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Preparation Beats Perfectionism

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

Well, semester 1 is well under way, and I wonder how all the new students are faring.

You start out with great (maybe even, grand) intentions, and everything falls by the wayside in the flurry of assignments and group projects.

It can get very stressful, having to juggle study commitments with the rest of life. Even if you have a support network at home to allow you all the time and space to do your academic work, you still feel on edge and up against the walls that keep closing in, until after exam marks are posted!

First of all, just breathe. That's it. You can handle this. Now, clean up your desk, and organise what is permitted to go back on it, after you have cleaned it. Give yourself a "clean slate".

One of the things I discovered when I first started university, was a preponderance of perfectionism. I had completed the Open Foundation Certificate as a mature age student, with a bunch of other grown-ups. We got great marks in the Open Foundation, and as I look back now, those great marks were probably to encourage us to continue on into a Bachelors degree. Those great marks were not a realistic indication of how well-suited we were for tertiary study, but rather, they were enticements into a new world of possibility.

The upshot, to getting those inflated marks in the Open Foundation, was that some of us had an inflated sense of our own abilities at tertiary level. The downside was that we would experience a rude awakening at assignment and exam times. We couldn't figure out why we had gone from High Distinctions (HDs, the best marks) in the Open Foundation, to Credits or below in our undergraduate studies.

Often, the reason was simple. We had not been taught how to study, or prepare ourselves for the resource management required for university life.

What do I mean by "resource management"? How do you allocate time and space? How do you contribute to your household, stay psychosocially connected, feel materially secure and pay the bills, and have some fun as well?

Well, I would firstly posit that you need to do an inventory. You need to see what your responsibilities are, and make sure you can meet those reliably.

The next thing that needs listing in your inventory, is energy. You need to consider the kinds of energy you'll need, to get through a semester (at least). Energy can be money, or goodwill, or time and space, just to name a few.

So, energy is a catch-all word for lots of things.

Do you have a quiet space in which to do homework, research, write assignments, study, and test yourself (what I'll refer to from here as "academic work")? If not, where will you find it? Are you prepared to go to a library, at night? What if there are no quiet spaces there?

In your quiet space, do you have a desk and chair? Are you able to close the door on noise and temptation? Do you have to share the desk and chair with someone else (because you both can make it messy for each other)? Do you have to share the room?

A great idea for people who need space that folds away, is to build a foldaway desk into a wardrobe or cupboard (if you can). It's a piece of timber/laminate with hinges at the wardrobe/cupboard end, and a hinged leg that folds flush back into the bottom of the table. If you can fit all your desk things inside the wardrobe, and fold that desk away, it might be a handy option! Another, though not quite the right height, is an ironing board. Put it to good use as a stand-up desk!

Next, you need to think about how you manage time. Time is just as precious a resource as your quiet space. You need time to do all your academic work, but also time to be a reliable and considerate part of your household. You need Einstein Moments factored in, and I'm a big fan of housework-induced epiphanies, which I like to call Einstein Moments, because they're the times when you feel like a genius.

You see, when you spend about 20 minutes on your academic work, and then go do some housework, you give your brain time to file away the information you've been studying into where you can retrieve it. Then, your brain will make connections with other relevant stuff that's already in there, and bam! You get your epiphany! It sinks in. It becomes useful, and you feel as confident as a genius!

What do I mean by housework? Set the table for dinner. Sweep the floor. Wash and dry the dishes (and put them away). Vacuum the carpets. Hang out the washing (and bring it in folded, when it's dry). Mow the lawn. Weed the garden. You get the picture. Playing Xbox or computer games will not work!!

Study for 20, housework for 10.

It's in those everyday things, which are totally unrelated to the content of your study, that you will find your "a-ha!" moments.

Once you have space and time, you will probably need ways to deal with stress. We'll talk about that in other posts, but for now I want to flag the idea of meditation. I want to suggest something really easy, that you can bring into your study routine right now.

Sit down at your desk. Do not turn on the internet!!! Do not have your phone nearby!! Just sit at your desk (I call this, assuming the position). Now, as you sit at your desk, take a few moments to close your eyes and place your palms on your tummy (lower abdomen, for the purists). Breathe in deeply, so that you feel your hands move out with the ballooning of your tummy. Breathe out, and feel your hands go back down. Repeat, so that your inhalations make your belly swell and your exhalations make your belly contract. Focus on slowly breathing. Now you're ready to start studying. The beauty of this "belly breathing" technique, is that you can do it to set your intentions when you study, and to settle yourself when you sit down to do an exam.

Next, how do you deal with temptation? It could be that an Xbox game keeps calling you, or your mother keeps asking if you'd "like a cuppa". Maybe a friend is calling you. How do you deal with that? Well, to start with, you have to ask, "Is this really necessary, right now?", and you will find that the answer is usually, "No".

If you want a cuppa, or a meal, or a snack, you can include that in your Einstein Moment time. If you want a chat with your friend, you can factor that into your social time (yes, you can include that in your daily routine, because it's important to stay psychosocially connected too).

Feel free to be flexible, but try to reliably do your academic work (and Einstein moments) before you treat yourself to the things that don't contribute to your success. They are "positive reinforcements", and positive reinforcements are only valid, useful and appropriate, as a consequence of desired (or approaching-desired) behaviour. Let's talk about them in another post!

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