We are all familiar with the race – the rat race, the treadmill, the conveyor belt, the carousel – of life. Whichever metaphor fits best, we often find ourselves scrambling to get to the next activity, the next hurdle, or the next milestone. We pay lip service to the phrases so recognizable that they can seem cliche: finding work/life balance or stopping to smell the roses. These days it can be difficult to find a rose garden. Life can be exhausting to adults and students alike.
But sometimes these metaphors don’t just reflect life, they create it. If you feel like it’s a rat race, it can become one. And what’s more, it can be contagious in a small community. Sometimes students exude stress and the residue is left behind on tables, in discussions and in the air. The effects can be palpable or subtle and pervasive. For some, it ramps up the anxiety, while others buckle down, and still others can be paralyzed and unable to accomplish their goals.
One month into the year, students have brushed off the cobwebs from their summer inertia and have re-established habits for success. Or at least they should have. Sometimes the first few weeks end up cementing habits that need to be broken. But most of the sophomores and juniors are now immersed in the rigor and are in the process of internalizing the standards and expectations of the program.
But what about the stress? In InLab, we talk about productive stress and unproductive stress. The former can provide focus and drive, the latter can derail. It looks like a productivity bell curve and according to what is known as “The Yerkes-Dodson law,” performance increases with physiological or mental arousal (stress) but only up to a point. When the level of stress becomes too high, performance decreases.
In an article in The Harvard Business Review, author Francesca Gino writes, “There’s more [to the productivity curve]: The shape of the curve varies based on the complexity and familiarity of the task. Different tasks require different levels of arousal for optimal performance, research has found. For example, difficult or unfamiliar tasks require lower levels of arousal to facilitate concentration; by contrast, you may better perform tasks demanding stamina or persistence with higher levels of arousal to induce and increase motivation.”
Perhaps the familiarity of the program is why some of our productive juniors feel that they are managing their stress more effectively this year, while some of the sophomores are still riding the excitement of the novelty of InLab. But all students can get mired in unproductive stress at some point.
Research shows that there are as many recommendations for managing stress as there are types of stressed students. The first quarter of the year is an optimal time to experiment with management techniques so that you can implement and repeat the successful ones. While we do explicitly talk about and teach effective mindsets and management, students can stack the deck in their favor by practicing some good habits.
Here’s a list of some of the advice that has helped students in the past:
Establishing Routines and Maintaining Flexibility: Good habits take practice and repetition, and establishing effective routines can help. Where, when, and how you manage and complete your work can bolster your success. There are many aspects of your work production that are within your control, but you also need to be flexible and to embrace unexpected opportunities and challenges.
Monotasking and Chunking: Sometimes InLab can seem like it has a new language, but monotasking is the opposite of multitasking. Effective multitasking is a myth. You do not perform better at the last minute, in the middle of the night, under duress, or while multitasking. Try serial monotasking: have clear one-at-a-time steps to completing taskings and chunk work into manageable sizes. From the time you allot to the deadlines you impose, create smaller pieces to accomplish more. As Lao Tzu said, it begins with a single step.
Make Stress Work for You: Sometimes the most stressful situations are the ones we impose on ourselves when we are motivated by fear. Remember that you need to create several prototypes before you follow through on your design. In all things, there are enormous benefits to drafting or prototyping; it’s good to risk being wrong.
Be Kind to Yourself and Others: I have been known to ask students why they can be so kind to their friends and not to themselves. Exercise empathy and compassion with yourself. Learning new things and in a new way can be challenging, and sometimes growth is uncomfortable. Be gentle with yourself. But remember to be compassionate and empathetic with your classmates as well. Be mindful of how you make suggestions and keep the collaboration cooperative instead of competitive.
Mindfulness and Redirection: Taking time out to pause and be present can help to circumvent the deleterious effects of stress. I would encourage to try it in 3 step: awareness of the stress, determining the meaning behind why you feel stressed, then redirecting the stress response to improve productivity behind that meaning. Even the blog the juniors wrote the other week can help; in your mind revisit your sanctuary and practice those breathing techniques.
After a full year of Innovation Lab, it is apparent that the classic metaphor no longer applies; the rat race might not become a cake walk, but then again, I don’t think it should. Perhaps it’s time to have students define their own metaphor to capture the meaningful work – intellectually, emotionally, academically, personally, meaningful work – that we do every day.