How to develop work ethic after your academic confidence has taken a beating
November 20, 2011 2:26 PM   Subscribe

Smart people who did badly in college - how did you regain your footing and develop your work ethic and study skills?

Asking for a friend who's going through a tough time right now in his post undergraduate studies.

He's smart (tells me he was tested and has an IQ of 140), coasted through high school, and went to an ivy league university based on his GPA, SAT scores, and extracurriculars. He graduated with a 2.5 gpa after getting overwhelmed his first year, and getting As and B his last few semesters of college. Now he's doing non-degree seeking coursework to boost his GPA for dental or medical school and doing better getting an A average so far, but still falling into his old study habits. He says his tendency to procrastinate is linked to his ADD (he's super creative, always imagining possibilities and inventing stuff), so he'll "study" for a test for weeks and realize he didn't actually put that many hours of focused effort in, so he'll freak out and have a study marathon a couple of days before the test. He hates that panicky feeling and know that he won't store information for the long term that way, and wants to know what kind of plan he can use to get his act together. He's tried sticking to a strict schedule and using a planner, but he'll end up taking too long to do a task and abandoning the schedule. He has a lot of trouble with organization, too - the second he cleans his car/room/etc it's messy again, which makes things difficult. He wants to work hard and use his gifts to better the world around him, so it kills him to squander his talents by not putting in the hours of work necessary.

He also said that he gets caught up in "feelings" - he can't concentrate when there's an interpersonal issue going on in his life. He tends to put people first in his mind, and wants to know how to stop fixating on his emotions.

If you have a high IQ and had a ton of trouble with the "perspiration" part of what Thomas Edison said, please share your story of how you turned that around.
posted by sunnychef88 to Education (20 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

I'm serious.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:27 PM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Two comments: (1) it sounds like your friend is too focused on his IQ and (2) your friend should discuss these things with a psychiatrist and determine if anti-anxiety medication could help.
posted by dfriedman at 2:28 PM on November 20, 2011

Response by poster: He takes an ADD medication and has worked with a psychiatrist on that issue for a couple of years. It helps tame his impulsiveness, but it doesn't help him to narrow his focus to what he needs to be thinking about.
posted by sunnychef88 at 2:32 PM on November 20, 2011

Forget about his "talents" and IQ. An IQ of 140 isn't a predictor for anything. Plenty of people with genius IQs live plenty ordinary lives. People with average IQs can have extraordinary lives. Don't get hampered by Smart Kid Syndrome; it's so destructive.

If his focus issues are this compromising, he needs to either get more aggressive meds management from his shrink or change shrinks. All of the planning, study skills, schedules, GTD, etc will not help without themselves becoming a full time job if he can't get his ADD better controlled. I mean, he can try an ADD coach, but coaches really, really vary and a good one is hard to find.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:48 PM on November 20, 2011

Best answer: I have been/am where he is to an extent (minus a diagnosed condition -- I prefer natural cures).

I think he's got the first step, which is knowing what he wants. It took me a few years to get back on the right path for me after a lot of people close to me discouraged me from that (I want to be an author -- they wanted me to have a secure income). I still have trouble focusing on my schoolwork, especially when I've got relationship stuff.

One big thing is studying outside of the home. I study MUCH more effectively if I go to the school library. There are no distractions there, and lots of other people studying around me helps me focus. This also helps me because I study better in an organized environment. If I'm in my room, and I (for example) need to do laundry, that is a piece of my attention on that instead of studying. Or the stack of dirty dishes, or the stack of mail, or feeding my frogs, or the dust on my printer, ETC. Getting out of the space just evaporates these things.

For the emotional thing -- the biggest thing for me was deciding the emotional stuff wasn't that important. After coming off a BIG and EMOTIONAL relationship, I started to turn the focus of my life on to me -- which, in part, meant going back to school. Dating, and all the accompanying drama, distract the hell out of me. But I think that's the thing -- I view it as a distraction now. That doesn't mean I don't like to go out and have fun, or that I don't have good familial relationships. But just that the amount of attention I put onto the drama is very little. I'm too busy for it, so I don't engage. This started with a decision, and has gotten better with practice. It's still a problem for me, but I think it is for most people :)

Also, I think he's being hard on himself because of his past grades. If he's doing well now, that's a really good sign that he's doing a lot right.
posted by DoubleLune at 2:51 PM on November 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

I coasted easily through high school much like your friend, then found myself performing rather mediocrely in college. The single change that made the biggest difference for me, and took me from mostly Bs to mostly As in one semester, was establishing a dedicated study environment and scheduling study time. I found that I could concentrate best in a particular coffee shop near campus because having some bustling background noise kept my mind from wandering, and it was easy to reward myself for a job well done with a cookie or a latte. I started treating college like a 9-5 job -- when I wasn't in class or eating meals, I went to that coffee shop and worked. Sometimes my mind wandered a lot and I didn't get much done, but mostly it didn't.

Also, checklists. I always told myself that I was smart enough to just remember all of my obligations, and 95% of the time I did, but seeing everything on one sheet of paper is incredibly helpful because prioritizing is so important. You can't really invest yourself in one task if you don't believe that that's the task that you should be doing at that moment, and if you haven't prioritized, then you're never really sure.
posted by telegraph at 2:54 PM on November 20, 2011

I, personally, would (and did) pretty much swear off relationships while in school, and focus on friendships, which add without subtracting. The only way to not freak out (and fixate) is to make absolutely sure you don't fall for someone who's got issues, mood swings, a predilection to be anything but 100% honest, a very high sex drive, etc. You need a very even-keel person while you're focusing on getting stuff done. Well, like having a life.

Also, don't discount the absolute relevance of motivation, and knowing what kind of work you're suited for or are going to be motivated to do. Sure, ADD meds help focus, but that basic motivation based on interest has to be there. If he's just taking 'necessary' eat-your-broccoli classes meant for a long-term reward, that motivation that's based on short-term rewards suffers. Most people are bad at having long-term reward focus, but ADD people are worse. Make sure you're doing stuff that is fun, that motivates you, and that you believe in at east 30% of the time.

Be accountable-- one other problem of 'anonymous' schools is that lack of accountability to others. Study groups (given one isn't a complete introvert) really help keeping that external motivation present. Don't be the only person who knows what's going on, or struggling alone. Tutoring others, having others tutor you-- building engagement helps. Try to find classes with a) tutoring times; b) engaged professors; c) in-class problem-solving workshops; d) homework checking. A class where one is only monitored at test times is not a good class for an ADD person. If at all possible, do not take such classes; if you have to, either go to a school tutoring center to do HW (several times a week), or make a study group in-class.

Note: in my experience, it's not that it's a 'work ethic' so much as a built-up habit.
posted by reenka at 3:03 PM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

This sounds like me, although I don't know what my IQ is. School, including college, I did because I was "supposed to." I got good grades in HS, like your friend, because it came effortlessly. In college I struggled because it was harder, and I just didn't care enough to work at it.

So for me it was real real simple: After I finished school I found something I cared about doing, and I realized I was willing to work as hard as I had to.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:19 PM on November 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

(I also did well in classes I took post-getting my degree. Because I was only there because I wanted to take the class.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:20 PM on November 20, 2011

Best answer: I went through the same thing. Lots of the advice above is great. Bear in mind that, if you are diagnosed ADD, it's always going to be hard work to do things that other people think are trivial. Always remind yourself that these things are not expected to be trivial for you (even if other people expect them to be), and take your victories where you can.

Having said that... I found that the only way I could get "stable" was by cutting out ADD meds. YMMV. I have good friends who have really turned their lives around with Adderall or Ritalin, but I always ended up flying off my emotional rails exactly as you are describing. These drugs are stimulants. They do not have some magical effect on those with ADD. That doesn't mean they can't help, but... be aware.

So that was one destabilizing emotional factor for me. Another is blood sugar. I won't get into my whole bit about why this matters, but if your blood sugar is off, subjectively it can feel like extremely intense emotions that no one else understands. Cutting out refined sugars and carbs and adding in cardio can really help out with this. For the latter, consistency is the key - I was always tempted to try as hard as possible, and I'd burn out quickly. I've only really found success by sticking to a level of exercise that doesn't make me miserable, that I can keep up with.

Next comes the mind tricks. My number one mind trick is this: take the first step. Doesn't matter what it is. Tell yourself that there's no commitment to complete the whole task implied by taking the first step. Maybe the first step is getting out your work computer, or putting on running clothes. The temptation is to make whatever you want to do about the WHOLE thing you want to do, which is terrifying. Make it about each individual step instead and it is much more manageable.

Similarly, eliminate the tricks guilt can play on you. I had to tell myself at one point in school that "I am late to class" or "I might be late to class" was not an excuse I would use to myself anymore - sure, maybe the professor will yell at me for arriving 45min late for a 60min lecture, but that is still better and less disrespectful than skipping the lecture entirely. Something half done is always better than something never begun. No matter how bad the situation feels, there is something you can do that can make it at least a bit better.

Running a very, very close second that first one is this: environment. Put yourself in a situation that makes what you want to do easier than what you don't want to do. Oftentimes this has as much to do with a *change* in environment as it does with the environment itself. It is one thing to hang out at the library all day every day, for example, but to *go* to the library when you want to study is a whole different thing. Maybe you *do* hang out at the library all day - go to a coffee shop instead, then. Associate places with behaviors.

I am still awful at all this stuff, but I have had people at work tell me that I am diligent and I work hard at everything I'm expected to do. It may feel like a rollercoaster from my perspective, but I must be doing something right. Once you get to the end of this, I guarantee that you will have a better understanding of what makes for good and bad study skills than someone who never had the same struggles. Good luck!
posted by billjings at 3:21 PM on November 20, 2011 [12 favorites]

I also strongly agree that the term "work ethic" is rather misleading and unhelpful. It's rather puritanical and mostly comes off as shaming ("what's wrong with me that I don't work hard like other people??")

As others have said, it's habit and technique. Working hard is a learned skill like any other. As I have frequently mentioned in writing threads, I do things like leave the house and go to a coffee shop to cut down on distractions, put myself on a timer, etc.

I could beat myself up about having a "bad work ethic" because I need those tricks, but bottom line is, when I do things that way I produce. That's all that really matters, not some arbitrary standard no one can really live up to.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:24 PM on November 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, this sounds like me, too. I don't have ADD or anything like it (nor do I have a 140IQ, I'd imagine), but I skated through high school, getting good grades while putting in zero effort. I worked a little harder in college, but I still mostly took shortcuts, because by then it was an ingrained habit, and my grades were decent, but nothing special.

But now that I've been out of school for a long time, I've realized something: Teachers and professors always labeled me the "if only he would apply himself...." kid. That phrase came up over and over again during my academic career, in parent-teacher conferences, in feedback from professors, whatever.

No employer, and indeed nobody I have ever worked with, period (I do a fair bit of extracurricular 'work'), outside school, has ever questioned my work ethic or my ability apply myself to a given task.

So I have to think it was just that I didn't like school, and that once school was removed from the equation I ceased to be some kind of underachiever.

Anyway, I don't know how badly your friend wants to go into medicine, but perhaps he ought to consider a career that involves less formal training? Some people just don't take to 'education,' even if they are generally smart and capable.
posted by breakin' the law at 3:42 PM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

There is so much good advice already above. I'm going to add another perspective and hope that it helps somewhat :)

I coasted through HS because it was stupidly easy...and proceeded to almost fail out of college my freshman year because I'd never had to even think about how to work hard and study, let alone do it. My IQ is pretty high; I don't know what it is because I don't care, but with me and college, it wasn't an issue of "I am too stupid!" It was totally an issue of "I am far too easily distracted, and worse, I have no idea HOW to *work.*" I didn't end up failing out, but I graduated a year later than I should have with a seriously mediocre GPA.

I worked in the "real world" for about 6 years after that, and then I decided to go back and get my MA. Instantly, I found myself falling back into old habits. Surfing the net was 90% of my "study" time. I was constantly up and down and getting something to drink and calling people and taking a smoke "break" and buying sweaters online get the idea. I SUCKED at work. However, something clicked (thankfully) early enough for me so that I not only got that degree, but kicked its ass! :) And what clicked wasn't how to focus on my studies and work hard and blah blah was this:

I work best under a tight deadline. I tried the whole "Prepare well in advance!" game and it never worked for me. I either didn't do it, or I forgot what I had studied by the time the test got there. I would start a paper a week or two in advance, and by the time it was due I realized the whole thing wasn't what I wanted and would stay up all night redoing the whole thing anyway. I learned not to "work hard all the time," but "work well when I had to."

I also, and I think this is crucial, learned not to beat myself up because my work habits didn't match those of my diligent colleagues. I caused myself SO MUCH MORE stress by the following internal dialogue: "I should start this paper. But I don't want to. But if I don't, then I suck. I bet Beth started hers. I bet it's pretty good. I will never be good at anything unless I start now. But there's a week left. I would rather buy sweaters. I suck. I am a charlatan and a fraud. I will start this paper. No, I won't, because my friend just called and now I'm going to go hang out with her because I'm weak and I'm awful." That didn't help, and wouldn't have even if I had "listened" to it.

Your friend may not so much need to change his habits as ACCEPT them. You say he's got over an A average?! That doesn't sound like someone struggling with a learning disorder or who is bad at school. It may very well mean he's found the technique that works for him, and just needs to accept that the way he operates isn't the way we're "supposed" to. Trust me on this, once I realized the that the way I work is optimal FOR ME, I did better and had a lot less stress doing it, too.

I do hope this helps in some way. I think a lot of what we're fed, as young adults, about "This is how you must do everything!" only works for a fraction of us, and everyone has their own ideal methods and motivation. I'm still a massive procrastinator, but it's no longer a source of guilt and angst for me. It works, what else do you need? Everything I need to do gets done, on time, and well. I just don't spend weeks beforehand agonizing about whether I should be doing it NOW. I kind of think your friend may be a bit like this as well. :)
posted by deep thought sunstar at 4:23 PM on November 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

This is me. I've never been a good student but I'm a great worker. Part of my motivation at work is "someone is paying me to do this. I can't let him/her down." To get school work done I usually had to go somewhere like a coffee shop, where I then put in earphones and put a song on repeat. Usually some sort of techno type fast-paced song. It has to be something that I will tune out. I can't get any work done at the library - I have to put in earplugs because I find myself listening for sounds even when it's silent or looking around.

Your friend might also want to really think about whether or not he wants to take on medical/dental school. If it were me I would have to have some kind of deep-seeded motivation to become a doctor in order to get through it.

Also tell him to get over the IQ thing. I can't remember where I read this - it could have been in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers - but it was something about diminishing returns with regard to IQ. It helps to a certain point but then after that the higher it gets, the less likely someone is to achieve any more than with an average IQ.
posted by fromageball at 4:46 PM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was also a kid who excelled in high school until I went to a residential school for smart kids where things went south pretty badly. I am also someone who did terribly in college and who has been diagnosed with ADHD and is on medication. Add to that coming from a family where nobody had ever gone to college and where "work ethic" means that you go and you put in your hours on your feet and then you come home, which is great and is certainly an example of a good work ethic, but not the type you need in college or if you're not doing blue collar work. I didn't learn this stuff early on. My GPA was a 2.7 when I graduated, but I was not at an Ivy League school, where I imagine it would've been much worse.

I am now in graduate school after a few years of taking mathy pre-requisites and proving that I could, in fact, get good grades despite my 2.7. So I know a little bit about learning how to manage this stuff (and for what it's worth, I only started medication recently for the ADHD).

Basically, your friend needs a toolbox. There is no simple fix for this. He's just got to learn, over time, to get better at getting things done. I have been working on this for years, and I am okay at it now in that I function at a normal level and do not do things like fail classes because I couldn't get myself to do homework and would seemingly rather spend all night agonizing about it rather than doing it, but I'm still not where I want to be. My progress up until this point means that I have high hopes for my future, particularly with the drugs I've just started, which are having a fairly amazing effect on my ability to sit down and work through things like problem sets in an hour or two rather than in six to eight hours. Here are some things I do that have genuinely helped me get things done (I will leave off the many many things I've tried that did not work, obviously, but want to note that there are many):

1. Set timers. 15 minutes. 30 minutes. Whatever he feels he can handle. Only work during the time the timer is running. It helps not to have the timer right in front of me. Sometimes I've set timers for breaks, too, because with ADHD, a break can turn into two hours of nothing.

2. Chart how much I get done. I don't really do this any more, but for probably half a year I had these little charts on my wall where I would put a black x for work-work and a red x for school work, basically for each segment of 25 minutes I completed.

3. I have a rolling to-do list on teux-deux. I assign things to days. There is a lot more to be said about to-do lists, but I am not the person to say them. Except I will mention that a daily to-do list is not a place to store all the things you kind of what to do. You can keep that list, too, but only the important stuff goes on a daily list.

Really, that's it, but it's taken me a long time to figure out that these things are what work for me and that this is just how it is for me. I am not going to have an epiphany or meet the right teacher and suddenly be as productive as I want to be (though, okay, Ritalin has been a bit of magic, I'll confess, but it's still hard to sit still to do things I find extra challenging). I have had to get there by increments, and even now, I confess that I had to spend two days last week studying a LOT for a test that should not have been that hard, had I only been better about keeping up with the homework and reviewing notes like I did earlier in the semester. But at some point, I become just normal (everyone does this kind of thing now and then) rather than living my life from one scramble to the next.
posted by hought20 at 4:57 PM on November 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, two more things!

1. This semester I have learned that I do self-directed work better if I leave the house, but work-work (the stuff someone is expecting from me and cares about) can be done anywhere. Environment matters.

2. While you need to pay attention to finding the right tools, it's important not to get bogged down in that search. I think it's easy to get obsessed with reading productivity blogs and books, which is fine for a little while, but quickly gets more harmful than helpful.
posted by hought20 at 5:05 PM on November 20, 2011

The Now Habit; Cal Newport's blog/books; therapy; meditation; exercise; normalizing my sleep/wake/eat cycle a bit (and sleeping mostly enough); doing things I cared about as opposed to things I thought would win me the respect of my peers (seriously, a third semester of organic chemistry? wtf).
posted by en forme de poire at 8:02 PM on November 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I sound like a 40 year old version of your friend, minus the ADD. I tested with a very high IQ. I have trouble focusing on "work" when I have something emotionally arresting happening in my life. I procrastinate. I flunked out of college, despite being capable of understanding the material. And I am now highly successful by any reasonable standard. So there is hope.

While I can't speak to the ADD, there were a few breakthroughs that were key for me. The first was to overcome some of the emotional problems in my life. If your friend is having problems in his personal life, it may be that those need to be dealt with before he can truly focus on other things. The second was to realize what my strengths and weaknesses were, and focus on things that played to my strengths. As it turns out, procrastination and discipline are destined to be life-long problems for me. On the other hand, I learn quickly and have a tremendous ability to obsess on a topic if, and only if, I enjoy it a lot. And I don't procrastinate when dealing with those topics.

With my personality tendencies, I had a hard time doing well in college, where I failed to do well in any topic (read: most 100 level classes) I didn't love. But if I could focus on one thing... and only one thing that I truly enjoyed, I found I could out work and out learn most of my peers.

So maybe your friend is like this. Only he will know for sure. But if so, I'd recommend that he stop worrying about how he did in school, and start fervently pursuing whatever he finds fascinating. And if he's not a single-minded obsessive with no discipline, perhaps there's some other characteristics where he excels and that he can exploit.
posted by centerweight at 8:16 PM on November 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

2nding Cal Newport. Just read his red book, and it just clicked for me. I went from having terrible grades to getting A's on my midterms and assignments. Other than that, making a concerted effort to sleep better, and treating my anxiety.
posted by pickingoutathermos at 2:28 AM on November 21, 2011

Best answer: My number one piece of easy to do advice is: do not use a computer with internet access to study. Even if you think you need access to research - just save those issues for later and do them in one session online.

Beyond that it's good to break up the day not into hours but into *small* tasks: I must read this properly/do this many problems/whatever, not I will spend 2 hours on this - because it's too easy to spend 2 hours doing nothing without even realising it. And then find easy rewards for yourself in between those tasks. But make certain the reward is something you can end easily - playing Diablo is not a good idea, for example. (I speak whereof I know.) Be realistic about what you can do in a day or hour; being too ambitious just results in depression and throwing the hands up. Schedule at least one thing he is good at among the stuff he struggles with. Get a study partner who is working on something different (if they're working on the same stuff, its too easy to pretend the time chatting about it = work when in fact you've spent an hour discussing how horrible it is).

And while it's good to follow what you find fascinating, it is important to realise this issue will crop up there. To get to the fascinating stuff you have to get through the boring stuff too. And no matter how enticing the goal or how much you really enjoy the material, doing the horrible grunt work is usually not that alluring. That's as true in wood-working as it is in math or languages. I love Latin but when I was studying for my PhD comps in Latin it was horrible and boring because there was so. much. of. it.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:14 AM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

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