I went to the University of Maryland, and we had a 6-week winter holiday. Nearly all of my friends had just two weeks off for winter break, so there were four weeks I’d spend mostly on my own.
Each year I’d set goals for myself for break: exercise, instrument practice, writing, studying, whatever. And for four years of winter breaks, though I did read a bunch of books, I don’t think I accomplished any of those goals. So by the end of winter break, I was disappointed with myself, caught in self-judgment, and glad to return to the structure of a semester at school.
I was recently talking with a student who is caught in a similar spiral of habit-forming ineffectiveness. Fully capable of performing at a high level academically, he’s been having serious motivation issues since even before the pandemic shut-down began a year ago. His teachers see his capability, his parents see his capability, I see his capability, and he even sees it.
Yes, he sees his own capability to pull off a big win this year, but he also sees what we don’t see when we look at him: he’s tried and failed, countless times, to get himself together and get the work done. So he’s apprehensive, intimidated, and scared, and he’s anticipating another failure.
In our brief conversation between classes, I then offered him the best support I could think of in that moment. I offer these notes to you now, dear reader, in case you might also benefit from them:
First, I acknowledged his innate capacity for doing great work and coming out of this funk. We are all much more capable than we give ourselves credit for, and it’s really helpful to have another person around to remind us of that. Ask a friend or someone you trust to remind you of your strengths and capabilities.
Second, I suggested that he get grounded in the “what’s so,” or the reality, of the situation. Take 10 minutes and list out all the work he’s got to make up in each of his six classes. This step often doesn’t seem as valuable as just jumping into the work that needs to be done, but it almost always is. Personally, I clean my desk, make a list, then pick out the most important list item to jump into first.
Third, I recommended that he change his work environment. Our environment plays an often-unnoticed role in maintaining good and bad habits. If he shifts his work environment, he’s inevitably going to shift his work habit. Maybe work in a different room, sit at a different desk or table, or change the lighting during work time.
Fourth, I suggested that he reach out to someone along the way for support; it could be me, his parents, or a friend. Consistent communication with someone we trust and who cares about us can help us build new habits. A good friend of mine shared this insight with me: conversations are shared thoughts. And shared thoughts can be much more pliable, positive, inspiring, and fortifying than the typical, past-based, and self-critical thinking arising in our own minds.
Despite having a truly phenomenal academic preparation for college when I was in high school, such a fundamental and valuable skill as developing and fostering positive habits was a lesson I never learned until years after leaving the walls of my high school and university buildings.
How about we make sure no kid makes it through American schools without mastering the formation of positive habits?
Thanks for reading ❤️.
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