Since you were a kid, you’ve likely learned to associate fall with fresh starts. Back-to-school mania meant shopping for new school supplies and the excitement of learning who your new teacher and classmates would be. This is the time of year when you can walk into a Target store at any given moment and hear a daughter pleading her case to her harried mother about why she neeeeds a chandelier for her locker. (By the way, that is me. I am the harried mother.)
Even for adults who are no longer linked to the school calendar, the muscle memory of fall still lingers. Whatever the reason, we gain energy and momentum in this short-but-sweet season that has as much to do with beginnings as it does with endings. Fall will always feel like a time to start new things.
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When You’re Not Going Back to School
You know what’s weird? The first fall when you’re no longer in school. It feels like you should be doing something, right? But what? You no longer need a locker chandelier, a dorm fridge, or overpriced textbooks. You’re not “leveling up” to the next grade as you’ve been accustomed to your whole life. Leaving behind academia is a jolt to the senses (and even beginning grad school doesn’t quite have the same feel to it). Your peers have scattered to the winds and everyone is pursuing something new and different. Maybe you feel a little … lost.
You’ve entered The Twilight Zone of emerging adulthood and everything feels off. The rhythm of life you’ve known heretofore has been disrupted. In Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free, author Sara Lightfoot Lawrence writes that famous psychologist Erik Erikson “envisioned each stage [of lifelong development] as a conflict between progression and regression — an inevitable tension between staying put and moving on, between sticking with the familiar and moving toward the strange.”
“Moving toward the strange” is a good way to describe this transitional time (also maybe a good name for a band). Fair warning: the unknowns of what lies ahead can cause you more anxiety than what you may even be aware of.
The Inevitable Post-Graduation Confusion
From what I hear from young adults (and what I remember myself), the liminal space of post-graduation adulthood is often felt most keenly as summer winds down and fall approaches. You have all the familiar, back-to-school energy, but nowhere to put it!
On the bright side, the rituals of falls-past are so embedded in our psyches that they continue to offer up a type of magic that is available to us in our post-academic lives, long after we’ve turned in our last papers or completed our final projects. I loved this article from the Huffington Post which explains why I am a fall-o-phile and why I shouldn’t apologize for it. Because of science! It has to do with temporal landmarks and social constructs that are wired into our brains as children.
“According to Kathryn Lively, professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, our obsession with the season is a social construct that starts when we’re children.
‘We’re conditioned from a very early age that the autumn comes with all these exciting things,’ Lively told the Huffington Post. ‘As children, we come to associate fall with going back to school, new school supplies, seeing friends. It’s exciting, for most. We still respond to this pattern that we experienced for 18 years.'”
For those who attend college after high school, we have even more years to become entrenched in those rhythms. The academic pattern shifts but only slightly. These rhythms will continue throughout your lifetime. I have been out of school for going on 20 years and I still look forward to fall because (besides flannel, falling leaves, and football), I know I will have a little extra energy/motivation/enthusiasm to tackle life. In the fall, we can do things we can’t do the rest of the year.
A Plan for Harnessing Back to School Energy
From the very practical to the somewhat woo-woo, here are three ways I’ve learned to use this displaced autumnal energy to my benefit.
Take control of your space.
An obvious way to start funneling some of that extra mojo is to start a project. One of the most immediate ways to relieve anxiety comes from managing your physical environment, so that’s a great place to start. If you’re in a new location and still haven’t unpacked your boxes, make it a priority. Clean your home top-to-bottom. Make your space your own! Your physical environment creates energy … which impacts your mood, which impacts your relationships, which impacts your work, which impacts your ability to show up in the world the way you want to.
This fall, my project is going to be cleaning out the storage area in my home. In my digital space, I also want to go through the pictures on my phone and figure out how to organize them. Need some other ideas?
- Get a password organizing app. I use a free one called Keeper.
- Perform a ruthless inventory of each item of clothing you own. I have a rule that if it’s in my closet, I HAVE TO WEAR IT. (Part of my lifelong mission to prove the 80/20 rule doesn’t. own. me.)
- Take a look around your living space. Knock down cobwebs, scrub floors and counters. If you have roommates, call a house meeting about who will do what. Use a free app such as RoomMate or OurHome to create some external accountability.
Pick the one task you’ve been avoiding and just go for it. What have you been putting off? Now is the time to act.
Establish routines that lead to the kind of life you want.
Here’s the thing. You WILL establish routines in the first month or two post-graduation whether you’re trying to or not. The trick is self-awareness and intentionality. Establish healthy, life-giving routines before you develop unhealthy, life-depleting routines. After all, it’s harder to break bad habits than it is to start them.
“Someday” has arrived and the choices you make today are now a part of your adult life.
You go the way you walk, my friends. Want to commit to waking up early to work out? Then set your alarm across the room and lay out your running shoes. Want to get in the habit of eating a healthy breakfast? Stock bananas instead of Pop-Tarts. Yes, your routines will evolve over time with maturity and changes in life circumstances … but beware of things that just kind of happen.
Resources for Establishing Routines and Setting Goals
- Listen to this podcast interview with Benjamin Hardy, author of Willpower Doesn’t Work, and learn how to optimize your environment for success. Skip to the last 15 minutes to hear the part about “forcing functions.” According to Hardy, “If you have to use willpower, it’s because you actually haven’t made a choice yet.” (Intriguing, no?)
- Find a routine you can transform into a ritual. While routines are a set of behaviors that we do on autopilot, ritualizing a behavior imparts a “sacred” aspect to the same exact action. There’s no real trick here other than paying attention. Simply being mindful of the sights and sounds on your early morning run makes it an altogether different experience than a run that takes place in a veritable fugue state. Focus more on the activity itself than on checking something off your to-do list. Rituals help us see “magic in the mundane.”
- Have a goal-setting sesh! I love talking about goal setting and the best framework I’ve found is the SMART goal. SMART goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. Here is a free Excel SMART goal template, or you can go the hand-written route (which I actually believe is more powerful) here. As of this writing, I haven’t found a goal-setting app I just love, but I have tried this one and found it very intuitive. (If you have any recommendations, make sure to let me know!)
Do a Little Dreaming.
Do you have a vision for your life? A mission statement? Probably not. Most people don’t. (Here’s a great resource for developing one.) But you know what you do have? You have an imagination and you have desires. In my experience, fall is the best time of year to explore them.
Before going back to school as a kid, you might have imagined walking into your new classroom with a cool shirt or an edgy new haircut and people being like, “Whoa! What happened to so-and-so over the summer?” In your summer daydreaming, you became the cool kid or the best soccer player on the team.
Visualization is just day-dreaming’s big brother. You’re already wired to do this! Visualization is an activity scientifically proven to help you achieve the exact goals you picture in your mind. Research shows that your brain doesn’t recognize the difference between a real memory and an imagined memory. According to this article,
“If you can vividly imagine and visualize a future situation, your mind will record it as a real memory; the situation will become something known, something you’ve ‘already experienced.’ Not only will the feelings of insecurity be reduced, but you’ll feel confident in your ability to go through the situation because you will have successfully done it before (although only in your mind).”
Visualize Your Future
This kind of mental rehearsal is common to Olympic athletes who make it a practice to envision themselves standing at the top of the podium. But you don’t have to be Simone Biles or Michael Phelps to use this technique.
“Visualize the most amazing life imaginable to you. Close your eyes and see it clearly. Then hold the vision for as long as you can. Now place the vision in God’s hands and consider it done.”Marianne Willamson
What would your “most amazing life imaginable” be?
Try this exercise:
Clear your head with a practice like the ones found here. (I am partial to the Blue Light and the Double-Paned Window.)
Close your eyes and imagine your best life: the goals you will achieve, the lifestyle you will enjoy, the impact you will make, the people you will help, the paychecks you will cash, etc.
Now, pause the scene and zoom in.
- Where are you?
- Can you describe what the room looks like?
- What are you seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, and feeling?
- Can you describe what are you doing?
- What are other people saying to you and about you?
- Can you identify the emotions and feelings are you experiencing?
- What else are you paying attention to?
To finish, prayerfully offer this vision to God, and allow yourself time to listen for what God might be saying to you. (For maximum impact, write down or journal what you visualize and what you hear that still, small voice saying in response.)
Do this for just five minutes a day and see what happens!
Saying Goodbye to Academia
Leaning into discomfort is part of the process of maturing. Let’s face it, there’s no getting around the weirdness that happens the first fall after you graduate. But, like the ideas I’ve listed above, there ARE some ways to make it a little less taxing, a little more fun, and A LOT more productive. Don’t let adulting get you down! The ground might feel a little shaky when you first step off the USS Academia, but being a landlubber has its perks.
If you’re having a little trouble finding that spark as you embark upon this new season (literally and figuratively), I invite you to visit a Target store anywhere between August and mid-September. You’re not there to buy anything (unless you’re at a Target with a Starbucks, then you have my permission to grab a PSL). Instead, you’re going to stock up on (free) motivational neurotransmitters, that you can then release on planning a project, setting a goal, or envisioning what matters to you in this phase of life.
Spend five minutes in the school supply section alone and I guarantee you will walk out buzzing — and not JUST from your coffee! And make sure you say hi! I’ll probably still be there, waged in a battle over locker décor. I might look harried, but rest assured that I will go home that night and follow my own advice. I’ll be doing some visualization — most likely of a big, yellow bus pulling away from my house.
An earlier version of this article also appeared at https://www.mennonitemission.net/blog/What-to-do-with-back-to-school-energy-when-you%E2%80%99re-not-going-back-to-school-