As a student in the honors college, I am almost positive you would consider yourself good at a concept called ‘time management.’ After all, you are probably academically successful because of the way you manage your time. In the fall of 2018 I would have agreed with you that time management was the basis of my success in college thus far. In fact, I thought I was so good at time management that I decided to pursue more leadership within my sorority (I later became the President) and to become more involved with my academic student organizations as well. By the end of last fall, I was extremely busy- but as a college Junior I continued to think ahead towards career goals and pursued everything possible to build my resume.
If I know anything, it’s that being a student who balances everything perfectly is not realistic and simply cramming everything possible into a day’s time is not sustainable. Over the last year of my life, I’ve learned that balance goes beyond just the concept of time. The real concept college students should be taught from the beginning isn’t time management at all. We should all be familiar with something I’ve learned to identify as energy management. In order to best understand energy management and how to apply it to your life as a student, I’ll have to rewind and explain why it became so important to me in the first place. If you’re in for a read, I promise you’ll learn something by the end.
In January of 2019, my world flipped upside down when I was diagnosed with cancer. I would no longer be able to balance anything in my life. Being a patient became my number one priority- and spoiler alert – it wasn’t even a resume builder.
By March of 2019, after countless doctor’s appointments and two surgeries, we had a confirmed diagnosis of Advanced Stage Three Melanoma that had metastasized in my lymphatic system. And for those of you asking, what / where / who is the lymphatic system? You are not alone. Simply put, it’s the network of vessels through which lymph drains from the tissues into the blood. At 21 years old I could not have pointed out anywhere in my body that included lymph nodes, yet less than 60 days after learning the definition of them, I would have 26 removed over the course of two surgeries. I was told that pending scans, genetic testing, and healing from surgery: I was set for a year of immunotherapy treatment to attack a genetic mutation my cancer was lucky enough to boast called a BRAF mutation. If you google it, most online sources call it the smoking gun of Melanoma. Comforting right?
Beyond the denial and grief I felt, I was just downright confused. At a time in my life where I felt the most alive, the closest to the next step of success: Doctors told me I was dying. Yes, I agree with you, dying is a strong term. I do not use it lightly. But the difference here, and the difference with most cancers, is that you do not feel ill upon diagnosis. I will tell you, however, that I felt incredibly ill after surgery. When I was told after surgery number two that doctors felt they were successful, I matched their enthusiasm with anger. What does success mean to them if I have another year of treatment to pursue?
My family and I had a running joke that my diagnosis was inconvenient for me. I hadn’t placed treatment in my google calendar months prior, so I probably wouldn’t have time- we would say. But inconvenient still does sum up a lot of how I felt. My life had been driven by the term “busy” in college. As I said before, I thought I was excellent at time management. We spent days talking about how being a patient was now my number one priority. Being a patient came before being a student, it came before being a leader, and it came before being a friend to myself and others. I missed weeks of school last semester. Countless classes, assignments and responsibilities piled up while I prioritized being a patient. At the time, pouring myself into something that wasn’t a resume builder in some way was extremely foreign. It was exhausting to rewire myself some days even when I understand how important my life and my health were.
I was asked to quit school. I was asked if stepping down from all leadership roles would relinquish stress from me – or maybe I should even leave my job after four years of working there. Looking back, doing all of those things could have reduced my stress. Except we all know they weren’t the root of the cause. Giving up on those aspects of my identity felt like throwing away the years of work it took prior to get to that place. It felt like slowly handing pieces of myself away and receiving nothing in return to patch the hole. The truth is that I welcome the normalcy of studying for an exam or rushing to a meeting when I had the opportunity. So I did it. I spent 83 hours in the library in the weeks leading up to final exams. I was lucky to have a very real and open relationship with my professors at the time. Not a single assignment was taken off my syllabi – but the due dates were pushed back to the infamous “before the final exam.” I poured myself into school because it was genuinely less painful then sitting at home and reflecting the new world around me. Before I knew it, finals were over and summer came along. I passed the semester.
Doctors told me that continuing with my daily life was okay if I balanced it all correctly. To my own definition, balance had previously been “what can I fit in between the hours of 8am-10pm?” My parents had already begun the conversation with me that maybe stepping away from school was the best idea next semester while I learned what treatment was like. Yet ever so stubborn, I took an internship with a company I had applied to months earlier and decided to move in with friends in downtown Ann Arbor. I knew that learning to be independent during treatment would allow me to return to school in the fall. My family held their breath and I began.
Within a month of beginning immunotherapy, I felt my body whip through a rollercoaster of symptoms. My muscles ached, my feet and ankles swelled to the size of my head, and nausea wrecked me whenever it pleased. While immunotherapy’s kindest feature was the gift of keeping my hair, it was a tough road. I felt the most sick even on the days they promise we were making “good progress.” I could probably spend the next 10 paragraphs simply listing side effects, days spent in the doctors or just general bad days to you. But I won’t, because the truth is, that’s not the part of the story that will bring you any benefit. I promise this story continues and ends with something you can use in your life without being sick first to learn about it.
Treatment made me quickly realize that time management was no longer the demon I needed to fight in my everyday life. Instead, I came to a crossroads with something I had never lacked before: energy. While enduring treatment, we chose what I can best describe to you as a “traveling treatment.” I took the pills home with me. This meant more freedom, less time in the hospital (allegedly) and hopefully, the highest level of normalcy someone can have while the cells in their body are fighting against each other. While I am for no reason the person who can give you the scientific background of my treatment – I can give you the results of the human experiment I completed on myself. I promise you can use some of the results on yourself.
The most asked question I ever got was: what is it really like to be sick? I know everyone has heard of cancer, and most people have been exposed to someone battling cancer in some form during their lifetime- but most of you have not lived it. It is my sincerest hope that you never have to.
It’s a question I struggled with on my own terms because I did not look sick. My hair was intact, and my body showed no physical signs of fatigue. I was fighting a battle that without a conversation, was invisible. How does a person like me explain every detail of every day being affected, and give the precise emotions a sick person goes through with clarity to others.
In order to answer that question, I want to share with you one of the best tools that was given to me during treatment: the spoon theory.
Spoon theory explains the difference in being sick and being healthy is having to make choices or to consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to. The healthy have the luxury of a life without choices, a gift most people take for granted.
When you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of “spoons”. But when you have to now plan your day as a sick person, you need to know exactly how many “spoons” you are starting with.
Most people start the day with unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people. For the most part, they do not need to worry about the effects of their actions.
But what if a person’s unlimited energy (spoons) was in fact, limited? The spoon theory describes energy as physical spoons we all hold in our pockets. One spoon per every action you take every day is taken away to convey the loss of energy. Since most people who get sick feel a “loss” of a life they once knew, the loss of spoons throughout the day conveys this best. A healthy person who only has 12 spoons will run out quickly because they will use them carelessly. If I was in control of taking away your spoons throughout the day, then you all would know what it feels like to have a diagnosis being in control.
An excerpt from spoon theory reads
“I have learned to live life with an extra spoon in my pocket, in reserve. You need to always be prepared—-Don’t worry. I see this as a blessing. I have been forced to think about everything I do. Do you know how many spoons people waste everyday? I don’t have room for wasted time, or wasted “spoons” and I chose to spend this time with you.”
You can read the spoon theory explanation in its entirety here:
I have used the spoon theory to explain my life to many people, I had the article favorited through the entirety of my treatment. It made me feel understood.
As a student: how and where are you using your spoons? Even healthy, and full of energy: every spoon counts.
I have spent a lot of time understanding and fixating on the topic of energy management. Not only because I truly used it the last year of my life, but because I knew I could use it healthy too. I listened to podcasts, and I read books written by people who went through much worse treatment than me. Yet, the spoon theory still carries with me every day. When a podcast suggested leaders should actually record the items that are draining for them and remove those activities – I did exactly that. But I wasn’t leading anything except my own body at the time. You can use this concept now, healthy.
If you write down your daily routine, beginning to end, I am sure we could agree you are busy. Even writing it down just once, I guarantee you forget something. But if you go through the list, and place a number between -2 and 2 next to that activity, you’ll be able to see just how draining your days really are. Place a -2, -1 for activities that drain you. 0 for things you don’t seem to notice have an affect, and a 1 or 2 for activities that rejuvenate your energy.
Add them up- Are you left with a positive or negative number at the end of the day? How are you currently managing the energy you have?
Now, you may have picked an item that’s simple like showering. You’ll look at me and say- Riley, I can’t remove showering from my routine just because it’s tiring! But the point isn’t cutting out the necessities in your day. Instead, is to be conscious of where we are spending our energy. More importantly, are we adding activities into our schedule that do fill us back up? As students, we are givers. We give our time, energy, and knowledge to the aspects of our lives that will help us pursue our goals and inch us closer to graduation.
Yet, college culture breeds unhealthy habits. What will help you to end your day with a positive number? If you constantly are ending in a negative, that leaves you running to catch up the next day and the next.
No one will never be perfect at this. Our lives change and rebalance all the time. But it the consciousness behind energy management that will save you from burning the candle at both ends.
I stopped treatment on September 27, 2019. It hasn’t been that long, but the medication has left my bloodstream. I now feel the energy that fueled me before returning, some days spiking to the point I really do joke about running marathons, and others- just enough to get me through. Energy management is still a huge portion of my life today, even without the medication that made it so vital to me. I may not practice yoga every day like my occupational therapist recommends (sorry) or eat all vegan like my mom wishes, but I have found those positives that rejuvenate me. I hope you find yours too.
If you stuck with me all the way through, thank you. I hope you can consider the days you have now and think beyond just managing the time it takes to attend class, clubs and beyond. I hope that you can stay healthier both physically and mentally by consciously planning your days around how much energy your commitments will take up. It’s not doing less – but it’s being able to lean into the understanding that setting boundaries around how far we push our energy will only bring us more of it. Being successful in college goes far beyond a competition of who is “busier.”
Watch Riley speak at Leader Lab 2019 here! (Riley speaks at 1:08:00)