I’ve had a harder-than-usual time trying to keep up on my schoolwork this quarter. Part of it is the weather, sure, but even when it’s bright and clear out, I have always struggled to make myself do the things. Being a student means having chronic low-grade (at minimum) stress—you’re constantly thinking about your grades, your finances, your relationships, your future… One of the fundamental aspects of being a college student is not trying to balance all these things, but rather to decide which of them are worth neglecting for the greater good. Being a college student forces you to take a utilitarian stance; school is the trolly, the people on the tracks are your various commitments, and it’s your job to decide who gets (to mix metaphors) thrown under the bus.
Ideally, you don’t sacrifice any of your commitments, but just let them slide—maybe one of the people on the tracks loses a leg or breaks their back, but they’ll be prioritized again soon and okay I think I’d better lay off the trolly problem metaphor and…
My biggest problem is just getting myself to actually start on stuff. It’s hard enough to focus on the stuff you need to get done when you do have external pressures. In college, it’s mostly up to you and you alone to motivate yourself to keep up on your work. Nobody is going to hold a gun to your head and force you to study, and for those of us with attention problems, depression or anxiety, it’s just that much harder to keep your head above water.
I’m trying out some new strategies this quarter, and while I’m by no means a type A go-getter now, I am starting to feel more in control of my destiny (i.e., my grades). My hope is that some of these strategies might be helpful for other people as well, especially people who feel hopeless, or like there is almost no chance of catching up in their classes.
Minimize distractions, or at least stay away from them long enough to get some work done
A lot has been written about how we live in a society now where there seems to be no escape from constant stimuli. Matt Haig and Cal Newport both have recent books about how detrimental being constantly connected is to our mental and physical health. And yet, as easy as it is to suggest that we all just “switch off,” it feels nearly impossible to actually do that, especially for college students. Many of us are far from our families, and social media allows us to feel connected to them even when we’re miles away. Beyond that, we are also constantly forced to use internet technologies in order to complete and submit assignments (I’m looking at you, Canvas). There are programs and services which will help you to block distracting websites and desktop applications (I like Freedom), but sometimes that part of our brains that relishes a challenge will come up with brilliant ways to sidestep these tools in order to get the ever-diminishing hit of dopamine we subconsciously crave.
The point of all this is to say that severing our connection to the internet is incredibly difficult, and it may not be sustainable. I still try to avoid social media when I’m working, but it’s extremely tough since I also know I have to take breaks, and the first thing I do when I decide to take a break—often before I realize I’m doing it—is reach for my phone to check out all the status updates, articles, videos, and cats that have appeared since I last checked for those things (probably less than an hour before if not sooner).
Okay, now that I’ve problematized this to death, here’s a couple of potential solutions I’ve come up with.
Keep your phone out of reach
Out of sight, out of mind is a real thing. I’ve recently discovered that every so often while I’m working on homework, my brain takes these little mini-breaks and I scan the room looking for distractions. It’s semi-deliberate—focusing for an hour on something that’s super boring is hard. Your brain will naturally look for something—anything—to do rather than what you’re supposed to be doing, and a smartphone is basically the world’s smallest home entertainment system. It’s like trying to do homework at an arcade or a casino. Personally, if I’m trying to study at home in my bedroom, I’ll leave the phone to charge out in the dining room or kitchen—the point is just to put it somewhere where you can forget that it exists (which you’re not going to do if you just keep it in your pocket on silent, sorry).
Too many distractions at home? Go somewhere else
Maybe home just isn’t the place to study. If your bedroom is full of stuff you know you’d rather be doing, and you have a history of giving up on your homework (or not even starting) because of said things, then maybe get away from those things! Go anywhere else to study, even if it’s somewhere unconventional like the bathroom or the laundry room or your car. This is really just an expansion of the advice to keep your phone out of reach, although I think a smartphone is a special kind of dangerous.
Put yourself in an environment full of other people who are studying
Maybe it’s that monkey see, monkey do thing, but I’ve found that if I’m in a room full of people studying quietly, I’m more likely to do the same. You’ll have to do so some introspection with this one and figure out which public spaces are most conducive to getting your work done. For example, you may find that there’s too much noise and conversation at a coffee shop to get stuff done, but working in an empty corridor or hallway at school works really well for you. You may find that you have to wear earplugs or a hat or horse blinders…whatever. The point is just that you may have to try a bunch of different environments before you find one that feels just right. For me, it depends on what I’m doing. I find it easier to study Spanish in the study room at my college’s library, but I find it easier to do my reading at home in my bedroom (just so long as my computer is far away).
Think about process over results
The above tips are useful for keeping yourself going once you’ve started, but my biggest problem has always been the whole starting part. In the past, it’s become harder and harder to get myself to do even a minimal amount of work when I knew I was getting farther and farther behind in my classes. And while keeping distractions at bay increases the chances that I’ll actually do the work I need to do, it’s no guarantee. Honestly, none of these tips are foolproof—they’re simply a collection of strategies that, when combined, increase the chance of success. When anxiety and other emotions get in the way of our ability to begin, the following can be helpful.
Don’t think about the big picture. Just think about what you can do today
I’ve struggled mightily over the last few weeks to catch up in my Spanish class. While I did fine in Spanish 101, after winter break, I completely forgot tons of material I needed to have down pat in order to do well in Spanish 102 this quarter. I dreaded going to class because every time I did I would make some sort of embarrassing mistake that outed me as being incompetent and incapable. And the thought of reviewing all the material I had forgotten made it all that much harder for me to put in the work to catch up. It was frustrating, because I knew that if I could only put the work into practicing every day, I would catch up, no question, but it would take time, and I was impatient.
It’s obviously crazy to not study something because you want results sooner, but I know from talking to my own psychologist that this is very common. We rationally know that the solution to the problem of falling behind is to study the material, but our anxiety makes us less likely to do the thing that will help, perhaps because we secretly think that the studying won’t actually work, or that it won’t work quickly enough. In my case, this led me to spend way too much time doing things that, while educational (I’ve learned a lot about politics and philosophy from watching YouTube videos, believe me), was not helping me to brush up on my verb conjugation skills.
It turns out that thinking about the big picture—the ultimate goal of passing the class—was getting in the way of me putting the work in that I needed to on a daily basis. Thinking about how to get from here to there was overwhelming. The solution? Well, it’s right there in the subheading: focus on now. The buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm is known for saying, “Now is the place where your future is being made.” Make a small, reasonable commitment. My commitment is to do an hour of Spanish every day (not counting time spent on actual assignments, but that’s just how I’m doing it). Knowing that there’s a specific end time gives me something to look forward to; theoretically, the amount of Spanish practice I could do is infinite, so setting a hard limit eliminates 99% of the anxiety I feel. I know I’m still going to feel behind for a while, but I try to temper that anxiety with the knowledge that I will, sooner or later, be where I need to be.
Don’t beat yourself up
You’re going to mess up. It sucks, but it’s how we learn. Some teachers understand this, and some don’t, but regardless, you’ve got to make mistakes in order to learn. (Pro tip: if you’re studying flashcards and you know you don’t know the answer to of them, guess anyway—sometimes you’ll actually guess correctly, and studies show that the mere act of guessing wrong means you’re more likely to remember the correct answer the next time you test yourself on that flashcard). Especially if you have anxiety or perfectionism issues (they can go hand in hand–they do for me), this can be a difficult strategy to embrace, but after a while, taking risks in public like this becomes less stressful and can even turn out to be fun.
Positive reinforcement and the feeling of choice
All of these techniques can be helpful, but only if you actually embrace them and incorporate them into your routine. Also: replacing old habits is really, really hard. So when you succeed, when you manage to spend an hour on Spanish or complete your assigned reading, it’s important to treat yourself. In fact, it can be useful to treat yourself while you’re studying. Anything that keeps you in that zone is good—maybe a favorite tea or coffee, for example. Obviously you don’t want something so attention-grabbing that it distracts you from what you’re doing, but making the process as pleasurable as possible is a good thing (my psychologist has even suggested things like having lavender-scented things in your study space, which I thought was kind of brilliant).
Along with this is the idea of not thinking about these as tasks or chores that you should do or have to do. Look at these tasks as something that you choose to do. A lot of the struggle I feel is that feeling of not having any choice—it feels like I’m being robbed of my autonomy, which makes me feel less like learning the difference between ser and estar and more like watching the latest ContraPoints video (which are excellent).
Try to find the choices available to you when you feel like there’s no choice. For example, if you’ve got two or three different things to study, you get to choose what to prioritize. It’s not a completely free choice, but it’s possible to find some consolation in having a limited number of choices and then owning those choices.
I’ve probably forgotten lots of the techniques I learned today in my session. If I think of any other techniques, I’ll either add them to this post or write a sequel.