The culture of overcommitment

Are we doing too much with too little energy and time? Our writers, Ianna Chia and Samantha Cheung, explore the culture of overcommitment in USP and recount their experiences as overzealous freshmen.

By Ianna Chia and Samantha Cheung

We have seen Telegram messages promoting a new interest group to join. We have seen the posters in the lifts, the posts on USP Life!, the casual plugs for recruitment from friends.

Many of us have gone through the motions of signing up for too many things and slowly getting swarmed by group chats that casually pop up to remind you of a new commitment.

There may have been several times when you wished you could drop everything to get your life back on track.

This topic of overcommitment came up in a conversation we (the writers of this article) had about our commitments, both academic and non-academic.

“I’m no longer going to do things that I am half-hearted about. I wonder how ironic it would be to enter some commitments because I had a fear of having a lack of involvement in USP rather than being enthusiastic about it. But at least I’ve figured out some of what I am not interested in! It’s about finding what activities give me meaning beyond being a way to fill time,” Samantha recounted.

“I remember crying almost every week from how exhausted I was. It’s mildly worrying that I can’t remember what I was involved in, though.” -Ianna

(Of course, for those of you who know her as Vice-Chief Orientation Group Leader of Saren, she would like to clarify for the curious – that was not one of those commitments.)

Samantha also raised her concerns with her academic workload as a freshman.

Having overloaded in her first semester in Year 1, she told herself that she wanted to take it easy in Year 2 so that she could focus on her health and prioritise things that she truly enjoyed doing.

From this conversation, we both gleaned that people in USP have a tendency to do too much at once. Samantha joked that one might be able to find time to study if they did not take up too many commitments that they did not fully believe in, and then lament about the lack of time to do readings.

She observed that perhaps people prefer finding out what they want to commit to by trying out many activities – rather than calling them half-hearted attempts, they are possible paths for self-discovery.

Samantha in her freshman year.

“Everyone finds their way to get through university life differently. I think it’s strange when someone implies that one way of life is better than another,” she mused.

This conversation prompted some reflection: as for Ianna, she recalled her first semester as “a train wreck, to say the least.”

“I remember crying almost every week from how exhausted I was. It’s mildly worrying that I can’t remember what I was involved in, though.” She laughed nervously.

The best advice she received was from a Year 3 senior, Joash Tan. He recommended that you read one week ahead of your syllabus.

“I regret not trying this out earlier, but it has made my life way easier. When last-minute work comes up, I’m not as stressed knowing that I’ve cleared my academic stuff beforehand.”

Over the semesters, Ianna has found managing her commitments easier: by narrowing her non-academic work to things she’s invested in, she’s found herself looking forward to planning events and working with others.

She decided to set aside more time for herself to rest and take naps. As a passing remark, she noted that too many people have asked why she always looks so tired.

“Resting angry face has no cure.” — Ianna

We decided to talk to a senior, Atharv Joshi (Year 3 Materials Engineering + USP), on his experience managing a high workload.

Apart from USP, he also minors  in computer science and is part of the  Innovation & Design Programme (iDP) in Engineering. In his second year, he completed 26 MCs in each semester.

Alongside this, Atharv juggles several non-academic commitments as well. He was involved in the Asian Undergraduate Summit for two years, was the academic director of USP in his second year, and is a guitarist for the band 8+.

“I also have to go home each weekend to visit my parents,” he brought up jokingly, saying that it had been a recent weekly commitment he wished to fulfill.

When we asked if he ever felt like he was overcommitting, the answer was a confident yes.

“I feel like the nature of overcommitment was different for each year in NUS. My first two years were more for events and the USP population. My third year is more about my close friends and myself. The difference is who or what I am devoting my time and energy for. Now, it is more inward-looking.”

Atharv mentioned that he has some ground rules to make sure he does not burn out with his heavy workload. He has a rule of no all-nighters, and emphasised the importance of listening to your body.

“I sometimes get one-day fevers, and they’re a sign for me to cancel everything and take a day off to rest.”

He, too, agrees that there is a culture of overcommitment in USP. He explains that could be because  most people here come from junior colleges – small institutions where students do not have a lot of autonomy. There are limited co-curricular activities and lessons are compulsory. It is the freedom and range of choices available in a university environment that entice people to grab opportunities when they see them.

“… The important question to ask is what are you doing these things at the expense of? What are you gaining? You need to evaluate this stuff.”

“You can’t apply this mindset [in university]. Uni is not an opportunity-scarce place! Before you say yes to things in year 1, where opportunities are endless, you need to make the effort to find out what there is to do so you don’t end up in a situation of compromise when something more desirable comes along.”

However, Atharv commented that overcommitment is better than ‘under-commitment’, so that he can better gauge how much he should push himself when choosing future commitments.

“How you decide whether you’re overcommitting or not is based on imperfect self-perception. I asked myself: am I crashing and burning this semester? If the answer is no, I’m okay.”

He noted that everyone’s priorities will change as they progress in university, and thus the amount and nature of work they pick up will change. Still, Atharv pointed out that there remains a tendency to overcommit amongst his peers.

“Almost everyone I know has overcommitted. I have friends who are very committed to organising USP events and making the environment vibrant, there are others who are overloading academically, like doing double degrees. There are some who do one thing really passionately and all their evenings are taken up by that thing. The important question to ask is what are you doing these things at the expense of? What are you gaining? You need to evaluate this stuff.”

“I sometimes get one-day fevers, and they’re a sign for me to cancel everything and take a day off to rest.”

For many of us in a seemingly infinite sandbox of opportunities (a privilege to have as a university student), it is equally important to evaluate which ones to seize and why you might want them in the first place. It is certainly not about placing limits on ourselves, but how we prioritise and navigate through a life worth looking back on.

As much as we strive for the perfect balance of school, sleep and friends (which continues to elude us imperfect beings), we hope that our article can start the ball rolling for more conversations about taking up commitments and managing priorities.

Samantha and Ianna understand that their presumption that many people take up commitments half-heartedly comes from a small sample size, and are open to taking this conversation further with people who have other opinions based on their own personal experiences.

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