It's important to resist the temptation to forgo sleep and balance your priorities by taking care of yourself. Louis Ashworth

I had already neglected it a little when A-Levels swept me off my feet, and I found myself playing a destructive game of needs and wants. I knew I needed sleep, but not as much as I needed to meet my offer. What if that question I hadn’t done or the topic I hadn’t revised was exactly the one that would be in tomorrow’s exam?

A good night’s sleep was the dependable, comfortable, but somewhat boring partner I rolled my eyes at – the one I knew I’d always have to return to, but whom life constantly reminded me I could do better than. I was on an exhausting path that Cambridge’s breakneck tempo could only exacerbate.

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During freshers’ week I was like a sugar-starved child in a candy store. A bounty of new potential friends, societies, pub crawls, and squashes led me back to my game of priorities. I knew I needed to rest, but I had to go to this boat club swap or I’d miss out on all my crew’s in-jokes. Yes, my body was longing for me to sleep off this fever, but if I didn’t go out again, the friends I had made earlier would forget all about me. And this was all before I remembered I had a degree to juggle too.

Every student questions their place in the food chain when they come to Cambridge and realise they’re no longer the smartest or the most musically talented or the most sociable fish in the pond. I happily accepted my status as a subpar student – I had no plans to attempt keeping pace with the bright-eyed students who sat at the front of my lectures and were bound for starred firsts in their exams. But I must have subconsciously wanted something else to define myself by, and the wealth of opportunity during freshers’ week presented me with a new identity: I wanted to be that girl who was too busy to sleep. I romanticised being among the last to leave Cindies, waking up at 5am to row, and then breezing through an overflowing NatSci schedule on two hours of shut-eye. I took pride in exhaustion, and when people would ask how on earth I was surviving, a blasé ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ would complete the image I wanted to create. 

In reality I was subsisting on a precarious diet of espresso shots and crushing FOMO, staving off my nap cravings by overfilling my schedule, because if I stayed still for more than a moment I’d be asleep in seconds. I realised around Week 3 that I was stumbling through rowing outings, heaving my eyelids open while I tried to stop seeing my problem sheets in double vision, continually aching from last week’s hangover that I’d nursed by pulling an all-nighter – and I thought, this here is the Cambridge lifestyle everyone talked about. This is what I signed up for when I applied, and sleep was a luxury that would mean taking for granted the precious eight weeks of opportunities afforded to me.

Every time I told someone I had no time for [sleep], I was really telling myself that my own wellbeing was not my priority

I began Lent with good intentions. I stopped rowing and threw out my prized bottle of Nescafé, and Lent, in return, naturally offered fewer 2am chats and heavy nights out to tempt me past my bedtime. But the new term also brought a new relationship that caused me to be yet again unfaithful to sleep. You’ve probably seen the meme where you’re asked to prioritise between sleep, good grades, and a social life — each of us wants to successfully balance all three, but with only 24 hours in a day, we can only prioritise two, and the third must be dispensed with. Asides from the disregard for apparently non-productive and therefore non-essential concerns such as calling my family each week or simply doing nothing, this relationship created an impossible mess of priorities which I simply could not balance. Hours that I had earnestly carved out for rest were once again filled to the brim with other priorities, and sleep never stood a chance of winning against them. 

But I was dragged back to sleep during exam term. I crawled into its welcoming arms after demoralising mock papers, days when I just couldn’t focus, and the realisation that my naïve fresher’s zeal could not keep me wide-eyed while staring at notes for hours. It soothed and reset me, reminding me that tomorrow would be another day to try.

I slowly fell back in love with sleep. Every time I told someone I had no time for it, I was really telling myself that my sleep, and my own wellbeing, was not my priority. Reshuffling my priorities reset my game of wants and needs. I could now acknowledge that I did not in fact need to go out with those second-years who I liked but shared no meaningful connection with, but I did need to give myself time to rest.


Mountain View

Phone calls with friends have been my anchor at Cambridge

I wish I had realised this as a fresher during my first term. It now comes back to me in blurs of bops, scraps of small talk, and memories of formals that are faded and warped by my lack of sleep at the time. Freshers’ week was always going to feel like a haze, but prioritising sleep was the one choice I could have made that would have saved some of those memories. Cambridge was a world where the only roads seemed to be fast lanes, where sacrificing sleep to squeeze in every experience gave me a quicker dopamine hit than taking time to look after myself. Learning to slow down meant doing fewer things, but enjoying them fully.

That isn’t to say that I’ll be starting the new year as a composed self-care guru who always gets her prescribed eight-to-nine hours. I could easily fall into those same spirals of overcommitment that I did last year when presented with those same new tantalising possibilities and opportunities. All I can do to prevent that from happening again is to regulate my games of priorities, and try to not lose sleep worrying about it.