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“OMB, I’m gonna fail!”

April 18, 2013
'study' by JSmith Photo via Flickr.com

‘study’ by JSmith Photo via Flickr.com

It’s April.  May is right around the corner.  With May comes final exams, final papers, and the end of the semester.  So right about now, those of us who have the karma of college students are thinking something along the lines of “Oh my Buddha!  I have so much work to do!  How am I ever going to get all this done?  There’s just no way!  I’m gonna fail!”  Then we start hyperventilating and pass out.  Or, if you’re emotionally repressed like me, the world begins to feel extremely surreal and you start having very anxious dreams.

I promise you’ll survive.  I can’t promise you’ll pass, but end-of-semester anxiety by itself (!) is not fatal.  However, if you’d also like to pass, I’ve prepared some tips.  If you count the time I spent at community college (on a quarter system), this is the thirtieth time I’d been through this.  Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. Get Centered – Deal with the anxiety first, by seeing it for what it is – fear of the future.  Fear of doing poorly in the future keeps you frozen.  But this future is not yet here.  You have not failed.  Accept this fear, then clear it from your mind (for a little while, at least) by doing something to center yourself in the present moment.

I like to spend a few minutes in breath meditation focused on finding and relaxing all the tension centers in my body.  If you know how to meditate, do that, just for a couple of minutes.  Sometimes, however, it is during meditation when our thoughts can rise up and our emotions almost overwhelm us, so that may not be the best solution for you right now.  Find something you can concentrate on, like a mantra, a favorite song that always lifts your spirits, doing some yoga postures or push-ups, or giving love to an animal.  Once you are centered, then you can take a step forward.

2. Take One Step – Making elaborate schedules and study plans at this late date is a form of procrastination that helps you avoid the real work you need to do because that real work seems so overwhelming.  So don’t focus on everything you have to do.  Focus on the very next thing you have to do.

In three weeks, I have a five page term paper due for which I have not even chosen a topic.  But tomorrow, I have a one page reflection.  The term paper is more important to my grades, but I’m going to work on the reflection because I can probably finish it in an hour or two.  Then I can spend the rest of my day on the term paper with a feeling of accomplishment and worth.  The alternative is to work on the term paper all day, then crash to a halt when I realize I’ve got a reflection due in twenty-minutes, feverishly type it out and send it off, worry about how crappy it was, and feel all frazzled about the interruption.  How many of us have done that before?

The secret isn’t time management, the secret is anxiety management.  I do whatever I can to help myself stay positive, feel productive, and actually accomplish tasks.  I focus first on small tasks that are due soon.  Then I move on to larger projects due later, but I break them down.  Today I want to collect the research for that term paper.  That’s all.  Tomorrow I’ll read through it and make notes.  The next time, I’ll construct an outline.  As long as we can stay centered and keep taking one step at a time, we’ll be able to see ourselves moving forward.  When we let anxiety overwhelm us and loose track of where we are, we feel worse, perform worse, and also have no sense of what we’ve actually accomplished.

3. Pause – The human brain can only concentrate on a single task for about an hour or two, depending on what its doing.  This is a physiological fact not a personal failing.  It isn’t necessary to beat yourself up because you have to read the same page three times in order to remember it if you’ve been at it for five hours straight.  Not even you can change the laws of  physics.  So plan pauses into your routine.

After I finish that reflection paper, I’m going to put the kettle on.  While the water is heating, I’ll wash the dishes or fold laundry.  Doing small chores around the house gets my body moving around and enhances my feeling of accomplishment, which staves of both stiffness and anxiety rooted in feelings of worthlessness. (During finals week, my desk gets very messy, but my house is clean.)  When my tea is ready, I’ll sit down for a few minutes and pet my cat.  Animals have been shown to reduce blood pressure and anxiety and, believe it or not, even a stuffed animal can help.  If I’m really stuck on a project, I take a shower. Somehow that always makes my brain work better.

This is how I pause, but there are many ways to do it.  Go for a short walk outside; sunlight also improves mood.  Do a little stretching, play a game of solitaire, chat with a low-stress friend, send a quick email to your mother.  Take ten to fifteen minutes for somewhat “mindless” activity to refresh yourself.  Then get back to work.

4. Get Help – Your faculty are not out to get you.  They want you to succeed, although some are better than others at showing it.  Students can and should rely on faculty to help them through their end-of-semester dread.  Just don’t expect your professor to be your therapist! When you go to your professor for help, try to have realistic expectations and some idea of what you need.  It helps to focus on what you can do in addition to what you can’t.  Once you’ve explained that, your professor will be in a much butter position to help you in one of several ways.

Clarifying Content – If you’re stuck on a theory, idea, or problem, explain what you do understand up until the point where you’re stuck.  We frequently get stuck when we misunderstand the underlying assumptions or steps. Your professor can help find that small error and correct it.  Sometimes we just need to hear it explained in a slightly different way.  Or, sometimes, the theory we’re trying to understand is just wrong (to us).  This happens a lot in grad school, where critical thinking plays a stronger role.  We don’t have a agree with all the theories we learn (it’s important to see their failures), we just have to understand them and what the original author meant.

Articulation – Sometimes we know the content, but we’re having a hard time explaining it.  Maybe we’ve got four pages of a five-page term paper and we just don’t know what else to say.  Explaining ideas verbally to another person can help (use your writing center!), especially if that person is a subject matter expert.  They can point out our unspoken assumptions, which need to be explained, or make connections we didn’t see at first, which lead to additional research.

Negotiating Deadlines – Professors are more flexible than you might think, provided you communicate with them early and often about your challenges.  If you have a mandatory family event at a critical period of the semester, there’s no shame in asking “What’s the latest day I could turn in my work in order for you to grade it?”  If you are going to try to negotiate a new deadline, here are a few tips: 1) don’t do it for every assignment/class; 2) demonstrate a consistent ability to meet deadlines first; 3) be attentive and respectful to the professor’s needs and expectations; 4) don’t expect special treatment; 5) go to the professor as soon as you know you might need it, not the day before your project is due. (Some professors will not negotiate deadlines.  This is their prerogative.  Don’t mistake an opportunity for a right.)

Negotiating Project Parameters – Creativity is not a sin. And let’s face it, even professors sometimes find the term paper boring.  If you have an idea for an original project, talk about it with your professor. I’ve seen classmates replace academic term papers with photo essays, original websites, journalism-style interviews, and original art. As long as your project can demonstrate your understanding of the course goals, please, be creative! Just get permission ahead of time.

Setting Realistic Goals – I’m going to let you in on a little secret.  Professor are people.  Shhh!  Don’t tell anyone.  They want you to like them about as much as you want them to like you.  As long as you set realistic goals, they will do their best to help you reach them.  Your professor will help you learn what realistic goals are as long as you’re not afraid to talk to them.

'studying' by scui3asteveo via Flickr.com

‘studying’ by scui3asteveo via Flickr.com

5. Focus – Finally, of course, we do have to focus on our work.  Anticipate a period of increased work intensity.  During November and December and again in April and May, we may forgo many social obligations and extracurricular activities.  I tell people, “I’m sorry, but it’s the end of the semester and I need to focus on schoolwork.”  For the most part, they understand, encourage me, and often commiserate.

I also tell my employers I might need a few days off just before finals.  They knew they hired a college student who would need some flexibility, so I set the expectation early.  I follow it up with a promise to put in extra hours as soon as finals are over.  After all that schoolwork and anxiety, extra time working at my job actually feels like a welcome break.

It helps my focus to set a designated “work space” and “work hours.”  When I was in grad school for architecture, I worked in my studio from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm every day except when I was in class or at my job.  Sticking to this schedule religiously for over a year helped me focus.  Now that I’m studying religion, my life is not quite so regimented.  I work on papers, projects, and research during the day at my desk and read my assigned texts in the evening on the couch, usually in front of the television (not everyone can read and watch TV at the same time, but I find it helps keep me awake when the texts are too dry and boring).  This simple schedule reminds me of what I need to be focused on.  “Oh, it’s three in the afternoon; I should be writing.”

Some people can’t work at home because there are too many distractions or temptations.  That’s fine.  Just find a place you can work, like a coffee shop or library, and then stick to it.  Your brain will form a habit.  As soon as you walk it, it’ll go into work mode. Sticking to a schedule encourages habit formation, but sometimes just having the place is enough.  It can be almost anywhere, anytime you decide.  Just don’t spend too long searching.  You have to study, after all.

I hope these tips are helpful.  Good luck with your studies!

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