The more I'm in school, the less I study.
October 7, 2009 10:57 AM   Subscribe

I can't or won't study. Please help me.

I'm a 4th year undergrad student. I have a decent GPA, but nothing spectacular. In public school, I was an almost straight-A student, but it came naturally. I never had to study much, but I was also very responsible and able to hand in assignments on time, and at least cram decently for tests.

The longer I've been in university, the worse I've become about studying. It is to the point where I physically CANNOT seem to study for tests. The past couple of years, I have taken almost all of my midterms and finals without all. Aside from having done (some) of the basic coursework.

It is now getting to the point where I cannot do the basic coursework, either, and now I often skip taking exams and have to make them up later (I get a doctor's note.) I consistently turn in all my assignments late, if at all.

I have depression and anxiety, which obviously play into this issue. I am in therapy, have been for many years (CBT, IPT, gestalt), and I take medication. I am treatment-resistant, so this is a continual struggle. But I also wonder if there could be something else going on, or some way to address the studying problem directly.

I am often too afraid/overwhelmed/scattered to even open my agenda, or look at the course outline and figure out what needs to be done. I am often afraid to check my school email or the course website for announcements.

And I have a hard time sitting down to actually study or do assignments. I am continually jumping up to do something else, or feeling like I am going to fall asleep. I feel resentful about spending time studying -- like I am in jail for a crime I didn't commit. It doesn't help that I am a mature student with lots of work experience in my field under my belt, and taking courses sometimes feels like a ridiculous waste of my time. But I want this damn degree, and I need the professional qualifications.

I am also pretty disorganized much of the time, and it feels exhausting to have to clean off my desk/study area before I can even sit down to get to work. I try a lot to *get* organized, but it's often just temporary, or else I can't face getting started on it in the first place.

I continually abuse the internet as a way of escaping my obligations and attempting to lower my anxiety. I'm currently using Leechblock to help with this particular symptom.

When it comes to tests and exams, I feel I cannot study for them because I am so afraid I feel paralyzed. Once I'm *in* the exam, taking it, I'm fine and can pull answers out of my ass. But getting there is the problem. I am convinced I am going to fail every single test before I take it -- even though, 90% of the time, I pull off an A or B with little to no preparation.

I am at my wits' end with this. It's looking like I won't actually be able to finish my degree + minor, even though I only have seven courses left. I'd also like to, you know, actually absorb and even enjoy some of the things I'm learning.

I have tried so many things -- school counseling, private therapy, etc. I have never looked into ADD/ADHD, but I'm not sure if that applies to me. I have appointments with a learning specialist and my pdoc coming up, but I am wondering what fellow Mefites with similar studying issues have done to help themselves -- have you read good books, done a particular type of therapy, taken a certain medication, organized your study area in a certain way, or figured out some personal system that helps you to study when you feel you can't or won't?

I've also read the previous AskMes on similar topics a number of times, but feel free to point them out if there's something I missed.
posted by Ouisch to Education (32 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
No offense, but the fact you cannot study but can write 677 words on why makes me thing you just don't want to study, rather than being mentally unable to do so.
posted by Spurious at 11:02 AM on October 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am continually jumping up to do something else, or feeling like I am going to fall asleep.

This is what is called "Reaction Formation." The feeling like you want to sleep is a classic giveaway to that sort of phenomenon.

You don't like the emotions that occur when you study. Why this is and what those emotions are cannot be answered by anyone but you and a therapist, working together.

However, to help yourself, do not study at home, and do not go back home between classes. Go to the library. That's a first step.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:17 AM on October 7, 2009 [5 favorites]

Also, if the therapy hasn't worked in the past, it is usally the sign that a big part of you doesn't want to get better. Usually, you see this when someone has a rather large defense mechanism which protected against something in their past, but is a hinderance now. In those situations, the patient does not want to give up the defense mechanism. So you'll have to work through that.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:20 AM on October 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I am kind of like you.

When you intend to study but feel resistant to doing it, you might try sitting down at your desk with a piece of paper and writing a to-do list with very, very small items on it, like

* clear off enough space to write
* move piles of papers to floor
* put textbook on desk
* find syllabus
* open book to proper chapter
* make notes about chapter

or whatever is appropriate. If you find you can't do something you need to do, then just write down why, like

* I am afraid to look at the syllabus because I am several weeks behind.
* I don't know how to practice the chain rule because I missed that day of class.
* I am worried that if I flunk this test Dr. Smith will give up on me.

If you can pinpoint specifically what's blocking you at that moment, it might help, and I always find writing things down in detail to be somewhat soothing. It helps me mentally prepare to move forward. You might also write down positive motivations, like

* If I look at the syllabus and find out how far behind I am, I won't be as afraid about that tomorrow.
* If I can start outlining Chapter 11 then it will be easier to continue the outline later.
* If I read the assigned article then I can go to class tomorrow without feeling completely out of it.

The general idea is to continue to progress in a forward direction even if you can't "catch up" or perform to your own satisfaction.
posted by tamaraster at 11:20 AM on October 7, 2009 [6 favorites]

Do look into ADD/ADHD. Just raise it as a question with your doc.
posted by keener_sounds at 11:21 AM on October 7, 2009

Honestly, it sounds to me like you don't particularly care much about what you're studying. I had the same sort of feeling in classes when I was an undergraduate. I wouldn't study, could barely stay awake in class. I recall asking a teacher a question and then falling asleep before he had finished giving me the answer. This changed when I found a class I really loved, and all of a sudden studying wasn't a chore, but something that I actually wanted to do. If you can't find that, then you should understand that any mechanism you use to just get that degree and graduate will be temporary, and will not bring you back to whatever place you were at before.

So, with that caveat let's go into the actual recommendations. First off, your symptoms sound like they could be treated very effectiviely with ADHD medication. I'm not saying you do or don't, but it's easy enough to misdiagnose if you don't and the medication will certainly make you more focused. I would avoid trying to concentrate using caffeine or any stimulant like that. Personally I find it makes me really jittery so that I can't concentrate on anything, and then all of a sudden I crash hard and need to take a nap. Also, your diet may have some effect on this as well. When you were a child you ate whatever was made for you (I assume), but now you are choosing your own meals. Eating things with high simple carborhydrate content (bread, sugar) can lead to a continual increase in your insulin production as your insulin sensitivity rises. This can cause wild swings in your metabolism making it very hard to stay awake and concentrate on things as well. Finally, this shouldn't work, but or some reason it did for me: Claritin. There is no stimulant there that I know of. For whatever reason, I was having really bad allergies and I took some Claritin and all of a sudden I could sit through 4-5 hours of presentations (STRAIGHT) and not feel tired at all. I was totally engaged the whole entire time. Again, this shouldn't work and I have no idea why it did, but I figured I should trow that out there as well.

Anyway, I know that's a lot of information but I hope it helps you resolve your concentration issue.
posted by scrutiny at 11:22 AM on October 7, 2009

Best answer: I'm sure it could be ADHD, but I went through the same thing and definitely do not have it. I do have depression and anxiety though! This post sounds a lot like me.

I think you are just overwhelmed, and you procrastinate because the tasks seem overwhelming, and the mounting load of work/looming exam just makes you more overwhelmed, etc etc. I have a pile of mail I haven't yet opened.

What helps me is to break it down, and keep my expectations small and realistic. Instead of "I'm going to write that 10 page paper today" I would say "I'm going to go to the library." And that's it. That's my goal. Once I get to the library*, I'll say, OK, I'm going to look up ONE journal article related to my topic. ONE. Now I'm going to read it. Just the one. Etc.

Going to the library gets me out of the house. I'm away from my computer (surprisingly, pens and pencils still work). I don't have to clean my desk or office. If for some reason you HAVE to stay home, and I mean HAVE TO, as in your legs are broken, can you get someone to clean your office for you? Just this once, and you can focus on not cluttering it up again?

It helps to break things down in terms of time, too. Read for a half hour, then you can reward yourself by spending 10 minutes online. Set a timer. Rinse & repeat. Go somewhere else while you read, like the sofa.

Perfectionism is often the root cause of procrastination, so do you feel that you have to do all of your assignments and exams perfectly? I operate on the "good enough" rule, and that helped me get through college. No one cares about your GPA once you have your degree, so just focus on passing. "Good enough" is better than "Not at all."
posted by desjardins at 11:23 AM on October 7, 2009 [12 favorites]

There should not be an asterisk after library.
posted by desjardins at 11:25 AM on October 7, 2009

I have times like this when I seem incapable of working (I'm a grad student). I tried leechblock in the past but it doesn't really help and I still struggle with it.

My main solution is to physically remove myself from distracting environments. Your study area *cannot* have a computer on it. You *cannot* be near a TV. Print everything you need, bring a notebook and some pens, and go to the library, by yourself, and get a study carol somewhere quiet and far away from the rows of computers. Stay there until you've done what you need to do.

I find I still get the "distraction" impulses even in a library but I'm much less inclined to act on it, and in fact once the internet is no longer nearby it's like a weight is lifted and I remember how to work.

One more thing that helps; sooner or later you may have to work at a computer, but I find listening to music engages the part of my mind that craves distraction while still allowing me to work. (I can't do this while studying because I need to focus, which is why I don't study at my computer.)
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:26 AM on October 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I got to a point that I couldn't procrastinate any further and just had to either start working or stop wasting everyone's time. I just started treating it like a 9 to 5 job, showing up and doing whatever needed to be done no matter how much I didn't feel like it... I set min. pages typed/read for each day and stuck to that (and got right back on the horse when I failed to reach my goals on a particular day.)

The whole thing sucked. a lot at first. But eventually it becomes your new normal and you don't think about it much.

Then you get people telling you you work too much and should take a day off... which is a different set of problems...
posted by ServSci at 11:31 AM on October 7, 2009

I'm going to go out on a limb (not being a professional) and suggest that this isn't a psychiatric issue. Here's what caught my eye:
taking courses sometimes feels like a ridiculous waste of my time. But I want this damn degree, and I need the professional qualifications.
What you're saying is, "I'm having trouble focusing on something that is a complete waste of my time, and which I'm only doing so that I can tick a box on my resume." Not much of a mystery there!

First, you need to assess whether or not you really NEED the professional qualifications. You WANT them, certainly. Fairly badly, or else you wouldn't have gone as far as you have. But do you NEED them? Do you need them right now, and not, say, next school year, after taking a few semesters off?

If you NEED them, then your answer is obvious. Finishing school is your job, just as much as the stuff you do during the 40 hours/week you presumably spend at the office. It's a very boring, tedious, and frustrating part of your job, but it IS part of your job, and you have to do it.

And I agree with desjardins - focus on "good enough." At this point all you have to do is pass. Don't kill yourself aiming for an A, or even a B. Diminishing returns.
posted by ErikaB at 11:34 AM on October 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

I was kind of like you in college. Coasted through high school, did well without prep, and entered college a year early. I didn't really hit any sort of brick wall until I started taking Japanese, where it was just impossible to understand it "inherently." There's no way around learning vocabulary except to study.

Of course, I faked my way through for a full year, failing vocab quizzes and making it up in the mid-terms and finals, which were more about grammatical rules and when I'd caught up on the vocabulary. I would have failed my Japanese course the second year though, if not for a friend that basically harassed me into studying.

You need a study buddy. Someone who will stand by you and make you do the work that you just don't want to do. Flip through the flashcards until you get it 100% instead of "when you're bored of it." You're so used to excelling effortlessly that making an effort (academically) is alien to you. Ask a friend in a course that you know you need to make an effort in, to be a bit of a task-master so that you get the studying done. You'll appreciate it later, when your grades reflect it, and when you enter exams feeling more confident.
posted by explosion at 11:50 AM on October 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've found that doing a daily 20-minute meditation practice has really helped my ability to focus on work tasks that I'm having trouble doing due to anxiety/depression/boredom what have you. The benefits are two-fold:

1. Meditation gives me practice focusing my attention
2. Meditation (and related body-awareness exercises) help me become aware of the physical manifestations of anxiety. This means that if I'm wanting to work, but I begin to feel anxious, I'll notice "hey, that's the physical feeling of anxiety. But that's ok, I've lived through that before." Noticing is the key here -- I can notice before my mind does its usual coping strategy, which is "gah! I don't feel good! Let's go see what's new on the internets." And that means I can choose how to respond.
posted by wyzewoman at 11:52 AM on October 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

My school studying experience was similar to yours. I would suggest treatment for the anxiety. If talk therapy isn't working for some reason, try medication. Xanax is effective for me when a task seems too overwhelming.
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:02 PM on October 7, 2009

I randomly found this question looking through some archives this morning and was aghast that I had not actually written it myself. You, me and this other poster (possibly also the 119 other people who favorited it) seem to have a lot in common: high-achieving high schoolers who are terrified of failing once we no longer have parents and very invested teachers to push us to succeed. Both the poster's layout of his/her problem and the ensuing solutions are really helpful. Also, I nth the suggestion that you have ADD. Before Adderall I could not, would not, study. I'd open a book, read two sentences, and then go to the bathroom. Come back, read a sentence, then check my email. Unless I loved the book or the class, I wouldn't focus on a damn thing to succeed in it. Definitely visit a doctor who can offer further insight.
posted by zoomorphic at 12:14 PM on October 7, 2009

Best answer: taking courses sometimes feels like a ridiculous waste of my time. But I want this damn degree, and I need the professional qualifications.

Look, I get this. Totally. I'm in the final moments of my degree and there were days when I sat at the computer and did nothing because I "couldn't" study and I refused to have fun instead. Leechblock was a minor help (until I realised I could get around it by opening up another browser), but the thing that got me through was a timer. 15 minutes on, 15 minutes off. On good days, 45 minutes on, 15 minutes off.

Some of the stuff you're required to "learn" is ridiculous, I agree, and of no possible use unless you intend on going on to postgraduate studies. So then it's a game. Where I could, I chose electives without exams, and learnt how to write papers really well so that I could spend as little time as possible on a course.

This guy has some great advice, but in the end, I'm sorry, you have to just suck it up. Getting a qualification is in some sense about jumping through hoops and being able to indicate that you can. I used to think that people who were qualified, well, meh, so what, I learnt a lot on my own, and on the job, and how were they better than me? And the big thing is, stickability though the shit. It's tiring, it's boring, in a lot of ways, it's irrelevant, but it's not impossible. It just feels like it is.

This is you competing with you, not the other students. You pushing yourself, not someone else pushing you. If you can get through this, what else can you accomplish? Pretty much anything, I guess.
posted by b33j at 12:44 PM on October 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

This could be my biography. I know the CAN'T feeling very well. I was diagnosed with ADD and began taking Adderall during my final quarter of college. I put off getting assessed because I was already being treated for depression and didn't want to seem like a hypochondriac. If I'd only gotten treated sooner, I might not have taken five years to graduate due to time off and a handful of incompletes. Don't make the same mistake I did. And if it turns out you don't have ADD - well, process of elimination.
posted by granted at 12:55 PM on October 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Study Hacks might be able to give you a few practical tips to help you study. It happens to be aimed at super motivated kids who wants to ace their classes, but I think some of the advice is detailed and practical enough that if you just follow a plan you might be able to make it work.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 12:55 PM on October 7, 2009

This sounds very much like me; I'm ADHD.
You might get some grief about it from friends, parents, etc. But just because Adderal is the abused prescription drug of the moment doesn't mean ADHD is not a real medical disorder with real medical treatments.
Ask your doctor about it. I wish I had been more attentive to staying on my meds at your age.
posted by willpie at 1:04 PM on October 7, 2009

Best answer: Totally not-snarky question: how's your self-control in areas outside of schoolwork? While this might be an academic problem, it's hard to tell from the context you've given us. It could just as well be a more obvious problem: you don't like doing things you don't like to do. Nobody does, but some people are just better at doing it anyway.

Depression and anxiety are killer in this situation, I've suffered that way too. But I found that my studying got a lot easier when I practiced "getting things done" more in my non-academic life. How are you at returning phone calls? Doing the dishes or laundry? Working out? Sometimes you have to start small with something that's not so overwhelming. Pick some other things you're always procrastinating on but that aren't so paralyzing and work on those for a while. In my case, dragging my ass out of bed at 6:30 to run in the mornings gives me enough sense of achievement that it carries over into my work life.
posted by miagaille at 2:02 PM on October 7, 2009

Something that helps is to be continuously accountable. I have to defend my productivity for the week every week (I make myself write it down if nothing else and present to others most weeks), and the shame and the feeling that right now is a time to work because there's so little left this week get me to sit down and do things. This is a major part of why study groups can work: you're forced to be ready to teach / be made a fool of on a regular basis. Either you stop going, derail the group, or work harder. For me stopping doesn't work because then the others know that I just can't hack.

Also, my partner comes home every day and talks about how much work she has to do. If I have nothing to say about what I did, that's another opportunity for shaming (or pride, on the off occasion that something works).
posted by a robot made out of meat at 2:38 PM on October 7, 2009

Best answer: I've always been suspicious of FOOLPROOF SYSTEMS!!1! for making yourself more productive. But recently I've been finding Autofocus helpful. YMMV.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:32 PM on October 7, 2009

Best answer: I used to say things like "I would rather be in jail for the next two weeks than work on my assignment". Terrible procrastinator. And just hated

Things that worked for me were:
(1) working in front of the tv, with a nice set of dvds - not as efficient perhaps, but it made me feel that I wasn't having to completely give up everything and spend hours working on something that I didn't like (because there were plenty of subjects in my degrees that were compulsory, tedious and horrible).
(2) a kitchen timer - I would set it for 10 minutes, because I can cope with anything for 10 minutes (you can too, I bet). Then I would have a 5 minute break (on the timer!), then do another 10 minutes. I would keep doing this until I was into what I was doing and then would do 20 minutes work and 5 minutes break. And so on.
posted by AnnaRat at 4:03 PM on October 7, 2009

I read a tip in Elle that really helped me - I don't know if it would help, but...

1) make a list of everything you need to get done (I include the most minute tasks, I find it really helps)
2) organize the list hardest-easiest.
3)Be constantly doing SOMETHING from the list. You may never get to the top item, but you'll get a lot done, including easier/more enjoyable homework, housework, etc.
posted by R a c h e l at 5:25 PM on October 7, 2009

I don't have ADD or ADHD, but I do have depression and anxiety. What helped me break the cycle was going on Wellbutrin, which my psychiatrist specifically chose because it sometimes helps people to focus as well as being an antidepressant. It helped immensely, as did making a list of all the things I had to do, ranked from easiest to hardest. I started with the easiest things, and when I had succeeded in doing a few small things, the harder ones started to look not so hard anymore because I had already accomplished something.

I did find it was important not to view the whole thing as One Huge Problem, because it overwhelmed me to think about all of the things I still had to do. Instead, I focused on small things. It's like when you're depressed and getting to class seems too overwhelming, but if you think about it in baby steps, like first I must get out bed and get to the shower, only to the shower, and then when you've taken the shower, you focus only on getting dressed, and then when you're dressed it's getting out the front door. Looking at the whole thing can be too hard, but you think 'I can get out of bed. I can do that. I won't think about getting to class, but I can get out of bed', it becomes more manageable. Likewise, thinking about everything you have to do makes you panic, but maybe thinking about doing ten pages of the class reading for psych, or whatever, is more manageable.

Also, I just reread your question and noticed that you said you are on medication. I don't know what kind of meds you're on, but is it possible they're not working and you need to switch it up? Drugs can stop working if you've been on them for a while. Whatever you do, talk to your therapist about your problems and see what s/he suggests. Your learning specialist should be able to offer good advice, as well.

Hang in there. Tell yourself that done is better than good, and celebrate each and every victory, no matter how small.
posted by rosethorn at 6:51 PM on October 7, 2009

How's your romantic life? If it's not in order, maybe try getting it in order.

Also, try simply getting off your case and doing what you want to do wholeheartedly instead of constantly "struggling." Just use the Internet or watch TV or whatever and do it with all your heart and forget studying if you don't want to do it -- not in order to trick yourself into studying, but just to accept reality and stop fighting yourself for a while. See where this takes you. It may surprise you.
posted by shivohum at 10:07 PM on October 7, 2009

Seconding explosion - a study group will probably help you a lot. Ideally be in two, one in which you're one of the smarter people (explaining the material to others helps you organize and absorb the understanding you have) and one in which you're one of the dumber people (because this will add to your understanding). A study group also gives you other people to be responsible to, which can be something of a conceptual kick-start for a serial procrastinator.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:12 PM on October 7, 2009

Nthing the suggestion to go to the library, where there are few distractions. Even without all the problems you describe I have a hard time just reading at home, and I like reading. Things just distract me unless I'm at the library.
posted by Nattie at 10:27 PM on October 7, 2009

Best answer: First off, check out this interview and/or this book by Carol Dweck. It sounds to be like you have a "fixed mindset."

Secondly, Spaced Repetition Learning. It helps you to learn my "reminding" you of things only when you're about to forget them, saving you time and helping you remember things better. My favorite free software is Anki.
posted by Nerro at 11:49 PM on October 7, 2009

Best answer: You described my last two years of college almost exactly. Study groups helped, detailed to-do lists helped (a lot), but what really made the most difference to me (and i didn't figure it out until after college) was realizing that sometimes I can get things done even if I really don't want to do them. That sounds stupid, but I was so good at taking a simple task and turning it into a huge existential crisis, feeling like I should want to study, because I wanted to get good grades and graduate and blah blah blah. I would start thinking that because I really didn't want to study, maybe I deep down didn't want to get the degree, maybe I was going into the wrong field, etc. I would waste so much time trying to talk myself into doing something, that there was frequently not enough time left over to actually do it. This led to getting behind in classes and snowballed into a horrible mountain of anxiety and guilt that nearly caused me to drop out.

Once I learned how to postpone worrying about the big picture and just take one small task from my to-do list and do it, life has gotten so much simpler.
posted by beandip at 11:10 AM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all very much for your answers. I've marked the ones "best" that have specific ideas I'd like to try, but really, I found them all useful and encouraging (except possibly for the first one.)

I have midterms coming up, and I'm still dragging my heels. But I'm working on it.
posted by Ouisch at 2:38 PM on October 11, 2009

Response by poster: Not that anyone's checking, but I decided to pull out of school indefinitely. It was literally making my life not worth living (for reasons I don't fully understand.)

I'm doing therapy. I might eventually go back and finish my last three credits to get my degree, or I might not.

It's been four weeks since I quit. I started a business, and now I get to make enough money to eat regularly, read books for fun, and take afternoon naps when I want. Right now, it feels pretty good.
posted by Ouisch at 6:28 PM on March 6, 2010

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