Unconscious Self-Sabotage

It’s 10:00 PM, you’ve got 2 assignments due tomorrow, a quiz the next day, and an exam the day after that. You haven’t eaten dinner yet, and you haven’t started either assignment. You think to yourself, “if I could just clear this to-do list, I would manage my time better. I wouldn’t get behind again.” You knuckle down to work the assignments, but the quiz and the exam continue to eat your attention.

And the biggest problem of all: you were in the same place yesterday, with different work against different deadlines.

As we continue exploring ways to make this the best semester ever, I’d like to invite you to examine your life. I said that we would dig in to 3 things teachers are doing that put students in a frenzy, and also 3 things that students are doing that put themselves in a frenzy. This is the first one for students.

I said that this one is your fault, student. And it is. Sort of.

Stay in Line.

First, let’s talk about why it isn’t your fault. Three of the key elements of a good story are (1) a hero who wants something, (2) a barrier to obtaining it, and (3) a guide with a plan to help the hero reach the goal. Luke Skywalker, Rocky, Frodo, Neo, and Pinocchio wouldn’t have made much of an impact without Obi-Wan, Mickey, Gandalf, Morpheus, and Jiminy Cricket.

We identify with the hero, but we love the guide. And we’re taught from a young age to find the guide and follow them (almost blindly). Luke Skywalker only screws up when he second-guesses Obi-Wan. Pinocchio’s darkest moments could have been avoided if he had just listened to Jiminy Cricket.

We’re also taught to view our teachers as the guides in our own lives. And we’re certainly taught to do what they tell us to.

We love to shift the responsibility for our lives. When we give ourselves over to following the instructions of our guides, we don’t have to bear the blame for ending up somewhere we don’t like.

Think for yourself.

The problem with following guides our entire lives is that we stop thinking about what we are doing and why we are doing it. We slip into a routine of doing what everyone around us does, because normal must be right. Here’s an example:

In a class I teach, the average student works 16 hours per week in addition to being a full time student. They earn somewhere around $8/hour. That’s about $500/month before taxes. Work is a constant excuse, cited when schoolwork is turned in late and why students need an extension. In other words, they acknowledge that working a job stands in opposition to learning, but don’t see a way out. When asked why they work, they say that they “have to.”

These same students reported eating takeout lunch 4-5 times per week ($7/meal is $140/month). They eat takeout dinner 3-4 times per week, ($10/meal is $160/month). Why do they eat out? Because their friends are (maybe they shouldn’t be), because groceries are just as expensive (they aren’t), because they don’t have time to cook (they would if they eliminated 38 hours per month from their part-time jobs, plus commute time).

38 hours per month. That’s how long the average student in my class was working, just to eat out. The real trade is 38 hours of learning time for 38 hours of working time, plus the commute, plus the stress, all for meals out.

By the way, peanut butter and jelly is delicious. Especially if it buys you an extra 40 hours per month.

While we’re at it, the same excuse is used for other areas of life: “I don’t have time to exercise” is a common one…

 Learning takes time

Period. You don’t learn by watching (lectures). You don’t learn by reading solutions. And you certainly don’t learn by cramming or pulling all-nighter’s to get the work done. You learn by giving yourself dedicated time to learn.

Did you know that the university assumes you’re working 3 hours per credit outside of class. That’s 9-10 hours per week for a typical 3 credit class. When is the last time you actually dedicated that much time to a course? When is the last time you actually dedicated that much time to all of your courses?

The worst thing you learned in school

Start a task, and work on it until it is done. Professionals don’t do this. You don’t do this in any other area of your life. Yet you often end up in a position of being forced to.

Often the best way to be creative or productive is to walk away. You can’t do that if the assignment is due tomorrow morning and you’re just getting started.

Waking Up

The discussions here are examples, symptoms of the problem. The problem is that we often do things a certain way because that’s what everyone around us does.

  • Everyone borrows money to buy cars
  • Everyone is behind on their schoolwork
  • Everyone moves off campus for a better college experience
  • Everyone crams
  • No-one reads the textbook regularly
  • No-one has time for extra (unassigned or ungraded) exploration/work in a class
  • No-one has time to learn something that isn’t required

But maybe they shouldn’t. Or maybe they should. Regardless, you should do what you do intentionally. Not because you backed into it.

What self-sabotaging behaviors do you see in your own life? What could you do instead?

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