Behind In Your Work? Tips For Getting Ahead

The fall semester has been underway for only a few weeks and you're already behind in your work. This was not your intention. You'd planned to hit the ground running. You were going to turn over a new leaf this semester and become the student you knew you could be.
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The fall semester has been underway for only a few weeks and you're already behind in your work. This was not your intention. You'd planned to hit the ground running. You were going to turn over a new leaf this semester and become the student you knew you could be.

Then something got in the way. Mental rust from four months of vacation got in the way. Catching up with old friends and making new friends got in the way. Homesickness got in the way. Tailgating got in the way. So did restlessness, anxiety, overconfidence and procrastination.

But now the only things getting in the way are rationalization -- I'm not that far behind; I've always worked better under pressure anyway -- and perfectionism -- I'm too tired to start now; I'll start first thing tomorrow when I'm fresh.

We all know what's going to happen tomorrow, though, don't we. You're going to sleep late (I should have gone to bed earlier), have a leisurely lunch (I need to get my energy up), attend class (this is a good thing) and then take a break (I need to take a breather before starting work).

And that's how you got where you are -- three weeks or so into the semester and already behind in your work.

Here's what you should do about it:

After finishing this fascinating blog post, start doing your work. Don't do anything else first. You'll be tempted, but don't do it. Because once you start working it will be much easier to continue working. This is an immutable law of human nature -- trust me. Let's call it the First Law of Academic Motion (FLAM) after Newton's famous laws.



(Let's just hope that the force disturbing your "rest" isn't the dean threatening you with academic probation, or that the force impeding your "motion" isn't a friend poking you on Facebook.)

FLAM Explained

1) The greatest resistance to doing work is at the beginning. This applies both to the first day of classes and to the first minute of a study session. Once started, however, work has a way of drawing you in. It becomes more enjoyable to do. Work, in other words, becomes less like work.

2) Once you've learned the basics of a subject it's easier to acquire new information. It's called the learning curve.

Corollaries of FLAM

Establish a routine

The easiest way to initiate work is to have a routine. You don't want to wake up every morning and ask yourself: should I work? or worse, do I feel like working? -- because a high percentage of the time the answer will be no. If you've established a routine of starting work every morning at, say, 10:00 AM, you won't have to ask and answer the question: should I work? You'll already be working. Relying on a structure is more reliable than relying on self-discipline.

Don't do anything else before doing your work

Don't even go to the bathroom. It's always tempting to do something pleasant or less stressful before starting the unpleasant job of studying or doing assignments. You'll want to check your email, watch TV, clean your room, eat a snack or hang out with your friends. Trouble is, once you start those things it's hard to stop them (unfortunately, FLAM applies to non-academic activities as much as to academic ones). Pretty soon you've given up on the idea of doing schoolwork altogether. Save recreation for your spare time.

By the way, "getting organized" is not the same as doing work. It's not even the same as being organized. It's just another time-waster. If you start an assignment or do the required reading the moment you think of it, or first thing in the day, you may be less "organized" but you'll get more done. Organize yourself tonight before you go to bed so you can get down to work first thing tomorrow morning.

Stay in motion

Once you've started your schoolwork -- keep going. Don't squander your momentum by taking a long break and having to overcome being "at rest" all over again. As the semester proceeds, your intellectual and psychological muscles will get stronger and it will be easier and easier to overcome inertia and persevere until your work is done.

Don't stop at the end

Stop working after the beginning of the next task, not at the end of the one you're currently doing. It feels natural to stop reading a book at the end of a chapter, to stop writing an essay after you've completed the outline, and to stop working after you've covered one subject. Ending at the end gives you a satisfying sense of completeness. But it's a mistake. End your work session after the start of the next task. Read the beginning of the next chapter; write the opening paragraph of your essay; begin the assignment for another course.

Since initiating work is harder than continuing it, making a start on the next thing you have to do will make it easier to continue with it tomorrow. It will seem as if you never stopped your forward motion.

Don't Give Up

There's a very good chance you'll read these suggestions, make a pledge to put them into effect, then take a break. I'll start tomorrow morning when I'm not so tired, you'll tell yourself. Then tomorrow will come and there will be some other excuse.

We all want to start with a clean slate. It's human nature (like wanting to stop at the end). We'd rather miss a class entirely than arrive late. We'd rather skip a seminar than show up without having done the reading. We'd rather not turn in a paper at all than turn in one that's not great.

The problem is it gets harder and harder to start with a clean slate once you've fallen behind. And it's more and more tempting to give up altogether. So don't be a perfectionist. It's better to do something than nothing. Doing something gets you over your inertia and increases the likelihood you'll complete your work successfully.

Doing nothing ... Well, you can figure it out. You're in college.

This article has been cross-posted to the College Shrink Blog at Psychology Today.

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