Study: How to get unstuck (when writing a complicated assignment, etc.)

Hi!

Does anybody have any tips for how to get unstuck and systematically work through a complex and “mysterious” task?

I am the first year at UNI (Psychology and Philosophy, MA), and I did my first semester with As and B (can’t say how I did that) but I spend an awful lot of my time doing assignments, when in fact I am truly working only for a fraction of that time, usually when it’s almost/already late. Every time I am starting an assignment I am unsure whether I’ll be able to finish it and have a really chaotic approach, I have never managed to create a plan and be able to stick to it.

Now one course for Psychology has a TOP-DOWN approach where they give us a few instructions about something we’ve never done and then it’s up to us. Just now I have to write up an experimental report to the study we have done in class and I have already spent 16 hours trying to start (not counting the prior procrastination).

I am extremely chaotic and tasks that are demanding on working memory and organisation often “paralyze me”, even simple things like tidying up my room or getting ready to leave the house.

Does anybody have any advice on how to overcome this?

I’d be really grateful for anything.

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@Matej_Blaha, you did a good job of explaining your situation, which tells me expressing yourself is not a problem given the right conditions! So how we create the right conditions for your assignments? I have some suggestions:
[TL;DR: write down key points; expand on them; just do editing to complete the task]

  • Write down the key points as they come to your mind. Don’t worry about organizing them. Don’t try to remember every little detail. Just spend 5 minutes. Just stream of consciousness, as if you are responding to questions like “What is assignment about? Can you describe it quickly?”. This works for me because I find it easier to explain to someone than to write. The larger point is to get started by writing a few words without worrying about any other issues.

  • Then put each key point on a line by itself and put 4-5 key words below it, expanding the point. Or if you already know what to write, just go ahead and write a paragraph or few for each key point.

  • Hopefully by now you have got going, so keep going! But avoid editing your mistakes or rephrasing anything. Just stream of consciousness writing, errors and all. If you have to look up something by googling, best make a guess and move on because a web-search is a very very deep rabbit-hole!

  • When you have enough stuff on paper (or computer), take a break - do something else, go for a walk, talk to your friends, etc. for a while before getting back. But put a deadline (30 minutes, 1 hour etc.) on the break.

  • Now is the time to rearrange things and fix errors. But even if this is less that ideal, or if you have a bright new idea, don’t let that distract you; just get to the finish line. Or write down new key points at the end but complete the editing task first.

Since planning is such a problem for all of us, my guess is we are better at a bottom-up approach rather than top-down. In a top-down approach there are just too many directions you can go in and we’d want to explore all of them :slight_smile: But we are good at moving forward chaotically! Which is why I think a stream of consciousness method may work.

Another suggestion is to actually have a friend ask you questions! They ask you leading questions and you write down your answers. Then they ask you questions about what you wrote and you write down more stuff.

Good luck! You can do it!

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Thank you very much for your priceless advice, that sounds like a great strategy, I’ll try it!

The problem with this particular assignment is that we have to handle a large amount of material - but hopefully, it should work.

I think that it’s not that easy to say whether a top-down or a bottom up strategy is better - I am taking a video-course on studying with ADHD and Prof. A. Kishlenko said the exact opposite, in terms of knowledge - that the bottom-up approach can be too boring if you don’t see the connections with the bigger picture. She recommended using mind-maps, which should help with both approaches actually. This is the course in case you’d be interested: https://www.udemy.com/course/adhd-study-tricks-for-high-school-university-grad-school/

Thank you! :slight_smile:

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I’m in UNI also and I completely understand — the struggle is real!

The info above is great! Lists and breaking things down into small bite sized pieces to keep from getting too overwhelmed is great.

Something that my counselor recommended to me is listening to music. A lot of time it’s the only way I can focus. Listening to music activates the frontal cortex, and gets it happy and kicking with dopamine (at least for me that’s what does it) and that keeps me focused, but sometimes it ends up becoming a distraction. So what I like to do is this — Try making your first study session for a project solely about HOW you are going to do the work. That’s it. For me that means grabbing my math textbook, looking over that weeks problems, and putting flags on the pages I will need to reference. Also, I like to look over what the assignment is about to gauge what level of knowledge I have on the topic to tell me if I’m going to need a lot of extra time. Later I will decide how much work I want to do each day. One problem this day, two problems that day, and so on. Honestly, has that second part worked yet? Not entirely, and I usually end up doing that work last minute, however, having that plan of attack, and just having the pages flagged and having reviewed things ahead of time makes me feel much better and really gives me a lot more confidence in approaching my work later.

Also, give yourself plenty of breaks (I use the pomodoro technique that Jessica talks about) and try to take one every 45 minutes so I don’t wear myself out in hyperfocus, and make sure to have some small healthy snacks.

Hope something in there helps and good luck with your studies!

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Good point! I was reflecting upon the fact that using a top down strategy can become a hurdle for because it can get overwhelming. When learning a new subject it can of course be very useful but then someone else has done the hard work! Also note that what I suggested is sort of top down but the key idea is not to get bogged down there.

Apart from being overwhelmed, which we counter by breaking things down in smaller chunks, we also tend to analyze and backtrack and edit and “research” and rewrite (certainly true for me & this may be true of a lot of us), so we counter that by using a stream of consciousness style, just writing down what comes naturally, leaving analysis for later.

For your large amount of material, you can try writing down one sentence summary for each section — this can also act later on as a trigger to remember what was said in that section. A mnemonic device.

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Hi Matej!

First year history student in university, second term just started but somehow I still feel tired from first term which probably already explains my work habit in first term. It comes close to:

Eat - Work - Work some more - Check it all 10 times - Sleep 4-6 hours - repeat

With a chaotic home situation, being stuck at home as well of course with covid aroune, I’m completely broken one moment and the other moment I feel fine and blame myself for not working when broken. I mean, I know I shouldn’t and cut myself slack more but every time the situation comes around I fall into the same trap but I digress.

When we get this complex and weird assignments I usually just get really frustrated with them. Often times I absolutely NEED to know when assignments need to be submitted so that I can spread out the tasks over multiple days. But school seems to think putting those up last minute is fine for them. So yeah, frustration gets combined with stress of not doing it right (because perfectionism :crazy_face:) but that worked for the results for me in the first term.

That being said, I don’t advise using that strategy for 6 months in a term. It’s only that nothing else really bothered me this first term, but that’s a rare situation for me. I try handling the start of second term with the same strategy now, but already I feel completely blown up, I kind of only do it because it’s the only thing I know while studying.

So yeah for me it’s absolutely learning about the thing way in advance but since that’s not always possible, I just try to split it in time I have left for it because I believe the product is better when I try not to steamroll through for 8-12 hours straight. I’m keeping an eye on this post now too, I already plan to try out some new things soon and maybe there’ll be more.

Enjoy your day! :upside_down_face:

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Thank you for your advice!

I agree that music can help a lot, I use these binaural and alfa wave tracks optimally with some repetitive rhythm in the background to get enough stimulation and avoid destruction (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v23fBC70hR0&list=PL7G6jjFfvq5EjwdoE3KSfTKveW1k2w1Zw&index=17&ab_channel=GreenredProductions-RelaxingMusic)

And also agree that it is important to spend time thinking about how you are going to do the work.

It seems that what worked for me now (hopefully) is identifying the easiest part and starting to write anything, then there is a great chance that I will get caught in and continue even when I had initially no Idea how.

Good luck with your studies too! :slight_smile:

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How’s the studying / schoolwork going?

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Who??

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Hi!

Thank you very much and I am sorry that I didn’t respond, I wanted to but it got delayed . . .

That’s admirable that you’ve been able to work that hard! I can’t do anything if I sleep less than 8-9 hours a day, I feel dizzy, confused, irritable and extremely unproductive when I don’t sleep enough. I had a similar approach, though I ended up working much less and “sleeping” for 10 hours because I broke my sleeping patterns, can relate to self-blaming as well, though I have a tendency to be lazy as well.

I think it might be a good idea to work in time intervals and just give yourself a day when you allow yourself to be completely off and regenerate? Or increase sleeping time? I know this is really easy to say, I’d be worried that you might come to the breakdown at some point.

And how are you doing this semester?

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Hi, thank you, reasonably well, I hope… :slight_smile:
What worked for me in case of that experimental report was instead of doing ressearch and introduction (the hardest part) first, starting from methods and writting the introduction in the reversed order - but I did not get the grade yet… Planning the work and breaking it into small chunks seems to be the crucial part.

How are you and your studies? :slight_smile:

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Hey!

Don’t worry about it, in some way your reaction now kinda got me back into here where I kinda get some automatic reminder of things. That can come in handy.

Anyway, it’s good that you’re reaction is now, probably on a weird level. But hear me out.
I may or may not be unsure if I already told you this, but I dropped one class for this semester. If I put that on a stress scale from l
0-100, I guess it takes 15% off of the 100%.
It’s… been an eventful start of the calendar year. I went from overwhelmed to sad when a family member passed away (not completely over it yet, would be weird if I was) and somewhere in between these two there was happiness for a very short while after I passed al classes from first term.

Well I guess I got off on the wrong foot, the burial ceremony was on the 1st day of the second term, hated it for all the obvious reasons, but well… some things were bigger than school. Then I tried - and completely failed - to try everything everyone else did too, which was 4 classes. But I found out reaaally soon after I got back into it full focused (for what it’s even worth). Basically all classes are, and I phrase this in the way a friend from my class said it, who also has ADHD, ‘we basically get fysical education in an online environment.’ Covid still rules over our country here, university and one level below that are still not able to go to school. Fun thing is though, they judge us inside a scheme that’s fit for students who have had fully fysical education.

I don’t like to sound like a pessimist or whatever, or like I’m this holy person who has done it all right here. But school has given us nothing to work with, they completely lost sight of us, firstyears, who experience 1) the study as a whole for the first time, and 2) get some form of education of which they tell us it’s a good substitution. Well, it’s really far from that. Last Wednesday I sent a teacher an email about something that was truly essential to get progress in this project. Till the point that I’m writing this… there has been no answer, the deadline I had to submit what my question was about? Last Friday.

Before I keep going I’m gonna stop myself here, I kinda feel like the point is clear :joy:. I really want to try the things you mentioned, and I did so around the end of last term… sort of. But now I just… everyday is the same struggle, basically every week, it’s (trying to) wake up, breakfast, be at the laptop for hours and hours without progress and get no time to even lunch or breaks during live groups. Then usually dinner, and evenings also bring more work. I’ve come to the point that sleep comes after study. Past 7 days there were 2 0 hours of sleep nights, and I think it’s more than fair to say that the majority of the 24 hours in a day goes to study above sleep.

Anyway, to end on a positive note, I have been part of this ADHD-group at school since I began, which is a great improvement for me here. As a group you can achieve a whole lot more in our organization.

And how are you in this term? You coping?

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Hi!

Sorry, I’ve stopped reading emails for some time and missed your reply…

I am really sorry to hear about all your struggles. How is it going now? Is your term over? Fingers crossed that the next year will go better for you.

…I have managed to finish the term and that experimental report I was stuck on when I created this tread was probably the worst point in the semester. I must say that the teaching in all of mine courses was managed quite well and suited me more than the in person teaching - I am actually worried about switching back to “normal”. So I am quite well now.

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Hey!

Great to hear that you’re doing quite well, I assume you’re nearing the summer break as well?

I wanna ask you this though: How did your school organize things, and what makes you afraid to go back to normal? Is it that you got used to this way of working? Just asking because I’m genuinely interested, maybe your school could teach mine a few things then…

I’m nearing my 2 end-terms right now, the last one being on the 31st of May, the first one being this wednesday. I’m… sort of getting my project grade back this week too so I can’t say I’m not stressed at all, I’m actually more stressed than a few weeks back when the project was finished and the end-terms were a few weeks out. Right now I’m just trying to balance studying for them with not studying too much (too much being more than 9-10 hours a day here).

The rest of the semester was… actually the same old struggle. The communication with my project’s teacher just… was horrible. The man just didn’t reply to his mails and we can’t reach him otherwise. A lot of other courses were graded for 35% on “participation”, which is fair for education that fits it. Not for 20+ students and a teacher in an online class. There was chatter about University opening at the end of March, which because of Covid got postponed a month after which they were actually allowed to open. Funny enough the afternoon after the government announced that, my faculty had already sent us an email about how it was too much effort to take care of that for the remainder of the semester. Because yeah… it’s not like they could’ve started preparations a month before.

But for myself it’s been… weird. I’ve only been diagnozed about a year and a half back, pre-covid, in a(nother) gap year, and started again this year. Since all the things happened with my grandmother since december last year, it’s been… fluctuating. Emotional dysregulation bothers me, a lot. It’s irritating that I somehow can’t get a hold of it and trust myself to be or to feel some kind of way while doing something, for example an assignment for school. I’ve lost appetite for a long stretch, which still isn’t back to it’s usual levels. Headaches, constant lack of concentration just because your head is still doing other things.

But to end on a positive note, or more, actually. I’ve made amazing new friends this year with people fron my study. Really close in how I can tell them all of these things I struggle with, how I struggle(d) with loss, what exactly bothers me when even I sometimes don’t know. Then it helps to have these people who I, already, am eternally grateful for.
That, and I passed all things I did so far. Seminars, presentations. I passed the first exams, the mid-terms. Now I need to pass these and my project, and that’ll be it for this year. Which forces me into resting because… I literally can’t work on schoolwork. But friends already prepare a few things to do, I might need a 24-7 week of sleep first though. :joy:

Anyway, good to hear from you again!

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Hi, great to hear from you!

So our university online space is based on a platform called Blackboard collaborate. Each of our courses is designed separately but all courses have a more or less similar general layout. There is a brief week-by-week guide available at the beginning of the semester and the list of all graded assignments with due dates is always in a course guide. All lectures are pre-recorded and released usually on Monday for each week, slides are usually available as well. Coordinators of most of our courses make a thorough introduction video for every assignment and we can ask any questions on a discussion board, in an online-office hour, or less desirably through email. Some courses even had so-called catch-up classes to make sure people are on track.

You can probably see now how time and energy saving this way of teaching can be :smiley: I can pause lectures at any time, watch them as many times or as few as I want. Further, we had no time constraints for completing the assignments.

“But for myself it’s been… weird. I’ve only been diagnozed about a year and a half back, pre-covid, in a(nother) gap year, and started again this year. Since all the things happened with my grandmother since december last year, it’s been… fluctuating. Emotional dysregulation bothers me, a lot. It’s irritating that I somehow can’t get a hold of it and trust myself to be or to feel some kind of way while doing something, for example an assignment for school. I’ve lost appetite for a long stretch, which still isn’t back to it’s usual levels. Headaches, constant lack of concentration just because your head is still doing other things.”

I am sorry to hear this, …be easy on yourself. I am struggling with dysregulation (cognitive and emotional) as well. I don’t have headaches but I often feel dazed, cannot recall words or form sentences, etc. I often feel like there is something wrong with me and struggle with anxiety and abandonment fears. My strategy to fight laziness is …not nice too. And then I tend to put on myself all possible labels and imagine what are people I feel close to thinking about me.

I am happy to hear you made amazing friends, it’s great to have some like-minded people close to you.

I know now that I have passed all the exams quite well …and also got a medication prescribed, finally :slight_smile:

How is it going now? Hope you made it through this year too.

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For our online system we use BrightSpace, Blackboard was the year before, or so I heard. This is the first year they started using BrightSpace and seeing as to what you described, I think they’re pretty similar. It worked quite well the first semester, but somehow teachers kinda… let’s put it mildly… didn’t use it either at all, or very little. I think that’s part of why I lost the overview of what I had to do week by week and start studying before exams in time, just because I couldn’t find time for it anymore because there were so many other things to do.

Then my class got the… teacher who’s basically the worst at communication that I’ve ever seen. Reactions to mail taking 6 days when you really need the support for something, and now just topping it all off by taking more than a month to finish grading our research papers, when ironically the deadline for the retrying of the paper (I can’t find the English word for it lol) is… monday, so… tomorrow. I should have confidence in what I did, but I somehow can’t. It’s always these other pushbacks that are inside of you that say ‘yeah that’s great and all, buuuuut… have you thought of A till Z’. And then just coming up with some theories that are unlikely to happen but win from rational thinking.

But yeah, the pausing of lectures is great because I can just listen it back countless times because I always miss some parts, aaaaand the week before the exams it’s great for refreshing everything.

It’s still just all the same for me, I’m super nervous for my grades, I’m just mentally exhausted, it works into not wanting to do literally anything and… yeah, sleeping a lot, or at least trying to do so. I try to go easy on myself, and I’d love to say I’m successfully doing so, but now I’m beating myself up for being nervous and not wanting to do anything. The fact that I know how I should be doing it makes this weirder since I’m actually doing the opposite.

So I had that thing too, the thing where you start imagining what people think about you. It got to a point for me that I needed help with that, a lot of it. It took almost a year to make it, well not disappear, but way more livable with, it not being dominant anymore. Point is… I’d hate to see someone going through that all. I don’t know you of course, but if I can give you that little piece of advice, don’t let it get that far.

So yeah, I now just tell myself I should be feeling relaxed, at least a little bit good, and do fun things I didn’t have time for in the past months. The fact that none of those 3 things are reality for me, or at least inside me, now is… frustrating is the right word.

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Hi!

…I wanted to respond earlier

That’s a shame that your teachers didn’t use it, it is great having everything organised for you so you get less opportunity of turning it into chaos. Hope you’ll have a better teacher next year at least. Did you get your work back graded by now?

Not sure if I have mentioned it but it also helped me to put all slides from one course together into one presentation and that way revision was much easier. And I turned my class notes into mindmaps -recommend! Also getting accommodation if you can. That all can reduce the stress and, perhaps, anxiety as well.

Do you know if it’s legal to publicly share notes from a paid course?

I am really sorry that you have experienced this too, glad it’s getting better… and thank you :slight_smile:
I am trying to avoid this happening but it has been building up to this point… being braindead and unaware most of the time as a child has led to rejection which has led to anxiety, depression and that in conscious avoidance, TV-series addiction and nihilism. It is hard not to stray into the same or similar circles again. But hey, that’s part of why I am studying psychology and taking online courses about ADHD :smiley: Also also finally starting stimulant medication on Monday :smiley:

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