A student is sitting at the stairs, wearing a mask and studying on a laptop
March 25, 2021
3 mins read

Navigating burnout in my last term at UBC

Finishing up my 5th year at UBC, I can’t help but feel like a dinosaur fossil.

I’m buried under sedimentary layers of final papers and feel like I’m merging with my desk chair. Oh, and did I forget to mention, there’s a global pandemic persisting outside the four walls of my bedroom…or lecture room? Honestly, it’s been hard to keep track of the function of my bedroom after taking classes online for a whole year. 

Harder still is finishing strong. 

Because I realized something a few months ago, when getting through lectures and meeting deadlines was becoming increasingly difficult: I had come down with a classic case of senioritis and burnout.

What is burnout?

Burnout apparently isn’t related to my car’s engine. Burnout refers to the emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by stress or overworking yourself. 

The combination of stresses about post-grad life coupled with COVID uncertainties had left me in a negative mindset at the end of last term. I felt drained and tired, and it was resulting in low productivity. What was the point, I thought, of putting hard work into an upcoming assignment when, quite frankly, I was just feeling tired and overwhelmed about life after graduation

Pre-COVID, there were emotional outlets I could rely on: Friday night dinners with friends as well as karaoke nights. With COVID restrictions these outlets weren’t an option anymore and each day felt like a never-ending stream of Zoom calls.

After feeling my motivation slip over the course of a few months, I decided to try and change. Attempting to function in a slump didn’t feel feasible for the rest of the school year. 

In my pre-COVID mind, a productive day meant jam-packing every moment and completing big projects, but now this tactic felt overwhelming. So, I decided to reframe my idea of an accomplished day and re-assess the things that could still bring me joy—given the current circumstances. Essentially, I focused my efforts on restoring my sense of control.

How did I reignite my engine?

Before COVID, I used to look forward to the AMS Block Party at the end of the school year, or going out for dinner after my finals. In order to reframe my idea of a post-assignment break and reward, I needed to work within restrictions and adapt to the things that were within reach. For me, this meant doing two specific things: making the most of the weekend and focusing on the small tasks I could accomplish.

1. Revamp the weekend

Constantly sitting at home over the weekends blurred the lines between weekdays and weekends and definitely contributed to my exhaustion. Organizing online games night with friends on Zoom, or getting takeout bubble tea on Saturday afternoons gave me space to decompress and feel motivated as I started a new week.                               

As of now, the grocery store is my favourite place on the planet. As simple as it sounds, picking up a bag of Miss Vickie’s salt and vinegar chips from my local Safeway after a heavy assignment has helped keep this dinosaur moving forward.

2. Accomplish the small things

A key piece of burnout and senioritis for me was the compounding responsibilities of being a student in my last term while preparing for post-grad life. Thinking too deeply about the “what ifs” and “whens” led me to a negative mindset.

I felt pressured to tackle everything at once—from finishing final projects to applying for jobs, looking for an apartment, and more. However, when things continue to change on a daily basis in university and in the "adult” world (especially in the context of an ever-evolving pandemic), these tasks felt overwhelming. Reminding myself that other students were experiencing similar things helped me recognize that I didn’t have to tackle everything at once. 

Moreover, focusing on the present and breaking down tasks step by step made the big responsibilities more manageable.                       

Whether it’s making my bed or sending off an email, completing smaller tasks feels like an accomplishment and encourages me to continue onwards in some of my bigger tasks. The feeling of crossing off a to-do list item—no matter how small—continues to be satisfying and adds up over time.

A student is working in the studio

Getting back in the driver’s seat

Realistically, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to ending burnout. I wish I could give every university student a checklist to avoid exhaustion, but navigating this experience will look different for everyone. 

What can help, though, is looking at how you frame a situation and how you choose to interpret it. There is a lot that is not in our control right now, but reframing my situation—by redefining what a relaxing weekend can look like and choosing to see small tasks as accomplishments—helped me to regain my sense of control, and get my grip on the steering wheel again.

I overcame burnout, and so can you. Whenever you get lost in the cosmos of never-ending Zoom calls, focus on the things that you can control.