Jeremy Côté

Academics and Hobbies

I get it. You spend most of your time on school work, trying to make sure you complete your assignments and make them perfect, preparing for tests, and generally focusing on school. As such, you do not have time to do a lot of other things. You might get an odd hour here or there in the week, but nothing substantial. After all, there is always more to do in order to advance your academic career as a student. What could be more important?

The reason I get it is that I was like this for a long time. Yes, I did some other things, but my main focus was on school. Heck, my main focus is still on school. I like to consider my education as a full-time job, which means I dedicate a large fraction of my time to it. That is why I spend a lot of time doing assignments and trying to understand new concepts rather than waste my time doing other things.

This kind of thinking has led me down a good academic road. I have gotten good grades, and reaped the rewards for that. I am not denying that focusing on your school work is a good idea. However, I have also realized that there are other things that you should focus your time on. The purpose is not to foster balance, exactly. If you want to be good at what you do, by definition you need to give it a lot of attention, which means you will not have the time to pursue other tasks. However, what I am talking about is detaching your identity from one pursuit, and giving yourself a chance to work on other projects to develop skills you will not get in school.

A chance to mentally take a break

School is difficult. Anyone who has gone to school for many years knows this. It is not for everyone. The constant undulating waves of stress, assignments, and tests can take their toll over the years. This is only exacerbated if you do not enjoy what you are studying and are just holding on. Still, even if you love school (like I do), chances are you will have seasons of life where you do not enjoy the mountain of work you have.

When this moment comes (and it will!), a hobby can be the difference between wallowing in despair and getting through without much trouble. When you have a hobby that you regularly engage in, you give yourself a chance to mentally break away from what you are doing. You want to have something else to work on when your main pursuit is not going so well.

This might seem like a bad thing to do. Does it not make more sense to double down your effort when things are going bad? Despite this being the instinct, I think a better strategy is to take a step back and go do something else. Go practice your hobby, preferably something that rejuvenates you. By the time you get back to your school work, I predict that you will have a new surge of energy.

The trick is to find a hobby that makes you think of something else. You should not just be keeping yourself busy during this time. The idea is to mentally distance yourself from the particulars of school in order to let your mind relax.

My hobbies are not that far removed from school. For example, I write and draw most days, but my subject matter tends to be related in some way to science, mathematics, and education. However, writing and drawing use different areas of creativity from solving problems or getting work done for school, so I have made it work out. I also run every day, and this is definitely an activity in which I can detach myself from school.

The most important part of the hobby is that it lets you think about other things than your school work. It is easy to get caught up in the wheel of thinking about the same things over and over again. When I find myself trapped in this wheel, I try to jump out from it as quickly as possible. Being in that wheel is not helpful, and it results in being frustrated and fatigued from school.

“But wait,” you might say. “What if I have a lot of things I need to get done for school and I don’t have time for my hobby?”

This is a good question, and it highlights one aspect of school that I find disconcerting: our tendency to think there is so much to do. I frequently find myself saying that I have a ton of homework, when really I do not have that many things to do. If you are like me, you probably overthink about the work you need to do. Even when I finish my work a week ahead of time, I still feel like I am behind. It is like this chronic treadmill that I find myself on, unable to ever feel like there is time to get everything completed.

The good news is that if you spend all your time on school work, there is a decent chance that this problem is mostly mental. As such, if you can shift your mindset, you will find that you do have time to pursue a hobby. In fact, I have found that it is by committing to a habit that you end up doing it. For example, if I just hoped I would write a lot but I never gave myself time in my schedule to sit down and write, I would not have gotten many words written. Now that I commit to writing every day, I know that each day will include a writing session. This is true even if I have a lot of homework or studying to do. I make it a priority, and this lets me get it done again and again.

A hidden advantage

Being able to take a mental break from school is great, but the thing I like the most about having hobbies is that they give you a hidden advantage.

When I was younger, I spent a lot of time studying. I was recognized for my hard work with various academic awards. However, I never got an award for volunteering or community service. Why? Because I did not make it a priority. I focused only on school, and let everything else go.

There is a certain argument to be made for this. After all, the more you restrict what you do, the easier it is to focus on doing those few things at a high level. However, chances are that you can manage to do more than just school, and this is where a hobby comes in. Depending on what your hobby is, it can give you the advantage of learning new skills that others around you don not have.

For example, the fact that I write every day has made it easier to express myself. I know what it takes to write a decent sentence. Plus, I have improved on my science communication. Therefore, while my classmates might have the same knowledge as I do, I have the advantage of being able to communicate my ideas to an audience. Granted, that audience might be small, but the fact that I have worked on this blog for many years shows that I am willing to commit to doing the work. I have learned about consistency, writing, explaining, and showing up. These are all important, and I think they provide me with an advantage that many do not have.

Maybe you play music or a sport. That is fine. They offer their own advantages. The point is that any hobby will give you an advantage that you would not get from just focusing on school.

The other (practical) benefit is that these hobbies look good when you are writing a summary of yourself for grants or school applications. They show that you do not just focus school. I used to say, “I don’t care about doing other things. My academic excellence will pull me through.” And sure, it did for a while. But when I applied for a grant for graduate studies, I ended up being the last person to get a grant in my group. The reason? While I had a nearly perfect score on the academic portion of the application, I received poor marks for the community section. As such, I did not prioritize other pursuits as much, and it nearly cost me a grant.

The question becomes: How do I differentiate myself? One way is have these hobbies. Say what you will about the quality of my site, but the fact is that I have been publishing a post every week for over a year, and I have many posts before that. I made it a priority to run a website, and I think this plays to my advantage when trying to prove that I do more than only focus on academics.

Finally, I see these hobbies as potential outlets for new opportunities. Through my writing, I have the chance to get new opportunities that I just would not have from solely studying. Writing helps me become a better teacher, which is definitely important for my career aspirations. As such, I find it to be a useful investment in time, even if nothing comes of it in the short term.

The key here is to get into the mindset that hobbies matter. The hobby itself is not a huge concern. Just find something you love to do, and do it. That can be frustrating advice, but it really is true. You need to focus on your hobby and give it the priority that your school work does. That means you cannot push it aside the moment you have homework to do.

If you can do that, you will slowly develop your hidden advantage. Sure, you might be good in school, but the real differentiator is that you also have this hobby that you do with a lot of care. You do not need to start a business or turn it into a lucrative side career either. You just need to show up with consistency and purpose.

Having a hobby allows you to mentally break from the difficulty of school work, and gives you a chance to work on other things. I like to think of it as a place to funnel my energy when school is difficult. Instead of wasting my time on things that are not worthwhile, I try to invest in my future through these hobbies and side projects that I take on.