How Do I Get the Gusto to Study? Or, Why You’ll Never Listen to Me Again
Dear Veronica Mittnacht,
I have lately been finding it more and more difficult to just get started on my work. Motivating myself to get to the library takes twice as long as the work would. The longer I wait, the deeper I dive into self-resentment, and the less I want to do work. One minute I’m eating breakfast. Next thing I know, it’s almost 10PM, I’m writing to your advice column, and I haven’t started a single bit of work. The weird thing is, I actually really enjoy what I’m studying. I just burn myself out (often more by procrastinating the work than actually doing it). How do I get the gusto to study?
At first, I didn’t want to answer your letter, because I thought to myself, how can I advise someone about a problem I struggle with every day? After a rough breakup my first year I spent two whole classes in bed eating Andes mints and watching I Love Lucy episodes on YouTube, unable even to get up. Do you know how many I Love Lucy episodes you can watch in 3 hours? Like eight. By the end I felt like the worst human being that ever lived.
Then I had another memory. I remembered watching my dad make a to-do list in the morning before work. He did this every day, and I remember that I was so young that I couldn’t count as high as the number of things on his list. I was fidgety and wanted attention and didn’t understand why I couldn’t interrupt his little ritual, and after a lot of nagging, he finally explained, to my surprise, that “It’s because I’m naturally very lazy and disorganized, and I have to make up for it by thinking and writing about what I have to do all of the time.”
As a person who sometimes books herself to the hour for entire weeks, most people are surprised to hear me describe myself as lazy. But I am. The same way my dad is. I just compensate by extremes, by being busy and productive as much as I can, because I’ve learned that if I do anything else, I’ll get depressed faster than you can call me a whackjob. It’s a little loopy, but it works.
The key thing, I think, is to be aware of your own psychology. You know you like what you’re studying and that you’d save time by starting to work earlier; the block is purely mental. You mention in your letter that you “dive into self-resentment” as you procrastinate, which makes me think that you’re already probing the mentality that prevents you from working.
Since your problem isn’t one you can fix by changing the outside world – changing your major, for example, or waking up earlier – you need to change your mindset. And since it’s not a strictly logical one, you can probably trick it. I learned a few tricks my freshman year that still work for me. For one, I turn off my AirPort or unplug my Ethernet cable when I need to work, so that I can’t go online. Somehow having to turn it on again makes me aware that I’m procrastinating again. Even when I have to read something online, I’ll load the page and then turn my WiFi off so I can’t stray. I also closed the online accounts that distracted me most during the weeks of finals, which, for me, meant swearing off of Facebook, eBay, and Twitter. When I’m working in my room, sometimes I burn tea candles and tell myself that while the flame is lit, I won’t do anything but work. (This is probably a fire hazard. Plus it looks a little satanic. So you may want to choose a special lamp or something instead. But you get the idea.)
You can also try the psychosomatic approach. I tend to go to the same places to work, rather than working in my room, so that I associate seriousness with those places. Choose someplace pleasant and well-lit where you won’t see too many people you know. Eating well, sleeping well, drinking coffee or caffeinated tea, and chewing gum while you study can also boost your concentration. Studies also show that wearing comfortable clothes and developing a work routine, like waking up at the same time every day, can help you focus better. Taking five or ten-minute breaks every half-hour can help, too, but you risk not getting back to work, so I’d hold off on those for now.
The other big trick I have is the “power nap.” When you feel way too tired to get anything done, downing a cup of coffee very fast and then taking a 20-minute nap before it kicks in will leave you feeling like you just slept all night. I promise. It’s amazing.
I also recommend writing down a study plan. Sometimes a heavy workload can paradoxically make it harder to be productive. During finals, I usually get overwhelmed and paralyzed by how much I have to do. At those times, the only thing that lets me start working is mapping out my time – making little post-it calendars, if necessary – and making a schedule of when I’m going to do what. If you realize that you can get it all done, but only if you don’t deviate from your schedule even for an afternoon, you’d be surprised how much you can buckle down. And when you find the time to do something fun, you won’t have to worry about how much other stuff you should be doing.
My last suggestion sounds so crazy when I write it down that you might decide, after reading it, not to take advice from me if your life depends on it. Or you might like it. Since I have no shame, I’ll give it a shot anyway.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “In the real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” So I try to make the craziness productive, I guess. When I feel like I have so much work to do that it’s more than any human should ever find expected of her, I tell myself, silently, “Okay, I can do this. I can do it because I’m Superwoman and I have no limits and nothing can phase me. The laws of mere mortals don’t apply! I’ve got the Golden Shield and I’m unstoppable. (I don’t know too much about Superwoman, actually. I don’t know why I picked her.) Maybe nobody will ever know I did it. I don’t even care. I’m going to write three papers tonight, and tomorrow when they say, ‘My god, how’d you do it?’ I’ll just smile and say, ‘That’s just how I roll, I guess’ and I’ll be thinking to myself, ‘It’s ’cause I’m Superwoman, bitch!’”
I know it’s not true, but it helps, you know? Everyone is vulnerable to the cycle of procrastination and self-loathing, but sometimes you can turn it around and start a contrapositive kind of accomplishment-and-pride cycle.
Or maybe I’m just nutso. Your call. In either case, good luck!
Send your questions about college life to VeronicaMittnacht@thefastertimes.com
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