I just finished sending the current Studyology V2 group the summary of session 2 which was held last Friday.
A number of really interesting topics were explored in that session that I thought warranted discussion of here on the blog.
These might be helpful to you as you kick-start your final term for 2019.
So without further delay……..
When we sit down to a complex task like an assignment or learning for an exam, it is natural to experience discomfort. For some people that discomfort is best described as ‘stress’ (e.g. not feeling up to the task). For some it is more like ‘anxiety’ (e.g. the fear that they will fail). For others that discomfort might be ambivalence or boredom or disconnection from the topic or lack of motivation or sadness. For some it is a mix of all of these. Whilst the discomfort is different for each person, the common factor is that the commencement of a challenging study task CAN (not always) elicit unpleasant thoughts, feelings and sensations.
As the discomfort increases, so does our desire to avoid or escape the task. This is a natural human tendency. Don’t feel guilty about this. The escape or avoidance of discomfort has served us well in evolutionary terms in keeping us safe from threats outside our skin (e.g. avoiding going into that dark cave because of a feeling of uncertainty). However, when the ‘threats’ we are trying to escape or avoid are internal experiences (thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations), the avoid/escape response often works against us, because those internal experiences are often a signpost that we are about to do something that will make us better as a person. Those internal experiences don’t indicate threat, they actually indicate opportunity. The desire to avoid internal experiences is called ‘experiential avoidance’.
We call the avoidance of challenging study/academic tasks ‘procrastination’ and all students and staff procrastinate to some degree. Yes, that lecturer or tutor that you think has their shit together, also procrastinates. Humans are incredibly inventive in the ways that they procrastinate.
One of the key things you learn in the process of doing a degree is how to tackle procrastination. So if you are beating yourself up about your procrastination, don’t. You’re simply owning up to, and looking for solutions for the most common productivity challenge that affects all of us.
So what do I do about it?
When I work with students who procrastinate, I am always struck by just complex and intricate their internal experiences around study have become.
It seems that for many students, when they sit down to study, they are confronted by a unique internal battle that they feel they have to fight.
That battle might include trying to get their energy level or motivation up, getting themselves in a positive mood, answering all the negative self-talk in their head that doubts their abilities, dealing with memories of previous failures or longing for times of previous productivity, trying to change uncomfortable physical sensations, trying to convince themselves they chose the right degree and more. Their internal experience is complex and overwhelming.
One of the most sinister tricks of the mind is that it tells us that we must somehow win this internal battle BEFORE we can get started on important tasks. It is important that you know that this is mostly bullshit. Our minds tell us that we must have the right internal experience before engaging in the behaviours important to the task at hand. This is not the case. You can start and complete a task without having won the battle of mood, memory, sensation, belief, thought etc. One of the most valuable things I ever learned was my ability to write and get stuff done, even if I was in a foul mood.
So when you sit down to study, focus on the task itself. Your mind will try to distract you with all the garbage described previously, but instead return to the task. If you need to break the task into manageable chunks, so that you work on it, even at the same time as everything else is going on in your head, then that is OK. The more you practice working in the presence of these uncomfortable internal experiences, the better you will get at it.
The goals of study
We see quite a few students get caught in an internal battle around whether they should be studying the degree they’ve chosen, whether they’ve made the right choice, was coming to university the right decision, etc etc.
There is a lot going on in those questions, but a few things are worth mentioning.
- Often we connect our chosen degree to an internal representation of the ‘career’ that it will lead to. If we aren’t excited by the career, we then feel less connected to the degree. If the career isn’t right for us, then how can the degree be right for us? However it is important to note that the career we have in mind is unlikely to be a truly accurate representation of how we will ultimately use those skills we are learning. I could never have imagined doing the role I do now, during my degree. But the skills from my degree are essential to my role. Sometimes this forward focus on the career post-degree is actually damaging to us engaging with the content.
- We also tend to try and connect our degree to our personal interests and passions. When they seem out of kilter, we lose interest in the degree. This is because we view a degree from the perspective of the topic, and not the underlying skills that you develop. I studied ‘psychology’ but what I really learned was philosophy of science, how to write, how to problem-solve, how to organise information, how to connect theory to reality, perseverance, goal setting, project management, how to finish what I start, pushing through difficulty and so forth. Regardless of whether I ended up working in psychology, these kinds of skills were hugely valuable. It is helpful to remember that your degree (regardless of topic) will equip you with a range of skills that are crucial for future workforce participation.
Now if you are 1 year into a 4-year degree and you are very much convinced you hate the content and the area, then I’d say quit that course and look for something different. But if you are a couple of years into your degree, but feeling ambivalent about the content, I’d make finishing the degree, and accumulating all the relevant skills you can along the way to be your driving motivation. Show yourself and others that you can persevere, work under low motivation and finish what you start, because there will come a point in your work life when those skillsets are critical to success.
Self-compassion vs self-indulgence
We encourage students who have become highly self-critical as a result of ongoing procrastination to try taking a stance of self-compassion towards their difficulties.
This is sometimes interpreted as self-indulgence (let myself get away with anything) or self-esteem (try to convince myself I am a good person).
Self-compassion is neither of these.
I encourage you to read a bit more about self-compassion here. Kristin Neff is probably the leading authority on it.
I think of self-compassion as treating yourself as you would a close friend.
If a close friend of yours was struggling with procrastination you would probably
- acknowledge there was a problem
- let them know that many people struggle with it, so they shouldn’t feel guilty about it
- offer support and guidance in helping to address it
- encourage and reward efforts their efforts to address the problem
Self-compassion doesn’t negate us working towards being better versions of ourselves. It is just that when we deviate from our path, or we falter or we fail at something, we acknowledge that in the same way as we would with a close friend or family member – with understanding and support. We then pick ourselves back up and return to what it is we were working towards.
When we do programs like Studyology, there is the underlying assumption that there are psychological factors driving the study problems. This is a sensible assumption but is open to challenging.
If you find that you have a pervasive sense of low energy, low motivation, low mood, across multiple aspects of life, not just study, then we recommend getting a general health checkup (GP).
There can be other factors driving your motivation and energy levels. Nutrient deficiencies (e.g. iron or B12 or Vitamin D), mental health problems (e.g. anxiety, depression), side effects of medications for existing conditions or undiagnosed health conditions can all impact on your psychological health. I don’t recommend trying to self-diagnose yourself using the internet (I tried this and it went badly), so instead get a good GP who can assist you in conducting a comprehensive health check.
This might sound a bit strange (visiting a GP to talk about procrastination) but I had a vitamin B12 deficiency which I interpreted as low-grade depression. Identified and fixed the B12 levels, fixed the low mood as well.
It is human to procrastinate. Procrastination can be the result of attempts to avoid or escape unpleasant experiences associated with complex study tasks. Stress and anxiety about study can develop into complex internal narratives that students struggle against when they sit down to study.
Potential ways out of this struggle include practising working despite the presence of unpleasant experiences, as well as reminding oneself that the tackling of procrastination is itself a life skill that will come in very handy in your future career.
Not all procrastination and motivation issues stem from underlying psychological factors. Sometimes, general health should be considered as the health of the body and the mind are closely intertwined.
If you are interested in participating in a future Studyology program, send me an email with your name, student ID and the subject line ‘join studyology’. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will keep you updated on when we are next running the program.