How do you find time to write in high school on top of homework, studying for standardized tests and extracurricular activities? For years, I struggled to be productive without sacrificing my mental health. Everyone says balance is the key, but it seems like balance is this mysterious idea that no one truly captures. Fortunately, after much reflection on past mistakes and learning from others, I figured out some tips that helped me maintain a healthy balance of activities.
1. Make your goal realistic
I have seen this advice and dismissed it many times. As an overachiever, I thought (stupidly) that maybe the human condition of burnout wouldn’t apply to me. I filled my to-do list with goals that I should accomplish if I use every second of my life effectively. The truth is, I am only human. I can’t write every second that I’m alive like Hamilton did (or at least that is what they say in the musical). There will be days where I space out. Days where I come home from school exhausted and dysfunctional. Or worse, days where I freak out and have a mental meltdown after all the overthinking and overanalyzing and things not going my way.
Forgive yourself for not being perfect. When you have a bad mental health day, pushing yourself to study or write for three hours straight might not be a good idea. Take a break. Add relaxation into your schedule. Expect things to happen at the most inconvenient time. Everyone has the experience of being so overwhelmed that one can end up doing nothing. If you don’t have the habit of writing a to-do list, start doing it! A couple of minutes will take off tons of stress in your mind. Rather than failing and feeling guilty, setting realistic goals will make your life much healthier.
2. Sleep, eat healthy, and workout
I come from a household with a toxic notion of productivity. Growing up, my parents talked about how American college students sleep three hours every day. Okay, first, that’s definitely not true. Second, this misconception trivializes the importance of self-care and encourages people to overwork themselves. Maybe that’s why my parents are workaholics.
Physical and mental health are tied together: after eight or nine hours of sleep, little things in life don’t agitate me as much. When I’m mad at someone for no reason, sometimes I’m just hungry. Sleep for as long as you need (but don’t overdo it) and eat nutritious food that makes your body feel good. Exercise. I haven’t been working out recently, which probably explains why I feel tired all the time. Go for walks when the weather is good, or follow the instructions on Youtube and do some stretches in your room. Moving your body can go a long way.
3. Prioritize school work
Most days when I come home from school, I’m not in the mood of doing homework, even though I love homework. Our teachers rarely give us busy work; the reading/worksheets/projects we’re assigned are usually engrossing and I can’t be more grateful for my education. It’s just tempting to open a new document and write. I always leave a note of “finish your homework before writing” in my planner.
From time to time I become resentful. Writing is what I am passionate about, so why should I place it after schoolwork? Deep down, I study because my dream college prefers a certain GPA and standardized test score. When I get home, I do my homework and study. If I only write 300 words, it’s okay. I’m still young. I have time. Don’t feel obligated to write every day; it’s good to have a routine, but you don’t have to prove to anyone that you’re a writer.
4. Take advantage of weekends and breaks
I love weekends because I can catch up with reading and writing. I would spend a whole morning or afternoon typing by my desk or at the local library. When inspiration comes, I won’t feel guilty for staying up until one A.M. drafting a short story because there is no school tomorrow. I used to be obsessed with hitting a word count every day until I learned that I work better with a more flexible schedule. A writer’s current state of mind will reflect in their writing. The reader can sense it if they’re stressed over a deadline. The holiday season is the most productive time of the year for me; I squeeze time to write between all the eating, drinking, chatting, and reflecting on the year.
5. Use writing as a form of self-care
Writing has always been therapeutic for me. It is my escape from the world, the concept of reality, and myself. I use writing to research, to reach out to others, and to question the universe. But when I become reward-oriented, the desire to accomplish something ruins the joy of creating it. I want to write a novel that will make people think and feel, but I also just enjoy writing. I want to stop worrying about how imperfect my manuscript is, because it’ll never be perfect. Imperfection is one of the things that make life beautiful. Allow yourself the taste of pride after finishing schoolwork and tap the keyboard like it’s an once and only lifetime. My favorite YouTuber, Shaelinwrites, talked about treating writing as a reward for studying which I find helpful and stress-relieving.
6. Stop hurrying
I had dreams. Big dreams. I wanted to publish a book before I turned eighteen. I wanted to build a platform before my twenties. Sixteen-year-old me got way ahead of himself. Sit down, take a deep breath, and think. Boy, you’re still in high school. Your friends just started thinking about the colleges they want to go and the careers they want to pursue. There is no rush. Think about your purpose: why do you want to write a book? I want to tell stories. Beautiful stories. I want to make others feel less alone. I want to make people laugh and cry and think hard. I believe in the beauty and power of words. Years ago, when the lonely little kid didn’t have any friends, his characters came into life and embraced him with a warm hug. He cried. I don’t want to be the person who loses himself in competition with others. So I wrote this down to remind myself of my purpose. Creativity is a lifelong journey, take as long as you need.
Kate Ma is a high school junior from North Carolina who is passionate about music and art. In her free time, she enjoys drawing, playing clarinet and piano, as well as singing (very poorly). She also loves to read and write her own stories, and she had a very severe Wattpad phase during which she published multiple stories that she has now taken down out of embarrassment.