Getting started is often the hardest part.
How befitting a Texan author, a post entitled Saddle Up? Lone Star aside, some of my most valuable life lessons have been learned outside of the classroom and, in hindsight, are applicable to important academic, professional, and personal areas of life (which as we know often overlap).
Riding horses was a hobby that I enjoyed. In fact, over the course of my late teens and early twenties, I rode almost every day. It was my passion; it even weighted heavily in many significant life decisions I made during this time. I loved horses who were easy to ride and the ones who were tough to ride even more. I delighted in riding the horses who taught me lessons and the green ones who had so much to learn.
I loved riding … but truth be told, I didn’t always revel in the process of everything that I had to do before the ride. Some days gathering the motivation to go to the barn and saddle up was tough. I really had to remind myself of my core motivations when it was 15 degrees in the Kentucky winter and I needed to be riding a colt. Honestly, however, it wasn’t the act of riding that I wasn’t looking forward to: instead it was finding the initial motivation to saddle the horse.
Recently, while considering a writing deadline and contemplating procrastination, I had an epiphany. It wasn’t writing I was dreading; like saddling, what I was truly avoiding was the initial act of actually sitting down to write. That meant putting the comfortable, fun and easy aside. The path of least resistance is alluring: however, it’s probably not the path that will lead to timely and successful completion of a graduate degree. Just the idea of approaching some tasks can feel overwhelming and be a source of apprehension. Even if you know that once you’ve started it won’t be that bad, it’s important to remember that in confronting the uncomfortable we grow.
Here are some ways to get past the anxiety of “saddling up”:
Set goals. Succeeding in graduate school requires daily commitment and effort. That fact alone can cause anxiety. However, literally knowing that I would not be sitting at my desk for the rest of eternity helps me to get started. If I approach writing from the angle that I am trying to accomplish this section of the lit review, or set up this paper, or even organize priorities (!) you are closer to achieving that task than when you began. Setting goals is a great first step towards achieving them.
Be realistic about the amount of time that you actually have each day. Let’s be real: most of us don’t have four to five hours every day to devote to writing. Setting realistic goals will help you approach the task and keep your mind off the clock. Also, allot appropriate time to deadlines and large projects. Two hours on a Sunday afternoon is simply not enough time to write a ten page paper and give it your best. (See the point below about starting early.)
Plan breaks. Get to know yourself. When do you start to crack? Personally, I like to read in small chunks and then get up and take a walk or do a household chore. I don’t always check the clock, since I know when I’m starting to lose focus. There’s a lot of discussion and much founded in science about about how breaks, especially spent in nature, improve health and make us more creative. Giving myself permission to step away for a few moments takes away the anxiety of feeling like I’m diving into a bottomless sea.
Eat the frog. Mark Twain is credited with the quote: Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day. Like saddling a horse (and ab workouts, and cleaning the bathroom), when a task isn’t my favorite, I seek opportunities to avoid it. However, by approaching what it is that you don’t want to confront, you’ll be able to accomplish the task and move forward onto things you’d rather be doing.
Start early. Over the course of my time as a student, I’ve come to learn that much of my anxiety about getting started occurs when I’ve put something too big off for too long. I pay the cost of stress physically, mentally, and emotionally. Make a dedication to working on graduate school every day. It should be a daily commitment, just like sleeping eight hours and drinking plenty of water. Make a to do list, then an action program. Doing so can reduce the anxiety of approaching your tasks.
Take time to take care of yourself, your surroundings, and your relationships. This comes back to good time management. Make sure that you take time to tidy your desk area, take care of a few key household chores, and spend some time with your loved ones. Taking care of these things will help to ease your mind about setting aside several hours to devote to your writing responsibilities, which will diminish the anxiety of getting started.
On a Saturday afternoon when it’s sunny and 72 degrees, it can be quite hard to say no to social invitations, sit at your desk closed off from the rest of the world, and settle into several hours of writing or studying. Once you’re there, however, with every keystroke you’re moving towards your goals and just maybe things aren’t as painful as they seemed. Grad school is a short term sacrifice for long term gain! I’ve learned that acknowledging a source of discomfort takes away its power. Knowing that I dread the initial “saddling up” helps me to confront the chore of it and take action steps towards my purpose.