by Kelly Jenkins Lin
Author and speaker, Anne Lamott, tells the story of her ten-year-old brother who was trying to write a report on birds. Despite having nearly 3 months to work on it, he had put it off until the night before it was due. Close to tears, he sat at the family’s kitchen table surrounded by books and pencils and clean paper, overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. Then Lamott’s father sat down beside her brother, put his arm around his shoulders and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird” (Lamott, 1994).
For many adults, returning to school can feel like trying to write a report the night before it is due. On the threshold of a new academic year, surrounded by stacks of books and pencils and clean paper they feel overwhelmed by the enormity of what lies ahead and wonder how they will ever make it through. Below are five steps that will not only help students to survive, but to thrive, in the new academic year.
1. Know What You Have to Do. Know what is expected of you and when. The course syllabus is a great place to start. Find out what the assignments are and how much time it will take to complete each one. Then pace yourself. Set realistic daily, weekly and monthly goals for getting your work done. And don’t forget to review and revise your goals as the the semester progress. Staying organized and on top of assignments is the key to getting things done.
2. Just Do It. Procrastination can be a hard habit to break. Setting realistic goals and achievable timelines is one way to avoid it. Setting aside a designated time, and space, for studying, with few distractions is another. You might also try identifying benchmarks and rewarding yourself each time you achieve one, such as 5 minutes of dancing for every chapter read. Often times, the hardest part about completing an assignment is getting started. So, in the words of Nike, Just Do It!
3. Create Margin. If your schedule is jam-packed, you will have a hard time keeping up with your assignments when something else comes up, an emergency or an opportunity you can’t resist. Creating margin, when you are not under the gun, may mean saying “no” to some people and activities. Or it may mean putting in a little extra effort at the beginning of the semester to avoid being overwhelmed during the final crunch. Creating margin, however, can be the difference between success and stress; between getting the most out of your experience and just getting by.
4. Be Curious. Have you ever stood on your head, or hung upside down? The world looks different, even interesting, when viewed from that vantage point. Sometimes in the course of an assignment or a class you may be asked to look at something from a point of view other than your own or to consider an issue you may not have thought about before. In those moments, you may feel strange or uncomfortable, but if you hang in there and keep an open mind you will see the world in new and interesting ways. You might even find the solution to a troubling problem or situation.
5. Try, try, again. Even with the best laid plans, things can go awry. Don’t think of those moments as failures but as learning opportunities. Could you have done something differently? Should you make any adjustments to your schedule? Do you need more information? Do you need more margin? As Henry Ford once said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” Never be afraid to begin again.
The successful adult student is organized, proactive, flexible, curious, and persistent. Still, every now and then, we all need help. We all need someone to sit down beside us, put their arm around our shoulder and calmly whisper, “bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”