Perpetual Guilt

-by Jennifer Weil

Welcome (back) to UC Davis, Fellow Aggies! 

I have a confession: I love the first day of school. It’s a uniquely refreshing time in every student’s life. We’re able to walk into lecture halls and laboratories confidently and calmly, without the burden of our typical crushing collegiate workload, clutching new syllabi and blank notebooks rather than large cups of CoHo coffee and cans of Red Bull. But as the late summer sun set on the first day of fall quarter we were once again consumed with lecture notes to review, chapters to read, homework assignments to complete, papers and lab reports to write, and exams to study for. Returning Aggies know the feeling well, and new Aggies will soon learn that there is considerable truth to the quip that “UC Davis students take notes at graduation”. We Aggies take our academics very seriously and intense stress is our constant companion on the road to academic excellence. One issue that contributes to the stress of academic life is Perpetual Guilt: the feelings of guilt a student experiences when he/she is not working on an activity directly related to his/her academic pursuits. Allow me to make my point in a more direct way by posing a question to you: Exactly what should you be doing right now instead of reading this blog post? If you have an answer to this question, that is perpetual guilt.

What does it look like?

Perpetual guilt may have two opposing effects on a student suffering from it, effects best illustrated through a hypothetical example (if you’re not a football fan, replace football in the following example with your favorite way to have fun.)

Scene: Weekend of the Causeway Classic Football Game

Want: To display your Aggie Pride and cheer on UC Davis Football

Need: To study for your organic chemistry midterm on Thursday at 7:30am, an exam for which you are somewhat ready but that truly needs more study time investment for you to do well

If you’re this hypothetical Aggie, what would you do? For many students, this likely will go one of two ways:

1. Go to the game and cheer on the Aggies to victory, all the while feeling anxious, guilty, and that you really should be at Shields Library, reviewing reactions and drawing out mechanisms, thereby cheapening your relaxation time

2. Forgo football to study, all the while feeling disappointed and frustrated that you missed a fun and exciting experience, which may distract you from your work, making your study session less effective

Either way, the student ends up stressed, mentally swimming through a slough of negative emotions that ultimately can lead to academic burnout. The bottom line? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Even if the perpetual guilt phenomenon is a reality for you, there are techniques to help mitigate the feelings you are experiencing.


Most humans need 7-9 hours of sleep per night for optimal functioning, but all too often sleep is the first thing that’s eliminated from the busy student’s schedule. However, lack of sleep contributes to cognitive processing delays and memory impairment, among numerous other deleterious physiological impacts. By making a concerted effort to prioritize sleep, you will invariably see improvements in your ability to focus and the efficiency with which you’re able to complete your work.

Focus on study efficiency, not total time

I spent 12 straight hours on Sunday studying at the library.”  

Comments like this often are viewed as a badge of honor for students, with pride and respect being bestowed on the student who can lay claim to the most harrowing study session. However, what many students neglect to consider is that the total time spent studying is not nearly as critical as how efficiently study time is utilized. A problem set may seem superficially to take four hours to complete, but if you account for time spent checking e-mail, updating Facebook, tweeting, texting, and chatting, that same problem set actually may only take an hour and a half to finish. Therefore, when you sit down to study this quarter, put forth undistracted effort, and focus on using your time efficiently and effectively. You just might get more work done in less time, eliminating some of issues of perpetual guilt.

Block schedule your week

In block scheduling, you literally plan for every hour you’re awake during that week. This may seem like overkill, but it’s extremely effective for alleviating stress since you have set expectations. For this technique, you need a digital calendar (eg – Google Calendar or iCal) or a paper calendar that shows the entire week ahead (Sunday-Saturday) and is broken down into one hour chunks, starting at the earliest time you wake up and the latest time you go to bed. First, block out all non-negotiable activities (ie – activities that take place at a pre-determined time and that you must attend), which may include classes, work, internships, and sleeping. Around these non-negotiable activities, plan in personal care activities, including travel time (to and from class, for instance), grooming, and eating. Next, plan your study time; if you’re feeling particularly ambitious, designate the actual assignments you’ll complete during each study block. Finally, schedule your relaxation and fun time: dinner with friends, movie night, binge-watching episodes of Psych on Netflix – you get the idea! This latter point brings us to the next suggestion…

Take scheduled breaks

…which is to schedule your breaks. These breaks should include not only relaxation time and social events, but also time off in between study sessions. For study breaks in particular, you should aim to complete 30-50 minutes of uninterrupted work, followed by a 10-minute break.  By scheduling specific break times, you can be assured that Skyping with your friend or playing video games isn’t compromising your academic goals, and instead you can truly enjoy these moments of relaxation without being weighed down by perpetual guilt.

Here’s wishing all of you Aggies a most successful quarter!


Jennifer Weil  is a UC Davis student pursuing a second baccalaureate in Biotechnology after obtaining at BS in Psychology at UC Davis in 2008.  She is currently a member of the iAMSTEM Hub Student Committee.

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