Day in the Life: How to not get burned out as a UTA and/or URA

My day begins the night before as I’m tucked into bed by 10:30 to meet my minimum 7 hours of sleep.  The next morning, I’m up at 6:00 AM and at the gym by 7:00 AM.  I do 40 minutes to an hour of vigorous exercise before walking back to my apartment, eating a light breakfast, and finishing the morning routine with a cold shower.  After my routine, I attend my duties as a TA for the Honors Fundamentals of Engineering Class (I am their favorite TA), then go to my classes (yes, all of them).  Following my classes, I do two 90-minute deep work sessions to complete all my homework and then another 90-minute session to work on one of my many research projects.  My work day ends at 5:30 PM and I spend the rest of my day working on my own creative passions and spending time with family and friends… is what I would say if I had a perfect routine.

The truth is, my routine is far from perfect, and although I do incorporate parts of my fantasy routine into my daily life, I frequently miss meetings and let deadlines slip past me.  Being both a UTA and URA can be exhausting and can leave you questioning how you ended up here.  Add on some extra credit hours a semester and you could easily earn a one-way ticket to Burnout City.  However, as a second-year student in my undergraduate journey, I’ve learned to spend less time on busy work (work is endless, but you have the power to put a pause on it) and spend more time on prioritizing the work that matters to me, something that I believe is highly underrated.   Here are some tips from my fantasy schedule that I personally incorporate and that I believe you should incorporate as well.

#1: Quality Sleep

“…as I’m tucked into bed by 10:30 to meet my minimum 7 hours of sleep”

Although this sounds like wishful thinking, I’m completely serious.  I know that unless you’re a toddler, quality sleep is hard to come by, especially 6-8 hours of it.  However, from my personal experience, research that’s out there, and common sense, quality sleep is vital to proper function.  As someone who has to grade students, write research papers, and spend unethical hours on homework, it’s crucial that I perform with mental clarity and with adequate cognitive function to avoid letting work bleed into other important areas of my life.  What about drinking coffee?  While coffee may offer temporary benefits such as jittering and the occasional extreme focus, the residual sleep deprivation eventually creeps back in as the coffee wears off.  The optimal solution for mental sharpness?  Drink coffee AND get 6-8 hours of sleep.  Your cognitive function and overall health will thank me.

#2: Physical Movement

“I do 40 minutes to an hour of vigorous exercise”

With this tip comes the concept of making time.  While humans are limited by their ability to create time out of thin air, we have the power to organize our days the way we want to.  If we can scroll on social media for hours at a time, then we can get some movement too.  Other than the obvious physical benefits of exercise such as improved health, working out FEELS GOOD.  Physical exercise has been known to release dopamine in the brain, improving mood and overall well being.  Personally, working out early in the morning establishes the tone for the rest of my day.  No longer am I groggy walking to class 5 minutes after I wake up, but I am refreshed and accomplished because of overcoming resistance early in the morning.  Whether it be walking, jogging, lifting, playing sports, or rolling in the grass, anything that gets you moving for at least 40-60 minutes will do.

#3: Social Interaction

“…spending time with family and friends”

This tip is highly underrated.  A lot of people may view social interaction as a waste of time when “hustle culture” dominates as the current societal norm.  However, working 80 hours of week alone in your room is not the key to a good life.  Not only is social interaction just plain fun and relaxing, collaboration for me has also stimulated my creativity in many ways.  By talking to my friends and family about the crazy ideas that I have in my life, I’ve been able to bounce ideas and generate new, creative solutions to different problems in my life.  Don’t isolate yourself because you think it will help you do more work.  Not being able to talk about your long day will just lead to longer days until you eventually burn out.

#4: Deep Work

“I do two 90-minute deep work sessions to complete all my homework”

The tips aforementioned will greatly benefit your overall mental health and physical health and set a good foundation for you to separate work from life.  However, you may be asking how you can fit all of this into your busy schedule.

“I don’t know how I can get quality sleep, get at least 40 minutes of exercise a day, and get social interaction when I’m taking 17 credit hours and have a research position and teaching position!” – me, probably.

But this is where the magic comes, the game changing tip that has altered the philosophy of my work-life balance: The 90 minute deep work session.  After I learned about the 90 minute session, I stopped working from 9 AM to 12 AM, scattering myself to respond to student emails, then switch to write one sentence of my paper, finish half a homework assignment, then scroll on Instagram for an hour.  Instead, I now let myself work with no distractions for 3-4 hours a day and prioritize the work that I either need to get done (homework with immediate deadlines), or work that I am passionate about and work that will hone the skills for my future career.  How do I do it?  I let myself believe that the work that I’m doing in front of me for the next 90 minutes is the most important task that I have in my life because it’s what will make me grow as a person and as a subject matter expert.  Obviously, I also turn my devices on do not disturb or put them in another room.  For example, if I am grading, editing a paper, or doing homework (tedious work that does not require much thought), I will finish that within one 90 minute session.  This gives me at least 2-3 more hours in a day to commit myself to long term studying for exams, or even personal projects such as doing a new project in Python or making a short film.

The rest is simple arithmetic.  7 hours of sleep + 4 hours of work = 11 hours.  24 hours in a day – 11 hours = 13 hours to go to class, join meetings, respond to emails, do physical movement, and have social interaction.