How do you prioritize?

priorities

When you think about your top priorities, do a dozen different things come to mind?

If so, we’re a lot alike. But I’ve realized what I call “priorities” pretty much encompass my entire life—everything from school to relationships to my health to this here blog make up all of my top focuses, which in fact makes it pretty darn hard to focus on anything, really.

Nicole wrote a very insightful post that made me reconsider what my priorities were. This particularly stood out to me:

“Before last week, since my mental health wasn’t my clearly identified top priority, other ‘priorities’ such as training, social and family stuff, and even work would often slip into that top spot and monopolize my attention. I didn’t have an iron-clad priority, which made everything seem like the priority, but the truth is that a priority isn’t a priority if you have 50 of them.

Simple, right? It was refreshing and kind of a relief to read this. I realized I wasn’t failing at life because I struggled to balance grad school, two writing jobs, my health, a social life, and my blog. I was just a normal person who had a lot on her plate and felt like she had to do all the things when in fact she should’ve focused on the first thing on her list: grad school. Are the other things still important? Absolutely. Are they the most important? Well, no. Not right now.

But how do you stick to one priority when other things are still important?

Obviously relationships and health shouldn’t go out the window just because school or something else gets top billing. The most helpful way I’ve come to think of it is to schedule your top priority in ink. Schedule the rest in pencil. 

In other words, plan time on your calendar that’s dedicated to whatever’s most important and stick to it no matter what. That way, even if you only accomplish one thing on your list, it’s the most important thing. Allow yourself to be flexible on the rest, and you won’t feel guilty if today’s cleaning session becomes tomorrow’s instead.

If you’re a master procrastinator, it also helps to identify your biggest distractors and schedule those, too. For me, scrolling through Twitter, Instagram and my blog feed is how I procrastinate. That not only takes away time from my top priority, but from my downtime, too. Now, I’m setting a limit on that time to 5-10 minutes in the morning and evening and 15-20 minutes at lunch. And blogs? I can catch up on those over the course of an hour on the weekends. That’s plenty of time to stay active and engaged online—but most importantly, that also leaves plenty of time to be active and engaged in the real world.

By keeping your number-one priority in mind every time you have to make a decision about how to spend your time, you’re a lot more likely to make the right decision and stay focused on the main goal. It helps to keep expectations for other aspects of our lives in perspective, too. In my case, that means from now on, I plain to aim on publishing two blog posts per week instead of three here at WTH. I have a lot of other writing responsibilities, and if I get too ambitious with my secondary goals, I’m unnecessarily setting myself up for disappointment if I fail to reach them.

August has been amazing and filled with lots of travel and quality time with family and friends, and now I’m ready to get back in the blogging groove—albeit at a different pace than before. Now that I have more realistic goals in mind for this space and can focus on grad school, there’s no mistaking what my top priorities are any longer.

How about you? What’s your top priority, and how do you work toward it every day?

How to survive your first year of grad school

A few of my classmates and me. (Photo courtesy of Scarlett Chen)

A few of my classmates and me. (Photo courtesy of Scarlett Chen)

Last week, in a daze, I hit “submit” on my last final project for the semester.

I’d officially wrapped up my first year of grad school, and I wasn’t quite sure how I should celebrate.

@wittycassiehere

(The answer, of course, was margaritas. The answer is always margaritas.)

Since then, I’ve been making plans for the summer, which, um, isn’t shaping up to be any less busy. But there’s a lot to look forward to.

And looking back, there’s a lot that got me through my first sometimes-hellish, sometimes-awesome year, and I’m sharing my incredibly helpful and super-serious knowledge with you.

Here’s how you, too, can survive your first year of grad school:

Get a blender. You never know when you might need a margarita or piña colada, and most of us can’t afford to always be hitting up the bars. The best part about owning a blender is you can enjoy your favorite frozen drinks while working on assignments… or while binge-watching Orange is the New Black and thinking, “Hey, at least I’ve got it better than those gals.”

Find healthy distractions. Sometimes, when it’s midnight, you just need to procrastinate before getting to the assignment that’s due tomorrow. My favorite distractions are scouring apartment listings on Craigslist (with no budget limit, of course—Beverly Hills, anyone?) and trolling dog rescue websites while showing dogs’ pictures to John telling him how we need to save the puppies right now.

Give yourself something to look forward to. And by that, I mean food.

Invest in your mental and physical health. In certain high-stress moments of the semester, my cohort’s classes would turn into very expensive group therapy sessions. (“Why do they want us to suffer?” we’d sob.) I also bought a Groupon for 70 percent off yoga classes at a local studio. I might’ve been cursing the teachers under my breath every time we were instructed to hold a plank pose, but ending on savasana every time was a great way to get a quick nap in.

Soak it up. And not just the margaritas. If you’re in a two-year program like I am, the first year makes you realize just how quickly the whole thing will go by. Before you know it, friends will disperse all across the country, hopefully landing some kickass jobs in the process. (Or in our program’s case, moving back in with our parents, because hello, we’re in journalism school. GUYS, I’M KIDDING. WE GOT THIS.)

Follow these five easy steps, and you’ll rock grad school. Cheers and ¡Salud!

What your dreams reveal about your reality

what are your dreams telling you

I had a nightmare the other night. The kind that sticks with you for a while.

I dreamed my classmates and I had to give presentations—singing presentations in which every single person basically stood up on a stage and sang karaoke. (Your typical journalism school assignment, clearly.) I watched the others stand up one by one and sing their hearts out on the fluorescently lit stage, and with each final note, the group would applaud.

Then it was my turn.

I’d forgotten all about presentation day. I hadn’t practiced my song in weeks. (Isn’t that always how school anxiety dreams go?) But the music started and I began mumbling along with what was supposed to be a Kelly Clarkson song. (Not exactly my go-to karaoke singer in real life, but again, we’re dreaming here.) I’d forgotten some of the words, but I belted out the notes as best I could. I even started to get into it, though I couldn’t hear myself very well—for all I knew, I was out of tune. But the worst part was when the song ended and no one clapped. No one even looked up from their computers. It was dead silent.

My stomach quivered with the kind of humiliation I hadn’t felt in years. Several painful seconds went by as I placed the microphone back on the stand. Part of me felt shamefully invisible while the other part of me couldn’t be invisible enough. I almost let it go and walked off stage without acknowledging the awkward moment, but instead, I delivered a little hostile sarcasm to the crowd: “Really? Not even a courtesy clap? Real nice.” Some people offered a couple of half-hearted claps. It only made me feel worse.

This dream haunted me all the next day. I’ve had plenty of awful school-related dreams, but this one felt particularly significant. Why? Because the only thing unrealistic about it was that I was singing Kelly Clarkson karaoke for a grade. Everything else—the nerves, the fumbling over words, the vulnerability of exposing my heart to an audience and the feeling that no one cares? That’s all within the scope of reality.

It doesn’t take a professional dream analyst to decipher that my dream-self’s inability to confidently sing a power anthem might be linked to real-life feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt.

Most of the time, I feel like I have my shit together and know that I’m more than capable of achieving anything I take on. But sometimes, it can feel a bit like I’m Kermit-flailing behind a microphone wondering if I’m coherent or just plain crazy.

You could say grad school has instilled a proper sense of urgency with an unfortunate side effect of second-guessing everything, including my own abilities and whether I’m on the right path. If you are, ever have been or intend to be a grad student, this article about imposter syndrome—the feeling that there must’ve been some sort of mistake when you were accepted into school and that everyone will find out you’re a fraud any day now—is a worthy read.

But these feelings are hardly limited to school anxieties. Anyone brave enough to put their work out there for people to see, read respond and react to has likely been there—it’s how they deal with the criticism, the negative thoughts and the bad dreams that makes them a success or a could’ve-been. 

That means if you’re a blogger who, like me, has poured your heart and time into a blog post and obsessively refreshed the stats and comments and worried no one gives a shit—I get it. I’ve been there. I’m still there sometimes (see above dream). But as long as you love doing it, keep doing it. And if your dreams give you any indication that something’s not right, analyze the hell out of those dreams and write a blog post/diary entry/song about it. Then get back to work. Because the only thing worse than creating something that’s a failure is failing to create.

And the next time I have to give a karaoke presentation? I’ll be prepared with a flawless rendition of “Stronger.”

 

What I learned in my first semester of grad school

What I learned in my first semester of grad school

The dinosaur to the far right is me, yes. (Photo by Alan Middlestaedt)

I can’t believe it. I’m done.

Well, a quarter of the way done, anyway. That’s right—I survived my first semester of grad school. You know what they say, time flies, etc. But truly, when I look back over the past few months, I can’t believe how much I’ve done. Just within the first few weeks, I was interviewing Slash, navigating downtown Los Angeles court rooms, and writing more in a short period of time than I had all year. Since late August, I’ve also developed a backbone and video editing skills, not to mention a clearer focus on what it is I want to do when I’m a student no more.

To be honest, I went into this program with some reservations. Maybe more than one should have when going into serious debt for said program. But then, that serious debt was the main reason I had reservations. The other, of course, was just self-doubt.

In any case, I’m so glad I stuck it out. The opportunities I’ve had would’ve been much harder to come by had I gone with a more grassroots approach. Not that any of these things would’ve been impossible had I done that instead (that’s the thing about journalism—you don’t need a degree to do it), but I’ve definitely benefited from the constant kicks in the butt that being enrolled in a rigorous program gives you. I needed someone to give me assignments—especially difficult ones.

So what have I learned?

I’ve learned that self-doubt is absolutely part of the experience. At least, to start. After a while though, you’ve got to shake it or at least fake it. (You know, until you make it.) Grad school is as much about becoming confident in your footing as it is studying the methods of those who do it better. You want to be like them? Act like them.

It’s up to you to make the most of it. Just like anything else in life, graduate school is what you make of it. Yes, you might go into it expecting one thing and end up realizing it’s entirely different from what you pictured. (I was so confused during orientation. Why are they giving us camcorders? Don’t they know I want to write for, like, those magazines made of trees?) But grad school is not the time to be narrow-minded. Embrace the challenges. Go beyond the minimum requirement. You’re wasting your money if you don’t take full advantage of all the resources available to you, no matter what the field. Graduate knowing you got everything out of it that you could.

Friendships form fast. I couldn’t believe how quickly people were forming into groups even during orientation back in August. For an introvert, that can be overwhelming. (Especially if you’re an introvert who’s still getting her bearings in a new city.) But even if you’re not quick to form friendships, they will establish over time. Having every class together—and suffering through seemingly impossible assignments together—dictates that. It’s so funny to think back on how different my cohort seemed in the first week of classes. By the end of the semester, it was a tight-knit unit with weird inside jokes. (As evidenced in the photos above and below.)

what I learned in grad school

$100 to the person who can figure out what we’re trying to spell. (Photo by Alan Middlestaedt)

This is, of course, based on just one person’s experience, and grad school experiences obviously vary greatly depending on what you’re studying.

My perspective is also shaped by the fact that I took “off” a couple of years between undergrad and graduate school to get some experience under my belt. And even though at the time that job—where I worked among a truly special group of people for two years—was not what I wanted to do in the long-term, I’m so glad I took that time to work there, learn a bit about an industry I didn’t know anything about at first, and save my money while I lived rent-free at home. That time of my life helped make this time of my life possible.

That time was also when I really started pouring into my blog, because my job wasn’t something I took home with me at night. (Journalism is so totally the opposite.) And thank God for this blog, because between the writing and the photography, it gave me a creative outlet I so desperately needed. The fact that I haven’t abandoned it since starting grad school is something I’m very proud of. Turns out I’m not terrible at this time management thing.

So I’ve learned this much. I look forward to seeing what else I learn over the next year and-a-half.

Fellow academic scholars, aspiring graduates, and students of life—what valuable lessons have you learned lately?

3 months in L.A.: How I see money differently

Mo' money mo' problems

Before I moved to California, I had a lot of savings, very little debt, few financial responsibilities, and a restlessness for something more.

Now that I’ve been here for three and-a-half months (where does the time go?), my savings are dwindling, I’m thousands of dollars in debt, I’m paying most of my own bills, and that restlessness has morphed into general anxiety. I think I’m finally an Official American Adult.

Needless to say, the way I think about and deal with money has changed drastically in a few short months—which is a good thing, because I don’t take it for granted anymore. Still, money can be a challenge when you’re living in a new city. Part of the point of moving to a new city is actually experiencing the new city. Luckily, we’ve managed to do plenty of that with all the free and cheap things L.A. has to offer. But the several dozen or so amazing restaurants just down the street from our apartment? Not really in the budget to try out right now.

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece for Lady Clever about most people’s attitudes toward money and the false belief that more money means greater happiness. “As long as our basic needs are met and a few indulgences are granted,” I wrote, “We’re not getting any happier.” And yes, while we’d all welcome more cash always, it’s not going to fix depression, a lack of creative inspiration, relationships gone sour, or anything else that might be getting us down.

But my self-quote (ha) brings up an important point: indulgence. What exactly do I mean by indulgence? Well, when I still had a ton of my own money in the bank, I would indulge with the occasional shopping trip. Bad day at work? I’ll just head over to LOFT—I got a coupon in the mail, so I might as well use it to buy a cute new dress and feel better. Hell, good day at work? Today, I’m happy. I’ll celebrate with a new dress from LOFT.

…You see my point.

Now, what I consider indulgences are the basil plant sitting in our tiny 2×6 garden patch and the $6 car wash to keep my new, reliable car (that I still owe $10k for) free of the L.A. dust that’s always swirling around. Maybe if I’d always been of this mindset, I’d have saved even more money and wouldn’t be eyeing my savings account with a wary gaze.

And let’s not forget those student loans. I’m lucky that my undergrad schooling was paid for and relatively inexpensive to begin with, but what I’m spending for two years at USC for grad school (with additional living expenses, because I’m hardly earning enough part-time to pay half of rent) is, admittedly, obscene. To be honest, I frequently question whether I’ve made the right decision by going to this fancy school. Which is why it’s so important that I make the most of it and bust my ass so that when I graduate, I’m able to get a job—or several jobs—that will allow me to start paying back those loans… and hopefully afford to eat, too.

It’s an expensive life lesson, and one I’m grateful to learn early on. I recognize the privilege and opportunities I have by going to school, but I don’t have any delusions that the perfect, well-paying job will just land in my lap because of the prestigious name.

One of the biggest changes for me is how I think about material things. I never liked to think of myself as a material person. What person with substance does? But I was. Am still, I guess. To some extent, I probably always will be. I can’t help it—I love beautiful things. But I see them differently now. I got rid of more than a third of my wardrobe before moving out here, and looking in my closet now, I’d like to get rid of even more. Gone are the days when I shopped just for fun. I used to daydream about making our place Apartment Therapy-beautiful, but now all I care about is making it feel like home. And money? I could most definitely use more of it. But I no longer look at it as a gateway to happiness—just something to be monitored and dealt with. Money is what got me to L.A., along with some serious determination, patience, and planning. And for that, I’m grateful.