As a student or an academic, chances are you have a lot of work to do. Whether that is homework, studying for exams, preparing a presentation, writing a paper, doing research, or teaching, there is a lot that is asked of you. Often, the weeks seem like undulating waves, with regular spikes in work followed by brief periods of respite. This can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle if you are not careful with how you tackle your work.
Here is a question: when you finish some work, do you move right on to the next item on your list, or do you take a break? My bet is on the former. It’s easy as an academic to think that the only way to combat that never-ending list is to take as many bites out of it as you can. After all, if you could just get a bit more time now, you will get to relax later. This is an enticing dream, and we tell ourselves this over and over again.
The issue is not the working itself. Rather, it’s the tendency to forget about all we have done and immediately move on to the next thing. As a student, the steady influx of homework and tests is enough to make you never take a break. If you stop, you quickly become inundated with work, so there is always pressure to keep on working and never stop to appreciate what you’ve done.
When is the last time you thought to yourself, “Wow, I’ve come a long way since I first started learning this topic/area”? On the other hand, when is the last time you thought to yourself, “Alright, I got this piece of homework done. What’s next?” The sad reality is that we do not appreciate our past work when we are on the steady treadmill of completing something new. When there is barely a break between tasks, it’s difficult to spend time appreciating what you accomplished when it can be spent getting through the next thing.
I often find myself slipping into this tendency. At first, it’s nothing major. I start doing back-to-back assignments without a break, or I work on homework throughout the whole weekend and ignore everything else. But if the work keeps piling on, I quickly become fatigued, and just start going through the motions. Instead of focusing on doing my best work, I am trying not to fall off the treadmill. It’s at this point that I try to take a step back and appreciate what I have done.
Related to this is the idea of feeling knowledgeable about a subject. As a student, I am learning a bunch of new concepts in physics and mathematics. Because they are new, there is an inherent tension and struggle in learning. I do not know everything beforehand, which means throughout the semester I feel more clueless than knowledgeable. Of course, this is not a bad thing, because it signals that you are growing and expanding your intellectual boundaries. However, the downside is that, well, you start feeling like you do not know much. This is only exacerbated by moving quickly from one topic to the next, which means you barely have time to appreciate your newly-acquired knowledge before you have to struggle again.
I am not blaming schools or the curriculum here. Rather, I am trying to point out that the environment in which we work as students is not designed for you to take stock of what you learned and how you have grown. It’s kind of like climbing a mountain while only being able to look right in front of you at your feet. You can get to the top, but when you are there you cannot take in the wonderful landscape. In the same way, moving on from one thing to the next can be just as frustrating as a student. The difficulty is that we often do not talk about this. Instead, we take it as a given that students should move on from one thing to the next, implicitly agreeing with a bad attitude towards work.
So how can we go about fixing this? Well, I don’t think there is something we do to “fix” it. The issue is baked deep within the bones of our educational system, which means it’s unlikely that we will change how the system works. However, that does not mean we cannot each take steps in our own lives to fight against this tendency to always work on the next thing.
My first suggestion is to institute breaks in your work. Have you just slogged through a long assignment? Then take a break and celebrate. I do not mean throw a party. Rather, go take a walk, meet with friends, play a sport, or go enjoy one of your hobbies. The point here is to force yourself to take breaks in which you can celebrate your work. This will not magically make you better at what you do, but what it will provide is a way to stop feeling like you are on a never-ending treadmill. I am warning you in advance that this is difficult. You will feel the pull to just get started on the next thing, and it will be up to you whether to follow through on it. The first (and best) step to appreciating what you have done is to institute breaks.
To address the tendency to forget all of your achievements and what you learned, my second suggestion is to teach what you know. When you are in class and are struggling to learn a new concept, it’s easy to think you do not know much. However, if you then turn around and start helping younger students (through teaching/tutoring, or just by giving presentations), you will realize that you know quite a bit. It’s just that you did not place yourself in a situation in which this was clear.
I cannot stress enough how this changes the game in terms of making you appreciate how far you have come. When your sights are always on the future and learning things that you do not know, it’s easy to think that you are not that great. But when you realize that you can actually help these younger students who are in a similar position to where you were a few years ago, it transforms your perspective. In essence, it forces you to pat yourself on the back.
This happened to me when I began tutoring students in physics and mathematics. By helping them out with their homework and answering their questions, I realized that I had indeed learned quite a lot from when I was their age. Before that, I never really stopped to think about how far I had come, but working with those students was an eye-opening experience. I now find myself appreciating the work I do when I have completed an assignment or when I get through a semester filled with a bunch of work. In essence, I have learned how to pat myself on the back.
If you are anything like myself, this is not an easy thing to do. You do not tend to give yourself compliments, and you are always trying to figure out ways to become better. Even if you did well in the past, you do not tend to value your past performances. It’s all about what you still need to do in the future.
This is a precarious situation to be in. It means you are rarely satisfied with what you have done, which implies you do not pat yourself on the back very often.
My goal with this essay is for you to change if you identify with the above description. As students, we are continually going through a mountain of work, which means it is not easy to stop and appreciate what you have done. This is why it’s important to take breaks specifically for this purpose. It’s a mindset thing. By forcing yourself to stop and appreciate what you have done, you are signalling to your mind that the work you are doing is not “just another thing”. Each one is important, and deserves celebration. Likewise, if you can get into a situation in which you are helping students learn what you have already learned, you will not be able to help but appreciate the intellectual mountain you have climbed.
Patting yourself on the back sounds like something funny, but it really is not. It’s a key way to value the work you’ve done, and to show that the time you invested was worthwhile. It helps put in perspective the work I am doing. When I am faced with a mountain of work that I have to get through, I know that it will be difficult in the moment, but the effort will be worth it. By taking breaks in between things and making sure that I put myself in situations in which I can use the knowledge I have gained to help others, I have found I am much happier and able to continue working without everything feeling like a slog.