The result of these changes is that stressed-out people rely on habits, and that these habits can become “ruts” and downright counterproductive behavior. From the article:
“Behaviors become habitual faster in stressed animals than in the controls, and worse, the stressed animals can’t shift back to goal-directed behaviors when that would be the better approach,” Dr. Sousa said. “I call this a vicious circle.”
Angier also emphasizes the plasticity of the brain, noting that the brain returns to normal when the stressors are removed.
Some interesting groups of stressed-out people whose brain chemistry might be favoring habits over goal-driven behavior:
Refugees and immigrants
People struggling to pay bills (be they heat or private college tuition)
Overworked, under-supported teachers
This has some pretty interesting ramifications. What I see applying to my students (many of whom are refugees):
they need a safe, relaxed, predictable environment to help them think
many would respond well to repetitive exercises, vocabulary drills, etc.
teaching them basic survival habits will help them through future stressful situations
Lifehacker and The Simple Dollar have been posting more content than usual geared toward college students, and it got me thinking about my own college experience. It was a great one. I worked hard, but I didn’t work smart at all, and because of that I’m not sure I lived up to my potential.
This isn’t intended to be a list of regrets. I’m reflecting on a path I set out on when I was 17, and my perspective on it from my mid-twenties is understandably a little different.
What I Wish I’d Done In College
Basically, I wish I’d scheduled my time as though college were my 40 hour per week job. Mind you that when I was in college I’d never had such a thing as a full-time job. Still, I don’t think it would have been beyond me to:
set a regular (reasonably flexible) work schedule, planning to spend about 8 hours a day either in class or involved in studies;
spend time at the beginning of each semester marking not just mandatory class times on my calendar, but also project due-dates and my own draft due-dates;
make it my business to go to each prof’s office hours at least once;
treat class time more seriously (like it was a meeting or a conference) by taking notes and behaving in a more openly friendly way to my classmates.
I also wish I’d done a few less serious “school is your job” -type things, such as:
joining a club that would take me off campus on a regular basis;
sleeping more consistently;
spending more than one semester taking a karate class.
And honestly, I can’t help but wonder if taking a year or two between high school and college and doing AmeriCorps or some such work would have made the above wishes realities instead.
Again, no regrets. I took interesting classes, did respectably well in them (except chemistry), made incredible friends, enjoyed participating in music programming, and reached out to some profs and acquaintences I hope I’ll still be acquainted with years from now. I was also introduced to life in the Twin Cities and have continued living here since graduation. I think of it all as a success. And I’d have a different kind of success if I started it in September 2009 instead.
I have had bags of clothes sitting in my apartment waiting for me to donate them for something like a year. Maybe longer. And last week, I finally donated them.
It was one of those unfortunate tasks that was neither important nor urgent but that would take more than a few minutes. So I just sort of stopped seeing the bags of clothes being slowly shredded by my cats. When I did occasionally notice them, it was never a good time to dive into such a big project (?) so I left them for “later.”
After “later” feels great!
I had to re-bag the clothes, add additional items to be donated, load my car, figure out where to take them, and physically donate. It all took about 80 minutes. Not bad at all.
My apartment looks a lot bigger and I can now see my closet floor. If I’d taken a moment to weigh the relative annoyance of 80 minutes of donating vs. a year with more clutter, I would have decluttered a year ago.
The factor that started me tackling this silly little project with its surprisingly large impact on my living space was a conversation that became a plan. Those things are powerful.
Write down every task or project I can think of. I work on this for a day or so to ensure it’s as complete as possible.
Estimate time per task. In the left margin, I write in the estimated minutes it will take. This step eliminates a lot of “this list is scary!” for me. “60 minutes of stats” is easier for me to tackle than “annoyingly time-consuming volunteer stats.”
Rewrite the list in two columns: Longer Term and Shorter Term. I fill in some details like due dates and collaborators in Longer Term. I just make a plain bulleted list of the shorter-term projects (which are usually 60 minutes or less). The process of rewriting it helps me internalize it.
Circle my first four tasks. This way I can evaluate what my next priority is in a quick and ongoing way.
Check them off when they’re done. It feels gooood. 🙂
Keep my list in plain sight. The list lives just to the left of my computer. It does not get put away, it does not travel, it does not get buried. And it gets more and more crossed off until it’s done.
It’s not perfect. I think they keys that make it work for me are that I sit down and really think about it in terms of minutes and that it’s always on my desk and in my face.
Wednesdays are new student registration day at my learning center. I’d never get anything done if I took new students whenever they walked in or called, so I have everyone come to fill out their application and take their placement test on one evening out of the week.
Yesterday I had 8 students signed up for registration, and I usually get additional people who haven’t contacted me. That would have been pretty chaotic, even for me. So I did the unthinkable. I asked for help.
It was great. My volunteer told people about the schedule and helped with the application. Then I could focus on finding the right test for each student and monitoring their progress. We ended up only having five new students (it was about 3 degrees outside, so I wasn’t surprised) but it was still a much calmer, more controlled process than other nights with five or so intakes.
So I want to know why it took me so long to ask for help, and why it still feels a little like cheating to change the system so that I’m not needing to juggle five (or eight) people at once.
I have to say, I think today’s presentation went well. I didn’t see anyone fall asleep even in the dim lighting, I got a few questions at the end, a couple offers for help, and people laughed.
I’m particularly proud of one of my images, a graph. It was my one and only statistic. I didn’t mention it yesterday because I wasn’t positive it would go over well. My audience was appreciative, for which I was grateful. Yay. (Also, in case you were wondering, it is a real graph of the first 8 numbers in the Fibonacci sequence.)
The Jeopardy! rip-off game was really fun too. It always surprises me how much fun that game can be. We decided to have the teams wave a scarf in the air to buzz in with answers, and it actually worked really well. Notable team names were “Bad Reflexes” and “The Table.” The most popular category was “Two Truths and a Lie: Staff Edition,” in which teams had to pick the one lie out of three statements about me and my officemate. The ESL and GED categories were fine too though.
Based on comments I got after the presentation, my chosen strategy of using pictures, a conversational approach, and an interactive (and not too difficult) quiz game was well-received. I seem to have hit upon a lot of information that people were actually interested in by using this model. I also had a “wish list” slide to talk about our big dreams, and a couple of coworkers came up to me to say we should schedule a time to talk about how their programs could fulfill some of my site’s wishes. Sweet!