Help me get over my stupid complexes so I can enjoy/succeed in college academics/life.
November 21, 2009 10:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm finally on my own and liberal arts school should be the place for me. But I'm still approaching my coursework from the standpoint of "how little can I do and how late can I do it and still not utterly fail," and it's making me hate myself.

This is very long, and for that I am sorry. Since I'm talking about a psychological problem it's hard for me to determine which details are important and which aren't.

I'm a sophomore at a small liberal arts school. I went to a Montessori elementary school, where almost no homework was assigned, and started public school in fifth grade, where instantly a ton of homework was assigned (new teacher). My mom would keep me in my room from the time I got home to around 10 or 11 pm (with a break for dinner), making sure I did everything up to her unreasonably high standards. When I protested she would yell at me that all work and no play was how it was going to be for most of my life and that, essentially, I was deeply defective if I didn't adapt. When I would refuse to do my homework entirely, she'd call my dad up and he'd join in. This was the period of tension that preceded my highly educated parents' extremely acrimonious and loud divorce, and this was one of the few activities they could still partake in together. Sitting down to do homework became associated with humiliation and submission. The disgust with which my mom (who was most other times very loving) looked at me when I failed to understand something turned learning from the ongoing adventure I used to see it as into an ongoing anxiety-inducing question of my worth.

Near the end of that year my parents were largely too busy screaming at each other to monitor me constantly and I started slacking off. Sixth grade, I did almost no homework and told my mom most mornings that I had been vomiting so I wouldn't have to go to school. I didn't even hate school itself at first (though I wasn't crazy about it); I just entertained this notion that I could catch up on all my old work in private if I could put off the teachers holding me accountable for one more day. But of course I just stayed on the couch pretending to be sick (my parents were almost never both in the house during the day, so it was peaceful, if mind-numbing). Eventually I stopped pretending I would catch up but lied about vomiting anyway to avoid the glares of the teachers who now resented me and the students who always disliked me (it took me until college to understand and be confident in peer interactions). The staying home mostly stopped when my mom took me for an MRI, the doctors failed to find any brain tumors, and she started demanding to see the puke. My parents would often berate me and tell me I was going nowhere fast in life because I wasn't doing my work, but I steadfastly refused to sit when they told me to, and they gave up on forcing me.

There were parent/teacher conferences (the way my parents brought their personal drama into these is more movie material than probably anything else in my life). I was made to see a social worker. In seventh grade I got an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for "emotional disability" and spent one period every day fighting with my caseworker over my right not to do my assignments. This IEP stayed with me throughout high school. I'm pretty sure I failed seventh grade (hurray for social promotion). Eighth grade was mostly C's and D's. My parents' divorce was finalized.

I got to high school not knowing how to try (even though part of me really wanted to, so as to get into college). I paid excellent attention in most classes because I found them interesting, participated enthusiastically (yeah, I was that girl), and did well on tests that didn't require knowledge from homework. My freshman/sophomore year average was maybe a 2.0. My mom's mental health was declining dramatically. The summer before my junior year, my mom died after drunkenly crashing her car. Junior year I got maybe a 2.9 first semester and a 3.5 second semester. Senior year I got around a 2.6 first semester (these are really all estimations, I don't remember that well) and something awful like 1.5 the second since I had already gotten into college (they didn't rescind my admission, bless them). I had gotten into college in spite of these mostly atrocious grades because of my crazy/dead mommy story, 34 on the ACT, and status as a National Merit Semifinalist.

I cared about my grades in a way that made me beat myself up more than try to succeed. I tried to keep my head above water in panicked nights of kicking myself, but that's trying not to fail. I cared deeply and anxiously about my performance on particular assignments. Writing papers was the big one. I would sit at the computer unable to come up with or structure my ideas until insane hours of the night. Often, my almost invariably A papers were severely penalized for lateness. I'd think to myself, "you're disgusting," but ultimately I preferred an A dropped down to a D for lateness over a straight B. Evidence that one fine theoretical day, once I got over my complexes, I could be a serious intellectual was so much more important to me than my grade point average.

This has followed me into college, where I've been for over a year. I used to not be able to write my papers until insane hours of the night immediately before they were due, until I realized that some professors accept late work sometimes, and now I can rarely motivate myself to get them in on time. I almost never do readings, feeling like I'm failing when they're taking too long, preferring the fleeting feeling that I'm not stupid as I read easy articles on the internet. I always start the term out OK, but as soon as my workload becomes even slightly difficult to manage, I retreat into avoidance. It doesn't matter how much I like the subject. Then the absolute due dates come, and I'm up, sleep-deprived, in my room, consumed by fear and intense self-loathing, trying to cry for some feeling of release, and yet unable to. Every time this happens I grow to hate school a little bit more and avoid it a little more eagerly the next time I think I can get away with it. I got a 3.3 first semester freshman year after dropping from 4 classes to 3, a 2.6 second semester freshman year after doing the same thing, and now sophomore year I'm taking 4 classes and am terribly behind in my work.

I talk to my intellectually-oriented, high-achieving friends wondering what they'd think of me if they knew what I really was. I lie in the arms of the girl I like knowing she'd kick me out of bed if she knew of all the assignments I should be working on. I stare at my computer screen at the introductory paragraph of a week-overdue paper, too paralyzed and disgusted by the fact that I haven't read the book to put together a body (even though I've done it countless times before). I sit in class discussions largely silent, because now that I'm in college I can't participate meaningfully without doing the work. I'M SICK OF THIS. I want better grades, yes, but what I want most is to get the education I'm paying for. I no longer believe that screwing around is what's going to make me happy, but spending hours listening to Dan Savage and reading soft news on NYT reminds me so much of Pokemon Red, and I can't help but think that I'm a 19-year-old trapped in a 10-year-old's emotional baggage. Help?
posted by randomname25 to Human Relations (22 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Therapy, now, at a reduced rate through your university.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:24 PM on November 21, 2009

Many colleges offer not only free or cheap counseling, but a variety of options for students with problems learning or studying (assistant note-takers, extra time for assignments and exams, study groups, study partners). Ask at the counseling office and/or search the university website for terms like "services for students with disabilities" (whether or not you would characterize your issue as a learning disability).
posted by ollyolly at 10:36 PM on November 21, 2009

I was like you when I first went to uni, doing a degree in the humanities, subjects that I thought were interesting, smoking copious bongs, putting in the bare minimum and still managing to pass just because the subjects weren't particularly challenging.

eventually I realized that this was leading me nowhere. So I switched to a subject that I had hated: MATHS, because I knew I had to do something drastic to snap out of my rut. To my surprise I found it infinitely more rewarding experience. Once you are enrolled in a maths/science degree, you can't get away with smoking bongs everyday, pulling an all-nighter essay to scrape a pass at the last minute. you have to discipline yourself. almost anyone with decent writing skills can fluke their way through the humanities, but maths/science/engineering there's no opinion, there's only right or wrong. it doesn't suffer fools, you have no choice but to shape up, practice everyday, take yourself seriously. and the "cold, austere, beauty" of your subject becomes its own reward.

quit liberal arts. ignore hippy parents telling you to do something you "like". Do maths, science or engineering. and you'll be able to pay the bills at the end, too.
posted by moorooka at 10:43 PM on November 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Take a leave of absence. Do manual labor. Work for some place like Habitat for Humanity. Give something of yourself instead of dwelling inside your head where the echoes of your parents' selfish screaming drown out your own voice. You are so not ready to be in college, but you will be once you can purge the demons your parents bequeathed to you. So walk away. Find some place where you will be needed and appreciated and where you will work up a serious sweat. And find your own motivation, find your own voice, the one that writes so well and sees so much. You have incredible promise, but you don't know what that is yet.
posted by Capri at 10:47 PM on November 21, 2009 [6 favorites]

Just some thoughts:

Therapy might indeed be helpful, or even just self-help books.

You mention grades over and over. In my undergrad I found social factors to be much more motivating --e.g. doing the reading so I can look smart and impress a girl. Can you simply be more open with people about your studying issues, and have them put some pressure on you? Also maybe you can try and make studying a more social thing, where you all sit together and read individually.

Alternatively, set yourself up in physical surroundings that are conducive to doing work. Lock yourself in an empty classroom with a notebook and your readings.

Take a minute to fully impress on yourself that your work needs to be done and that you will do it. Plan accordingly.

This may not be the right time in your life for college. There are other options that you can do for a year or the rest of your life.
posted by ropeladder at 10:48 PM on November 21, 2009

For God's sake, don't quit liberal arts and get into math and science unless it turns out that's what you really love. As someone with work habits resembling yours, taking more math and science-y classes this semester has just given me more deadlines to freak out about. And because I don't love math, I have trouble summoning up any interest in the work I'm supposed to be doing (she said, studiously ignoring the take-home Stat and Computer Science tests sitting beside her).

That said, you need need need to start reaching out. You might be shocked at how many of your profs are procrastinators too, and have some sympathy for someone clearly having a really hard time. If your small liberal arts college is anything like mine, there is an abundance of resources designed to help you out with situations like this. The absolute first and foremost of these is the counseling center. They can help you through therapy, they can contact professors for you, they can make your life better in the short term and the long term. If you want to work and you want to try, they can help you. How many kids do you think end up in college with complexes about grades and perfection and parents who made them feel like all of their self worth came from grades? Answer: a lot. The people who help with these things at your school have seen your problems before. They won't think you're disgusting (because you aren't), they'll want to help.

I really hope you get the help you need; college doesn't have to be miserable. If I can offer a little armchair psych, I'd suggest working hard to find value in yourself that isn't tied to grades. College is more than grades, and you are definitely more than your grades. That girl who likes you? Do you really think she'd dismiss you entirely if she found out your GPA? What about your friends? You can be intellectual, smart, interesting, whatever, without good grades.
posted by MadamM at 10:59 PM on November 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

You might be surprised how many of the smart people you know have similar (if not so severe) problems. Maybe you could try talking to your friends about it - they might be able to help. I personally never learned to do anything before the absolute last minute, despite a lot of self-berating and frustration every single time I was up at 3am writing an essay on a book I knew nothing about. I think part of the problem was that I mostly got good grades, because, as moorooka says, if you can write you can get away with it. Anyway, this is not about me, but I thought it might help to hear that you're not the only one by a long shot.

I quite like the suggestion about taking up more maths-type subjects. If for no other reason than it tends to be easier to break down into smaller chunks. You can (and have to) study more steadily - you can do one problem of an assignment per day for a week, whereas I find it much easier to write a paper in one go, which makes it a lot of work to motivate yourself to do. I found the little maths/logic I did quite satisfying (even though I hate it and am not naturally good at it), because I was able to circumvent my normal bad study habits.

I would also 2nd finding some study groups - it's easier to turn up to a social gathering than your own desk - and getting some therapy. It sounds like there's partly some emotional issues you need to work through, and partly just some bad habits that you need to break.
posted by Emilyisnow at 11:12 PM on November 21, 2009

I'm not suggesting you do maths/science if you don't like it. but in my experience, there is something about the humanities that allows for procrastination, which the "hard" subjects just don't allow.
of course there's also the fact that you're 19, and I am well aware that many 19 year olds simply have "other priorities", I certainly did.

In fact, I read your post, and in your description of your school experience, and your parents' relationship, and faking sickness, this is exactly the same as my own background to university slackerdom. You and I are the same. So my advice is heartfelt.

I should have mentioned that just after turning 20 (after being a half-assed slacker for four semesters), I quit uni and taught english in China for a couple of years. during this time I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do with myself. then I went back and started a totally different subject (maths). In that time I had matured a lot. I had also witnessed the insane level of discipline required of uni students in China, which made me realize just how much I had been taking my privileged lifestyle for granted back home.
posted by moorooka at 11:25 PM on November 21, 2009

Best answer: You've been through an enormous of trauma and psychic pain, and I hope you realize what an achievement it is to be where you are-- in college, doing ok enough to produce good work when you can finally break through your blocks, and essentially interested and motivated. So good for you! I don't know if I'd have been able to do that if my parents had screamed at me for my whole childhood for not doing my homework-- or if I had lost my mother in such a sad and horrible way, for which you have my sincere condolences. As I'm sure you realize, you're having trouble completing your work because you instinctively associate academic homework with fear and feelings of worthlessness. Your mind, quite reasonably, does not enjoy feeling afraid and worthless, and so tries to protect you by avoiding the homework altogether. Then the panic kicks in and you rush to do it badly and at the last minute, and because you sometimes get away with it, your bad work habits actually get rewarded and reinforced.

I appreciate what a huge and complex, ingrained behavior pattern this is, and obviously it has deeper psychological consequences than simply doing poorly in school. But one strategy you might try in order to "retrain" your mind is a kind of deliberate myopia. That is, don't think about the purpose or outcomes of the assignment. Don't think about the grade; don't think, "I have to do well in school!", don't think about how behind you are in your reading, etc. Focus only on extremely small tasks, e.g., "I have to read and process these five pages." Set a side a modest length of time every night-- say from 7-9-- when you complete these little tasks and check them off of a list. You are not allowed to think anxiously about the big picture-- to think about consequences, or to wallow in self-loathing-- during this time. Feel good about having accomplished something when you're done. Break large assignments down into little tasks and plan them for this daily slot: coming up with a paper topic, writing three sentences of your paper, etc. This is a strategy for keeping your head above water at the least. Even if you don't catch up on everything-- even if not all of your work gets done in this period-- you'll get SOME useful work done, and you'll have a period of time every day when you very deliberately decide to ignore your anxiety and self-criticism. Good luck, with your schoolwork and everything else!
posted by ms.codex at 11:26 PM on November 21, 2009 [10 favorites]

excellent answer from ms.codex.

you are so obviously a strong and resilient person. you can do this.

I had not unsimilar troubles in college. I could never get the "switch to maths" solution to work for me but I see it's merit. I think taking ancient Greek is what did it for me. Dead languages are pretty complex and exciting things to figure out, and like math, you have to do a bit every night in a very disciplined way to stay with it. It also uses your brain a different way. I was able to remove my worries about grades and focus instead on the novelty of it. Just a thought in case you can't stand of taking more than the required math credits.
posted by dchrssyr at 12:00 AM on November 22, 2009

Best answer: Oh man, I hate to say this after all the thoughtful and intelligent answers here, but:

I had a childhood very similar to yours in the details, and similar procrastination problems (which is my case were just part of a much larger tendency towards avoidance in general)

Two things have really helped me:

1. When I recognize when I'm being avoidant, instantly forcing myself to confront whatever I'm avoiding. No hesitating, no stopping to think about it. Recognizing that if I wait until I want to do something or feel ready to do it, I'm never going to do it. That if I have something to do, I just have to start NOW, the very second I recognize that I have to start working on it. And not allow myself to do anything else, and not even allow myself to THINK about doing anything else, until I have done all I can do for that period of time.

2. This is so puerile, but it helps me to wear a hat (the more glorious, the better, for me. Right now it's a fuzzy pink pimp-style hat. It used to be a turban.). When I'm wearing my hat, I'm working. If for some reason I have to stop working, I take the hat off. If my mind even wanders to something else, I take it off. I never, ever, sully the power of the hat by wearing it when I'm dicking around. That way, I know that *if* I do put on the hat, I'm going to work. It's so ridiculous but it's helped so insanely much.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:45 AM on November 22, 2009 [74 favorites]

Just like sky diving, nude beaches, and spicy food aren't for everyone--neither is college. Square pegs don't fit into round holes, no matter how hard you try.

Take this advice with a huge grain of salt, but I think you should quit college altogether. You seem exceptionally hardworking, talented, and motivated when you put your effort toward something that *you* are actually enthusiastic about. Taking that into account, you should start your own business in something that genuinely excites you. And given the background of your early life, it seems that things that are highly-structured just don't seem to be for you. College is, generally, only going to prepare you for structured jobs, with bosses and deadlines. I'm just not sure this is for you.

And remember college will always be there if you change your mind later.

P.S. Consider these thoughts about grades--I them found a week ago on ask.metafilter. (I forgot who wrote them.)

I thought school was about getting good marks. Wrong. It's about learning how to make friends. I have never ever gotten a job based on my high school average- or even based on what university I attended. I get all my jobs based on who I know or how personable/confidence-worthy I can be in an interview, so I wish I had started amassing lasting friendships and sparkling social skills earlier in life.

Nothing has been a bigger slap in the face to me growing up than realizing what he's talking about. I worked so hard in school I could barely see straight. I never slept and my adolescence was homework and nothing else--I didn't fall in love or make lasting friendships because I was too busy taking 2 years' worth of college credits in high school. I don't regret it entirely because I love the things I learned for their own sake, truly. However, I know now none of it mattered when it comes to a successful job outside of academia, because I didn't make social connections or learn how to be versatile and "bounce back." Grades mean much less than people believe. In the time I've now spent out of school, I feel like I've learned so many invaluable life lessons, and only wish I had been exposed to them earlier. School is not everything, not by a mile.
posted by capitalist.pig at 1:22 AM on November 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

capitalist.pig's quotes come from here and here.
posted by Houstonian at 5:10 AM on November 22, 2009

Like lots of the other smart people here, I am you.

These things helped me:
-attending classes where I was part of a social group
-taking practical music classes (you can't cram for a performance jury)
-taking workshop circle style classes (forced participation equals automatic social group peer pressure)
-individual study credits/correspondence (no class to show up to, yay!)
-Oxford style tutorial learning (not that I went to Oxford)
-taking classes in summer session, where you take one class all day for three weeks instead of five classes every day for four months (lots of pressure, but only one prof, and only three weeks)
-scheduling a study period between classes where I literally had nothing else to do but work on class material.

These things did not help me:
-school counselling
-study buddies
-North American style tutors
-any form of lowered-standards/helpy-feely/accessibility student assistance.

They did not help because they just added another authority figure to disappoint.

Don't listen to anybody who says college is not for you, unless this is secretly the answer you really want. Also, if you can get in on a crammable, passable, get your credits and run class, don't feel bad about using your superpowers to pass it. Just don't take more than one of these per semester.
posted by Sallyfur at 5:27 AM on November 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: ms.codex's advice is excellent. If you employ that advice, you may still find your thoughts wandering towards old voices and old patterns of negative talk. It is good to talk back to these thoughts. When I start hearing a parent's voice saying I'll never succeed at something, I tell it firmly "No!". As in, you aren't allowed to talk in my head. You can use what you're doing to counter it. As you start to think "I suck, I'll never get this done, I don't do enough" (or whatever), stop and tell yourself "I have a plan. It is good enough. I'm following the plan. I will stick to it and it will work."

Don't put so much in a day that you have to forgo all social engagements (obviously some times you'll have to work harder than others, but in general, you should get to see that girl you like and read your papers and such on a regular basis). Then, when you do get your small tasks for the day done, allow yourself to feel some satisfaction, confidently assert that you will do tomorrow's tasks, and thus you are off for the day, free to enjoy your time and recharge your brain and your energy. The trick to making this work is to do tomorrow's tasks. After a while you will begin to trust yourself.

If you make a bit of a mistake and you estimate and hour for something that's ends up taking three, don't accept negative thoughts about the process. Tell yourself "this is a learning process. I can be flexible" and figure out how to adjust your schedule. Because you are doing a little bit every day, you won't be falling behind like you were.

Finally, speaking as someone who is a graduate student and who helps teach undergrad classes, it is absolutely true that you need to do the homework to be able to get the full amount out of your education and your class participation. However, a secret is that you don't usually have to do *all* of it fully. Reading 1/2 to 3/4 of an article or a book will usually give you enough to get through the first instance of needing it (lecture) and then you can decide if it seems worth catching up the rest for the paper or exam. At some point, you're going to have to compromise on doing everything that is asked of you, but if you do it bit by bit, and learn about what you can do quickly and what you need time with, you'll be in a good position to figure out how to make those compromises and still get the education you want.
posted by carmen at 6:14 AM on November 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who is very smart, but for a whole host of reasons absolutely positively hates school (as in, she quit high school at age fifteen and 'unschooled' herself for several years, and was subsequently admitted to the ivy she attended based on stellar test scores etc.) College is a huge struggle for her, but she cares about it a lot, so she's found ways to make it work for her.

One thing that she's done is to take leaves of absence (once for a semester, once for a year) - in her case, staying in the city where our school is located and working for education nonprofits, trying to find ways to make life better for young kids who absolutely positively hate school.

After switching majors a number of times, she's wound up concentrating in math. The thing about math (and many other sciences) that seems to work for her is the fact that students necessarily interact with each other a lot more outside class. I majored in a non-math field but took a fair amount of math & computer science, and this rang true for me as well. While some students do motor through problem sets on their own, there's a culture of collaboration - sometimes she or someone else organizes work sessions, sometimes they simply wind up in the math center, but working with each other and with the TAs to understand the concepts and strategies is a major part of how people get their assignments done - the final writeups can be comparatively trivial after the hard work of sitting with each other understanding the concepts.

On the other hand, I have a number of friends who are geology majors, not necessarily because they are passionate about rocks in particular, but because the department provides a solid science education, and in particular, the department is famous for taking care of its undergraduates. They hire mid-level undergraduates as teaching assistants for beginning classes (sophomores teach freshmen, juniors teach sophomores, etc.), they go on weekend class field trips to look at interesting phenomenon, and they involve students in research. General school resources are great, but definitely not your only source - academic departments vary in how well they take care of their undergraduates (especially if you're at a research institution.) Ask around and find out about this - if, say, Comparative Literature is a more supportive department than English, you might consider a switch.

This doesn't necessarily mean I think you should become a math or geology major, but one paradoxical solution might be to find classes that require this kind of engagement from you, whether that's writing workshops, a lab science class, or participation in research outside of class (this was my strategy - after getting involved in research, I wrote most of my class papers as rough drafts for literature reviews or potential study designs - much more motivating/rewarding!.) Probably not every single one of your classes, and maybe not even as part of a full-time load of courses - but that is okay! (As my first friend likes to say, there is no law that says you have to take four classes every semester and get out in four years.)
posted by heyforfour at 7:03 AM on November 22, 2009

One more thing that has also helped me:

There are people in childhood development who say that you shouldn't praise kids for being smart, but rather for things like working hard and trying their best. Apparently kids who are praised for being smart become hesitant to try new things, if they'll be hard, or if they're afraid that they won't look smart. Sometimes they will completely refuse to do something if they're not good at it right from the start. (More about that here.)

It sounds like this phenomenon applied to you as a kid and perhaps now too. (It did to me too).

It was helpful to me to try to unlearn this and reward myself for working hard. I try to estimate how long it would take me to do something if I did the absolute minimum, half assed it at the last second, and then estimate how long it would take me to do something if I did it RIGHT. And reward myself the closer I get to the higher estimation than to the lower one. Over the course of the week or however long you have, keep logs of how much time you spent on something and add it all up.

It might help if someone whose praise matters to you, praises you for working hard instead of being smart. This person should be familiar with how long it takes you to do thinks so you can't fool them as to how hard you actually worked.
posted by Ashley801 at 11:50 AM on November 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

P.S. It might be helpful to do this in increments until you get into the habit, even really reaaaallly small increments.

For example, say you intend to do it the next time you turn in a homework, but you end up doing it at the last possible second anyway. You can just keep a record how how long you spent on it. And then just make it your goal to start the next homework something like 5 minutes before you started the first one. And you can reward yourself for that. And just keep increasing the increments.
posted by Ashley801 at 11:57 AM on November 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

(Sorry to be replying so much but) one last thing that is really helpful for me even now is part of the working hard vs. being smart thing.

When I turned in schoolwork, I really wanted it to demonstrate to my professors that I was smart.

It was really helpful for me to not allow myself to think about whether my work made me look smart (or even whether it made me look like an idiot), and to see the purpose of my work as demonstrating to my professors that I had worked hard.

When you do this you can even think of yourself as a different persona. For me that would be, "Ashley is smart but doesn't try her best. Fiona tries her best but no matter what, she's always going to be a little dim. Right now, I have to be Fiona." (It became a lot easier to do this as I saw many many real life Fionas get better grades than me).

Ideally, I think it would be good to shoot for the exact converse of this statement: I preferred an A dropped down to a D for lateness over a straight B.

I see a lot of wanting/needing to prove that you are smart in your OP. You already are smart, so you don't have to prove it anymore. I think it would really help to internalize that, and to try not to allow yourself any proving-I-am-smart behaviors until you resolve this. And internalize the fact that now what you need to prove is how hard you can work.
posted by Ashley801 at 12:21 PM on November 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I had a similar problem in high school and it tapered off slowly in college. One little thing that works for me is to make homework an event that I do daily. In my case I go to a cafe for tea which I love doing to get out for a bit and then plan on doing homework during that time. The other aspect is finding classes where homework no longer feels like work but rather serves a purpose toward a goal. Someone mentioned math/science classes and this to me is actually a good method, these classes have more rewarding work once you get it and they have very frequent deadlines. Liberal arts classes carry the method of two test/paper events and little input in between. One final tactic may be to talk to your professors at the start of a semester and work out an incremental schedule for yourself based on the syllabus. Good luck and remember that it happens over time not instantly, but before you know it if you stay disciplined you will suddenly realize that you completed a semester with little to no procrastination.
posted by occidental at 2:49 PM on November 22, 2009

Here's the thing. You may never enjoy homework. Ever. Your mum and your inability to move past what she did to you may mean that you always find it uncomfortable and hard and scary. But, uncomfortable and hard never killed anyone, and learning how to do things that you don't want to do could be the most useful thing that you learn at college.

How to do that, well that varies from person to person. For me, from what I've learnt this past year about myself (I now exercise everyday - I rarely enjoy it, but I do it), I would do this. Set aside a hour everyday. Buy many fun pens and coloured paper. Buy chocolate and coffee. Hunt out a favourite album or two. Turn off phone. Turn of computer (or at least the internet). During the first hour, sit down and face reality. Find all the assignments you have to do. Put them in your calendar. Make a list. Read each assignment fully, and put the first baby step for each one on the list. Then let go of the guilt, and ignore the enormity of the big picture. Start with the lowest hanging fruit - the easy stuff that's the most valuable. Cross things off on the list as you do them, and write down the next baby step. Take short breaks as necessary. Reward all small successes. Slowly increase the intensity and length of the homework session.

If none of this (or any of the other advice in this thread) resonates with you, then start researching about how writers overcome procrastination - some of their techniques may work instead. Also, therapy - because you know that this is all in your head.
posted by kjs4 at 6:04 PM on November 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

I was very much the same way when it comes to deadlines and procrastination. Like you, once I found out that my professors were willing to give extensions for just about anything, my assignments just came in later and later. I think part of my problem had to do with being pretty smart growing up, meaning I could get away with doing far less work than my peers and still get good grades. This meant I could put off an assignment/essay/test preparation until the bitter end and still maintain an high average. This got slightly more difficult to do in University but not to the point I ever managed to change while I was there (I've since come a pretty long way in my professional life from the procrastinator I used to be).

Looking back (and looking at myself now) I think it has to do with perfectionism and fear (the fear of not being perfect basically). I very much agree with what Ashley said above in not praising kids for being smart but praising them for hard work. Good advice.

For me, putting things off gave me two things 1) immediate gratification by not having to do work that I didn't want to do (until the night before deadline day) and 2) if I didn't do well on something I could always say "Well, I didn't even read that book/study the assignment/give myself nearly enough time, so that's why I didn't do well" i.e. I did poorly not because I am stupid/not smart but because anyone under these circumstances couldn't possibly have done well (and if I did well it would just reinforce the procrastinatory behaviour).

I think #2 was the key part for me and as you can see it is a vicious circle of self-destructive behaviour. Staring at the blank screen til 3 am is fear. Fear that you won't do well so you just don't do it at all. Someone upthread said not to lower your standards, but I think you might do well to try that. If your standard is perfection it will almost always be unacheiveable and the avoidance behaviour will kick in.

As for constructive ways to overcome the procrastination, you could start with asking your professors NOT to grant you extensions under any circumstances for the year. This way you know a deadline is a deadline and you can't push an essay further back without serious consequences. I think most would be more than happy to agree to this. You may also want to check out the book "The Now Habit" by Neil Fiore. It's not some magic pill that you will read and suddenly stop procrastinating as much as it is a tool and system you can follow to stop procrastinating.

It will require hard work, but you can definitely overcome it.
posted by Anizev at 12:04 PM on November 23, 2009

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