Ever since returning from winter break, it’s felt as though there was a constant, resounding chorus of “that was easy” from hundreds of Staples Easy Buttons. The dominant assumption on campus is that the first couple weeks of the semester are easy, chill weeks. Perhaps the kind of week where you could lounge at Pomona’s Pendleton pool without a care in the world, while simultaneously using the oodles of extra time on your hands to brush off a new thesis chapter or maybe finish half a syllabus’ readings.
In many ways, this assumption is perfectly reasonable. The first few weeks aren’t known for grueling final papers. In fact, they are typically one of the only times during the semester when reading syllabi, a typically mundane task, is considered a hefty assignment.
But the first week isn’t a breeze at all. The main reason for this is, paradoxically, one of the main reasons we assume the first week should be easy: it’s a blank slate.
While the multitude of possibilities implied by a blank slate conjures refreshing notions of freedom and carefree antics, the practical implications aren’t as serene. A blank slate also entails feelings of free-floating in a nebulous, scattered void, which can be overwhelming and exhausting.
So, what’s behind this scattered feeling? Arguably, the biggest reason the first weeks feel like this is the lack of an established routine or habits. I want you to imagine what your average, everyday tasks would be like without a learned, pre-established routine. Your alarm goes off and you don’t know where it’s coming from, or how to turn it off. You walk to the bathroom, and you’ve never brushed your teeth before, so you helplessly Google “how to use the little brush thing that goes in your mouth?” Making your morning coffee is befuddling and potentially downright dangerous.
To a lesser extent, this is how the first week goes. Nonexistent are the familiarities that we take for granted later in the semester: the understanding of whether you really have enough time or not to grab a coffee before that morning class, or whether Wednesdays are the day to start that particular weekly assignment, or where to meet your professor for office hours.
To put it simply, habits are what save our energy and sanity. And this isn’t just a thought experiment. There is research in several domains that suggests automaticity, arguably the defining factor of habits, is a major way that our brains conserve cognitive resources.
When you repeat an action enough, the architecture of your brain gets remodeled to accommodate new “habit circuits” connecting the neocortex and striatum, which increases the seamlessness of that action. This increase in automaticity with repeated practice has been demonstrated in rats who were trained with chocolate milk to run a maze, which they continued to excel at even without the presence of the chocolatey treat. You might discover that you relate to these findings as you scurry around campus in the coming weeks without having to check 5C Friend numerous times a day to verify which dining halls are open.
Hopefully, it comes as a relief to know that your brain is working around the clock to build new circuitry that will make the coming weeks a bit smoother. Something that provides me further reassurance is the fact that the formation of routines is not only a passive process that happens as you become more acquainted with the semester; it is also something you can intentionally utilize to tamp down stress throughout the semester.
In “Mini Habits,” Stephen Guise discusses how we can use habits to our advantage in moments of stress. Guise references University of Southern California psychology professor Wendy Wood who states, “People can’t make decisions easily when stressed, low in willpower or feeling overwhelmed. When you are too tired to make a decision, you tend to just repeat what you usually do.” Because of this, Guise reasons that in times of stress, habits are especially powerful.
If your habits increase your stress, then you might find yourself snowballing. However, if the habits you have in place are stress-relieving, you can create a negative feedback cycle in which the behavior you engage in when you’re stressed actually reduces your stress levels.
Best of luck going forth into this semester — perhaps that one quote about doing this “not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard” applies here.
Maggie McBride PO ’23 is a senior majoring in psychological science. She would like to thank the creator of 5C Friend.