College has been a struggle with my mental illnesses. I thought I’d make a list of stuff that I have found through trial and error that works for me in hopes of having a nice list for other students who are struggling, anyone who has stuff to get done and has trouble doing it, and myself for when I inevitable forget about all the good skills I have to remind me that I can do things.
Set a timer and work on something for only x amount of time.
- This is good if the assignment seems too scary or overwhelming.
- You break it down into a smaller piece that you can handle and feel okay with. Sometimes I set my timer for 20 minutes, and sometimes I set it for 5, or even less. The key is to do something manageable.
- Then when the timer goes off, I stop and take a break. If I’m up for it, I set the timer again, but I don’t put any pressure on myself to do that.
- I give myself stickers when I do important stuff, especially stuff that’s hard for me or things that I’ve been procrastinating. I actually mainly use this for therapy stuff, not school stuff, e.g. I give myself stickers for doing exposures, being vulnerable, using skills instead of doing target behaviors, etc.
- Rewards can go along with the timer thing above. During my break, I can get to play one round of a game on my phone, go out to the lounge and hang out with friends, read comics, etc.
- Important note: do not use self care as a reward. A reward is something extra. Keep up with your normal self care habits regardless of whether or not you complete something. Take breaks regardless of whether or not you got anything done.
Ask. for. help.
- This can be really hard to do, and sometimes asking for help doesn’t actually get you the help you need, which feels awful, but overall asking for help is so essential.
- To me, asking for help means:
- asking questions in class when I’m confused,
- emailing the professor or TA when something is unclear,
- emailing my professor to ask for an extension when I’m going through a rough time,
- asking people in my class if we can work together on the problem set (if collaboration is allowed),
- asking people in my class how they did x problem I’m struggling with,
- going to office hours,
- emailing my disability services coordinator if I have questions or need something or am having a rough time,
- going to see my advisor,
- asking to switch my advisor when the relationship isn’t working,
- asking my friend if I can talk to her when I’m having a bad day,
- asking a friend if I can hang out with her,
- asking for a hug,
- asking my therapist if we can talk about something that’s been bothering me, or if we can have more frequent sessions,
- asking people in my suite if there’s a problem I’m not sure how to deal with or could just use some help with (mouse in my room, people are being too loud at night when I’m trying to sleep, etc.)
- and many other things
- The main thing that gets in the way of asking for help, for me, is lots of shame. I try to check the facts on whether the shame is justified and if the intensity is justified and effective. It’s usually not. Generally, asking for help will a) get me what I want and b) help to solve my problems and also c) show people I care enough about something and d) am working on it enough to ask.
Be realistic when planning out what to do.
- This is hard for me, especially when the amount of things I have to do is not possible.
- I have to radically accept that I cannot do everything, and I cannot be perfect.
- In that case, I have to decide what to skip. Sometimes this means getting less sleep, but I try not to do that because I know less sleep will make me feel worse later. Sometimes it means I don’t go to a club meeting, don’t answer all the questions, get some wrong, skim readings, miss a class, and don’t do things as thoroughly as I like to or as thoroughly as I think my professor would like me to, ideally.
- In these times it’s helpful for me to remember that other people are skimming the readings, not understanding everything, and getting questions wrong, too. No one is doing all the work.
- Being realistic is beneficial in the long run because I don’t feel as guilty later for not doing everything. I knew from the start that it was unrealistic, and I had already decided not to do something and accepted that I wasn’t going to do it.
Prioritize, and do the priorities first.
- I have a new planner this year that categorizes the to-do list into three sections: top priority, priority, and errands. This has been helpful to me because I sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the things I have to do. When I put them into the categories, I find that I only have a few top priority things to do, and most of the things I have to do are errands. It will be okay if I don’t get to the errands because they’re less important and less urgent. Knowing this helps me feel less stressed.
- When deciding what’s a priority, I think about this equation: priority = important + urgent.
- I also have a drawing on my wall of the fish tank thing where you put the big rocks in first. The fish tank thing…I’m not sure where I heard of this, but it was a while ago. Basically, you want to put the big rocks (important things) into your fish tank (you life, day, schedule) first so that the extra space is filled up with the less important things. If you put the smaller things (sand, gravel) in first, you will fill up your tank before you have room for all the big rocks. Here’s a video explaining it.
- In more concrete terms, for me this means having a rough bedtime to make sure I get enough sleep, blocking out time for meals, going to classes and doing homework before reading random emails and fiddling around on my computer, doing the assignment that’s due tomorrow instead of the one that’s due in two weeks, etc.
- Sometimes it’s hard to motivate me to do the highest priority things first when other things are more fun or easier. Recently I’ve learned (the hard way) just how guilty, ashamed, sad, angry at myself, and stressed I feel when I don’t do the important things. Although the intensity of these feelings is not justified (i.e. the magnitude is greater than the actual situation calls for, and I should use opposite action), I still want to avoid feeling like that. I’m currently using that as motivation to do the most important things first. (or first-ish)
- Lots of little breaks while you’re working (see timer thing),
- some longer breaks, maybe every few hours (or more/less frequently, depending on how you’re doing)
- and some really long breaks — I like to take Friday afternoon though Saturday afternoon off and not do things related to school. I also go home about once a month.
Have other important things in your life besides school/work.
- I like to think of the saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” If you put all your eggs in one basket and happen to drop the basket accidentally, all the eggs will crack. But if you keep some eggs at home and put some in a purple basket and some in a green basket, and then if something happens to the eggs in the purple basket, you will still have most of your eggs.
- When one things gets tough, you can rely on another to keep you going.
- Therapy, dancing/ballet, arts and crafts, and relationships with friends are things important to me outside of school. I spend time on them, have fun, and make progress. This also helps me keep some perspective. There is more to me than this one thing.
If you’re going to procrastinate, procrastinate effectively.
- If you just can’t do that hard thing now, do something else productive. Take a shower, do laundry, eat a meal, reply to an email, etc. Then you won’t have to do it later on, and you’ll feel accomplished!
Take care of yourself when you need to.
- If your anxiety is too high to concentrate at all, or you’re dissociating and can’t focus, or can’t stop crying and thinking bad thoughts, take a step back and evaluate what skills you need to use. Forget about work for now and just focus on taking care of yourself and your mental health. It’s more important. Use skills that you know work for you. Then go back to the work later, once you’ve recovered. Communicate upfront if you didn’t do something that others were relying on or expecting (e.g. group project). Be honest if you can.
Budget in extra time. Allow for mishaps.
- I’m not very good at this now but hope to be better at it. I sometimes have flashbacks or other crises that take me out of commission for a few hours. Ideally, I would not be doing my homework right before the deadline, and I would schedule in a few spare hours with nothing planned so that other things can flow over into it so that when this happens, it wouldn’t cause as great a problem, but I’m not there yet. I’m working on it.
Listen to music while working.
- This probably doesn’t work for everyone (well, nothing works for everyone), but I find music helpful in blocking out distractions. If I listen to upbeat music, it also keeps me somewhat energized and hopeful about what I’m doing. Today I’ve been listening to a 60s music playlist on youtube. 🙂
Keep up with normal self care habits.
- They generally make people feel better overall and more motivated and able to do things.
- Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. You can do it!! 🙂
In summary, because this was a long post:
- Set a timer and work on something for only x amount of time.
- Ask. for. help.
- Be realistic when planning out what to do.
- Prioritize, and do the priorities first.
- Take breaks!
- Have other important things in your life besides school/work.
- If you’re going to procrastinate, procrastinate effectively.
- Take care of yourself when you need to.
- Allow for mishaps. Budget in extra time.
- Listen to music while working.
- Keep up with normal self care habits.
- Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. You can do it!! 🙂