5 things I learned last term at the University of Waterloo

Rachel posed in front of cherry blossom treesI finished my second year at the University of Waterloo last term, studying Computing and Financial Management (CFM). I joined the program in September 2020 at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, so up until then, it was a mix of social distancing, online assessments, and Discord group chats that made up my university experience. This summer was my first time experiencing university in person. Along with the adjustment period, I feel like I learned a lot about student life, how to study effectively, and the importance of balance.

Here are 5 lessons I learned that I hope can help others along their academic journey:

1. Productivity is a state of mind

There are times when you can push yourself, and there are times when you must take a step back. And that is perfectly okay. We as humans aren’t built to be robots that can constantly operate at peak productivity. What’s important is taking advantage of those ebbs and flows and knowing what conditions you operate best under to optimize your available time.

Man reading a book in front of a laptop with his hand placed on his chin

What every student wishes they looked like while working.

Productivity is made up of time multiplied by intensity. If you are fatigued or not comprehending what you are doing, then it doesn't matter how much time you put in because you’re not going to get the outcome you desire. Likewise, I’ve had some of my best study sessions when I am thirty minutes out from a test or deadline. Due to a multitude of factors, time spent studying does not necessarily correlate with progress.

Especially at Waterloo, it is common to see people complaining on Reddit about endless study hours and lack of social life yet still not feeling as on top of things as their classmates. Fear not, friends. You do not have to choose between a social life, your health, and your schoolwork. In fact, I found that having social plans on Friday nights and weekends motivated me to get more work done earlier in the week, contributing positively to my mental health and the fullest use of my time. This leads me to my next point.

2. Healthy eating and sleep habits matter

Success is rarely achieved by operating on McDonald's burgers and coffee at all hours. I speak from personal experience. I lived three minutes from a McDonald's last term and frequently abused this convenience. Please, do your body and mind a favour and don’t do this. Make your own meals. You cannot be productive during all hours of the day. Making food is like a built-in break, and it gives your mind a chance to mull over what you were doing before in a less constricted environment. Once I started making my own meals, I found that I not only felt and looked better, but I was also able to make more of a dent in studying with less time. Plus, cooking is rewarding!

Woman smiling while cooking on a kitchen island

This could be you. You don’t have to go all out though – simple works too!

Along the lines of healthy eating habits, good sleep is also incredibly important. Especially with the grind culture in computer science, I found myself staying up later and later to work on assignments. At one point in the semester, I had a regular bedtime of 2:30 to 4 a.m. I am someone who needs at least nine hours of sleep to operate at my best the next day, which was difficult to achieve with that sleep schedule. Getting a good night’s sleep, whatever that looks like for you, will pay in dividends.

3. Underrated: The mental health benefits of exercise (pro tip: don’t only do core)

I discovered the Physical Activities Complex (PAC) about halfway through the term. Before this, I had always had a somewhat negative perception of exercise. I was a professional model for five years and associated “workouts” with brutal ab and cardio exercises that I would do for three weeks before visiting my agencies and abandon shortly after.

Woman smiling while practicing boxing

Working out doesn’t have to be tedious. Try a mix of things you enjoy doing already.

You see, the focus of working out for models is to lean down and tone up, as most agencies do not want models to appear too muscular. However, when I started exploring beyond this, I found it was a lot more rewarding to do other exercises, like lifting. Now when I go to the gym, I do a mix of everything, and it has worked wonders to keep me motivated to exercise. Plus, after the endorphins kicked in, I found I could always concentrate better on whatever school-related problem I was solving.

4. You don’t have to be perfect to start a new habit

You can start off with just once or twice a week, and you will slowly see the benefits. This lesson is one that I learned early in entrepreneurship and now apply to everything in my life. There is rarely a perfect prototype or a perfect first try. When starting something new, it is very tempting to want to be “perfect”. However, perfect is sometimes just an illusion. What really matters is getting out there and getting a foot in the door.

Woman sitting in front of laptop with both hands on her head and a stressed expression

Chasing perfection is often tiring and disillusioning, and not what you should be aiming for when first starting out.

Want to start exercising like Tip #3? You don’t have to go all out with 50 different exercises and an hour and a half in the gym every day. Instead, start with a 30-minute walk around the neighbourhood a couple of days a week. You will see many benefits just by doing that, like better cardiovascular health and a clearer mind. Adding on more exercises and longer routines is just the cherry on top and will come easier with practice. Likewise, if you want to start studying more of a certain topic or subject, start by just adding one minute per day to what you already do. It is easier to get one per cent better at something each day instead of 20 per cent better all at once.

5. Attend your lectures

I loved the return to in-person instruction. I know many people preferred online classes for the fact that you could speed up and pause lectures. For me, it just led to a lot of endless repetition of sections of lectures where my mind drifted off, or I felt like I wasn’t fully grasping the assignments. With in-person lectures, I was motivated to digest the content in the prescribed time slot. By attending, I also had the reassurance that I had done my due diligence to contribute to my learning. It is natural to have your mind wander or not be fully focused for the entirety of the lecture, but you will at least understand the key parts the instructor emphasizes. Not 100 per cent of the lectures are 100 per cent useful, so don’t stress about missing little details here and there.

Lecture hall

Lectures are more than just sitting there and listening to the instructor. It is a chance to engage, ask questions, and meet new friends.

With the return to in-person instruction, I found that I was better able to commit to simply getting up and going to class three times a week, rather than going back and forth over lecture videos on my own time. My verdict would be that if you are someone who prefers to self-schedule, self-motivate, and self-teach, then online lectures would probably be a blessing to you. However, I would argue that many students like myself benefit from the blocked-out time and dedicated in-person structure to learning and answering questions. I truly do recommend consistently attending your in-person lectures.

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