I’m a graduate student. All around me I hear people talk about how burnt out they are:
“Sorry, I had to pull an all-nighter. I can’t function this morning.”
“I was in the office all weekend trying to finish that term paper. I must’ve worked for 35 hours straight.”
“I feel SO underprepared for my comprehensive exam. I’m going to lock myself in my room and go through all the readings this week. Hopefully I can survive!”
Students aren’t the only ones to fall into this trap, either. Most office conversation— after a brief delay to discuss the weather and the game last night— revolves around looming deadlines. It seems like a prime example of the old saying 'misery loves company'. And while it might be nice to be able to connect with your colleagues over something, connecting over stress is not the best way to do it.
People wear their stress like a badge of honour. In a world where you are your job, it almost makes sense to brag about how much you work. After all, the amount of work you have to do is directly proportional to your worth as a person, right? Wrong. What’s worse, that sense of pride in overwork is actually making you less productive. The psychological boost you get from the sympathy and validation of others simulates the rewards of a job well done. In other words, it makes you feel as though you’ve accomplished some task, just by sharing with others how much you have to do.
When your brain gets that reward, there’s less incentive to actually do the work that’s apparently so pressing, putting you further behind the eight ball. In the long term, bragging about your stress levels will actually increase them. That’s great if you want to continue having stress to talk about, but horrible if your goal is to be happy and productive.
I have good news, brothers and sisters. The endless cycles of stress can be avoided. Start by being conscious of your language, and refuse to engage in stress-bragging. When your colleagues start to complain, that’s a great cue to get back to work. Set goals and schedule your time to maximize your productivity. Even timers can be used to keep you on task. Pretty soon, when you overhear the stories of last minute cramming and panicked overwork, you won’t even be able to relate!
Fall is the perfect time to set goals.
If you are--or have ever been--young, you’ll remember September as a time of new beginnings. For most of us, September marked the start of a new school year, and with that came a fresh start. We’d all have dreams and plans and goals for the year, whether they be academic, athletic, or social.
I like to continue that tradition every September, and I think that the surrounding back-to-school atmosphere creates a great environment for getting in the goal-setting mood. Plus, it’s Jordanna’s birthday in September, and who doesn’t love a nice round of birthday goal setting? So without further ado, here are some tips to make your yearly goal setting adventure productive and fruitful.
First, make your goals for the year, and make them big. Start by asking yourself, “Where do I want to be in one year’s time? How do I want to feel?” Aim high, but keep the goals focused on specifics. Don’t write down “I want to have business success” or “I want to get high grades”. Instead, make them specific and measurable: “I want to have 10 new clients this year” or “I want to have an 85% average this year”. These goals have objective markers, and you’ll be better able to measure progress. Be realistic given the time frame, but don’t shy away from ambitious goals. If you set a high bar and come close, you’ve still made a ton of progress!
How will you get there? Once you have your major goals figured out, focus on the process, and not the results. What do you need to be doing month by month, week by week, day by day to reach those goals? You should spend your energy thinking about the process, since it is something over which you have complete control. If you can make a habit out of the day to day process, the results will follow.
Post your goals.
Write your goals down, and place them somewhere visible. Write your process down, and place it somewhere even more visible. You’ll constantly be reminded of what is most important to you for this year. If your main goal is to eat healthier, seeing this posted on the fridge will make you reconsider grabbing that late night snack of maple syrup and cheerios.
Replace bad habits.
If your goal is to eliminate bad habits, make sure to fill the void with something new. Our brains are fickle things. Habits are a sort of low energy autopilot for the brain, and are triggered by the desire for a reward given a certain cue. You need to replace the habit process and the reward, so that when the cue arises, your brain starts the good habit process, rather than the bad. If not, you’ll likely slip into your old habits automatically. Every time you get a cigarette craving, spend some time exercising or learning a new instrument. If a junk food craving hits, drink a bottle of water and get back to work.
Going into a new phase with a plan is the best way to succeed. This fall, take the time to figure out where you want to be in one, five, or even ten years time, and map out a plan for how you will get there. Remember, a list of goals does not lock you into processes that you may want to change later. Go back and review your goals regularly. If your goals have changed, that’s okay! Just start this process over again.
by Adam Koberinski
Adam is a PhD student studying the philosophy of physics. He is also an avid reader and weightlifter. He wants to help people organize and gain control over their personal and financial lives. He's also my husband.