How do I overcome procrastination when it comes to difficult subjects?
January 25, 2012 6:55 AM   Subscribe

Help me deal with this particular procrastination/brain paralysis problem around doing difficult schoolwork.

When I perceive a class as difficult, I put off doing the work way too long. This is the opposite of what I ought to be doing, in a hard class. Right now, for instance, I am taking a statistics class that seems very hard to me (even though it's the second in a series and I did alright in the first class last semester). I believe that I am capable of doing the work, but I seem to have built up such an emotional mess around actually doing the work that either I put off starting it or when I do start it, I end up working for a short period of time before I get something wrong or hit a place where I am lost, then I get frustrated and have to step away to grouse or cry (yes, seriously, and I swear to you that I am not this delicate and touchy and jumpy about, well, anything else in my life), or I give up and do a half-assed job at answering the question without really learning the material to the degree that I'd like because I know I'll get partial credit and, at some level, I know that I can get through the whole semester like this and probably end up with a B in the class. That's how I usually deal with this feeling, which is a kind of panic or intellectual insecurity.

I don't want a B in this class, and I really want to learn the material so graduate school is worth something more than a piece of paper to me.

I am taking two other classes, and I have no trouble doing the work in those classes (even though one of them is econometrics, which is supposed to be difficult). It's almost like I've fixated on this statistics class as the "hard" class this semester.

I know that the general answer here is that I've got to buckle down and do the work, and as I do the work it will get easier and easier. What I need are tips for getting myself calmer about the whole thing, for shutting down the part of me that's freaking out when I try to get the work done. That voice that says "you totally can't do this so why are you even trying?"

Once in a very great while I can approach difficult material with a happy little beginner's mind, calm and serene and willing to take my time to learn, and that's always great, but it's so, so hard for me to get to that place, especially when I've got homework due (even though, in the end, being calm doesn't really slow things down, so it's not like being frantic helps even a little bit).

Difficulty: I am working full time and taking three classes and I have a 7 month old kid. I know that this kind of workload is making it all more difficult, but still, there has to be a way to help me sit down and get hard things done in the time allotted to me.

Oh, and before you suggest it, yes, I am ADHD. I am on medication, and the medication helped me (immensely!) in every area EXCEPT this one, so I strongly suspect that this isn't an ADHD thing. I am also in therapy, though my therapist is on leave for a few weeks (so, hello, Ask MeFi!).

I think it's an insecurity thing, but y'all don't know me well enough to have a good idea what's causing it in me, so I want to hear about your experiences.

Which brings me to my question: Have you dealt with this particular kind of homework paralysis? Did you figure out what was causing it? How did you get over it?

P. S. I have statistics homework due today. I've got 2 and a half problems done, sort of, out of 9. I want to finish it by the end of the day, or at least by the end of tomorrow (one homework can be a day late). If you help me calm my shit down enough to do this well rather than half-assed, I will be so grateful. I've only got another hour this morning, and then the rest of today after about 3:00. This homework is worth a tiny, tiny fraction of my grade, but still. It matters.
posted by hought20 to Education (10 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
How about a tutor? Maybe the material is such that working out the problems on your own isn't going to cut it. If you can't afford a tutor, can you work with a classmate?

I find that working through difficult problems that aren't in my wheelhouse is always easier when I have someone to work through them with.
posted by xingcat at 6:58 AM on January 25, 2012

That voice that says "you totally can't do this so why are you even trying?"

I'm sure you have multiple experiences that started out with this feeling but ended with you totally being able to do it. I know I have. You need to meet this feeling with your knowledge that it's false.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:13 AM on January 25, 2012

I struggled with this all through undergrad and grad school. I got through it by rewarding myself if I just started the homework. That's all I had to do, start it. Usually I ended up doing most of it or finishing it.

The other trick, and probably the more important one, was to give myself permission to do badly. The world was not going to end if I got a C on this assignment. Really. NO ONE cares about your GPA after you've graduated.

If you're not feeling like you're learning the material, see your TA or an outside tutor. Form or join a study group. Having to show up every week for a study group is a good motivation, and you'll see other people are in the exact same bind.

I took statistics and economics and ended up being a TA for both of them. What worked for me (and my students) was to put the concepts into tangible form. If you're talking about a sample of a human population, literally draw stick figures on a whiteboard, and divide them up by whatever variable you're measuring.
posted by desjardins at 7:31 AM on January 25, 2012

Have you ever tried the "Pomodoro" technique? Basically it involves setting a timer for 25 minutes and then taking a 5 minute break. Lather, rinse, repeat. If getting started is hard because of your topic anxiety, it might help to know that you are only committing to trying for 25 minutes. It helps focus on a small immediate step rather than the scary bigguns (read all the things! 7 problems left! long tough semester!) which might help you since your time is probably only available in small chunks given your super hectic schedule.

For me, getting started is the hardest part, but I find that if I do, I get into the work, reap a few accomplishment rewards along the way, and can keep going.
posted by carmicha at 7:31 AM on January 25, 2012

Best answer: This homework is worth a tiny, tiny fraction of my grade, but still. It matters.

No, it doesn't. This attitude is precisely what's causing your suffering. Your grade is no reflection of your worth as a person. It's not a measure of your intelligence. It won't allow you (on its own) to make tons of money. Do the best you can, but let go of this idea that everything is so damned important and significant. It's the equivalent of wearing mismatched socks to work. You're temporarily embarrassed, but life goes on, and the next day you make sure to turn the light on while you're getting dressed.

Seriously, just tell yourself "I am not going to care about this" and then do it. You will be free and happy and your assignment will probably turn out better than if you'd fretted and stressed about it.
posted by desjardins at 7:36 AM on January 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

Best answer: You won't get any defense of a grade out of me; no matter what anyone ever wrote on my transcripts, in my head it was all pass fail.

However as someone with math anxiety and similar problems with procrastination I will defend doing that homework. If it's well-assigned its some of the better practice we get for when we sit down for the exam.

In my experience nothing beat Just Doing It. Which is of course easier said than done. I'd negotiate with myself this way:

1) Say I'm going to spend 5 minutes on it, period. Doesn't matter what I do. Write my name on the paper. Scan through the problems and make a few notes about what I think they're about or how to solve them. I don't make myself work on only one. I don't make myself complete anything. I just do what I can in those five minutes. Then I have my own permission to get up and go do something else for a bit.

2) Just do one problem, whether I do it shitty or not. After all, if I could sit down and just do it easily and perfectly right off the bat I wouldn't be stressed about it and I wouldn't need to do it at all. So just do it. Scribble. Fuck it all up. If you don't remember what exactly this part is about, do your best with what you do remember and give yourself permission to be wrong.

Number 2 is way harder for me. I hate being bad at things. I hate doing them badly. I hate not knowing stuff. But the only way not to fuck things up is to not every try things you don't already know how to do. So if I do it in wee little sections it stings less.
posted by phearlez at 8:10 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I start out each session doing at least a couple of problems I KNOW I can do to sort of prime the pump for the failures later on when it's something I can't do well.

I have also found that it helps to try to explain what I'm doing as I go along as if I were talking to someone who doesn't understand it at all. It's not a technique you can use if other people are in the room, but sometimes I get unstuck if I do this.

One of the most important things I've done with concepts I don't understand is to look up explanations of it on the internet. Sometimes some goofy internet site with broken clipart and ugly color schemes will explain a concept I've been laboring over for weeks in a way that makes more sense than that I got in class. That is also a gentle way to break into doing homework because you're not doing the problems yet, you're researching how to do them.
posted by winna at 8:43 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I feel like that about something (usually writing), a few techniques work for me:

1. Go somewhere with no other distractions. Take your homework. Don't let yourself leave until you've got a fair way through and are feeling more comfortable about it. Places that work for this are cafes, libraries (without internet), or even a park. It sometimes helps to do this with a friend who is also working on homework. It sometimes helps to do this at a licensed cafe and drink a glass of wine. Which brings me to my next point.

2. A glass of wine. One glass only. For me, anyway, that's enough to relax me and quiet the scary voices without making me unable to do the work. And you don't want to have to resort to this method every time you work, so use it sparingly.

3. The pomodoro technique mentioned above.

4. I read recently the phrase "Suffer the pain of discipline or suffer the pain of regret." I have started chanting this to myself when I want to run away from a work session.

5. Blanket forts. This sounds dumb, but I once got so stressed about a piece of work that I built a blanket fort under the table and sat in there and worked. It felt so much safer than the outside world.

6. This one only works if the work to be done is boring and a little bit scary for whatever reason but not so hard it needs your full concentration. Watch TV or something while working. Best are reruns of a favourite show, or a movie you've seen before, because you can still keep up even if you miss whole chunks. I find this distracts the bit of my brain that is freaking out, so the rest of my brain can just do the damn work.

7. Working buddies. I know I kind of mentioned this above, but even done without being present in the same place at the same time it can kind of work. You IM each other or email or phone just before starting at a prearranged time, and then you IM or call again 30 minutes in to check up on each other, and then again at the end of the prearranged session. It helps if you make a deal that if one person does the work and the other doesn't, the slacker has to forfeit something - give the other money, or whatever motivates you.

Finally, once you find something that works, and you are back to doing your work comfortably without panicking, remember that this won't last. Sorry. But if you are like me, you WILL end up stressed and unable to start something again in the future. Maybe not very long from now. So you need to plan for that when you are feeling okay. Set up a habit of working at a specific time and don't break it even though you could right now and still be okay. The point is you are doing it to protect your future self. Get in the habit of listening to specific background music (classical or ambient, for lack of distraction), of sitting in a specific place (where you ONLY work), even of smelling a particular smell (scented candle or similar). Those are cues you will eventually associate with working and feeling okay about working, and they may even come to be calming, because when you get those cues, you know you are being productive. Then in the future when you are stressed about not working, you can apply those cues, and hopefully it triggers the calm working mindset.
posted by lollusc at 3:44 PM on January 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

Get a copy of some other textbook that takes a different approach to some of the concepts. Some math textbooks are just terrible at explaining things, although I hope that which ones are terrible differs by who the reader is.

Having an option for some path other than staring at the problem in frustration can be very calming. Looking in that other book is something you can do other than giving up. Also, if you get stuck on a problem skip to the next one.

The Cartoon Guide to Statistics is a nice cheap option for a secondary book, if you haven't already gone through all of that material in your first class -- if you have, it might be something to put you in a better mood without getting completely off topic.

Also, if there is a concept that you want to understand better you can ask the professor about it. If you feel uneasy about this, ask others in your class and see if they have also had trouble, then as a group you can request more explanation of the topic in class.

Three graduate level classes is generally considered to be full time. Working full time and taking care of a 7 month old is a lot to do along with that. If that's what you have to do to get though school, look into what you can do to cut down on other demands on your time -- do whatever you can to cut down on the time spent on chores & errands.
posted by yohko at 3:52 PM on January 25, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks so much for your answers, folks! This was tremendously helpful--particularly what desjardins said about how I need to chill. Because I do, and part of my freak-out always involves this whole story about how everyone I know always gets all As and how if I don't get all As I'm not trying hard enough and nothing is worth doing if I don't do it perfectly and I am NEVER GOING TO BE SUCCESSFUL IF I DON'T GET MY SHIT TOGETHER TO DO THIS HOMEWORK and so on. It's hilarious and sad and desjardins's comment was a perfect little jolt. This is not what's most important to me--I do not care very much if I am an expert in mathematical statistics (I'd rather be good at applied stats and writing)--so spending all of this freak-out energy here is not at all reasonable.

Another helpful piece of advice was what phearlez said about, essentially, allowing myself to make a mess of it. It's a shitty first draft of homework. This goes against how I normally do things--I tend to refuse to stumble through the problem unless I know exactly what I'm doing, but that's not the best approach. With math, it's better to try things and see if they work, right. If I try to do an integral and end up with the wrong variable in the end, something's wrong. But maybe I'll set it up right the first time and get the right variables. I'll never know if I don't try. AND if I try it the first way and don't quite get it right, at least I have something on paper that I can ultimately turn in if I run out of time.

I will forget all of this at some point, so I'm bookmarking this page.
posted by hought20 at 7:54 AM on January 26, 2012

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