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Lazy University Student? Guilty As Charged. How can I change? And is this normal?
October 14, 2012 7:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm an intelligent 20 year old University student with good-ish grades and overall, I get all the important stuff done. However, I have such frequent periods of lazy and unmotivated lack of productivity that I feel tremendous guilt for on a daily basis--Should I feel guilty? Is this common / normal?

All my life I have been deemed very lazy and unproductive. My grandpa for example, would always tell me how lazy, stupid, wasteful I am being because I wouldn't go above and beyond my school responsibilities. I'd only ever barely reach them. I've *always* had to be forced to do my homework, and while I loved reading and would gobble down many books daily, I detested sitting down and having to work. Although I always understood the material quickly and would end up doing pretty well, it was NEVER at the level of the brilliance I think I'm capable of. This is somewhat true today, as well. I did horribly in elementary school. Moving to Canada in the 3rd grade was hard on me, but I remember making my mother cry regularly in fourth and fifth grade because I wouldn't do my homework and I'd lie all the time about having studied. I'm still pretty guilty about that.

In high school, I battled drug addiction and it was hard--extremely hard--to focus on school. I ended up scraping by high school with good enough grades to get into a decent University but for a program I wasn't all that interested to get into. (Business Management- BComm in Marketing) All my high school teachers knew me as the irresponsible, eternally high, likeable yet completely lazy student who would probably drop out of University.

That was almost true, but I finally kicked the drug habit after my first semester at University. It's been 2 years, and I've been completely drug-free, cold turkey. My University counselor helped me, and to this day she is so incredibly proud of me! She tells me all the time how bright I am, and can see the physical, mental, emotional, motor changes I've made. It's awesome to know she thinks I'm doing well.

But I don't feel I'm doing well. I don't study for exams until a few days before (if even that much! I probably do the night before). I end up scraping by with an A or a B+ anyway because I can grasp the material well, but it sucks knowing just how well I could've done had I studied more! And also, it is INCREDIBLY stressful having to study like that, under so much pressure.

Other than my disgusting aversion to studying, I really don't know how best to study! I pay all of my attention in my lectures, asking questions, participating avidly in discussions and taking notes. But it's important to review, isn't it? I guess part of it is that I really don't know HOW to study, but I guess I haven't made much of an effort to improve my technique, either =/ I also want to mention that I don't have my driving license partially because I'm SO averse to studying for it ;x we have a car at home and I could've got the license 4 years ago! But I just...haven't. I feel so stupid.

I will spend Monday-Friday at my University paying attention in class, doing some readings, doing my online homework, and generally keeping pretty busy. When I come home from my 2 hour commute, I'm exhausted and don't study at all. And on the weekends, I DO NOTHING SCHOOL RELATED. I mean, I do not even TOUCH the books! That can't be good, can it? I don't study, read, nothing. I just crash, both emotionally and physically, spending time on the internet and fucking around. It's so awful ;x

We just had a week break to study, and I did nothing all week--well, that's not true. My grandpa broke his hip on Tuesday and I had to be at the hospital to help the rest of the weekdays--but I could've studied at the hospital or at home on the weekend. I just didnt. I just sat around, did a tiny bit of housework and watched TV. I bet all my classmates studied their butts off.

Another problem with my studying and terrible aversion to it is that I am almost hopelessly depressingly messy and disorganized, and ALWAYS have been. My mother and grandmother on her side are so painstakingly organized and neat at all times! I'm a disgrace to the whole family, I swear. I'm so messy and I am not at ALL organized with my books/notes. The reason I'm doing so much better in my academics now is partially because everything is online and easily replaceable--I used to lose my physical copies of assignments all the time. It's much better for me to do the assignments online.

I guess I want to know if this CRASHING is normal. I've done it like this all my life, VERY HIGH levels of energetic working to VERY LOW levels of doing NOTHING. All week I'll be productive, and any break I get, I'll crash.

I also should mention that though this degree is NOT really up my alley, I love my University, my professors, and my major (Marketing). Some of this stuff is gutwrenchingly boring, but a lot of it is interesting! least, when the Prof explains it. At home? I don't want to have a thing to do with it.

This just makes me feel so guilty. It makes me not have enough time to exercise or cultivate my talents and hobbies. Doing the BARE MINIMUM/ rushed effort for almost EVERYTHING in my life is starting to make me feel incredibly stupid. My counselor is so thrilled in the changes she says she sees in me, and tells me that my OVERALL direction and progression in life is great. She does not seem worried. In a way, I get her--my assignments are never late, I work decently well in groups, and I've grown a lot as a person... But I'm tired of being this way...Is this normal? Should I feel this horribly guilty?

I will see my counselor about this specific issue. :) But just wanting your opinion! Thanks
posted by rhythm_queen to Human Relations (16 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Should I feel guilty?

In 99% of all cases when this question is asked, the answer is an unqualified NO. You can identify a problem, and you can work towards a solution, but you have absolutely no reason or obligation to feel guilty. Guilt can only hold you back.
posted by Nomyte at 7:30 PM on October 14, 2012 [7 favorites]

Very productive periods followed by periods where you feel bleh and unproductive and tired starts to sound possibly like bipolar cycling. But it's not necessarily so. Among other things, some people with garden variety depression cope better when they're busy and then fall apart more when they aren't, and some people with ADD keep up better when they've got deadlines looming.

A lot of people who have mental health issues when they're younger end up turning to smoking, alcohol, and drugs as ways to regulate their mental state. My family had a ton of smokers and raging alcoholics before the last couple generations started getting proper mental health treatment.

Or it could just be that you don't particularly have a goal in mind. I stopped slacking off nearly so much once I hit a course of study that really held my interest. But there's just enough stuff here that starts to drift in the direction of being real (fixable!) problems that I think it would be worth talking to a real psychiatrist or psychologist, not just a counselor.
posted by gracedissolved at 7:48 PM on October 14, 2012

As for how to study:

Study early, in isolation, no more than an hour without break.

For nontechnical courses, identify the big ideas. Capture big ideas in Question-Evidence-Conclusion format.
For technical courses, record as many sample problems as possible. First record the problem statement and answer, then question the confusing, then record the steps of the sample problem.

For readings, take smart notes. Carefully read the beginning, and find the question the author is trying to answer, and then find the conclusion (thesis) in the opening or closing paragraphs. Then skim the body of the text for the evidence. To follow this, don’t do all the reading. Readings that make an argument trump readings that describe an event or person trump readings that provide context.

Find out what kind of questions will be asked and what information will be tested on.
Build a study guide or a mega problem set (with technical explanation questions, like for economics the general principles).

To study, use the quiz-and-recall method: first review, then a little later try to explain it, unaided, in your own words out loud or in writing. Note what you missed, and repeat. When you have gone over and answered every missed question, you are finished studying.

If you must memorize, use flash cards.

Another general tenet: Eliminate question marks. Whatever you don't understand the first go-round, make a point to find out.

Note: this is basically a condensed version of Cal Newport's "How to Become a Straight-A Student" which if you want to go more in depth is really helpful, and it has more information on scheduling.

And no, you shouldn't feel guilty. They don't teach how to study in school.
posted by tooloudinhere at 7:49 PM on October 14, 2012 [31 favorites]

What you're describing is complicated and I don't have any easy answers for you. I do want to suggest one thing that really helped me. Like you, when I was a child, I behaved in ways that frustrated and upset my parents. Maybe it was normal kid stuff and maybe it was as terrible as it seemed to me, but I held on to a lot of guilt and shame about it. When I was 18, I was driving one night and thinking about some shitty thing I had done as a kid, maybe being rude to my mom. I found myself thinking that if I had killed my mom, I would be out of jail by now. Because our society doesn't hold kids to adult standards of behavior. Their brains aren't fully formed. They can't control their behavior. They haven't totally figured out consequences. So I let myself off the hook, in that moment. I am now an adult. I am now responsible for my behavior. I am now in control. Anything I did as a child or teen is off the table. I am not responsible for it. My record has been expunged. I'm accountable for what I say and do now, but not what I may have done when I was 13. If you can give yourself that same forgiveness, it might help. You get to decide what kind of adult you are now. It's not determined by how you behaved when you were little.
posted by prefpara at 7:50 PM on October 14, 2012 [9 favorites]

Does your school have any kind of academic advising system, or a writing center? It seems like you could benefit from some structured tutoring or comprehensive study management programs. Studying is absolutely a learned skill, and if you didn't have the mental space to work on it in high school, you should see what resources your college has available. Some of these also sound like some behaviors associated with learning disabilities, and you don't mention (I think) whether you've ever talked to a professional about being evaluated. Even if that isn't a road you want to go down, you may find some good study tactics and focusing exercises designed for people with ADD or ADHD that could help you retrain your study habits and tactics. Good luck!
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:11 PM on October 14, 2012

They don't teach how to study in school.

Sometimes they do. Does your school have a Study Skills center?
posted by DarlingBri at 8:27 PM on October 14, 2012

This sounds pretty normal to me. Is there some reason that making As and B+s is a problem? It doesn't sound at all like scraping by. It sounds like you're putting in a reasonable amount of work during the week, and it's normal to hit a point at which you don't want to work anymore unless there are big, bad consequences. That's why weekends exist!

It sounds like cramming and not having a license are worrying you, so you can make a plan to handle those things - e.g., schedule a block of time to study and associate an appropriate reward with it (coffee/snacks? getting a fun book out of the library?).

You are not disgusting or stupid or any of the awful things you say about yourself. Think about why you believe these things. Maybe look into cognitive behavioral therapy? I've found that understanding what a reasonable workload *for me* is helps me learn a lot more than shaming myself for not working as hard as I think other people do.
posted by momus_window at 8:30 PM on October 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

You describe me

I find lists really motivational and really rewarding in getting rid of items. It's a discipline to stick to it but worth while.

Also try Anki flashcards for studying. They helped me with memory retention that years of drug taking robbed me of.
posted by mattoxic at 8:33 PM on October 14, 2012

It sounds like you have some bad procrastination problems, your Grandpa did an excellent job turning you into a maladaptive perfectionist. Putting off your work until the last minute is a proven way to never reach your full potential, which means you can never truly fail. Oh, if you had only started earlier you wouldn't just "end up doing pretty well, it was NEVER at the level of the brilliance I think I'm capable of".

I've had similar problems, and what has really helped me is therapy, and a few books. I can't stress the therapy part enough, while reading books on the subject gave me a lot of ideas, I also needed to deal with the source of where it came from (for you, "My grandpa for example, would always tell me how lazy, stupid, wasteful I am being" needs to be brought out into the sunlight and dealt with). It's great that you are in counselling, you might want to print out this question and show it to her.

For the books, try reading The Willpower Instinct and The Now Habit. There are a lot of different techniques to get into the habit of working and defeating procrastination, as well as explanations for WHY you're avoiding work, including what brain chemicals are involved and how to prevent that cycle. It's not about "just doing it", if it was you wouldn't have these issues.

One thing that you need to take to heart is that being cruel to yourself about this problem is feeding it. Telling yourself you're stupid, getting angry and belittling thoughts, they aren't going to motivate you to do better. Motivation has to come from a safe and healthy place, ESPECIALLY self-motivation.

In therapy I've learned to sit with my emotions and discovered that anxiety was the main driving force for my procrastination, even when the procrastination itself was causing the anxiety. "The Willpower Instinct" talks about this specifically, and points out that even just acknowledging this cycle helps break it.

Also, using a timer set to 5-20 minutes chunks, as detailed here. You can use a timer for studying, cleaning, organizing, anything you avoid doing.

All the best to you, I really wish I'd confronted all this when I was in University, but damn am I glad I've gotten to doing it now.
posted by Dynex at 9:07 PM on October 14, 2012 [10 favorites]

Hey, so as someone who now has one, a two hour commute is rough. After commuting, I too want to fall face down into a pile of clothes and questionable TV. You are totally normal in this respect! Also I got my driver's license at 26, so you are still ahead of the game there as far as I'm concerned.

But okay, basically the two books I always recommend in this type of situation are Cal Newport as linked above and perennial MeFi fave The Now Habit. Cal's book is more practical strategies geared towards college (though they are also effective in other arenas); The Now Habit gets more into the underlying reasons why people procrastinate and how to short-circuit that.

I think you could also use a little critical distance from thoughts like "I'm a disgrace to the whole family, I swear." I mean just from this question alone, I can see that you kicked a drug habit and have a decent GPA and contribute to housework and to your family. Maybe you're not doing as well as you want to, or even as well as your family would like you to. But that's true for lots of people -- and notice the difference between that thought and "I'm a disgrace to the whole family." Anyway, for this kind of stuff I would recommend Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. There are also a lot of good internet resources on mindfulness training.

I really sympathize because I was also that kid who lost everything in elementary school, and in my experience people are very quick to try to make this shit into some kind of moral failing. (And at least for me this approach didn't actually prevent me from losing stuff, it just made me feel worse about it.) Over time I've come around more to the position that people have different brains and find different things easy vs. hard, and that the important thing is to make sure you are acting in accordance with your values, not to have a perfect binder or to never have to run to catch your train or what the fuck ever.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:14 PM on October 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sometimes people procrastinate as a way of forcing themselves to take a break that they actually need. Maybe you feel like the choice is between studying all the time, and studying none of the time.You need a sane way of divvying up your "spare" hours into time that is blocked off for studying and time that is kept purely for having fun and never trespassed on by school work. It's much easier to make yourself put in an hour's work if you know there's an evening of fun or relaxation afterwards.
posted by lollusc at 1:15 AM on October 15, 2012

It took me a while to kick my underachiever/slacker habits from middle and high school, I totally understand. I speak from the other side - we underachievers CAN change - you're on the way there! The pain of realizing how much of your potential is wasted can be a good motivator, a positive and internal one - better than well-meaning but annoying family members. ;-)

When you talk about periods of high productivity and "crashes," I want to say that's pretty normal, although maybe yours are more extreme. But we only hear about how YOU view them - maybe you are underestimating how much you work, and overestimating how much you "crash" - the crashes feel much LONGER because you feel intense guilt about them. Since your Uni counselor knows you pretty well, maybe you could get outside perspective from them.

Having control over your study schedule and realistic expectations of yourself will eliminate most unnecessary guilt. Then "crashes" become what they probably really are - free time!
To help with these things, and at risk of being redundant, I have to also recommend THE NOW HABIT and Cal Newport's How to Become a Straight-A Student (linked several times already above).

Most importantly, please forgive yourself for "who you were" or "what you did" back in those times. What prefpara posted is profound. You have come a long way already - conquered a drug addiction, still in Uni with good grades, and, in spite of a brutal commute, are managing everything. Great work so far!
posted by Pieprz at 2:11 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you have the same problem as me. You're bright, you went through a school that bored you and got by on raw aptitude, and you were never told that the point of doing all that boring shit you already knew how to do was to develop a valuable skill you didn't have: practising. The idea that you need to do something over and over and over in order to get good at it is absolutely not obvious to a school-age child, especially one whose delight in learning new things consistently puts them ahead of their less able peers.

So now you're at a point where your native cunning has reached its limits and the only way forward is actual slog, and you find yourself uncomfortably poor at actual slog. Well, there's a simple reason why you're poor at actual slog: you've just not yet practised doing it for long enough to get good at it.

But now that you actually need to, then if you care enough about what you're learning to make it worth your while to do so, you will put in those hours. If you don't care that much, you won't. In either case you're an adult and you're quite free to make your own choices; and for as long as you don't have dependants whose lives those choices are screwing up, there's really no call for guilt. Wouldn't hurt though, at twenty, to spend at least some time pondering the likelihood of arriving at thirty or forty or fifty with regret for lost opportunities.
posted by flabdablet at 7:58 AM on October 15, 2012

Hello, OP, I completely feel you. It seems like the other commenters have addressed the issue very well, so I thought I would chime in with a slightly different thought that you may find helpful.

Do you have a role model in your life, OP? I don't mean your counsellor, although I'm sure she is very nice -- I mean, for example, a TA or a smart classmate will do. Basically, what you need is somebody who is enthusiastic about the chosen major and knows the material thoroughly. You might find it helpful to find somebody like this, then talk to them about how they study, including how they blow off steam, as well as why they love studying what they do. What you will find is that even the most enthusiastic need to crash every now and then, and in fact, is necessarily for cultivating a continuous love for their topic of study; you burn out otherwise.

More than any kind of verbal reassurances, I think it might be helpful to see the study habits of somebody that you respect and look up to.
posted by tickingclock at 8:51 AM on October 15, 2012

I was also a perpetual procrastinator who didn't study as much I as I should/could have! What worked for me: schedules and lists. I had a similar issue where I'd just crash at the end of the day or on weekends when I felt I had done "enough" work. And the thing is, sometimes you have done enough work. How long is your day before you get home? Are you on campus from 9-6, attending class and keeping busy that whole time? Do you get all/most of your homework done while on campus? If so, pat yourself on the back, and give yourself some slack. You may be crashing because you really do need the break, and you really have worked hard enough for the day. You say you're getting As and Bs on exams: are you doing similarly well on coursework and projects? Is there a reason these (good) grades aren't good enough? You deserve free time and your entire life does not need to be taken up with schoolwork. Consider life after college: the majority of people with full-time jobs are not expected to put in more than their 40 hours a week. Don't feel guilty for not devoting every hour of the day to school.

Back to the schedules and lists: these will really help you avoid the exam/essay writing crunch. I too frequently felt guilty and bad about how little and how last minute I studied for exams. I still got good grades, but the last-minute cramming was stressful and made me anxious. So I took to scheduling my study time and listing out tasks about three weeks to a month before final exam time (whether this timing works for you depends on your course load and academic schedule). I'd block out my time for certain tasks, for example Monday 4-5 for reviewing units 1-2 of the material, 5-7 work on essay, 7-9 do the reading, etc etc. I'd cross off the corresponding items on my list once I finished. The sheer act of spending the time to set up a schedule and to-do lists kept me more or less accountable to sticking to it. (Also I find crossing stuff off lists to be really satisfying.)

As for getting work done on the weekend, scheduling is your friend here too. Schedule study time from when you wake up through the early afternoon to avoid giving yourself a chance to get involved in more interesting or fun stuff. To avoid the temptation not to do work, I'd go to a library on campus to study or write. Since you have such a long commute, I'd suggest either a local library or a cafe, anywhere you can mentally categorize as a place to do work in, as opposed to your room where you mess around on the internet, or your living room where you watch TV.
posted by yasaman at 12:41 PM on October 15, 2012

Another commenter mentioned that books aimed at helping people with inattentive ADHD could teach you some strategies.

I would also consider the possibility that you could be a candidate for inattentive ADHD yourself. Laziness, unproductiveness, procrastination, addictive behavior, losing things all the time and being disorganised, are all extremely common symptoms.
(The inattentive section - not the hyperactive/impulsive)

Think about it.
posted by Ashlyth at 6:53 PM on October 16, 2012

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