When it comes to busy student life, sometimes the most challenging thing to do is to find the time to do nothing at all. Between college, work, maintaining a social life, and commuting or visiting family at home, the average student’s schedule is pretty packed, with to-do lists getting longer every time we check. Between lack of time in our routine, a near constant use of our phones to keep on top of college and our social lives, and addictive scrolling habits in the free time we do have, it is easy to forget to make time for genuine rest and relaxation in our day-to-day lives. Realising this lack of designated time for yourself is one thing, but making a change to accommodate it is as difficult at times as it is hugely beneficial to your mental health.

On the way into college last month, I forgot to bring my headphones, and in doing so I realised how little time I actually spend sitting with my own thoughts without the distraction of music or my phone. I also realised how long it took for my brain to relax, and stopped checking the time for how much longer the trip would take, checking the weather forecast and wondering if I should have grabbed a coat, checking my lecture time again to make sure I hadn’t read it wrong even though I knew really I hadn’t. The temptation to spend the 35-minute trip on Instagram was surprisingly very strong. Not that there’s much harm in using social media to pass time, but when I made a conscious effort not to use my phone, only to battle with opening and closing the app for the majority of a short commute, I started to wonder when it had become so difficult to sit with myself without occupying my mind in any other way than listening to my own thoughts and looking out the window.

Since then, I have made a point of not wearing my headphones or using my phone much on my way into college every day, or on my walk to work. Even though more time like that is probably needed, and rest times when I’m not doing anything or going anywhere would be even better, I still feel like I’m already seeing an improvement in myself. I haven’t been getting bored as easily, and I don’t lose as much time scrolling through posts and videos that I won’t remember as soon as I’m past them.

It can be easy to avoid thinking about problems or negative thoughts in modern life where we can be so easily distracted by busy routines and the constant availability of instant media distractions. Entertainment through the medium of short-form videos and one-page Instagram posts are easy to consume and don’t require much work on your part, making them ideal for passing the time, and distracting you from what you don’t want to be thinking about. Of course, sometimes avoidance is a necessary strategy, and there are times when media like this creates a light, pleasant escape from a bad mental health day or the like, and that is absolutely fine and healthy. However, many problems, especially regarding mental health, tend to be better addressed sooner rather than later, and avoidance may result in an unnecessary build-up of negative emotions that will be worse for you in the long run. Giving yourself time to self-reflect and go through your thoughts can also help you figure out what exactly it is that you need when you’re feeling low, whether that be a light distraction or an honest and proactive self-talk session.

Outside of bad days, being able to sit with yourself and your own thoughts and mind alone without distraction is a useful day-to-day skill with many noticeable benefits. Boredom is one thing, and bad thoughts are another, but both of these we should be able to deal with without the unconscious crutch of social media and headphones. Getting back in touch with yourself and deliberately slowing your life and mind down for designated periods of time can help you figure out how you’re feeling and why, as well as give you space to realign yourself with your goals and figure out what you want and need to do to accomplish them. It can also improve our ability to relax, something which can be so hard to practise when you’re in a pattern of thinking of the next thing to do as soon as you’ve finished the last- that is what busy student life can do to you! 

Life is so fast-paced that it is easy to forget to get to know ourselves. Thoughtfully considering our wants and needs is even more important with so much going on in our lives. We need a certain amount of our downtime to not be full of music and social media scrolling. We need to be able to spend an hour on the train without craving entertainment or to cook and eat dinner alone without a show or music playing in the background, or to resist being on our phones before we sleep at night so that we can process the day. Habits of mass media consumption in our free time take up our free time and make it restless when what we really need is a healthy balance of this, and genuine time to ourselves and our own thoughts. Routinely checking in on ourselves is a key factor in positive mental health maintenance and personal progress. Let’s make a conscious effort to put aside time to figure out where we’re at, and where we’re going, and make an effort to get to know ourselves better.

Written by Abby Cleaver