world around us. Think of it as a Penn version of “The Tortoise and the Hare.”
This fall, as we anticipate a return to an in-person campus experience, let’s choose not to get caught up in the speed of Penn’s culture. Take a moment, slow down, and do the things that bring you joy.
JADEN CLOOBECK is a rising College senior from Laguna Beach, Calif. studying psychology. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.