Neena is hoping to be back in college soon after a rather disastrous semester has left her “withdrawn/failing.” She has never been a stellar student, not even in elementary school. A review of report cards finds a pattern of “talking in class; socializing instead of working” and “inconsistent work production” “could be a good student” and “needs to apply more effort.”In art classes she consistently earned A’s, and she loved being part of the theater productions at school, but as she says, “I don’t want to be a starving artist, so I am going to get a degree in business.” Ask Neena how she feels about reapplying for next semester and she says, “This time will be different. I just wasn’t ready before. I’m just going to do my work this time. That will change everything.”
Maybe, but not likely.
What Neena doesn’t know is that her years of self-defeating behaviors—procrastination, disorganization, inconsistency, and excuses—are symptoms of more than just needing to work harder. Neena needs to work smarter. Maybe you do, too.
Here is a list of steps that include Positive Psychology as well as other interventions and assessments that can help break the pattern of ineffective behaviors.
- Get a learning evaluation. This can be as involved as neuropsychological with attention and executive function assessment, as well as a wide variety of academic, language, psychological, and cognitive tests. Realize that intelligence alone does not bring success. My motto? “It’s not how hard you work; it’s how you work hard.”
- Work with a coach who understands and specializes in learning and who can help you decode and apply the results of the testing. It is not enough to just read the results or recommendations pages of the testing. You will have your brain for life: learn how to make the most of it with someone who “gets” you.
- Track the ways you may be using short-term gain to your detriment. Nearly every behavior has a hidden benefit, even if it does not directly result in an outcome you want. Do you visit the refrigerator instead of completing the next step in an assignment? Call a friend? Take the dog for a walk? Go out when you need to stay in? These might be great things to do, or they might be preventing you from initiating or completing your work. Do you wait until the last minute and then cram for a test, or rely on last minute pressure to motivate you? Worse, do you justify these behaviors even when an objective look shows that they are not working?
- Don’t blame the messenger: Beware the rose colored mirror. Are you having a hard time incorporating feedback from teachers, parents or the boss? Neena was always quick to blame her teachers for her grades and comments. Ask yourself: What’s my contribution to the problem? What is this pattern showing me? How can I use what I know to turn things around?
- Learn to delay gratification by controlling your choices and setting arbitrary time lines. There are numerous articles on this site that reference self-regulation studies and approaches that work. Attention, Will, Habit, Action. And the most important of these is….? Right—Action.
- Get honest about your emotions and how they are shaping your behavior, problem solving and choices. If you are not getting more of what you want, maybe you need to want something different. Sheryl Crow reminds us, “It’s not having what you want. It’s wanting what you’ve got.”
- Tune into your affective residue from years of under achievement. Your brain remembers emotions, like fear or anxiety, and connects them to previous circumstances that produced the emotion you feel now. Do you expect to do poorly? Wonder how to break tasks into steps that you can complete but let anxiety take you over? While current emotion can increase the likelihood that you can access memories of the learning that took place at a past moment when you felt similarly, it can also dredge up feelings that prevent you from taking the action needed.
- Shake up the status quo by changing your “if-then” script. Are you anticipating… stress? Failure to reach your goals? Regret? Guilt? Are you suffering from social comparison and the pressure to perform according to someone else’s script? When we expect a negative outcome and the emotions that will accompany it, we may choose a tolerable (but not optimal) outcome. What will it take for you to get out of the box?
- Learn—and use—your VIA Strengths for good! See how you can use your strengths in new ways, but also look at how you may be using them in very effective but undesirable ways. Neena has “perspective” as her top strength, followed by humor, social intelligence, appreciation of beauty and excellence, and bravery. She regularly uses these to make excuses for why an assignment isn’t all that important in the overall scheme of her life. She has laughed off her failures; manipulated others (including instructors) to access extended time, higher grades, or different standards; and cheated, since she didn’t want to turn in something “bad.”
- No excuses. There is a wonderful life waiting for you, full of experiences to savor. If you are not getting more of what you want, today you can take steps to change that. : )