Settling into university life

To all new students welcome to the University of Reading, and welcome back to all of you who are returning to continue with your studies. Well done for your efforts and achievements to get to this point. And to those who took resits, well done too for your efforts to make progress.

Those of you who are about to start a new course this may be the first time that you are away from home and living independently. Some of you may be coming to university as a break from work to improve your career opportunities and are looking forward to learning about your chosen subject. At the same time, it may feel a bit strange to be a student again. And some of you may have travelled a long distance from your home country to come to study in the UK.

Whether you have travelled a long distance or have come from a nearby area, there will be many changes that you will experience as you start your new life here at Reading. And for those of you who are continuing with your studies starting a new academic year will also bring some changes that will require some time to adjust to.

A new beginning
Any new beginning is a time of many changes. Whatever the environment and activities you were involved in before now you will notice many differences as you begin a new chapter in your academic and personal life.

Whenever we decide to do something new it is because we want to grow, develop and make things better. We want to make progress so that we can gain knowledge and experience by seeing, doing and learning new things.

Starting a new life at university will bring many new experiences that will be interesting and motivating. However, sometimes you may have moments of uncertainty, frustration or perhaps disappointment. Most people going through a period of change are likely to experience some of these feelings, particularly when they have invested a lot of resources, and made great efforts hoping for greater opportunities for the future.

Most of you probably made the decision to come to Reading to study something that you hope will be stimulating, and that will include developing the skills and knowledge for your future professional career. Furthermore, when in a new place all hope to make new friends and establish relationships where it is possible to feel comfortable to talk and share experiences.

Often in new situations there are some things that we do not like so much, if this is the case consider that these too are part of the experience. Imagine that these events will become your stories that made a difference to you and that you can share with others in the future.

Developing relationships
The first few weeks at university are likely to fill you with a sense of curiosity, interest and excitement. Making a transition into a new situation can be an experience that triggers a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, in your previous environment you knew the people around you and had established relationships with them. Now it is necessary to take the initiative to meet new people who at first you do not know whether you can relate to and develop a friendship.

In the beginning you are likely to notice differences and perhaps may compare with what you are familiar. At first it may feel awkward and uncomfortable, and this may be a bit unsettling. Keep in mind that these feelings are normal when going through a period of change. After a few days, as you get to know more and you begin to find your way around in your new environment, you will gradually notice that things begin to feel more familiar and that you are getting to know other students who you can relate to.

In addition, when being away from home you also have to establish a new way of relating with your families and friends who now cannot participate in your new life. Fortunately, technology enables communications so that you can keep in contact with them to share what is happening and how things are developing for you.

Managing transitions
Transitions begin with endings. Whenever we make a change it means we leave something behind. Sometimes we may miss what we left, such as family, a group of friends, a familiar environment, and a sense of feeling confident about how to do things as we were used to the way things were done in school, or at work.

Whenever we move to live in a different environment there is a natural process of reorientation. This is when we have to adapt to a new situation where a lot of things are very different to what we have been used to. During this process we also go through an internal process of adaptation where we reorient how we see ourselves, and how we relate to others.

For some, starting university can be an opportunity to make a new start and make changes that will allow them to feel better. This could be due to having had a difficult experience either in their personal life or perhaps after a period of illness. Some may be learning to live with a chronic health condition, and others may be adjusting to living with a complex family situation.

In order to adjust to the new situation it helps to trust your experience of how you adapted to other situations before, and focus on the present where you will find new and interesting opportunities and discover your strengths and build your resilience.

As human beings we have the tendency to compare the new situation with our past experiences, sometimes we feel where we came from was better than the current situation. At times we may feel that the new people we meet are not like our friends and family back home, who we know for a long a time and who understand us without having to give explanations.

Sometimes we may experience doubt and worry about what would be best so it can be difficult to make decisions. If things do not work out at first how you hoped they would it does not mean that you made the wrong decision. For example, if you feel disappointed that the module is not what you expected, or that your accommodation is not quite what you hoped for. Instead, you can look for some aspect of the situation that can provide you with useful information and decide what you can do to make things better next time.

Transitions are times of renewal and they provide us with the opportunity to make changes that bring us positive feelings and experiences. We are motivated to improve and to have a sense of achievement. We feel good when we can have a sense of satisfaction for having done something that is meaningful.
Each day look for what was good about your day, and what you learned. If there were some disappointing or frustrating experiences decide what you can learn from the experience, and what you may do different next time.

Things to do to manage the transition and adjust to your new environment:

1.Develop healthy routines:
Starting a new life at university will bring a lot of changes, both in terms of different ways of doing things, new information to take in and adjusting to relating to new people. It will also bring a lot of internal changes in terms of how you feel about your choices, your feelings and how you see yourself. Your whole body will be experiencing changes, from noticing the difference in food, how people do things around you, or how the bed is different from the one you have been used to. A change of environment can have an impact on how our body reacts, for example, it may take a bit of time to adjust your sleep pattern.

During transitions it t is important to maintain our energy level as we need it to process information and manage our emotions. To maintain your energy it is essential to develop healthy routines such as eating well to nurture your body, exercise to strengthen your fitness, and sleep well to maintain an optimum level of energy. This is fundamental to feel well and confident as you go about your day.

2. Communicating in a second language:
As you are absorbing significant amounts of new information your brain is working hard to process all of it so that you can use it in your day-to-day.  For those who are coming from other countries you will be working hard as you are getting used to doing all of this in a second language, and it will require time to build language proficiency and confidence in your skills.

Even though you might feel self-conscious speaking in English focus on practising the language as much as you can. Instead of trying to speak the language without errors, keep in mind that what matters is to communicate with others. If you do not understand something do ask others to repeat, and others will be understanding as they also want to communicate with you. After a while you will build your confidence and will gradually become more fluent.

2.Focus on learning:
You will experience many new things during this academic year, particularly in the first few weeks when you are adjusting to being in a new place. If you experience something very different to what you were expecting, or something doesn’t work out as you hoped for, it is likely that you may feel disappointed or worried. Give yourself a bit of time to acknowledged these feelings. Then, look for new information and what you can learn from it.

3. Adjusting to academic workload:
At first, you may notice that you are not sure what is expected, and may feel that the workload is greater than you were used to before. If so, pause for a moment and give yourself time to learn new strategies to manage your studies. Give yourself time to adjust and to find out what works best for you.

You can contact your Tutors and ask for advice. You can check the Study Advice website where you will find useful information on study techniques, and more. You can also arrange a visit to ask questions which will enable you to make good progress with your assignments.

4. Understanding homesickness:
When starting in a new place the first few days and sometimes the first few weeks can be unsettling. You may feel that although you want to go out and participate in the activities you may not feel too keen to be in a large group, or be in a situation where you do not know anyone. Although this can bring a mixture of emotions that prevent you from enjoying your time, give yourself permission to feel upset and unsettled. These feelings are not a sign that you have made the wrong decision to come to university, or that you cannot manage. It just means that you are going through a transition and that your body needs a bit of time to adjust to the new environment, and to the new people around you.

When feeling homesick there is a tendency to feel as if you are the only one experiencing these feelings. However, many students have gone through the challenges of settling into university life and have found ways to get through these times.

To manage this period you can remind yourself of the transition periods you have gone through before (eg.from primary school to secondary school), and that after a while you gradually got used to the new situation. Think about what things you like doing, perhaps you can invite another student in your flat to go out and explore the campus or you can go into town and explore your new environment.

2.Focus on the new opportunities:
You may already have explored the university website to find out what activities are available that you can explore, and where you can meet other students who are also looking to meet new people and make friends. You can check RUSU – the Students Union website, or go to their offices on Whiteknights campus to find out about what activities and services they offer.

During Welcome Week you will receive information from your department about your course, and you will have the opportunity to meet staff. You can also find out about a variety of services available to support students such as your support centre administrators.

If you wonder which of the activities available will be something you may like, but feel uncertain about trying them out, you can ask for more information to see if you want to participate in them. Perhaps you may feel that it is difficult to decide what to do first, or perhaps you may wonder how to decide which activities are worth going to as you would like to make the most of your time. As there are so many things available it is likely that you might feel uncertain about what would be best to do and not miss out on anything. Even if you do not get to see and do what you would to keep in mind that there will be many opportunities to explore new activities during the academic year.

Adapting to new situations involves taking risks, so if the activity was not what you expected, for example, if the evening out was not as enjoyable as you hoped it would be give yourself credit for having tried it. It was not a mistake as you did not know how it would turn out. You can try another activity next time and this way you give yourself the opportunity to meet new people.

Whenever we try something new we are stretching ourselves and going out of our comfort zone. This can make us feel uncomfortable, but we do this because we want to meet people and have good experiences. After a while the sense of unease decreases and a you will develop a sense of familiarity and confidence.

Learning to tolerate frustration and disappointment will enable you to move forward, and by keeping an open mind, maintaining a flexible attitude and a sense of curiosity you will be able to identify new opportunities. What is important is that you explore and that you eventually find what works for you.

Wishing you a stimulating time and that you have rewarding experiences during the year that you are now beginning.

Reference:

Bridges, W. (2004) Transitions. Making sense of life´s changes. Massachusetts: Da Capo Press.

 

 

Preparing for exams

Strategies to revise for resits

You may be preparing for one or more exams in the next few weeks. Perhaps you are feeling frustrated that you have to spend part of your summer holiday revising for resits instead of taking a break from academic work.

It can be difficult to concentrate on your studies when comparing with others who are not taking exams this summer. You may also be concerned about how things will turn out for you, and whether you will pass your modules to continue on to the next academic year. It is understandable that you may have these thoughts and feelings, particularly if you feel you worked hard during the year. Unfortunately, sometimes things do not work out as we hoped despite our efforts, and as a result you may be wondering what you can do differently to improve your results.

In order to manage your frustration, and save your energy for your revision, give yourself credit for your decision to take the exams again. You are giving yourself the opportunity to improve and make progress in your studies.

Perhaps your mind is focused on the hard work involved, or on the disappointment you may be feeling as you think about the things you are missing out on. Instead, redirect your attention and focus on your decision to prioritise your studies as these are important to you. By persevering with your efforts you will move closer to your goals.

                           “Every minute is a chance to turn it all around.” (Cameron Crowe)

So what can you do to maintain your motivation, and increase your capacity to remember the material?

1. View mistakes as a learning opportunity
It may have been frustrating to realise that you got some answers wrong during the summer exam period. Change your perspective and see these errors as providing you with information that you can use to learn and make improvements.

2. Review your study process
Look back on how you revised for your previous exams, and reflect on what you did or didn’t do well. What do you think you could different this time? Perhaps when you went over your notes you had a sense that you knew the material, and it was a surprise when in the exam you could not remember the information?

Research indicates that when studying by reading notes repeatedly it can give a sense of familiarity with the material. This can give a false sense of confidence that we know enough and believe we will remember it later. Instead, it is recommended to use questions to test ourselves on what we have read (Arnold & McDermott 2013).

When revising write out questions about the material, then close your books and ask yourself the questions to practice recalling the content. It is also recommended to space the study periods so that the material can be consolidated making it easier to recall when required (Soderstrom, Kerr, Bjork, 2016). The practice of recalling content requires effort, making us work harder to retrieve the information (Willingham, 2009). The more you use this technique the more your brain will get used to making connections, strengthening them, and with practice it will get easier to access the material you have learned.

3. Create an environment where you can study
To study effectively we need a space that is not cluttered, and one that you can associate with studying. Dedicate a space where you can focus on your revision. Check that you have a comfortable chair, good light and that you have the necessary materials to get on with your revision.

If you know that you get easily distracted by the notifications on your phone put it on silent, and leave it in a drawer where you cannot see it, nor hear the notifications. You can retrieve it during your breaks, and use it as a reward: it will be motivating to check your messages and keep in touch with others.

If you are tempted to check social media or the internet on your laptop or tablet, set your devices aside for a set period of time.You can experiment with making notes on paper for a while, to allow you to continue learning without being
distracted.   Perhaps it is difficult to eliminate all distractions; however, aim to reduce the sources that could prevent you from concentrating on your task and delay your progress.

4. Create a daily routine
In order to be able to study effectively, it is important to have some structure to manage your energy level and your time so that you can concentrate and maintain your strength to persevere with your efforts. Identify a pattern that works for you.

Having a routine can help you to get into the habit of studying, and it can reduce the sense of pressure related to preparing for exams.It can also reduce the amount of effort and energy required to get started as your brain can rely on your routine to prompt you to continue studying. Develop a timetable to structure your time.

You may want to experiment with the Pomodoro technique where the aim is to structure revision by using slots of time (about 25 min) for revision, and a break (5 min). You can repeat the cycle a few times, allowing for a longer break after two or three short revision sessions. This technique can be motivating as at the end of the day you can count how many slots of 25 min you have done.

Creating a routine that becomes predictable can help to create a habit that you can rely on. This is how you can strengthen your willpower to persevere with your goals, and develop intrinsic motivation to enable you to get things done (McGonigal, 2015). When we notice progress it is motivating and can lead to having a sense of achievement.  This in turn, can build your confidence in your ability to get things done.

5. Focus on learning
Research indicates that by adopting a “growth mindset” (Dweck, 2010), we can increase our mental agility. The emphasis is on having the belief that we are capable of developing our knowledge and skills. This means that by maintaining a flexible attitude, were our mistakes are viewed as part of the learning process and we expand our learning capacity.

Our experiences shape how we learn.The more we focus on the learning aspects of our experiences (even if they are frustrating and difficult), the stronger the connections in our brain to consolidate the material we are learning (Soderstrom, Kerr, and Bjork, 2016).

As we notice we are making progress it can boost our confidence in our capacity to learn, improve our mood, and motivate us to persevere with our efforts to keep going.

6. Keep your priorities in mind
When making decisions about what to do during the day, keep in mind what is most important to you. This will enable you to choose what activities you will prioritise.  You can dedicate time to study periods where you focus on your revision, and plan separate slots for any other activities that you are interested in doing.

Planning ahead will help to prevent feeling as if you are missing out on things, while protecting your study time. Planning, a useful study technique, will have the added benefit of increasing your concentration and motivation because it helps to manage your energy more effectively, and reduces tension. In addition, it allows you to let your friends and family know when you are going to dedicate your time to prepare for your exams.

7. Managing emotions
When preparing for exams it is normal to experience a fluctuation of your emotions. It may be difficult to focus on your revision when your mind is interrupted with negative thoughts. Perhaps you find that thoughts about what went wrong during the last exams/academic year are distracting and reducing your motivation to keep going with your revision. It could be that your mood fluctuates when you find yourself having worry thoughts, or when you are feeling tired, which can lead to low mood. Or, perhaps you are feeling frustrated when you notice that it is difficult to remember the material you are revising. This can trigger symptoms of stress which can affect your ability to concentrate on your revision.

The worry thoughts, and the symptoms of stress can be unsettling. It can have an impact on your confidence to learn the material in the time available to get through the exams. When these thoughts and feelings occur acknowledge them without believing them, and without judging yourself for having them.  Instead, ask yourself “is this thought helpful?”. By practising this technique regularly you can create a habit of catching these thoughts, and learn to reduce their intensity.

So, even if you are affected by these thoughts you will have the capacity to restore balance sooner.In order to restore stability notice the triggers and your reactions to them, then pause and take time to just observe them and let the thoughts go by.

Take a few minutes to acknowledge your feelings and breathe slowly to relax your body. This is a powerful technique to restore your internal balance. You can practice some mindfulness exercises, or you can go outdoors and walk. It is essential to exercise, move and stretch, to release the tension in the body. Then, bring your attention back to the present moment and focus on what step you can take next to make progress on your revision.

Identify one task that you can do, and then move on to the next one. You may feel that you do not have time to follow this process as you are concerned that you have too much material to get through.

Although you may have a sense of urgency, trying to rush your revision is more likely to increase tension. Instead, remind yourself that you are doing what you can each day.  The more you focus on each step you are taking, as you notice the progress you are making it will strengthen your confidence. This in turn, will allow you to maintain your ability to concentrate on your material.

Each step you take counts towards moving in the direction you want to go. By repeating this process each time your thoughts and feelings interrupt your concentration, you will increase your capacity to deal with these challenges.

8. Manage stress
When preparing for exams the anticipation of these can produce a significant degree of tension, particularly when feeling that the results are key to being able to pass the module/course. Although this can be challenging, the symptoms of stress are not an indication that you will not do well.

Instead, view them as your mind and body are preparing to manage the challenge effectively. To maintain your health and energy levels it is essential to have a healthy routine that includes doing some exercise such as walking. It is also essential to eat healthy foods as these provide the energy to your body and mind.

9. Optimism boosts learning
An optimistic attitude enables us to identify our strengths, increase our confidence in our ability to manage challenges, and boost our motivation to persevere with our efforts (Seligman, 1998).

It may be challenging to maintain an optimistic attitude when you feel the material is difficult, or you worry about taking exams. This can be particularly challenging if you have had negative experiences of taking exams in the past. You may be anticipating a repeat of the same situation (eg. not remembering the material, feeling tense, anticipating failure). The image of these possible future negative scenarios are understandable.

To learn to develop a more optimistic outlook you can reframe the situation and although these thoughts may be present, focus instead on your efforts to make progress. Even if you find these thoughts interrupt you, remind yourself that they are not evidence that you will not do well. Take a moment to acknowledge these thoughts, and view them as noise that can be tolerated.

It is best not to make efforts to stop them from happening. Instead, just acknowledge they are there and without self-criticism. By simply noticing them, it will gradually reduce their intensity. Then, redirect your attention to a task that you can focus on in the moment. Ask yourself “what one step can I take right now to make progress?”

By focusing on taking action it will help to reduce the tension you may be experiencing (Wilson, 2011). Also, keep in mind that you are taking a different approach this time, and remind yourself that you are giving yourself the opportunity to improve your knowledge of the material.

10. Maintain a support network
We are social beings so it is beneficial for our health and sense of wellbeing to maintain contact with others. It is important to create space to spend time with family and friends and joining in activities even if only for a short while. If you are away from home you can arrange time to connect with them. One of the benefits of the digital age is that there are a number of ways to reach family and friends across the world.

11. Be your best friend
When we support our friends we normally are very understanding, and tend to be encouraging so they can feel understood. When we feel frustrated, or perceive we have made mistakes, it can trigger self-criticism: negative thoughts about ourselves that can increase tension and reduce our confidence.

When we are dealing with challenges having self-doubt is part of the process to manage them. We may feel unsettled, and worry about the future.When learning new things it is normal to have doubts, as the material is new and we are finding our way. This extends to any new situation where we are not sure about how things will turn out. It indicates that what we are doing is important to us.

Feeling unsure is part of the range of feelings we can experience when facing new challenges, and as we persevere with our efforts we build our strength (Brown, 2010). When you notice thoughts that are self-critical, pause and notice them. Ask yourself  “would I say this to my best friend?”.  It is very unlikely that you would do this. Instead, the most likely reaction would be that you want to be a good friend and helpful so you probably are likely to say things like “it is frustrating that it did not work out“, or “sorry that you are having a difficult time“, and then you may say “what can I do to help?”, or “what would be helpful now?”, “is there something I can do?”.

So when you notice the self-criticism appear, treat yourself as if you were your best friend: with kindness and self-compassion. When we feel understood and our efforts are acknowledge the tension reduces and we are more able to manage challenges (Neff, 2011).

  1. References:

    Arnold, K. M., McDermott, K. B. (2013). “Test-potentiated learning: Distinguishing between direct and indirect effects of tests.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39, 940–945

    Brown, B. (2010) The gifts of imperfection. Let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are. Minnesota: Hazelden.

    Dweck, C. (2008) Mindset. How you can fulfil your potential. New York: Ballantine Books.

    Kneff, K. (2011) Self-compassion. stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York: Harper Collins books.

    McGonigal, K. (2015) The upside of stress: why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it). London: Vermilion.

    Seligman, M. (1998) Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    Soderstrom, N.C., Kerr, T.K, and Bjork, R. A. (2016)  “The critical importance of retrieval – spacing – for learning.”
    In Psychological Science, Vol 27, issue 2, pages 223-230.

    Willingham, D. (2009) “What will improve student’s memory?” in American Educator, Winter 2008-9.

    Wilson, T. (2011) Redirect. The surprising new science of psychological change. London: Penguin Books.

     

When things don’t work out as you hoped: Managing fear of failure. Part 1.

 

 

Sometimes, despite our continued efforts, we do not achieve the results we want. We may see this as failure.

 “One of the greatest problems people have with failure is that they are too quick to judge isolated situations in their lives and label them as failures. Instead, they need to keep the bigger picture in mind.”
(J.C.Maxwell)

Mistakes happen, and any one of us can make them. When we make mistakes, or when things go wrong we can feel disappointed, frustrated, upset, or experience a mix of emotions. At first it may be difficult to look beyond the mistake so we tend to focus on what went wrong and overlook the wider context. Having a wider perspective on the situation can allow us to find alternative ways of solving the problem, so that we can eventually achieve our goals.

Generally, people view failure as an unwanted obstacle – as something to be avoided.  Fear of failure manifests in intense worry about not achieving – “what if I don’t get the grades I need to pass?”, “what if I fail the course?”, “what if I don’t get an interview/a job?”. And the likely thoughts and feelings we associate with these possible scenarios:  How embarrassing”, “What will others think of me?”, “what if I cannot do it?” and other thoughts and feelings that can bring our mood down. 

Often, it is not failure in itself that worries us, but the feeling that we may disappoint those that we care about, and perhaps feeling that something is wrong with us which can lead to feeling shame and embarrassment (Tsaousides, 2015). 

Whenever we do something new there is a risk of failing. The capacity to make mistakes is part of our human condition – it is how we learn and grow. It is thanks to the errors we make that we can adjust our knowledge and behaviour to make progress. Learning happens when we take the time to reflect on our actions and experiences.  (Schultz, 2010). 

           “Failure just means that things are not going the way you expect them to go
and you need to remain flexible to get  back on track.”   (Mlodinov, 2018)

In sports, for example, making mistakes and failure to achieve are part of the athletes’ training to improve their performance. Each time that their efforts do not work out as they hoped they review what happened, identify what they need to change, and then they practice again. Each time they make adjustments that help them improve their skills. This is deliberate practice: persevering with efforts, learning by doing, adjusting each time, practising, correcting, and practising again. This approach to training contributes to the development of skills and improving performance. The repeated practise, while monitoring progress and making adjustments to improve, allows them to develop their expertise. The same approach is used in learning to play music or any other activity that requires mastering skills.

Why making mistakes, or failing, can be so difficult?

One factor that exacerbates our difficulty in dealing with mistakes is self-criticism. This is when we ruminate about our errors and criticise ourselves for failing to meet the standards we expect of ourselves. The repeated negative thoughts can cause high levels of stress, and can lead to further frustration and low mood. It is likely to develop as a vicious circle of negative thoughts, which in turn can fuel negative feelings that can reduce our confidence and prevent us from taking action .

The way we use language when we criticise ourselves can have a very negative influence on our confidence, and our self-esteem.The continued negative self-talk can become a regular pattern that can interfere with our productivity. It can also have an impact in our body as it can stimulate an inflammatory response that can lead to developing illnesses (Davidson, 2012).

Stress is a significant factor that can affect our health, our performance and our ability to manage difficult situations. Often we need to make important decisions under pressure, and when this occurs our brain tends to focus on the negative aspects when weighing up information (Sharot, 2011).

What can you do to manage these feelings?

Develop your sense of self-efficacy:

Self-efficacy is the belief in our ability to manage difficult situations, and that we can tap into our personal resources to find a way to achieve our goals. By strengthening your confidence in your ability to manage challenges you will build your capacity to respond more effectively (Bandura, 1977). This may include reaching out to others you trust for guidance and support, and who may offer a different perspective on the situation.  By gathering information you can build your resource and your motivation to take action, so you can make the necessary changes to complete your task.

By increasing your confidence in your capacity to manage situations it will strengthen your resilience. The more you can trust yourself to be able to cope when mistakes happen, that you can deal with the possible negative consequences, the more you can tolerate frustration and disappointment. It is important to acknowledge our feelings so that we can understand what is important to us. Give space to your emotions, and without judgment. They indicate that something of value is at stake. Therefore, it is necessary to pay attention, while being understanding of ourselves, to be able to find out what to do to improve things (Neff, 2011).

Redefine the meaning of failure:

What does the word failure mean to you? How do you define it? Perhaps as never being able to do things well? Or not trusting yourself to achieve results? Does it prevent you from taking action, or pursuing your goals? How we define failure makes a difference to how we react to events. Often it is not so much the mistake itself, but the consequences that it may lead to that we are afraid of.

In order to respond to failure in a constructive manner you can adopt a scientific approach, where experimentation through trial and error is an essential part of the process to find out about what works and what doesn’t. Mistakes are viewed as an integral part of learning. So as long as you continue to make efforts to learn, view mistakes as something that can happen as part of the learning process.

By reviewing the steps you took, and identifying where things went wrong, you can discover new information that you can use to make adjustments that will enable you to make progress with your tasks. By incorporating what you have discovered to your understanding of the task you can increase your knowledge, so that next time you can do something different to achieve your goals.

 

References:

Bandura, A. (1997) Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H.Freeman & Company.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. USA: McGraw-Hill.

Davidson, R. & McEwen, B. (2012) “Social influences on neuro-plasticity: stress and interventions to promote wellbeing.” Nature Neuroscience, 15.5

Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset. How you can fulfil your potential. New York: Ballantine Books.

Maxwell, J.C. (2000) Failing Forward. Turning mistakes into stepping stones for success. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Mlodinov, L. (2018) Elastic. Flexible thinking in a constantly changing world. London: Allen Lane.

Neff, K. (2011) Self-Compassion. Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York: HarperCollins Publisher.

Seligman, M. (1998) Learned Optimism. How to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket Books.

Sharot, T. (2012) The Optimism Bias. Why we’re wired to look on the bright side. London: Pantheon Books.

Schultz,, K. (2010) Being Wrong. Adventures in the margins of error. London: Portobello Books, Ltd.

Tsaousides, T. (2015) Brainblocks. Overcoming the 7 hidden barriers to success. New York: Prentice Hall Press.

 

When things don’t work out how you hoped: Managing fear of failure. Part 2.

In part 1 we looked at making mistakes and the meaning of failure. In this section we will focus on what you can do to manage situations where things don’t work out how you hoped.

Focus on the possibility of change, to get unstuck and make progress. When you doubt
your abilities 
focus on the belief that you can manage the situation. It is OK not to be
perfect.”
(Mlodinov, 2018)

How to manage fear of failure and find ways to get on with tasks?

Review and manage expectations of Perfectionism:

Perfectionism triggers further tension as it creates unrealistic expectations, which if not achieved exactly can cause significant distress. The associated negative thinking that comes with unrealistic expectations undermines our hope, and changes our behaviour – we are less likely to make efforts to persevere with our tasks (Ben-Sahar, 2009).

By not giving up when things get difficult, as you face the challenge you give yourself the opportunity to explore ideas and develop your strengths. In fact, this is the point where learning occurs. It is when we have to work at understanding the problem, and by thinking differently that we may see alternative ways of working out a solution. 

                                  “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare,
                                      it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.”
                                                                       (Seneca)

Failure is a process. For example, not getting the grade you wanted in an exam, or not receiving an invitation to go for an interview does not mean there is no option ever again. Instead, review the process you followed, the various steps you took in your revision, or in your preparation for the job applications.

At times, it may be that you missed information, or that you needed to correct a step taken when working on the task. By reflecting on the actions you took, you can identify what needs to be adjusted so that you can deal with the obstacles that prevented you from achieving your goals. Then, make another attempt where you apply the learning from your experience. 

                 “The way you frame the problem has a profound influence on the results of your analysis””
(Mlodinov, 2018)

The way you think about the situation affects the actions you take, and your beliefs about what you can achieve. By viewing mistakes as stepping stones, that can lead to where you want to get to, can help to overcome the feeling of being stuck. This way you can change the perception that the situation is too difficult, which can leave you feeling frustrated and disappointed.

Instead, when setting goals expect a good result, but don’t get attached to the outcome. This creates tension and limits the capacity to be creative, which in turn limits the possibility of finding alternative solutions to the problem or task we are working on.  

Develop an optimistic attitude:

Seligman (1998), defines optimism and pessimism as explanatory styles: the way that we think about setbacks and when things go well. Optimism is when we believe that a) a mistake or failure is temporary, b) that we can change it and it is only this one situation, and c) that we can do something about it.  Pessimism on the other hand, focuses on viewing mistakes a) as permanent, b) that we cannot do anything about it, c) that it will last forever and that it will undermine everything that we do.  

To support the development of an optimistic attitude, it is essential to develop a growth mindset -this means having a flexible perspective that allows us to continue to learn and develop our abilities so that we can reach our potential (Dweck, 2006). Whereas a fixed mindset is when we think our abilities cannot change, and that we are not able to learn or develop further. This attitude prevents us from learning from our mistakes, and can hold us back from taking action, preventing us from making progress. Instead, when we adopt a growth mindset it allows us to work through difficulties to get things done.

It’s all in how you look at it. If you have a fixed view of how things should be you may be disappointed, and frustrated when things don’t work out as you expect them to. On the other hand, adopting a flexible attitude where you consider other options, you put things in perspective, can help to reduce the tension and worry about your ability to achieve goals.

Tell yourself: “I’m not a failure. I failed at doing something. There is a difference
(J.C.Maxwell, 2000).

The rate of change is increasing due to advances in technology, and it is having an impact on our ways of working. We need to develop our ability to manage change while maintaining our energy and our health to be productive, and live a meaningful life. Every day we are likely to face situations that we would not have faced ten or even five years ago. To cope with the changes we need to adapt, and to do this we need to change the way we think. This includes how we view mistakes, and how we view ourselves when these happen. 

It is essential to learn to become less uncomfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and contradictions. We need to develop what Mlodinov (2018) calls elastic thinking, referring to the capacity to let go of the need for certainty, to challenge our ingrained assumptions, be willing to experiment and tolerate failure. By learning to use our imagination, creativity as well as our logical mind, we can learn to solve problems creatively and effectively.

“To raise new questions, a new possibility, to regard old problems from a new angle,
requires creative imagination.”
(Albert Einstein)

Tips to build your strength to cope with mistakes, and turn them into learning opportunities:

1.Develop elastic thinking: Adopt a broad perspective, and a flexible attitude. When dealing with adverse situations experiment looking for alternative ways in which you can interpret the event. Aim to understand what went wrong, with a view to find out what you can do different next time. By developing openness and flexibility we can expand our creativity to finding solutions that can help us to manage our tasks, or deal with problems.

2.Become your best friend: we like to be kind and understanding with our friends, we give them the benefit of the doubt and encourage them to keep going. Do the same thing for yourself, be understanding and give yourself the opportunity to learn from the mistake so that you can improve. For example, if in an exam the result was not what you hoped for, consider what happened to understand what you can do different next time. Perhaps the module/topic was more difficult, or there was more material to revise and required more time than you anticipated.

3.Reflect on your experience: by taking time to review the task and what you have done it can help to identify what went wrong to correct and make adjustments. Acknowledge your feelings, without self-criticism, and give yourself some time to recover from the difficulties you are facing.

4.Focus on the process leading up to the mistake: look at each step you took, what can you do differently? Do you need more information? More time? Who can you contact? What can you do differently? And apply your learning next time.

5.Manage stress: identify the triggers that caused you tension, and prevented you from focusing on your tasks effectively.  You can do breathing exercises and use mindfulness techniques to relax your muscles and clear your mind. Do some exercise, go for a walk outdoors to absorb natural light and enjoy the green spaces around campus/home/other. You may also feel you want to talk with your house/flatmates, family and friends.

6.Develop an optimistic attitude: although it may be difficult to accept a result you were not expecting, adopt the view that this was a temporary setback, something you can work on and improve next time. Focus on building your confidence by learning to manage worry thoughts, and strengthening your belief in your ability to manage challenges.

In addition, by practising tolerating frustration and disappointment you can build your capacity to respond proactively in challenging situations, rather than delaying taking action which can lead to procrastination and feeling stuck.

7.Keep expectations realistic, and maintain an open mind: while aspiring to high standards, do not make these a “must”. That is, that the result or outcome you hope for has to be achieved or it would be a failure. Instead, use your standards as a direction to guide your actions, and that it  keeps you on track. It could be that the outcomes are different to what you expected. It may not be obvious at first, but it could be that there are many ways to achieve your goals.

8.Maintain healthy routines: develop a regular pattern of healthy eating, sleeping and exercising. Taking care of your body nurtures and strengthens your mind. 

 

 

 

References:

Bandura, A. (1977) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H.Freeman & Company

Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living a richer, happier life. USA: McGraw-Hill.

Dweck, C.S. (2006) Mindset. How you can fulfil your potential. New York: Ballantine Books.

Maxwell, J.C. (2000) Failing Forward. Turning mistakes into stepping stones for success. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Mlodinov, L. (2018) Elastic. Flexible thinking in a constantly changing world. London: Allen Lane.

Seligman, M. (1998) Learned Optimism. How to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket Books.

Sharot, T. (2012) The Optimism Bias. Why we’re wired to look on the bright side. London: Pantheon Books.

Schultz,, K. (2010) Being Wrong. Adventures in the margins of error. London: Portobello Books, Ltd.

Tsaousides, T. (2015) Brainblocks. Overcoming the 7 hidden barriers to success. New York: Prentice Hall Press.

Mind-Body Connection: The benefits of exercise

 

Exercise for body and mind:

       “ If there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can,
it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed.” (Tarnopolsky, 2016, cited in Oaklander, 2016)

Health professionals are increasingly recommending, based on scientific research, that we should all exercise because it is good to restore and maintain our health. Regular exercise has significant benefits for our body and mind: it lowers the risk of developing diseases such as heart problems, diabetes and high blood pressure.

It also helps to build and strengthen bones and muscles, as well as strengthens our immune system. Physical activity increases our aerobic capacity strengthening our lungs and helping to keep our bodies well oxygenated. In addition, it helps to boost our metabolism and maintain a stable weight (Ratey &Hagerman, 2010).

What counts as exercise?

We tend to assume that it refers to long and strenuous workouts in the gym. In fact, any activity that requires movement and that accelerates our heart rate moderately is beneficial. This can be going for a walk or jogging, as well as stretching and balancing exercises to increase our flexibility, posture and balance. The general recommendation is about 30 minutes a day, five times a week of moderate level of exercise including aerobic and muscle strengthening activities (White & Wojcicki, 2010).

To benefit from exercising it is important to have a regular routine and persevere with our efforts. It is recommended not to spend too much time sitting as our body needs to be active to continue to function optimally throughout our lives, and to be careful not to strain the body with too much exercise for long periods as it can be detrimental to our health (Hillman, et al, 2008).

How does exercise benefit our body and mind?
Aerobic exercises increase our lung capacity, and work harder to pump blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to reach our muscles providing the energy they need to function optimally. What matters is that the movement needs to increase our heart and breathing rate, and when we increase the pace of physical activity it stimulates the nervous system to prepare the body for action.

Strength exercises, using weights to provide resistance so our muscles need to work harder, help to strengthen bones to prevent falls and fractures in the future.  In addition, balance, flexibility and coordination exercises increase our body’s agility, flexibility and balance. Exercise helps us to keep alert, increases energy and improves sleep helping to reduce fatigue and as result we feel better, stronger and more confident (Ratey & Hagerman, 2010).

Exercise helps to increase our body’s capacity to support our endocrine system, keeping insulin stable helping to reduce the risk of Type II diabetes. It lowers blood pressure helping to prevent heart diseases, and it has the potential to prevent or delay neurodegenerative diseases. In addition, it strengthens our immune system supporting our long-term health.

We can notice the benefits of exercising after a period of regular activity that includes repeated exercises so that the body can adapt to the increasing demand building strength and resilience. The regular effort increases our fitness level: as the lungs are able to process more oxygen our body is increasingly more able to cope with challenges.

How does exercise help to manage stress?

The body’s stress response is triggered when our brain (amygdala) detects danger and our body’s resources are not sufficient to manage the demands of the situation. Prolonged periods of stress affects us negatively as it suppresses the immune system making us vulnerable to illnesses, increases feelings of tiredness as well as lowering our mood and reducing our ability to cope with challenges (Jackson, 2013).

We are organisms designed to move so regular exercise supports the brain’s ability to adapt and manage challenges more effectively. Exercise helps to restore energy as it increases the efficiency of our body’s ability to metabolises glucose to provide energy to respond to the challenge.

The movement relaxes our muscles and builds our strength. It supports our physical health and stamina and as it strengthens our body it increases our capacity to tolerate and regulate the body reducing symptoms of stress (Medina, 2008).

Exercise improves and regulates mood, our breathing and reduces muscle tension. When feeling tense these symptoms can interact in a feedback loop between the body and the brain, it regulates the signals in the brainstem enabling the activation of the body’s calm response. In order to manage uncomfortable feelings when stressed you can interpret these as the body’s reaction to increase energy level to manage a challenge.

When you notice that your heart rate and your breathing are a bit faster remind yourself that as your body needs more energy it needs to access energy quickly, breathing is faster to take in more oxygen and the heart needs to pump faster too to pump blood around your body to take the energy to the muscles. By reframing the interpretation of our body’s reactions we can reduce the tension and restore our balance, to cope with the situation.  By doing deep breathing exercises you can have a sense of control as the tension in your body eases. You can also do some mindfulness exercises.

How does exercise help us to learn better?
Exercise is the single most powerful tool we have to optimise our brain function (Ratey, 2008). Exercise supports and strengthens our cardiovascular system and is good for the heart is good for the mind.

It clears the mind as the brain receives more blood bringing nutrients and stimulating the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) essential for the production of new neurones (Hopkins, et al. 2012). This process is called neurogenesis: the creation of new neutrons in the hippocampus, a key area in the brain for learning, memory and mood regulation (Kodall, M. Et al, 2016).

Exercise enhances our executive functions. By being physically active we are better able to pay attention and increase concentration, our mental processing speed is improved, it improves our ability to plan and it can protect our brains by helping to reduce or delay the risk of developing neurological diseases (White & Wojcicki, 2016).

When we are more active the brain releases endorphins, strengthening connections between neurons influencing our ability to concentrate, to evaluate information and make decisions. The activity also strengthens the hippocampus – the area of the brain that stores memories (Medina, 2008).

Exercise supports maintaining optimal physical and mental health. In addition, good nutrition contributes to supporting a healthy microbiota in our gut, and strengthening the immune system. A diet that contains mainly processed foods such as cakes, burgers,, fries, and sugary drinks leads to a gut with low biodiversity in the microbiota which can lead to experiencing tiredness, low mood and lack of motivation.

Health professionals recommend a Mediterranean diet that includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, olive oil, protein such as fish and lean meats  and dairy products in moderation. Research indicates that there is a link between the gut microbiota and the brain having the potential to affect our cognitive functioning and our sense of wellbeing (Sonnenburg, J & Sonnenburg, E, 2015).

Therefore, to maintain our energy level, strengthen our cognitive abilities, and maintain a healthy body and mind it is essential to exercise regularly, have a healthy diet and to have social and cognitive stimulation to develop and maintain our strengths to feel well and be able to study effectively (Hillman, et al. (2008).

So at any time, and in particular during exams, take a break and go for a walk, the movement and fresh air will help to clear your head and restore your energy. In addition, being in nature will lift your mood and help to release tension. When you return to your studies you will be better able to focus and get on with your revision.

References:

Hillman, C.H. et al (2008) “Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects of brain and cognition”. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Volume 9. pp.58-65.

Hopkins,, M.E. et al. (2012) Differential effects of acute and regular physical exercise on cognition and affect.” Neuroscience, Volume 215, July, pp 59-68.

Jackson, E. (2013) “Stress relief: the role of exercise in stress management.” Health and Fitness Journal. American College of Sports Medicine. May/June 2013, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp14-19.

Kodall,, M. Et al. (2016) “Voluntary running exercise – mediated enhance neurogenesis does not obliterate retrograde spatial memory.” Journal of Neuroscience, August, 36 (31). pp. 8112-8122.

Medina, J. (2008) Brain Rules: 12 Principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school. Seattle: Pear Press.

Oaklander, M. (2016) “The new science of exercise“, Time Health, 12 September

Ratey, J. & Hagerman, E. (2010) Spark. How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London: Quercus.

Sonnenburg,, J. & Sonneburgh, E. (2015) Gut Reactions. How Health insides can improve your weight, mood and well-being. London: Penguin Random House.

White, S.M, & Wojcicki, T.R. (2010) Staying mentally sharp through physical activity.” American College of Sports Medicine. September, p.4-5

Prevent procrastination: how to get things done. The Psychology of Action (Part 1)

Why do we do the opposite of what we want to do?
We tend to behave against our intended plans such as working on assignments because we may have worry thoughts anticipating the result will not be as good as we want it to be, or perhaps because we think what we are doing is wrong. Sometimes we think there is only one right way to do it, or believe that we shouldn’t make mistakes.

When thinking like this we can feel discouraged and then we are likely to stop working on the task because we don’t feel confident we can do it well. It could also be due to having a feeling of aversion because we think it is too hard so we delay getting on with our work.

When we worry that we may not reach a high standard we may inadvertently create obstacles that prevent us from making progress. Although we may not be fully aware of it, we are likely to behave in what seems a paradoxical way (ie doing the opposite of what we want to do) to protect our self-image. We want to see ourselves in a good light, and when studying we want to see ourselves as being academically capable.

We are motivated to maintain a positive self-concept (Baumeister, 1996). If we do not achieve our goals, or if we assume that when a task is hard it means that we are not intelligent enough to do well, we may feel frustrated and worried anticipating negative consequences. If we have not done well because we started too late, or had a problem that prevented us from making progress we rationalise our behaviour by explaining to ourselves and others that there are reasons for not doing well.

We would rather have some explanation for not working than taking the risk of putting in a lot of effort and then finding out that we made a mistake, or failed. We have a tendency to prefer to deal with a negative outcome when it is as a result of not trying rather than finding out that we didn’t do well because we do not have the ability.

Why would we tend to do this? It could be because we don’t like having doubts about our capacity for academic work, and we worry that we are not capable of reaching the high standards we expect of ourselves. Another common tendency is to avoid the task because we anticipate it being difficult and hard work. As human beings we have the tendency to avoid difficulty and discomfort:  we much rather feel comfortable and not have to make efforts to achieve things.

So avoiding getting started, or not persevering with assignments, may be due to not wanting to experience the discomfort of what we perceive to be too challenging for our ability. This is based on the assumption that if a task is difficult it reflects on our ability, however, by changing your perspective and view hard work as a sign that the task is a challenge and it requires more effort to learn it so that you can build your knowledge.

Any task that is of value will require more effort and will challenge us, so if you view the task as something you want to learn it is more likely to be motivating and it will allow you to tolerate setbacks better as these are viewed as part of the learning process (Gollwitzer,, P.M. & Oettingen., G. (2015).

What can you do to persevere with your efforts?
You can encourage yourself to get on with the task by reframing the task as something that you choose to do because you want to increase your knowledge, and develop your skills. You can also reflect on how you are perceiving the task: what makes it so hard, do you need more information or guidance? Do you feel it is hard for you but not for others?

It is important not to compare with others as we each have different skills and ways of doing things. Instead, look for what you can learn, and remind yourself that with practice and continued effort it will eventually become familiar.  Imagine the benefits of increasing your knowledge and honing your skills (report writing, researching, synthesising information, etc). These skills will be very useful as part of your personal and professional development.

Learning to motivate yourself and being able to persevere with tasks are also essential skills for your professional life. Practice reaching beyond your comfort zone, a little at a time, and you will notice you can do more than you think you can which in turn will strengthen your intrinsic motivation. This is when we are motivated by personal interests such as wanting to build knowledge, being curious about the subject, and enjoying the sense of achievement that comes from the effort we put into the task.

By reflecting on our progress we can derive positive feelings and this contributes to building our confidence and sense of self-worth. By focusing on our values and identifying what is meaningful it will stimulate making the decision to persevere with efforts to complete a task (Deci & Ryan, 2000).  

How can you stimulate your motivation and take action?
Motivation is what moves us to do something. If we do not feel like starting with a task we can reflect on what are the obstacles that prevent us from doing so. It could be that we have a preconception about the task, for example, we may think it is not important, or we may feel we do not have control/do not have the necessary resources to do it well. It could be that we are too focused on what we perceive to be an inevitable negative outcome, so we delay getting started.

One solution is to see the obstacles/difficulties as challenges rather than threats, which in an academic setting tend to affect our confidence in our academic ability. To get started with the task check your perception of the task, break it down into small steps and reframe it as a challenge that you can do. Then, start by working on one step, then another, and another until the task is completed.   

                                          “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” (Mark Twain)

The key is to focus on the process rather than on the outcome. And while focusing on each step remind yourself that you are learning, and that each step you take builds your academic competence, and your sense of self efficacy – the belief that you can do the task well enough. To persevere with the task when it gets difficult, or you notice your motivation decreases, focus on increasing your tolerance of uncertainty and of making mistakes. 

                                           “Failure is success in progress.” (Albert Einstein)

Keep in mind that mistakes are part of the process of learning. If you notice that you are delaying getting started/continuing with the task ask yourself: “Am I doing this (what you are doing instead of getting on with your work) as a way of having an excuse in case of a negative outcome?” Once you notice what you are thinking, pause, and redirect your attention to what is meaningful to you: what you want to achieve, and then keep going.                                  

                                            “There’s no beginning too small.” (Thoreaux)

You can remind yourself that by persevering with small steps you can make progress through the difficult parts of the task. Once you notice a little progress this will become motivating. If your focus is on having it finished this will prevent you from what you can do right now. However, if the focus is on what you are learning as you make progress with each step, it will allow you to keep going. Noticing the progress will builds on your curiosity to see what you can find out – what you are learning. 


How can you maintain your motivation and make progress?
To implement our intention of doing something we need to regulate our behaviour, and to do this we have to manage our cognitive and emotional responses. As stated above, we have a tendency to want to think well of ourselves and to protect our sense of self-worth when we anticipate failure. To protect ourselves from possible negative evaluations we create some responses, for example we may view an event by rationalising it: eg. “I didn’t do too well because I did it last minute, if I had done it with more time it would have been better”. Or, “the essay is not very good, but it could have been much worse as I only spent a little time on it.”

Another way of protecting ourselves is by inattention as when we prevent ourselves from noticing something (Baumeister, 1996). If we don’t know about it then we cannot act on it. For example, we may not notice the deadlines and without realising it we find that the deadline is approaching fast, leaving us with little time to work on the assignment, or revise for the test as we wanted to do. 

To maintain motivation for long-term goals it helps to create mental representations of the goal we want to achieve, or the behaviour we want to change to create a new healthy habit (Baumeister, 1996). For example, imagine researching for your essay, then seeing the words on the page as you tell your story of what you are learning. The more you focus on the process rather than on the result, and the more detailed the steps it is more likely that you will feel motivated to take action.

In addition, notice your self-talk (the running commentary that we all have as we go by our day), when thoughts turn into negative evaluations of what we are doing it can be very discouraged, frustration and restlessness. We divert our attention to protect ourselves from feeling bad because we think we are not doing well, or think the end is too far away and we are likely to be distracted.

To increase your concentration notice what is happening…pause, and change your perspective of the task by reminding yourself that you can view it as a task that requires practice, time and effort and that you can persevere because the overall goal is important to you (Duckworth, 2016).

At times it may feel as if we are of two minds: one part of us wants to keep going with the work because we value doing well, and another wants to do something easier or less demanding. Notice this tension, acknowledge it and then remind yourself of what you want to achieve. Yes, you could stop your work and watch a youtube video (so easy as the internet is only a click away!), or you can remind yourself that you chose to work for 25 minutes and that in your break you will do something that you are looking forward to (maybe contact your friend or family, or check the youtube video). This will reduce resistance to doing the work, and allow your thoughts to flow so that you can express what you are thinking about the topic you are working on.

Instead, develop a perspective of a curious observer or that of a researcher (McGonigal, 2012). Focus on what you see just like a scientist observing an experiment. View what you notice as information to adjust your efforts. It takes time, and requires a lot of patience. The key is to remind yourself of your values, why you are doing the task. As you practice your ability to persevere and maintain your efforts will increase gradually (Duckworth, 2016).

References:

Baumeister, R. F. (1996) “Self-regulation and ego threats. Motivated cognition, self-deception, and destructive goal setting“. In The Psychology of Action. Linking cognition and motivation to behaviour. Chapter 6. Gollwitzer, P.M, and Bargh, J.A. Eds. London: The Guildford Press. p.27-47.

Baumeister,, R.F., & Tierney, J. (2011) Willpower. Rediscovering our Greatest Strength. London: Penguin Books.

Deci, E. & Flaste, R. (1995) Why We Do What We Do. Understanding self-motivation.  New York: Penguin Books.

Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000) “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions.” Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67 (2000) doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020, available online at http://www.idealibrary.com

Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.

Gollewitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. (2015) Psychology of Motivation and Actions. In Wright, J.D.(Ed) International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Ed,, Vol.15. Oxford. pp.887-893.

McGonigal,, K. (2012) The Willpower Instinct. How self-control works. Why it matters, and what you can do about it. New York: Penguin Books.

Mischel, W. (1996) “From good intentions to willpower.” In The psychology of action. Linking cognition and motivation to behaviour. Chapter 9. Gollwitzer, P.M, and Bargh, J.A. Eds. London: The Guildford Press. p.27-47.

Young, S. (2017). Stick with it. The science of lasting behaviour. London: Penguin Life.

Prevent procrastination: How to get things done. The Psychology of Action (Part 2)

What is willpower and how can we develop it?
Willpower is having a sense of personal agency. It refers to our ability to delay gratification and focus on the task because we want to achieve a long-term goal. However, if we are tired it will be difficult to maintain our efforts. Also, it may be more difficult to focus on the task when there are a number of immediate distractions. To make progress we need to maintain our energy level and manage or remove the distractions (Baumeister, 2011).

We can create a mental representation of the goal we want to achieve (think about each step leading to your goal) and create our own self-instructions (Mischel, 1996). For example describing the process – a series of steps to get the task done – so that we know in detail what we need to do from step to step.

By having a visual representation of the process it allows us to persevere with our efforts while keeping the goal in mind. It is important to have the expectation that we will complete the process, and that we will eventually get the reward that is important to us.

A practical approach to build confidence in our ability to persevere is to take a moment to reflect on past experiences related to the task: Did you have a challenging time in school/college? Did you find it difficult to get on with assignments? Perhaps you got feedback that said you needed to make more effort or would not achieve your potential. To manage these thoughts and feelings you can remind yourself that the past does not determine the future.

Also, keep in mind that others did not have the full picture of your experience of doing academic work. Perhaps back then there were difficulties not easy to express to others, or it was not clear how studying would become important to you. Now you are in a different situation where you can focus on how you want to see yourself acting: are you someone who wants to complete tasks and achieve goals?  You can create a new perspective that will help you move forward. Decide that you are a person who can persevere with efforts, can tolerate uncertainty, and can acknowledge that self-doubt is part of the learning process.              

What can you do to maintain your efforts and make progress?
When you become aware of a distraction, and feel the impulse to do something else, notice your feeling and pause. Take a moment to remind yourself of what is your priority. To increase your ability to focus and concentrate on the task remind yourself of the reasons why you’re doing the task, bring your attention back to the page and keep going. As you practise this technique you will gradually strengthen your capacity to manage distractions.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power
to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
                                                                             (Viktor Frankl)

To make progress in changing our behaviour we need to pay attention to our thoughts and actions. If we know we get easily distracted, or find it difficult to delay gratification (doing easier and more pleasant things) create plans of what you will do when the distractions happen. Do this before you start working on a task (Baumeister, 2011).

By pre-planning how you will structure your time you will know when you can have your break/reward. This will help to sustain your concentration while you are working. If you get distracted because you are finding the task too hard, remind yourself that it is part of the learning process. To restore energy take a 5 minute break, go outdoors, stretch and move. Have some water to keep hydrated. Then return to the task for another 25 minutes. As you increase your capacity to concentrate you can increase the time of your study periods, although always taking breaks to move and stretch as this is essential to maintain your energy level.

We need motivation to maintain our concentration. To be intrinsically motivated to take action we need to believe that we are capable, and that we can make choices. We can do this by focusing on what is important to us, and engaging in a task that we consider meaningful. This is having an internal locus of control: we do something because we feel we have chosen to do it and believe we can persevere with our efforts. When we make mistakes these are tolerated and understood as part of the process – as opportunities for learning. Nurturing this internal drive increases our ability to sustain our efforts and allows us to create habits that support our goals. This is the key to self-determination and  resilience (Deci, 1995).

We like to be autonomous and feel that we make choices to do things that we are motivated by, but when revising for exams, writing an essay or dissertation it may feel like an obligation. To stimulate your motivation to do your work reframe this task as a choice, and keep what you want to achieve in mind.

If you find you get distracted and do not work consistently on your revision/dissertation identify what other things that are distracting you, notice them, pause, then identify whether these are new priorities you need to pay attention to, or are they things that you can let go so that you can get on with your work. Make a list of the benefits that persevering with the task will bring you. As you make gradual and consistent progress your confidence in your ability to get things done will increase.

Strategies to get started and get things done:

1.Set goals: these need to be very specific so that it is clear what you want to achieve in the short-term (this could be within an hour, a day, a week). Describe exactly what you need to do, or what you would like to achieve realistically within the specified time. Draw up a plan of your goals, from  larger ones to very small ones. For example: the larger goal may be to revise for an exam, then the smaller goals can be the different topics in the module, and then small steps for each topic within the module.

2.Commit to taking action: make the choice to start with a specific goal, and decide that you will follow through. Start with the small steps and work your way through each one. Keep in mind a mental representation of the goal: visualise what you are working towards, including each step in detail of how you will go about doing the task.

3.Manage your expectations: sometimes we have self-doubt, or worry whether we can achieve the task when we have so much to do, and so many different modules/courses to revise.
Give yourself the benefit of the doubt, that even if the material is difficult this is expected as it is new material. To increase the strength of your decision to get on with the task by viewing yourself as someone who follows through with tasks.

Persevering with your efforts to understand the material will gradually build your academic confidence. Remind yourself that you have prepared for exams before now, and although difficult you got through them. If you think your work is not good enough, rather than evaluate yourself negatively/lose hope that you can do it, focus on identifying what you can do different: identify one thing that you can do to improve/change to make progress in this moment. Then move on to the next step.

4.Create meaningful rewards: We are more able to sustain our efforts if we develop an abstract representation of the reward to keep us going while working. For example imagining the good feeling of having persevered with your efforts and completing the first step. Decide what you will do when you complete it, maybe speak with a friend, go out doors for a walk, or watch a episode of your favourite series. Make sure you create a limited period of time for your break so that the reward does not take time away from starting your next step.

5.Create pre-plans: IF (distractor) happens I will (action you will take). We increasingly have difficulties in maintaining focus as digital technology makes distractions easily available. For example, if you feel tempted to check the notification on your phone, and you know that it is difficult to leave it, plan beforehand what you will do so that it does not interrupt your concentration (maybe turn your phone off for half an hour, or leave it in a drawer out of view).

We can also become distracted by the discomfort of the moment, such as feeling tired, frustrated, or hungry. You can prepare for these situations by having healthy routines and eating well so that you have the energy to manage what may seem attractive distractions. This in turn, will increase your confidence in your ability to focus, and reduce the worry about future negative scenarios.

6.Use the Pomodoro technique: it consists of creating study periods of 25 minutes with a 5 minute break by using a clock/stop watch. It is sufficient time to make progress and allows to restore energy at regular intervals. We are more likely to get started on a task and maintain our concentration when we know that the break will come soon. During your break move, stretch, and drink some water. You can repeat this two or three times and then have a longer break.
Notice how this practise can promote having a sense of achievement when you can see you are making progress.

7.Suspend your evaluation of your work: The key is not to evaluate your work while you are focused on the task. We can be very self-critical when we make a small mistake, or think it should be done differently, or if we start to compare with how others seem to be doing it better. When you notice critical thoughts, pause, take a deep breath and remind yourself that the priority is to make progress.

View the task as a draft, for now. The priority is to make progress to complete a first draft. Then, leave the task for a while so that you can have some distance from it to be able to evaluate it more objectively when you read it again to proof-read, and edit where necessary.

8.Make the task important: Give the work you will do high significance. This will allow you to prioritise it when distractions that may be easier or more pleasant appear.

9.Repeat behaviours: Create a routine, and persevere with your efforts. Repetition creates familiarity, and it strengthens motivation to complete the task/achieve goal.

10.Develop your support network: Find a study buddy or buddies, other students who also want to make progress with their work. Maintain contact with those who know you and encouraged you. Let them know about your plans to study so they can support your decisions to prioritise your work as it is important to you.

11.Reflect on your progress: Notice and acknowledge the work you have done: with each step you move forward.
As you see the progress you are making, and reflect on how you are maintaining your efforts, you can update your self-image to that of someone who perseveres and is committed to achieving goals.

As you see your progress it will support your motivation to continue with the task. The more steps you do, without pressurising yourself, it will increase your ability to concentrate and stick to the task until you eventually complete it (Young, 2017).

References:

Baumeister, R. F. (1996) “Self-regulation and ego threats. Motivated cognition, self-deception, and destructive goal setting“. In The Psychology of Action. Linking cognition and motivation to behaviour. Chapter 6. Gollwitzer, P.M, and Bargh, J.A. Eds. London: The Guildford Press. p.27-47.

Baumeister,, R.F., & Tierney, J. (2011) Willpower. Rediscovering our Greatest Strength. London: Penguin Books.

Deci, E. & Flaste, R. (1995) Why We Do What We Do. Understanding self-motivation.  New York: Penguin Books.

Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000) “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions.” Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67 (2000) doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020, available online at http://www.idealibrary.com

Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.

Gollewitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. (2015) Psychology of Motivation and Actions. In Wright, J.D.(Ed) International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Ed,, Vol.15. Oxford. pp.887-893.

McGonigal,, K. (2012) The Willpower Instinct. How self-control works. Why it matters, and what you can do about it. New York: Penguin Books.

Mischel, W. (1996) “From good intentions to willpower.” In The psychology of action. Linking cognition and motivation to behaviour. Chapter 9. Gollwitzer, P.M, and Bargh, J.A. Eds. London: The Guildford Press. p.27-47.

Young, S. (2017). Stick with it. The science of lasting behaviour. London: Penguin Life.

How to manage worry thoughts (Part 1)

What are Worry Thoughts?

We all have worry thoughts from time to time, and these tend to interrupt our thinking without us wanting them to. Every day worry is part of life, and it does not interfere with our activities. It is the type of thinking that helps us to focus our attention on those things that we need to get done in the day, or that we want to keep in mind to remember them.

Sometimes they are thoughts about things that we anticipate in the future, and it could be that they are a way of reminding us that we need to do something. Usually we can write these thoughts down as a to-do-list. This will give the brain the message that it does not need to remember these thoughts repeatedly as we have made a note to remember them. Then the thoughts can dissipate gradually.

“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.” – Michel de Montaigne

However, when we talk about worry thoughts we are more likely referring to the persistent intrusive thoughts that prevent us from concentrating on our work in the current moment.

These tend to start with “WHAT IF + a negative scenario/consequence.”

These thoughts can also interrupt our being present in a conversation when we are with others. These thoughts are unwanted, and the content tends to be about potential problems – usually exaggerated – that we might have in the future.

As human beings we have a hard time tolerating doubt, we tend not to like uncertainty and experience restlessness and uncomfortable feelings when thinking about the possible negative consequences. We can learn to manage these feelings, and learn to tolerate uncertainty which is essential to manage changes in circumstances.

Worry thoughts trick our brains in thinking the they bring useful information, but instead, they are repetitions of what we fear could happen. They are not an accurate representation of what could happen, but more of a reflection of what we are afraid of. That is, we associate worry thoughts with danger – anticipating negative events. (For example, in academic life, not getting a passing mark, or thinking that a lower grade than expected means we are not intelligent enough).

We tend to believe these thoughts and fuse the thought with a consequence – that is, we interpret the feeling of discomfort/restlessness as evidence that the thoughts are highly likely to happen. And yet, as strong as the feeling might be, these thoughts are not based on accurate facts. The thoughts are related to an imagined future situation that we fear (eg. Not passing the module/degree).

We tend to want to stop the worry thoughts, or try not to think about them, but what happens instead is that the more we try to stop thinking about them the more the thoughts interrupt our thinking, and more intensely. This can cause immense distress.

What happens if we try to not think about them?
Trying to stop ourselves from thinking about the worry thoughts that we are afraid of produces the opposite effect – we end up having more worry thoughts, not less. So, if you have tried to stop them and felt these increased it is an expected phenomenon, and therefore, not an indication that you are doing something wrong.

We tend to believe that the feeling of discomfort we get when having doubt means that we are in danger. Instead, it is the feeling of discomfort about the unknown. The problem is that we anticipate negative events, and in academic life it could be having a feeling of not being able to achieve high standards (eg. Will fail the presentation/exam, will not get an A in the assignment ).

Worry thoughts interfere with problem-solving as our attention is focused on unlikely hypothetical scenarios in the future, rather than focusing on the current situation to find a solution.
They are preventing us from solving situations as the repetition of unlikely outcomes keeps our attention away from the present moment.
Worrying does not solve the problem. It is just repetition.

Feeling vs Thoughts
We may say for example “I feel I will never get the 2:1 that I want, or I will not graduate”. These are not a feeling, these are thoughts. What is the feeling underneath this thought? Possibly, feeling sad, uncertain, a sense of discomfort at the doubt of what is going to happen.
The worry thoughts are a reaction to the content, that is, we fear the likelihood of failing as in the example.

Worry is a way of thinking. We spend so much time thinking in our day-to-day that we believe all our thoughts are intentional. We have the belief that we should be in control of our thoughts. However, our brains produce random thoughts without us wanting them.

Have you had the experience of listening a song that then you find that you have the song stuck in your head for a while despite not wanting to think about it?  You can try this thought experiment: do not think about your favourite toy as a child. What happened? If you are like most people you found yourself thinking about your toy, something you probably had not thought about in a while.

Sometimes having had negative experiences in the past we notice that there are some similar features with a current situation. We then assume that the same thing will happen again. For example, remembering that A Level exams were highly stressful and as a result of the stress you obtained lower marks than expected. Therefore, now you find yourself anticipating a similar experience in end of year exams.

Having had a difficult time in the past, does not mean that there will be a repeat of the same situation. You can respond to the situation in a different manner. You can learn to manage the the pressure,  by preparing for exam more effectively. Focus on the learning process instead. To manage the repeated thoughts, and the tension they produce, you can experiment with doing a body scan.

Worry thoughts are fuelled by errors in our thinking process. By learning to identify these you can respond differently.

Errors of thinking

1.Overgeneralisation:
Thinking that one situation does not go as expected means that everything is wrong (eg. Not getting the grade hoped for =  failure of course).

2.Mind Reading:
Thinking that we know what others are thinking about us/our actions.

3.Maximising negative consequences:
Anticipating an exaggerated/catastrophic outcome
(eg. Not passing assignment = failing degree = others disappointed).

4.Minimising personal capability of managing situation:
Anticipating not being able to tolerate distress. Thinking that it is to difficult to tolerate feelings, not recognising ability to adapt to situations (eg. Forgetting that when going through school had to adapt to change of class, adapting from primary school to secondary school, dealing with GCSEs then A Levels).

5.Fortunetelling:
Anticipating failure in the future, or negative situations.

6.Black and white thinking:
Thinking in extreme terms (eg. Feeling revising for exams is too difficult, therefore believing will fail year/degree).

References:

Carbonell, D.A. (2016) The Worry Trick. How your brain tricks you into expecting the worst and what you can do about it. California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Leahy, R.L. (2006) The Worry Cure. Stop worrying and start living. New York: Piatkus.

Rossman, M. (2010) The Worry Solution. New York: Crown Archetype, Random House, Inc.

How to manage worry thoughts (Part 2)

How to deal with worry thoughts

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” ( Marie Curie)

“Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all.” ( Norman Vincent Peale)

1.Tolerate the feeling of discomfort produced by the feeling of doubt.

2. Practice learning to trust yourself that you will respond to events with the information you have at the time.

3. Do not compare with others: this is distracting and gives inaccurate information. We compare what we see in others, with how we feel. However, we do not have the full picture of how others are feeling, and we need to focus on the current moment to find a solution to the task at hand.

4. Reframe, change perspective: instead, focus on the task at hand and think what one thing you can do to make progress.
Write down some of the worry thoughts that you have had recently. Then consider: “Is this a specific problem you are dealing with now? If so, what can you do to change something now?”

5.Tolerate the uncertainty: imagine you are going into a swimming pool, you do this slowly, at first yo may feel discomfort as the water is colder than you expected. You don’t want to feel uncomfortable, but you do want to swim for a while. If you go in slowly your body adjusts to the temperature gradually. Think of your worry thoughts in the same way, at first they are uncomfortable, as you let them be without trying to stop them, and without taking the content literally. Eventually, you will gradually get used to them and the sense of danger will dissipate even if you still feel uncomfortable.

6.Focus on taking action: consider what one small step you can take to have a sense of achievement (despite feeling uncomfortable with the worry thoughts). For example, you notice that the worry thoughts are about failing to complete the essay by the deadline, or imagining failing all exams. Notice the thoughts, then remind yourself: this is imagination, not fact. Then, ask yourself: what one step you can take to make progress with your essay/revision. The key is to focus on small tasks so that they are manageable.

7.Focus on making progress, not the result: a lot of the worry thoughts in relation to academic work tend to be about the future, about failing, about not getting things done, or fear of negative feedback. Instead, focus on what you are learning, what you are doing each day.

8.Remind yourself of your values: you can relate to these even if feeling frustrated, tired, or worried. See yourself as someone who perseveres with efforts, is responsible, wants to make progress, and is interested in moving forward. You can add more to this list so that you can use this list as a reminder. It is more effective when the list reflects what you know to be true about you.

9.Maintain your energy level: worry thoughts increase when we are tired. This is because we need energy to focus our attention on the task at hand, and when tired it is more difficult to maintain our focus and control our emotions.

10.Practice mindfulness: focus your attention on your breathing, notice the thoughts and let them go.


Ask yourself: 
“Is this thought helpful?” Probably not, then let it go. Instead, connect with your environment. Look outside of the window, or go for a walk.

Notice the sky, the open space, nature, feel the breeze, breathe in and out slowly to restore your balance.

Ask yourself: “What is this thought preventing you from doing right now that is important to you?”
Instead of focusing on the content of the thoughts, focus on what you want to make progress on.


11.Breathe.Stretch.Move:
it is essential to move and stretch your muscles. When studying for prolonged periods of time our bodies become tired and muscles can ache with the tension of sitting down for too long.

Instead, plan study periods of no more than half hour, then stand up for five minutes stretch, walk, look outside or go outside and get some natural light. This helps the blood to circulate through your body, and take nutrients to your brain so it can function optimally. This will also alert you and you will notice you will be able to concentrate better.


References:

Carbonell, D.A. (2016) The Worry Trick. How your brain tricks you into expecting the worst and what you can do about it. California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Leahy, R.L. (2006) The Worry Cure. Stop worrying and start living. New York: Piatkus.

Rossman, M. (2010) The Worry Solution. New York: Crown Archetype, Random House, Inc.

Introduction to Mindfulness

By Vivienne Hill

 

Over the past few years the idea of living mindfully and mindfulness practice has gained in popularity, particularly in relation to learning how the mind and body work together in situations of stress and anxiety.

 
Mindfulness means “Paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose and non-judgementally”.

Mindfulness is something you learn about a lot better by practicing rather than by reading about although there are of course many books and research papers you can look at if you want to. We all know that having regular physical exercise improves physical health. In the same way having regular mental exercise can improve your mental health.

The benefits of a regular Mindfulness practice, which could take as little as 10 minutes a day, are numerous including:

  • Reduction in anxiety, depression and exhaustion
  • Improvement to working memory, creativity and attention span
  • Enhanced brain function and ability to focus
  • Improved self awareness in relation to others and the environment

For more information please see the following links:

One way of reducing tension is to do a body scan. Here is a videoclip that you may find useful.

www.mindfulnessforstudents.co.uk

www.franticworld.com

www.bemindful.co.uk