Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Evil Twins

As a private tutor, I tell my students to focus on the positive, while still working on the other stuff, and sometimes I have to remind myself to do the very same thing.

The past fall/early winter was a very busy season for me, with clients working on academics as well as applications to new schools or college, and all the standardized tests those entail. It was wonderful and gratifying and now all my lower and middle schoolers know where they are going next year and the high school seniors are finally finished with their college applications. Yay team!

The fact is, however, that part of my work also involves writing - and I did not do that. Yes, I was busy, but I still had the time. I started my next article after the holidays, but I didn't like it, so I erased the whole thing. I wrote something else, still didn't like it, so I stopped. I turned my attention to other things, updating my website, researching new material, watching too much TV....all the while knowing I needed to post something, keep in touch with my readers, get my name out there, etc. But as time passed it got harder and harder; there was so much more work to do, any momentum I had was gone and I thought "Who really cares what I have to contribute anyway?"

Does that sound at all familiar?

I sometimes suffer from PROCRASTINATION, and its partner in crime, PERFECTIONISM. The combination can be debilitating to students, and heartbreaking to parents. It leads to late homework, missed deadlines, anxiety attacks, bad grades, worse confrontations, and an overall sense of uselessness and despair. The only strategy I have seen work is one that involves going against the saying "focus on the big picture." In my case, I have always looked at the pixels instead: the next few steps, or in some cases, just one baby step, in order to work my way out of a "P&P" funk. It's what I help clients who are caught under the same double-edged sword do as well.

If you have an overwhelming amount of homework to do (whether or not you've been putting it off), then the mountain of books and papers facing you can look like Mt.Olympus. Instead of taking in the whole, take out one assignment. Is it due tomorrow? OK, that goes in one pile. Not until the following day? That's a different pile. Next week, but requires preparation? Again, another pile. Notice as you sort and separate you have created much more manageable groups of work to do, each with their own priority and timeline. Let's say you have a geometry test or a pop quiz coming up (that you shouldn't know about but do), and you are terrified because you haven't studied? Then by all means start studying! - but don't think of the entire cram session; focus on one subject at a time - special right triangles, or circles, etc. Find a study partner - someone who will study with you, not distract you - and you will be all the more productive.

For the SATs, ACTs, or any other standardized test, you will need to learn vocabulary, re-learn some math and practice, practice, practice. As I say to every single one of my students, vocab is the easiest thing to learn and the last thing anyone does. Why? Because there are so many darn words! It's overwhelming. So break them up. One word a day. Five. During a commercial break of you favorite TV show. Make it a competition between you and your friends. Whoever learns the most words every week gets an iTunes gift card. Whoever learns the least has to buy someones else a Starbucks card.

Please note: the last two paragraphs are about what you can do. The words "can't," "should," and "should have" have no place here. Ever.

About perfectionism: having to do it exactly right, or not at all. It is a hideous trap, and it is also a lie. Nothing we do will ever be perfect, and unfortunately for some of us, we end up feeling like nothing will even be good enough. Eventually we give up altogether. Personally I have come to the conclusion that "perfection" is actually the domain of the divine, so there is no need for me to set such an impossible standard for myself. I still strive for it, but I will never reach it - and that's okay. It doesn't mean I stop working.

Also, to say "it's not perfect so I won't try" is a complete cop out. It's an excuse because I am scared, or overwhelmed, or I just want to go to procrastinate some more. See how those two Ps work together? Evil twins, they are.

The fact is, the "P&P" trap doesn't make the work go away, it just makes us feel worse. "Do you know how much I have to do now?" is a common refrain. "Yes, the same amount you will have to do tomorrow, but there will be more of it." So take some baby steps, give yourself a break (but don't take a break!), and do your best. "Perfect" is useless. That pile of work still looks like Olympus, but none of us are gods, so we can just do the work,

Alexandra Zabriskie has worked as a private tutor on standardized tests and academics for over a decade. An Ivy League graduate and New York City native, she knows what it takes to succeed, covering everything a student needs from A to Z.