Living life – especially one as hectic as university life – can feel like spinning a half dozen plates at a time. It’s a tale as old (and relatable) as they come; you focus really hard on your studies, then you look up to the sudden realisation that you haven’t eaten a fresh vegetable in weeks. Or, you get into a great rhythm of keeping active and fit, and before you know it you’ve missed an important deadline and your friends want to know where you disappeared to all of a sudden. There are so many different things to keep up with that it might feel impossible to find a balance. And, if you can’t keep them all in the balance (don’t feel bad, nobody can), then you need to prioritise. But how?
There’s a secret to these spinning plates: not all are created equal. Some of the plates are made of porcelain; when you drop them, they shatter. The trick is in knowing which ones they are.
Now, that’s not to say you should panic every time they wobble. Even smashed up plates can be pieced back together, sometimes even stronger than they were before. But all things considered, putting your life on hold to carefully reconstruct a metaphor that’s already getting a bit unwieldy at this stage in the article isn’t exactly desirable when you’re at such a busy stage in your life.
Therefore, the porcelain plates are the ones to prioritise: your health – physical and mental – keeping sufficiently abreast of your university work, and maintaining healthy finances are (non-exhaustive) examples.
Other plates are made of paper.
You still want to treat them carefully, because they’re not unbreakable – but if you drop one every once in a while, no one gets hurt. These are things like the pub quiz that your team is doing really well on, or your gym schedule, or date night. They can be wonderful ways to de-stress and let your hair down after spinning those china plates all day, but if you’re not feeling up to it, they’re not exactly mandatory.
This is my go-to method of getting my ducks in a row and prioritising when I feel overwhelmed. It’s hardly foolproof, but can be a helpful tool when setting up boundaries. Your ordering of priorities is unlikely to be the same as anyone else’s, so resist the temptation to compare yourself to others. I’m a huge advocate for shedding FOMO; it serves no one to feel guilty about meeting your own needs.
However, there’s something fun about boundaries: they’re meant to be tested.
Okay, not all of them. There are some that are usually held as immovable, and for very good reason. Things like substance abuse, physical space, sexual boundaries and triggers are some of the most important, but keeping up with your studies and being sensible with
money are also significant. Then there are the flexible things, like when and how you socialise, and with whom.
Boundaries can be outgrown – in particular, the flexible paper plates consistently shift and fluctuate. Something you enjoyed this time last year might not float your boat nowadays, and something you would never have previously given the time of day might become your favourite pastime. It can be really freeing – and indeed healthy – to occasionally reassess which boundaries might be in for a challenge.
When I started out my student life at the university of Manchester a year and a half ago, the idea that I might leave the house after dark without knowing exactly which watering hole I would end up in before coming home was absolutely off the table. I would never have gone out drinking on an evening when I had a 9 o’clock lecture in the morning, and I needed at least one day a week on which I wouldn’t speak to anyone and recharged my mental batteries. At the time, I judged these to be porcelain-plate-boundaries, and I protected them.
A year later, I took stock of which of these boundaries was still strictly porcelain. I had lived a whole year automatically saying no to any night out if I didn’t know where I would end up – and I’m glad I did. But as I got more into the groove of uni life, I realised this boundary was more flexible than I had thought – more paper than glass. These days, I never quite know what a Friday night will have in store, beyond excellent company and one or two regular spots, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed exploring the hidden secrets of Manchester’s nightlife in a chilled out and spontaneous way. I still turn my phone off one day a week and retreat to recharge, and I still don’t drink alcohol when I know I’ve got to be up early. Maybe in the future these things will change, or maybe they won’t. That’s the joy of having a lifestyle constantly in edits.
Which parts of yourself could do with a challenge?