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Running On Empty

Kaitlyn Wislang on why exhaustion is not the new black.

It’s so easy to become wrapped up in the way everyone else is living that we sometimes forget to question if it’s right. Are we living right?

A friend tells me why she is so exhausted this morning – she was awake until three in the morning working on an ecology report. A different friend studied for seven hours straight, with no breaks. Another friend has pulled more all-nighters than he can count this semester. The thing is, this doesn’t even feel like something different or new to write about. It’s not shocking. If anything, it’s painfully common.

The way I see it, we have accepted that living our lives right involves exhaustion. That it involves pushing ourselves to new limits; embracing the idea that we are only doing our best if we are working until it hurts; that we should keep going until we break down. We pride ourselves on how exhausted we are, or how busy we can make our lives. If we aren’t as bone-tired as the person next to us, we often feel inadequate or unsuccessful.

When it comes to academic work, we’re told to “just do your best”. But how do we define doing our best? Does it mean staying awake all night to put the finishing touches on an assignment? Running on straight caffeine to keep us awake after a string of all-nighters? Or, perhaps it’s pouring our entire selves into our work, so much so that we have no energy for anything else?

The word burnout isn’t talked about enough. Nor are the words deprivation, exhaustion, and academic fatigue. Once your best starts to break you, it’s no longer your best. Saying to your friends, “I got a full eight hours of sleep last night, had a good breakfast, caught up with friends and family, went for a run and finished the essay,” will likely return some death stares or confused looks, and understandably so. To live a life that is not drowning in the glamorisation of exhaustion—of that being the best way to live—is essentially unheard of.

"When we talk among friends about how late we stayed up, or how many hours we worked without breaks, we have learnt to equate that with effort and success."

It’s become a competition of sorts. When we talk among friends about how late we stayed up, or how many hours we worked without breaks, we have learnt to equate that with effort and success. When the people around us keep pushing to the edge of exhaustion, we think we have to live like that too. Otherwise, how could we possibly be as high-achieving and successful?

I’m not suggesting you drop out of uni, take a yoga teacher training course, or go on a life-long hiatus from all things stressful. By all means, keep working hard and smashing out those assignments, but why not try a different approach?

Balance is what can save us, and is the best way to replenish and nourish what we have poured away. But it doesn’t always have to be once we reach empty. In fact, it should be while we still have more to give.

Here are some ideas on how we can find balance between academia, and all other realms of our lives:

Get organised: Plan your days, from when you’re going to wake up, to when you’re going to go to bed. Include work commitments and a study plan, and make sure to put breaks in there too. Include some things to look forward to, like grabbing a coffee with friends or watching the latest episode of the series you're trying not to binge.

Set small, bite-size goals: Instead of letting your brain spiral deep into the “OMG I have four exams starting in two days, omg, omg…,” try this: Pick one topic, study it for a condensed 45 minutes, then take a 15-minute break. Tick that goal off and move on to the next one.

Treat yourself right: Try and go to bed at a consistent hour each night, ideally before midnight. Make sure you’re getting plenty of nutrients from your food, and ocassionally treat yourself with foods that make your soul happy. Move in a way that releases stress, whether that be swimming, dancing, running or yoga.

Have a yarn. Talk to someone you can trust about what’s stressing you out. When talking about stress or exhaustion, we’re often quick to point out, “I’m fine though”, because if you say it out loud it’s definitely true, right? It’s totally okay if you’re not fine. If you need a professional ear, the AUT counsellors are wonderful.

You may scoff at this list, thinking you don’t have time to take care of yourself, but you do. We all have the same number of hours in the day – it’s up to you how you use them.

Perhaps doing our best is taking care of ourselves, and seeing what results from not crashing and burning. We might surprise ourselves if we begin to learn that we are here for so much more than running on empty.

The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand recommends including the Five Ways to Wellbeing in our day-to-day lives. These are:

1. Connect, me whakawhanaunga

2. Give, tukua

3. Take notice, me aro tonu

4. Keep learning, me ako tonu

5. Be active, me kori tonu

You can find more information on how these actions fill us up, rather than depleting us, at

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