Living Together Through the Years – Top Tips From Fresher to Finalist

How you experience living with others depends on what year you’re in at uni.

Everything changes each time you move somewhere new. Situations, workload, location, friendships.

Since it’s the start of another academic year, I’ll run through some tips and experiences for each year. Just when you think you’ve got communal living sussed, you’re thrown into a brand new set of circumstances.

photo by David Reece

photo by David Reece

Fresher Year

Support those not settling in so well

I wish I’d done this better. I was experiencing loads of new stuff myself, but I could have tried harder to help integrate those who were finding life away from home tough.

In my first year, one housemate was torn apart from being away from family and it seemed only a matter of time before they would leave. It didn’t take long. But in that short space of time, I could have done more to reach out and show a friendly face. I tried once or twice, but I wasn’t consistent, and that’s key.

Work as a team ESPECIALLY when one or two won’t pull their weight

You could easily adopt a ‘down tools’ attitude when one person isn’t willing to get involved in cleaning and other little jobs. But that makes it worse for everyone. Don’t choose to live with mess and muck as a matter of principle.

Start a conversation. Be kind when you speak to them about the situation. Anger will only make matters worse.

And don’t make it a five-against-one showdown either. Before having a house meeting to vent on that single subject, take a soft approach. One or two housemates could have a quiet word first to find out how things are and discuss the situation constructively. Gently does it.

If you’re lucky enough to have cleaners, you may not have these issues. But please spare a thought for whoever is making good your mess.

Prepare to learn a lot in a short space of time

If you’ve never lived with others, especially a bunch of strangers, you’ve got your work cut out. Some positive stuff, some negative.

Use this time as a learning experience, as you do with your degree work. You’ll face surprises, but don’t react too quickly (y’know, unless it’s a fire, in which case GET OUT!!!). Let each situation sink in and make a measured response.

Branch out beyond your own space

No matter what your living situation, university lets you find all sorts of new people. Now is the time to make new friends, connections and contacts. You don’t have to stick with the people you’ve been placed with in housing. While it helps to be on positive terms with them, there are many more opportunities to make new friends from the outset. Make the most of it.

Learn how to hack your life

Washing, cleaning, and admin. Delightful! It’s no surprise so many students ignore stuff like this until it’s crucial. If it’s not the end of the world, it can be left.

But now is the best time to learn how to make life work for you without resorting to professional help (i.e. Mum & Dad).

Take your laundry, for instance. Washing machines look daunting. They have loads of dials and buttons. But it’s not difficult. At all. I used to panic about temperatures, times, spin speeds, and all sorts of settings just to wash my clothes. In my first year, I only washed my own clothes in an emergency. Most of the time, I just got others to do it (yes, parents again).

This was a mistake. I should have taken responsibility much sooner. Five to ten minutes is all it takes to understand what’s going on. That includes looking up what all the cleaning symbols mean on clothes. You’re welcome. [What, that’s not enough? You want a printable PDF of those symbols now? Oh, go on then!]

So long as the clothes get washed, it doesn’t really matter. Most stuff goes at 30 degrees (40 degrees is the norm, but uses more energy and often isn’t needed) and most stuff can have a good old spin session without worry. Those laundry symbols come in useful to find out those odd items that need special attention. Remember those ones and move on!

So this isn’t much about hacking, more about dealing with the issues from the outset. But it’s such a rare treat that your advanced work will seem like hacking to much of the world around you.

Just be aware that you’ll be in demand as the guru to go to…

Second Year

Typically the year when you branch out to private accommodation if you haven’t already.

If you’re living with more new people, the first year tips apply. Read those first.

For the following tips, I’ll assume you’re living mainly with people you know and that you’ve chosen to live with.

These are good times, but you still need to be mindful. Even friends can be difficult to live with when they’re under your feet 24/7.

photo by Ethan Moore

photo by Ethan Moore

Respect the place

This goes without saying, no matter where you live. But some student accommodation through a private landlord may look weathered and worn from heavy use by other students over the years.

That’s no reason to treat your place without care.

Also, inform the landlord of any problems. Don’t leave them to get worse. If the landlord isn’t helpful, try speaking to your Students’ Union or student services for more advice.

Walls are even thinner

Noise can be a problem. Why? Because you have different deadlines, you come in at different times (including very late at night), you have different tastes in music, you have various ‘romantic’ situations, and so on. Just remember that you’re not the only one in the house. The occasional lapse is forgiveable. Don’t make it more than that.

Have rotas

You’re unlikely to find a way to give each person the same responsibility for particular tasks, especially if they are unpleasant ones.

A rota helps everyone pull their weight and allows you to keep on top of the most important household tasks.

Little and often. That works magic. When you leave stuff, it piles up and gets worse. A few minutes here and there makes a big difference over time. So, little and often.

Understand extreme personality traits

Some people are more fussy about cleanliness than others. It’s not unusual to live with extremes. While one shrugs at massive mess, another gasps at a fleck of dust.

It’s a difficult road to travel, so prepare. And listen. And seek solution at the earliest possibility.

Failing that, seek compromise.

Whatever happens, try to steer away from outright household battles. They’re ugly. You don’t want them.

Pay bills on time

Especially ones where it’s in a single housemate’s name. If bills are all inclusive or you’re all responsible for your own shares, that’s wonderful. If not, please PLEASE do the right thing and pay when you’re meant to. Don’t be responsible for giving someone else financial grief.

Final Year

I was a Senior Student, so I went back to university accommodation. But being in my final year, the game changed and I was working on my dissertation among other things.

I didn’t hide away though. I went out a lot more.

Whatever your circumstances, a few things are different about your final year, because you’re closer to the end of your degree.

photo by _bernd_

photo by _bernd_

Be selfish

You need to knuckle down. If you haven’t already made changes, now is the time. Don’t be swayed to go out when you’ve got work to do. Make decisions for yourself and have clear reasons why that’s your choice.

You may need more of your own space. If you need to make your room off-limits, make it clear why. You’re not being anti-social, you’re being sensible. Of course you’d love to spend every waking moment having a laugh with your mates. But it’s not practical.

Have downtime

You may be busy and getting your selfish groove on, but you need to find some time with your housemates.

There’s something wrong when the people you’re living with forget you’re there…

Continue washing, tidying and organising

The odd jobs are the first to go when you’re trying to find time to fit everything in.

Bad move. You waste time living in a mess. It’s impossible to live when you can’t find anything, you’ve got nothing clean to wear, and everything is a general state.

I went to the laundrette on Sunday mornings, very early. I knew nobody would be around that way. I’d take some work to get on with while my clothes were being washed. The best way to avoid temptation is to leave your phone in your room. At a laundrette, it’s the only thing left in your way between work and procrastination.

With no phone to hand, the prospect of doing reading and coursework is (hopefully) better than staring at a spinning machine for an hour or two.

Final Thoughts

When you live with others, you have to take care of them. And yourself.

Sometimes it’ll be tough. You’re trying to work with the situation while it feels like others are messing you about.

Other times it’ll be brilliant. The group dynamic will work just right.

So you’re bound to go through all sorts of emotions, highs and lows. When things are good, cherish it and don’t take it for granted. When things go wrong, know that you will get through it.

For more tips, check out my 20 hints for living with others. Good luck!

The Real Reason Why ‘Be Yourself’ Gets a Bum Deal

There are many times when you hear the advice ‘just be yourself’:

  • Meeting new people;
  • In unknown social situations;
  • At an interview;
  • When giving a talk or presentation;
  • Trying to achieve almost anything;
  • Making an application

‘Yourself’ seems pretty quipped to win all the prizes.

So what’s going on? Why are so many of us not being ourselves? It seems like a pretty easy thing to aspire to.

Two little words. Ten letters in total. It doesn’t amount to much and it promises the world.


Herein lies the problem. The advice is vague. It doesn’t mean enough in isolation.

Yet ‘Be Yourself’ is often touted as a solution. It is not.

Just stay the way you are and be true to that… Nothing is solved by that. Being yourself is not a talent.

You are not fixed in place. Seek to better your skills and experiences. Find out more. Try harder and keep trying. Hardly same old, same old.

To be yourself is to owe yourself better each day. When you fall, you pick yourself up. You accept and you either move on or you try again. What you don’t do is give up or do something you don’t believe in. Challenge yourself and do new things, but do it with purpose and with your own interests at heart. Do what you need to do, not what you think people would like or expect you to do.

change (photo by Send me adrift)

You are not unchanging. Yourself is a term that exists in many different states. (photo by Send me adrift)

There’s little point in trying to emulate someone else either. Susan Cain makes the point nicely in her book, Quiet:

“Bill Gates is never going to be Bill Clinton, no matter how he polishes his social skills, and Bill Clinton can never be Bill Gates, no matter how much time he spends alone with a computer.”

However, there are many things you can improve without changing how you are as a person. At the beginning of his career, Mars Dorian was told that a lack of empathy was part of his personality and he should find something that didn’t involve customer communication.

Rejecting the idea that Dorian had a flaw that could not be rectified, he looked to learn and improve his understanding and skills in that area. In his words, “I worked hard to become my best self”.

There we are again. The ‘best self’ is not sticking to your guns and shirking improvement. Neither is it a refusal to learn new things. Being your best self is about discovery, renewal, and at times surprising everyone, including yourself.

The more you strive to be your best self, the more you should embrace change as a necessary part of finding what works for you.

Think about very young children. When a parent delights at how their son or daughter thrives on just being their own person, they acknowledge a child that is learning all the time and adapting to their circumstances.

Let’s recap. To be yourself is to find what works for you at any given time. To be yourself is to question your actions. To be yourself is to embrace change in yourself and have the confidence to accept you’re not perfect and that you’re always learning.

How often are you told to be yourself on those terms? No wonder it gets a bum deal.

Keep Your Desk Tidy (No Matter How You Use It)

What is your main working space like?

When you sit down to study, what do you encounter?

A haven of minimal zen mastery? A sea of junk that’s pretty stormy at its best? A makeshift area of whatever space is currently available?

Because where you work matters. Presentation shouldn’t be left to your work. You need to get serious about your surroundings too!

A typical student's desk. Okay, okay, perhaps the mechanical stamp is a step too far...

A typical student’s desk. Okay, okay, perhaps the mechanical stamp is a step too far…

Some desks are (supposed to be) for nothing more than study. In reality, that leaves a lot of space begging to be used.

Other desks have multiple purposes. Work, entertainment, storage, you name it.

However you use your desk, let’s take a look at how to keep the space tidy.

For a dedicated work space:

Use your desk as a desk – A smooth surface is such an easy dumping target. It’s easy to succomb to temptation. Make sure you have a system in place and remove things you don’t physically need there.

Accessibility is key – Keep the important items nearby and find appropriate housing for everything. Boxes, holders and folders give active spaces for everything and keeps you focused on your work, rather than where your stuff is hiding. A focused mind is crucial, since it can take around 23 minutes to recover from interruptions. Ouch.

Love your space – You need a welcoming area to inspire you. But there’s a fine line between too sparse and too distracting. Have just enough to inspire and cheer you.

Have a 2-minute clean-up process – You know how quickly things can get messy. Clear up each evening so you’re ready for the following day. If you don’t create too much clutter, you could do a 10-minute clear once a fortnight instead. Think ‘little and often’. A short and simple system is easy to keep on top of when you get used to it. Make a habit of removing the rubbish straight away.

Not everyone has the luxury of a work station. When you use your desk for several purposes, remember these things:

Prepare your space – The stuff around you competes for attention and importance. Make sure you have enough space to do work. Arrange the space in advance as far as you can. A makeshift space at the last minute doesn’t help productivity at all.

Stick to priorities – With junk all over the place, you’re easily distracted. You can also spend too much time looking for necessary books and equipment when they aren’t laid out in a suitable place. Consider the priorities you need, not the priorities you want. When coursework and reading is important, ensure your desk is primed for that priority. Everything else takes second place. If other uses take over, it’s time to take action.

With no dedicated study space, a basic order is a must – I used to put everything in random piles so I could hide them out of sight very quickly. I soon realised that it’s far better to give everything a suitable home. It was easier for me and it looked even more presentable than keeping everything hidden.

You live and learn! And now you’ve read this, you can start as you mean to go on. You tidy, wonderful person, you!

6 Quick Energy Boosts When Sleep Isn’t Practical

The words ‘student’ and ‘sleep’ don’t mix well.

Too much when you shouldn’t be getting sleep and too little when you should. A recipe for disaster that’s easy to fall into.

Regular bedtime is difficult to commit to with so much going on. Even when you sleep like a baby every single night, that doesn’t always stop the tiredness setting in halfway through the day.

Fear not. There are a number of things you can do to spruce up your mental and physical energy before you pack in a full night of buh-byes.

Sleeping (photo by RelaxingMusic) CC BY-SA 2.0

Sleeping (photo by RelaxingMusic) CC BY-SA 2.0

Here are 6 ways to get yourself a power up:

1. Powernap

I love powernaps. It’s like sleep, only quicker. Somewhere between 12 and 30 minutes having a short kip, leaving you refreshed and rejuvenated. Win!

The most effective powernaps take a bit of practice. For some, it’s best to get back up after no more than 12 minutes. For others, you may need half an hour. If one thing doesn’t work, keep testing times until you find what works for you. The mistake is only trying one length of time and giving up when it doesn’t work. My optimum powernap is 18 minutes. What’s yours?

2. Meditate

Relaxation has never been so energising…

Meditation is often mistaken for requiring a total lack of thoughts. In reality, your brain doesn’t switch off. Any thoughts you have should be allowed to move on.

With that in mind, you’re not getting meditation wrong. Just sit in a calm and comfortable place, feel your breathing gently in and out, and gently focus on different areas of your body from head to toe, relaxing each area as you breathe. Don’t worry about what happens as you sit there. When you notice your mind wander, give yourself permission to let go of those thoughts. Accept their existence and do not dwell on them. Stay focused on the peace and quiet for however long you wish. From a few moments to a few hours to a few days. You don’t need to keep pushing for longer rituals. One of my most refreshing meditations this month came in at two minutes.

3. Walk / Jog

Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous and it doesn’t always require a gym. Walking for a mile or two is enough to clear your mind of a lot of stress and it can also help energise you for the rest of the day. My favourite time to walk is in the morning, but any time is good.

4. Change of Scene

Have you ever had that feeling when you’re tired in one place, but you suddenly feel wide awake when you go somewhere else? Find a new seat, a different location, or a different environment and watch your mood lift with no further effort required. I’m still surprised at how effective this can be.

5. Take a deliberate break

No matter how much you tell yourself to keep sitting there until you complete that task, it’s not going to finish any quicker. Leave it alone and do something else. If you have enough time, stop working on it all day. If you’ve got a deadline coming right up, take a ten-minute time-out. If you don’t want to try a powernap, meditation or a walk, you could just make a drink as an excuse to get up and stop what you’re doing.

A brief pause is a good way to break up the day and stop you from feeling bogged down. Tiredness doesn’t only happen because you need sleep. Your focus may simply be drained and it’s another way you tell yourself to take off for a while. You’ll be surprised at how much better you feel after a bit of time away from a task.

6. A ritual for energy (and calm)

I love loose leaf tea. Watching the leaves brew and relaxing to a cup of green tea at once relaxes and energises my mood. You should try the same. And if green tea isn’t your thing, find your own ritual that gives you a boost in a way that you can get used to without having to break into a sweat.

There are many ways to pep yourself up naturally. You don’t have to rely on energy drinks and other hardcore stimulants.

How do you restore your energy? Go on, share some of your own tips!