Perfectionism, procrastination and panic: finishing essay under pressure
September 1, 2015 8:39 AM   Subscribe

UK university filter: I have to finish two much-overdue essays very quickly. How to best shut down my mind (while anxious and depressed) from procrastinating and indulging in perfectionism / "analysis paralysis)

I am doing a distance learning MSc in a technical subject that I have no background in (“mature”(!) student). Last October i.e. in the first semester of the second year, I was granted a deferment due to mental health issues (depression with anxiety.) My second year starts again in ten days. I still have three work assignments owing from the first year that I want to get in before the second year starts. My pastoral and subject tutors have been excellent about this but/and have not set any clear deadline for the missing work, and due to the year off I can't really constantly ask them stuff. (I have had Bs and Cs for other assignments, which am fine with)
I am working on the assignments at the library, and am making slow progress but:
I keep being bothered by various lines of fallacious/confusing/distracting thought:
a. Why am I telling my professor something he already manifestly knows very very well – what on earth does this achieve, it doesn’t bring the subject forward any
b. I have very clear guidance on what to write – basically a rehash of the notes given out, with some illustrations. Again, I keep thinking “what is the point, all this has been said much better than I could, even in the learning materials”, but alllso “this is so easy that there has to be an optimum way of doing it that if I don’t find and follow then I haven’t even cleared the ridiculously low bar set.
c. In a second, less technical and more sociological assignment, I am being asked why is thing X important to group Y, and discuss how effective thing X is at result Z, and again the arguments we are expected to follow have been fairly clearly laid out, and I should be grateful for how easy they are making this and just write the expected essay, but I find myself thinking, who says X is important to Y, Y don’t have the information to value X, and also the idea that thing X SHOULD deliver result Z is massively problematic – but I don’t have time or knowledge to engage in a successful, well-founded taking apart of the question even if I wasn’t afraid that not answering the question and being a smart-alec about it would be a bad idea marks-wise.
All the above is terribly confused and demonstrates how clear my head isn’t. (What also might be making it worse is I am a translator by trade and obsessing about words and language and expressing things perfectly is what I am usually rewarded for)

My question: its clear to me that a. and b. are ridiculous and can be answered by “you’re here to learn and that’s how learning is demonstrated but somehow this isn’t getting rid of the feeling. I think allll this is just my anxiety manifesting itself, or my need to procrastinate – HOW do I get rid/ let go of all this and clear my mind to focus on doing the best I can in the time without panicking and wasting even more time and energy?
posted by runincircles to Education (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Imagine a hypothetical student who's dull and unadventurous, but studious, careful and hard-working. Impersonate them. Write what they would write.

If you have time left over when the paper is finished, you can improve it in interesting ways. But until you have a complete (if dull) paper that could be handed in as-is, you aren't allowed to do anything creative. Just do your dull-but-studious routine.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:57 AM on September 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think you're focusing way too much on the end product here. Profs don't assign papers [only] to demonstrate learning, any more than personal trainers assign minutes on the treadmill to demonstrate fitness. The point of a paper is that writing itself is the learning: you're training your mind to think a certain way. In rehashing the notes, you internalize them, you have to think about how to restructure them in this new form, you analyze and synthesize them in ways that wouldn't be possible if you were just passively receiving the information without producing anything based on it. The idea isn't that the effect of X on Z is this hugely important topic, or that you will be making some contribution to the field by writing on it. The idea is to force yourself to think about the effect of X on Z, because your prof (who's trained and highly experienced in the learning process) has deemed that that exercise is a useful step for firming up your understanding of the topic. Believe me, your final product in no way defines who you are, to the prof or to anyone else; they are grading you not to judge you, but to incentivize you to do the work. So don't worry about getting creative; just do the reps.

(Also, procrastination is a bitch, but the best way I've found around it is just to own the process. Stop thinking about the end product, pick one unit of the work you've got to do-- one article to outline, one chapter to annotate, whatever-- and just spend 20 minutes doing it, until you get excited about the steps you've got to follow. The perennially-recommended Pomodoro Method is your friend here, too.)
posted by Bardolph at 9:08 AM on September 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

In an emergency I actually get my husband to sit down with me and my laptop and he makes me explain to him what I want to say, watches me type it out, and then makes me explain the next part, and so on. Literally paragraph by paragraph. It stops me wandering off topic or getting distracted.

It's kind of embarrassing that in my late 30s that's how I produce research papers, but there you go. I only ask him to do it as a last resort, not every time I need to write something. It does work - I finished a 3000-word review article in less than a day last week. If you have a sympathetic SO or sibling it might be worth giving it a go since this is kind of an emergency.
posted by tinkletown at 9:48 AM on September 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

Maybe re-conceptualize your goal -- you want to do the "asked for" thing well, not do something groundbreaking.

As for how, practically, to overcome the thoughts and just write? A few ideas:

- It might help to open up a second document where you dump all those thoughts. Then in the brief moments of clarity that follow, get on with writing the basic essay.

- Also, try a count-up timer. See how long you can remain on task. See if you can beat your last record, until you get to being able to work about 50 minutes at a time, then switch to Pomodoro.

- Toggle between the two tasks, so that when you're avoiding one, you're doing the other.
posted by salvia at 9:58 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Assuming you've read what you are supposed to have read you could break it down into nice, very manageable, often individually pointless pieces.

One of the things I've found helpful is to start to write something, anything. To make it vaguely relevant I started with writing up my references.

Then I'd jot down the plot/structure/flow of argument, from that I'd draft my headings, sub-headings etc.

Then I'd write the conclusion, because you need to have worked that out if you want to plot the rest and have some kind of line of argument that makes sense.

By then I was writing and I started to fill in the various headings and sub-headings in whatever order seemed intuitive.

Before I knew it the thing was outlined as a rough draft and everything else was fine tuning.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:23 AM on September 1, 2015

First: find a pomodoro timer. It is magic.

Then: mindmap. Go crazy with colours, arrows and doodles.

Then: sort the mindmap into three categories - beginning, middle and end.

Then: imagine you are writing the wikipedia entry.

Then: write chunks of the beginning middle and end. NOT the whole thing - just chunks.

Then: read what you have done, find the red thread running through your chunks. Revise, edit.

FINALLY: write the opening the sentence and your conclusion. Make sure opening paragraph relates to conclusion. Hand it in and go relax.
posted by kariebookish at 11:32 AM on September 1, 2015

It's just a game - your job is to tick their boxes and demonstrate that you paid attention and found the correct pages in your notes for the assignment. That's what used to get my through pointless assignments in my (ugh, too man) degrees.

The other thing that helped me was seeing it as a contextualisation and memorisation exercise. Yes, other people have said it better, but the act of writing your own explanation will cement it far better than reading the way they said it.
posted by kadia_a at 11:29 PM on September 1, 2015

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