It’s finally here: Finals Week. I’ve been reflecting on the emotional state of our students – I see a blend of exhaustion, procrastination, and shame that forms a vicious cycle in the last month of the semester. And although I’m not facing exams or major papers, I can relate. In fact, the general atmosphere of the library this time of year can make those emotions pretty infectious. Here’s how I’ve coped with the cycle of weariness and urgency in December.
Am I exhausted or burned out?
“Burnout” is a word I throw around, and sometimes I conflate actual burnout (chronic exposure to workplace stress) with ordinary fatigue. Kevin Harwell wrote an article called Burnout Strategies for Librarians that helped me understand the difference.
A key element of burnout is depersonalization, where you start to see your library patrons as “queries, questions, or cases, rather than people.” When students approach the desk and my first reaction is dread, that’s when I know it’s time to take a break and recharge. For me, this increased cynicism is the major symptom, but it’s not the only facet of burnout. The other two major pieces of burnout are overwhelming exhaustion and “a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”
So if you’re dead-tired, you’ve started to see your daily responsibilities as irritating stressors, and you can’t remember why you signed up for all this in the first place – congratulations, you have something in common with students at finals week. But for students and librarians alike, there may be a remedy!
Of course the long-term remedy is to take meaningful breaks and adjust your workload. But it’s December; many of us just need a solution to get us to the winter break. These are the strategies I’ve use when I feel like my resources are all but used up. My recommendations come in the form of two mental exercises:
- List your accomplishments
- Practice compassion (for others and yourself)
List Your Accomplishments
I happened upon this exercise by accident, but I found it surprisingly meaningful. First, make a list of the things you’ve achieved this year. It can be as granular or as general as you’d like. I focused on professional accomplishments from 2018, but you could incorporate your personal achievements or progress you’ve made on creative or financial goals as well.
Then I found someone who was willing to hear me read off this list of accomplishments. Maybe you already have some kind of check-in with your supervisor at the end of the year, or maybe you can pull your best work friend aside for a few minutes while you toot your own horn. I read my list to my husband, and it was meaningful to share how much I’d learned in one year.
Creating a list of your accomplishments might offset how motivation seems to dry up in December. This exercise helped me say to myself, “I know you don’t feel motivated and you just wish it was Winter Break already. But look at all you did get done this year.” The burned-out feeling of inefficacy, the sense of diminished personal accomplishment, can be counterbalanced by an objective list of things you did indeed achieve.
While I haven’t assigned this exercise to any of my students, I’ve been able to informally remind them of the ways I’ve seen them grow over the semester. Being reminded of how far you’ve already come may be a useful jolt to help you cross the finish line.
Shame is a major emotion students are feeling this time of year. Shame prevents them from moving forward on projects, even as due dates draw perilously near. It discourages them from asking help. I’ve been thoughtful about how I contribute to an environment of shame, and how I can instead encourage self-compassion.
I’ve talked with faculty who believe that intense pressure can force better academic results from students. After all, if they’re just “lazy” and carelessly procrastinating all semester, then the “tough love” of a scary deadline could be an effective motivator. However, I’ve read some blogs and essays by educators who insist that a shaming approach is counterproductive. Instead, Leslie Bayers and Eileen Camfield call for “academic empathy”:
“Brené Brown offers a definition of shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love” (60). She observes that shame produces fear, risk-aversion, and the creation of a negative shame spiral. In Brown’s description, shame has no prosocial effects: “Researchers don’t find shame correlated with positive outcomes at all—there are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior” (72)…shame not only hurts students but in fact also creates barriers to equitable teaching and learning.”
In fact, even the “lazy student” trope should be interrogated. Devon Price critiques the myth of the lazy student better than I can in this piece on Medium:
People love to blame procrastinators for their behavior. Putting off work sure looks lazy, to an untrained eye. Even the people who are actively doing the procrastinating can mistake their behavior for laziness. You’re supposed to be doing something, and you’re not doing it — that’s a moral failure right? That means you’re weak-willed, unmotivated, and lazy, doesn’t it?
For decades, psychological research has been able to explain procrastination as a functioning problem, not a consequence of laziness. When a person fails to begin a project that they care about, it’s typically due to either a) anxiety about their attempts not being “good enough” or b) confusion about what the first steps of the task are. Not laziness. In fact, procrastination is more likely when the task is meaningful and the individual cares about doing it well.
Most librarians react with compassion when we watch students ride the procrastination/shame spiral. But is it as easy for you to be compassionate to yourself? Shortly after graduating my therapist advised me to let go of the need to be perfect, to strive for personal excellence instead. (This is the grown-up version of “Just try your best.”)
So the message I want to communicate to my colleagues and my students this time of year is: be gentle with yourself. Shame makes us isolate ourselves and berate ourselves for not doing enough, but it’s counterproductive. Take your time. Take breaks. Ask for help. You got this.