confidence

How to Manage End-of-Term Paper Pile-Up

It is a conspiracy. Your professors are trying to kill you. They have all made their term papers due within days of each other, and then come the final exams you have to study for.

Don’t die. You can’t give them the satisfaction. You must survive. Here’s how.

First, for some of you, things aren’t looking too bad until next week. DON’T BE FOOLED. This is part of their plan: lull you into a false sense of security, and then—WHAM, five different versions of 20 pages plus works cited and annotated bibliography and some new cover page format with something called an “abstract.” Not to mention overdue lab reports and “response” papers.

You need to start now.

Step One: Assess the Damage.

How much work do you have to do between now and the end of term? Make a four-column list of every single assignment:

Assignment | Due Date | Hours of Work | Instructor

“Hours of Work” is the number of hours it will take you to complete the assignment, including all reading, prewriting, writing, revising, proofreading, and packaging with ribbons and bows. If possible, estimate based on past experience with similar assignments: how long has it taken you? In any case estimate liberally; it’s usually a safe bet to multiply your initial guess by 1.5 or 2.

All right, now sit somewhere comfortable, grab a best friend or two and perhaps your favorite stuffed animal for moral support, and count up the total number of hours of work you have in front of you. Breathe. Drink some water. It’s going to be okay.

Step Two: See the Big Picture.

Make a large calendar that includes all the days between now and the end of the final exam period.—8½x11 is way too small; best to tape many 8½x11 sheets together, and put only 2–4 days on each sheet; the more space the better; make this calendar as big as your kitchen table. Write each assignment on a Post-It or small card or something, and place the assignments on their respective due dates; don’t stack: make sure you can see every single assignment.

Step Two-and-a-Half: Reserve Time Between Rounds

If you’re going into battle, be smart about it. Be rigorous about your conditioning. Especially during this period when you have to fire on all cylinders and go into double and triple overtime (to mix as many metaphors as possible), you must get plenty of sleep, eat actual food—you know, from nature—and take non-work breaks to refresh your energy.

For every day on your calendar, generously block out hours to sleep, eat, and chill. You can probably predict from past experience that you’ll end up crashing during those hours anyway if you become over-exhausted, so better to plan for them.

Step Three: Redistribute the Weight.

Now, if your teachers have colluded effectively, you will probably have two or more assignments due on top of each other, or so close together that it looks like you’ll have to work on two or more simultaneously. Proceed with caution.

You will now begin to see before you an illusion. It will appear that all you have to do is work on both assignments X and Y  for a couple of days and you’ll get them both done. Don’t believe it! It’s a mirage, a trick! Don’t try to multitask. Don’t try to be an academic superhero. It’s a fine tactic to move all your due dates back a day or two to give yourself some cushions, but you have to make it so that you can work on one assignment at a time.

Now, solve the calendrical puzzle. Here are the rules:

  • You may move assignments forward or backward on the calendar.
  • You may not let the work periods for multiple assignments overlap.
  • You must sleep and eat during your regular sleeping and eating times. (During this step, sleeping and eating take priority over finishing assignments by their due dates.)
  • You must chill for at least three hours (one or two in emergencies) between assignments.

Move assignments away from each other. When necessary, allow yourself to push some assignments past their due dates. When you do push an assignment past its due date, note that somehow (a red dot, a skull and crossbones…).

If you’ve rearranged your assignments so you can complete them one at a time and hand them all in on or before their due dates, you can skip to Step Five.

If, however, you now have some assignments that are scheduled to be done after their due dates, you must proceed to Step Four.

Step Four: Negotiate.

Ask for extensions on those assignments you needed to push forward on the calendar. It is perfectly respectable to ask for an extension if you ask for it in advance. It might help to fold up your calendar and bring it with you to show your teachers the work schedule you’ve made for yourself. It will show that you have taken control of this difficult but very common situation, and that you are managing it responsibly. This will warm your professors’ hearts, and they will gladly do what they can to help you succeed. Sometimes a professor will respond that a particular assignment can’t be handed in late for one reason or another. If that happens, enlist that professor’s aid in rearranging your calendar so that you can get everything done without fasting or losing sleep.

Step Five: Do Good Enough Work.

Finally, do your assignments, one at a time, and work on them in a goal-oriented way. No masterpieces when you’re under time pressure. Write good, solid, coherent, workmanlike papers. Here is a tried and true essay writing method and template you can use to make the process more efficient. I used to call it the “essay mill.”

Make sure you proofread! It would suck to put in hours of work on many papers and lose points all over the place for not following through.

Reminder: Make Clean Transitions.

Every time you complete an assignment you need to do three things:

  1. Mark it as done on your calendar.
  2. Celebrate its completion.
  3. Take a substantial break before starting the next one.

Marking the assignment done will clear it from your plate, and you’ll feel lighter and more hopeful of success. Celebrating will reinforce your accomplishment, your feeling that you’re getting somewhere, and that will have the effect of refreshing your determination to see this through to the end. Taking a break will act as a palate cleanser: you’ll be able to turn your thoughts away from the last assignment and focus on the next one.

Won’t it be satisfying, at semester’s end, to know that when your professors dished out their worst, you were strong and judicious and skillful, and successfully completed all that work? What a confidence-builder! And think how light and spacious it will feel to be finished and truly free from school, with the warmth and green of summer stretching out before you.

 

Protect Your Precious Resources with Reserves

How often do you find yourself facing an overwhelming combination of things you have to take care of—assignments at school, responsibilities at work, maintenance of children and other family—when you already feel spent? This could also manifest as a pile of bills to be paid out of a checking account that’s run dry; or a regular schedule with too many commitments and not enough time in the day to keep them all. When situations like these develop, it’s easy to feel tremendous pressure and anxiety. If they happen over and over again in one or more areas of your life, a typical and perfectly understandable response is to feel trapped on an unstoppable roller coaster that’s failed every safety inspection for the last ten years.

Step back and notice a pattern—an ecological pattern—in all of the above-mentioned anxiety-producing situations: in every one of them there is an overcommitment, and consequently an overconsumption, of resources. The resources are all yours: your energy, your time, your money, and (lest we forget) your attention. Often there are no quick fixes in an ecological crisis, but there are ways to slow the roller coaster, bring it to a stop, and reverse course back to ecological health. What is ecological health? The reverse of desperation: abundance; enough; reserves.

If all this is all too familiar to you, you’ve had ample experience of being overextended and exhausted. But you’ve almost certainly also had the experience of having enough of some things. What are you confident about? Most of the time when you feel confident about your ability to do something, reserves are involved. If you feel (not imagine, but feel) confident that you will pass a test, you probably have reserves of knowledge in that area. If you feel confident that you’ll be able to take a shower tomorrow morning, you probably have reserves of water to draw on. Superheroes are confident because they have reserves of power and agility, not to mention chic costumes. If you’re confident you can pay all your bills, you know where the money’s coming from.

Stop and think. In what areas of your life do you have reserves?

Think of something you make sure you always have enough of. It could be an intangible and inexhaustible wellspring, like respect for your parents or love for your children, or it might be something material that could run out but which you actively prevent from running out. How many ways to you have to check your e-mail or watch your favorite show or play video games? If one device breaks, are you sunk, or do you have reserves? What things to you actively keep in good supply?

When this concept of reserves was first introduced to me, I had a hell of time wrapping my mind around it. I was asked: “What would it feel like, Mark, to have reserves of time?” Now, for me, being early to an appointment usually means arriving before the second-hand on my watch has reached the apex of the dial. I really couldn’t imagine what reserves of time would feel like. I was in my kitchen at that moment, and I happened to glance up at my cereal shelf.

I eat plenty of cereal—no, not Fruity Pebbles; I like Cheerios (no generic replacements, please!) and Weetabix Crispy Flakes. Cheerios I can get at any supermarket. But Weetabix Crispy Flakes are a specialty item. Finally I found a supermarket, one that I regularly pass but which is a forty-five minute drive from home, that always has them. Not wanting to run out and have to drive nearly an hour to get more, I keep an abundant supply. At that moment when I looked up at my cereal shelf, I had about a dozen boxes. I have reserves of Weetabix Crispy Flakes.

It dawned on me that having as much extra time as I had extra cereal would feel very secure and comfortable.

Feeling that way became my goal. It’s a much easier goal to work toward and to achieve than striving not to be constantly in a rush, and beating myself up when I know, the moment I leave my house, that I’m already late and there’s nothing I can do to change that.

I now think about my time totally differently than I used to. I schedule things more carefully and responsibly. I no longer get too hungry, because I have time to eat in between appointments. I have plenty to do, but I no longer run myself ragged. Instead of constantly running to catch up, I am able to move from one activity to the next with full commitment and attention, which is not only better for me but better for my clients and students and family and friends.

Begin by appreciating what resources you have—how you keep them, how you replenish them, how you protect them. You can use the Successful Experiences exercise described in this post to take stock of your reserves, and reinforce the knowledge that this is something you do all the time, and can do in other contexts. Pay attention to your reserves, and you can develop reserves of attention, which you can then apply to restoring your own ecological balance.

 

Are You Self-Actualized?

Psychologist Abraham Maslow believed that we are all born to develop our gifts and strengths, and reach our fullest potential. He called this “self-actualization.”

Are you self-actualized?

If so, you:

  • Live life to the fullest
  • Work to fulfill your potential
  • Have a sense of mission or purpose in your life
  • See what is, rather than what should be
  • See problems as challenges to be solved
  • Accept yourself as you are
  • Accept others as they are
  • Accept the ways and acts of Nature as they are and as they occur
  • Exercise your creativity
  • Are spontaneous and playful, not rigid
  • Are and feel independent
  • Enjoy privacy and time alone
  • Establish and maintain loving bonds with others
  • Feel a kinship with humanity
  • Have a non-hostile sense of humor
  • Feel an ongoing appreciation of life, including the little things
  • Take and create opportunities to have “peak experiences ”

Don’t worry if you didn’t mentally check all of these, or most of them, or the coolest-sounding ones. Maslow believed that self-actualizing is the business of a lifetime, and that different aspects of self-actualization arise at different times in our lives.

The most important thing: appreciate your peak experiences. Peak experiences are times when you feel fully engaged, on top of the world, transcendent, fulfilled, at one with the way things are, expansive, at peace, joyful. Examples include climbing a mountain, winning an award, completing a work of art, watching a baby being born, connecting deeply with someone.…

Why is appreciating peak experiences so important? In the same spirit as the adage “you are what you eat,” you are what you attend to and savor and reflect on. Those moments when you are most in tune with your purpose and most in flow are moments when you are your truest self. Paying attention to, savoring, and reflecting on those moments make them yours, make them a lasting, fruitful part of your reality instead of forgotten episodes in an unread biography.

So, don’t worry if you didn’t check all the items in the above list, or most of them, or the coolest-sounding ones. Rather, take a moment now—an extended moment—to appreciate fully those accomplishments, those moments of beauty, those blessings you are fortunate to be able to include in your experience.

 

Process Writing

Process writing (A.K.A. process notes, A.K.A. metacognitive writing) is the quintessential self-learning tool.

After doing any freewriting exercises, reflect on the writing and thinking process you were just engaged in. Did anything surprise you? What was your experience while you were writing? (—anxious, liberated, fuming, vulnerable, giddy—whatever it was, elaborate on it). What was interesting about the arc the writing took?

Process notes are especially useful and revealing when they reflect on the composition of an essay or the creation of a work of art. Because essays and art projects are long, involved processes, it is best to pause and do some process writing at various stages throughout the project. For instance, you have an Economics assignment on stock investing that initially you’re not sure how you want to approach; but later, while watching an ice hockey game on T.V. it all suddenly becomes clear to you: Of course! an investment is just like the puck, getting slapped up and down the ice! (value fluctuations)—and the players are investment brokers, checking each other on the boards and trying to score! (Can you tell I’m not an economist?)… Anyway, after you scribble down your brilliant idea (in a focused freewrite, of course), follow up with process notes on just how stumped you were when you first got the assignment, and then how you became inspired.

Process writing is done as a narrative, not as an outline. (In that respect, the term itself, “process notes,” is a little misleading, because they’re not the kind of notes you can jot down on Post-Its.) One way of thinking of process writing is to tell the story of what happened in your thinking process and in your writing process;—a story more like a personal essay, less like a report;—a story about how your intimations arose from the primordial goo of your brain, and were fruitful and multiplied, and how and by what/whom they were influenced, and how you nurtured them into ideas, and lo, how you brought them forth and arranged them just so onto sheets of paper, and they were good.

The reflective aspect of process notes is key. Imagine you were going to write about an experience you had with your family: you’d write it reflectively, thinking about what happened and why, just as much as (if not more than) merely recounting the bare events. In this very same way, your process notes should talk about the conception and writing/making of your essay or art project as your experience, not merely as an assigned activity. Why do process notes take this tack? Because an assigned activity ultimately belongs to the class that assigns it, whereas a writing or artistic experience belongs to the writer/artist: you. Process notes are a way of taking full ownership of what you’ve created.

It is true that students and even many faculty have found the exact purpose of process notes elusive. You might feel that this metacognitive exercise is arbitrary and redundant: “I already wrote the paper! You want me to explain it again?” Like response journals, process writing is a method of inquiry and learning, except whereas in response journals you’re writing about the assigned reading, in process notes the subject you’re writing about is yourself—you as learner and author. Patricia Hampl in her essay “Memory and Imagination” makes the distinction between “writing what I know” and “writing to find out what I know.” The benefits of process notes come more into focus if we augment Hampl’s statement to: writing to find out how and what I’ve learned, how and what I think, how and what I write. This kind of reflection is usually not manifest in the essay itself.

In process notes the writer becomes the object of examination and analysis. Some people have found this image helpful: To write the essay, I read, take notes, compose, edit. To write process notes, I step outside of myself and observe myself reading, taking notes, composing, editing… in order to gain insight into the evolution of my thinking. The question remains, though, to what end?

One of my mentors and a former colleague, Jamie Hutchinson, offered this as one of process writing’s many useful purposes: “[To learn] how to make a case for what one has written, both its form and content.” The ability to articulate a case for something you yourself have written implies a capacity to see yourself in a broader context of other learners and authors; to be able to think of yourself on the same plane as and in relation to, for example, Patricia Hampl, or the author of the text you’ve just been assigned to read, instead of being content to sit back and shout praise or criticism at books from the grandstand. In a more immediate sense, articulating a case for your writing enables you to see and think of yourself in relation to fellow learners and writers (including faculty) in your class at your school.

Perhaps more than any other type of writing assignment, process notes build intellectual community. Certainly metacognitive writing directly fosters the conscious (as opposed to impulsive) development of authorial voice.

Despite all these Utopian pedagogical sentiments, many people nevertheless find process notes difficult either to do or to explain how to do, or both. Really the only known remedy for this predicament is to practice process writing until their benefits become self-evident, as when the obscured image suddenly emerges out of a “Magic Eye” pattern. Once you’ve beheld their effects, process notes might very well become a learning tool you never want to do without.

 

Need Confidence? Plant a Tree

If you’re feeling like you need a boost to your self-confidence, try this exercise.

Find a place to be where it’s quiet and you won’t be disturbed. Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Imagine that inside of your being is a patch of earth. Plant the seed of a tree there. Water it, if you like, or just make the sky rain gently, and then make the sun come out. (It’s your inner space: anything you want to happen there will happen, and only what is good for you can happen.) Let the seed grow into a tree. What kind a tree is it? Let the roots extend deep into the ground, the trunk grow thick, and the canopy branch fully.

You can sit under this tree, climb it, go inside of it, fly from branch to branch, stand on top of it, talk to it. You never know—your tree might be able to talk, aloud or in your thoughts, just like the Ents (giant talking trees) in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. All trees are wise and strong.

Visit your tree in quiet moments as often as you like: it will always be there. Its roots can reach down to the center of the earth; it can grow all the way to the stars.

The time you spend with your attention on something inside you that is as lofty and deep as it wants to be, super strong and stable, and as wise as the earth itself, is time spent conditioning your neurocognition to think in these ways, time spent conditioning your soul to identify with these qualities. Increased confidence is only one of the many benefits of doing this exercise.
 

 

Have Confidence!

Back to school. “Have confidence!” people tell you. Have confidence? Really? How? By snapping your fingers? Well, here’s one quick and easy, tried and true method.

Make a list of successful experiences you’ve had in the past. Size doesn’t matter: baking brownies, riding a bike without falling, making a toast at your sister’s wedding that’s so good everyone cries with joy, and getting into college are all successful experiences. Make this list LONG—once you get a couple down, you’ll keep thinking of more. Recall a few new successful experiences every day; just notice and acknowledge them.

This simple exercise can help you feel up to any reasonable challenge and make your days flow with greater ease. If you do it in earnest, it works like magic. Really.

May you have too many successful experiences to count this semester!
 

 

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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