Stressed student biting pencil.
Stressed student biting pencil.

Coronavirus welfare advice: Can’t work?

The University Counselling Service is producing a series of articles and podcasts to support students during the coronavirus pandemic. This time we offer advice on normalising your emotions.

Many students are describing how hard it is to concentrate on academic work right now. Below we outline some strategies and ways of thinking about work that may help you on your way to productivity. 

Normalise your crisis of motivation 

The current situation is a stark reminder that there are other things more important than work; family, loved ones, world events – it’s appropriate to react to these, it’s not business as usual. Allow yourself your emotional reaction.  

However, another part of us will in all likelihood want to do some work and continue to make some progressWe need to negotiate between these two parts of ourselves, and recognise we are likely working with a reduced capacity. Be realistic - try halving what you are asking yourself to do, and keep halving until you find the task that feels actionable and achievable. Build from there. 

Do you dismiss the goals you have set yourself, or the amount you achieve? You might be quite attached to the ‘it’s never enough’ mentality – perhaps it feels like that’s what got you this far. But there is a need for compassion too. What if you assumed that, right now, this is enough?  

Our thoughts 

We may have a lot of thoughts about the future – there is a great deal of uncertainty. These thoughts may feel difficult to let go of.  

We can get hooked into them as ‘fact’ and spend a lot of time arguing with ourselves about whether something we think about ourselves or the future is ‘true’ or not.  Regardless of whether a thought is true or not, what matters is what we do with it.  Do your actions take you closer to your work or further away? 

The impact of studying 

It is sometimes hard to remember that whilst doing our academic work, it is normal to feel tested.  It’s also natural to have doubts before beginning work, or whilst doing it.  These feelings do not mean that you are not able to do the piece of work, or that the piece of work you are going to produce is not of the right standard.  There is a huge distance between ‘no work’ and ‘working 10 hours a day’.  We are trying to find a workable middle ground that is realistic and potentially stimulating. 

Things to try first 

Minimise distractions. A good place to start is to identify the ways in which you hinder your own progress. For example, if you wake up and immediately check your news feed and are still there several hours later, can you make a deal with yourself to not do so until you have completed a certain amount of work, or studied for an hour, say? 

Make it easy to get started by starting with the easiest thing. Reconnect with the part of you that can set yourself an objective and achieve it.  If a goal is not achievable, break it down or make it simpler.  Don’t get hooked into ‘but if I do that, it won’t be enough’.  We are talking about gaining traction with your work, and creating the possibility of momentum. 

Explore Apps. There are lots of useful apps and resources out there. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different ones, check with friends what they find helpful, be curious about what might help you, and keep being curious.  Something may not work every time, but it may work sometimes, and that is good enough. The work doesn't have to be perfect and the process of working does not have to be perfect either. 

Structure also helps. Whilst it may not feel possible to stick to a rigid timetable right now, working to broad principles can be positive, a work session before morning coffee, for example, or going over particular topics straight after lunch each day. But of course, getting a good night of sleep, eating well and getting some exercise and fresh air are all ways of supporting yourself through this. 

Beware of ‘grey time’ and set boundaries. Introduce rituals between work and play – times, locations in the house, arranging routine with friend, and activities which help separate the two. 

Some students find video-calling course friends to study together is helpful, pre-arranged breaks to talk etc., with the mutual expectation of working in between. 

Getting work started is half the battle.  Remember that when it comes to academic work, imperfect action beats perfect inaction, every time. 

For a range of additional supportive resources, go to the Counselling Service webpages, or visit the coronavirus student advice page for more general information about the impact of coronavirus. Find parts one and two of the Can't Work podcast series on the Student life at Oxford podcasts page.