How To Stop Psyching Yourself Out (because that ish is exhausting)

Are you always psyching yourself out? Dealing with anxiety and insecurities and self-defeating B.S.? It happens to the best of us. Here's how to stop >>
Dear Sarah,
I’m a senior in college and an English major. Over the next two weeks I have over 85 pages worth of papers to write. How do I work hard and stay optimistic without totally psyching myself out?
Oh, friend. I have been there so hard. There was a three-month period in 2007 in which I attended graduate school full time, held two part time jobs, attempted to go vegan and lived with three other people in a two bedroom cottage.
What? Yes. How ridiculous am I? And when it came time to write my papers, my coping technique involved staring the computer into submission, crying and then eating several candy bars.

However! That awful three-month foray into insanity taught me a bit about how to chill out in the face of pressure and not completely psych myself out.

How to stop psyching yourself out

Try your hardest. No, really. Your actual hardest.

I don’t know about you, but often times I confuse “not being totally lazy” with “trying hard.” If I look back on high school, I realize that what I thought was “trying hard” was actually about 50% of what I was capable of. College required about 70% of my best effort and graduate school called for about 90% (with the occasional bit of 95% in that damn grammar class!)

And I think we all know what trying our hardest feels like, in anything that we’re attempting:

* doing all of the readings (before class!), attending the study session and meeting with your prof if you have questions

* networking with people in the field you want to get into, learning the applicable software, attending workshops and volunteering for big, hard projects that nobody wants to do

* asking your friends if they know anybody they can set you up with, giving internet dating a try, talking to cute strangers and going out with the perfectly nice guy you’re not sure about.

When you know you've tried your actual hardest, whether you succeed (almost) becomes secondary. Click To Tweet

You can’t do anything else, you’ve given it all you’ve got. There’s nothing to get psyched out about. Also – when you’ve realllly tried your hardest? You’re pretty likely to succeed, right?

Consult your cohorts

If you’re losing your mind over your millions of term papers, your fruitless job hunt, your never-ending singledom or your frequently rejected manuscript, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one going through this.

But, shockingly enough, you’re not. Other people in the world are stressed out, unemployed, unhappily single or unpublished. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend hunkering down for a three hour bitch-fest with your equally frustrated peers, it feels good to know you’re not alone.

Allot yourself a bit of time to whine about this predicament and then see if these friends are trying anything you haven’t thought of. Maybe they’re friends with a physics whiz or a publishing agent or a single cutie. Maybe they’ve got some academic references you can use. Combine and use your powers for good!

Take a tiny breather

If you’ve been going all out, trying your absolute hardest for the last two weeks, you’re probably in need of a breather. Energy and creativity need to be replenished, and really? The library has to close at some point. So take some time (two hours, a day, a week) and completely distance yourself from the project.

Shower, change clothes, grab lunch somewhere new with someone who’s not studying the same thing as you. Take a weekend away and read things that have absolutely nothing to do with what you’re working on. Watch a fun, mindless movie. Go dancing and drink a little bit too much. Get a massage. Go rollerskating.

Realize that the world will not end

During graduate school I was whining to my fantastic friend Jess, lamenting the possibility of getting a C (shock and horror!) on a paper. She leveled her eyes at me and said “And you know what will happen if you get a C? The world will keep doing this (insert rotating hand motion here)”

And girlfriend was right. I know that these papers, this job search, this grad school application seem like the end-all-be-all right now. But they’re not. Really. They’re not. I didn’t get my driver’s license till I was nearly 17. I went through a terrible break up at age 29. I didn’t get into the first graduate school I applied to. And you know what? Not dead.

Remember your other strengths

In the event that you really try your hardest on these papers (or apartment hunt. or your gallery submission) and things don’t work out, remember that you are not defined by this one small thing.

You are not just a student or a writer or an ex-girlfriend. You are a great friend, a sibling, a maker of great sandwiches and the owner of some gorgeous legs.

And the grade on your term papers isn’t going to change those things.

How do you deal with deadlines and pressure?

P.S. You don’t have to be failure-proof. That’s not a thing.

photo by jason briscoe // cc

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  1. Anonymous

    This post came at a great time as I stare vapidly into the computer screen trying to will myself to start writing an essay. Thanks!

    I have been struggling trying to inspire myself to write the last two papers of my undergraduate degree- EVER. I will keep trying….My hardest of course!


  2. grace b

    Girl I needed this SO badly right now. I'm visiting my Grandma this weekend and taking along with me a TON of work to do. Like huge amounts. Part of this is due to my weeks of procrastination and the other part is the fact that simply, everything is due at the same damn time.

    I really needed this. I have to second you on trying your hardest–I definitely know what that feels like and definitely know when I'm not–thanks for the reminder!!

    Bookmarking this and passing it along to other stressed-out college seniors!

  3. JennAventures

    I want to embroider this on a pillow: I don't know about you, but often times I confuse "not being totally lazy" with "trying hard."


  4. Brittany

    I am bookmarking this and will be reminding myself of it next year when I am taking statistics class for the THIRD time, as it is the LAST class I need for my degree and it has put me off another year. My brain is a little miffed about that still. UGH. Excellent post!

  5. Stephanie

    I needed this. I've been tyring to get my degree for years, yet somehow life just keeps getting in the way and I get dragged into it. Its paper time again and even though I know I will finish and do pretty well it was just nice to see someone else say "you're not defined by this one little thing." I am a martial artist/ fighter, seamstress, college student, wife, whojust happens to be stuck behind a curb that is (maybe) three inches high. Not so bad that way!

  6. Belly B

    I need to remember this. It is not the end of the world.
    Thank you Sarah.

  7. The Curious Cat

    Great advice – couldn't have said it better myself! xxx

  8. Jenny

    Such a good post! I struggle with an all or nothing attitude, and fear of failure usually leads me into the "nothing" side. I am learning. Thanks!

  9. sweetermusic

    Oh wow. This is me. Thank you for the motivation, I was looking for something like this last night and now I can tell this weekend will be productive!

  10. k-rock

    THANK YOU! 🙂 I'm two weeks away from getting my Associates degree and five weeks away from starting my accelerated Bachelor's program, and was going to DROP IT ALL because I also have a full time job, a side design business, and a full social calendar. Thanks for reminding me that I need to chill out and take a moment to ENJOY my life–because it's AWESOME. 🙂

  11. Martina Lynne :: The Life Academic

    This really is fantastic advice and I wish I could have remembered it last term. I'm a full-time Ph.D. student and last term I was not only taking my own courses and teaching, but I was completing a certification and so was assisting a second class and taking another seminar. It was a little too much. So my big problem is that I can't get myself to remember these steps when I'm stressed because I'm so spun up there's no space in my brain for being responsible. Advice?

  12. Martina Lynne :: The Life Academic

    This really is fantastic advice and I wish I could have remembered it last term. I'm a full-time Ph.D. student and last term I was not only taking my own courses and teaching, but I was completing a certification and so was assisting a second class and taking another seminar. It was a little too much. So my big problem is that I can't get myself to remember these steps when I'm stressed because I'm so spun up there's no space in my brain for being responsible. Advice?

  13. Christina

    This is such a great post. Thanks for sharing it again!

  14. StephanieDJL

    There aren't enough words to express how much I love this post. I'm so glad you chose to re-post, thank you for the inspiration and words of encouragement.

  15. Nahid

    Oh man, you don't know how perfect the timing of this is. I have four papers and three exams to write in the next two weeks, and final exams begin 3 days after my last essay is due, and I'm really behind in all my readings and homework… I'm currently writing one of my papers (well, not this moment, I took a break as you suggested to calm myself down!)and I'm really worrying about finishing it all and passing. So thank you for the encouraging post!

  16. Sarah Lindahl

    Hi! I just found your blog through a friend that I interviewed about HER blog, and in the interview she said that you are one of her favorites, and that she is jealous of you! She's hilarious. Check the interview out at

  17. nova

    Every once in a while I realize that I haven't tried my hardest in weeks! Thank you so much for the reminder, it really does make a difference.

  18. Savannah O'Gwynn

    What a great post–love all the advice! Wish I had that while in college! Came here from Freckled Nest!

  19. Jacqui

    Thank you sarah 😀 Seriously, needed this! Got exams coming up and this really helped. After reading this yesterday evening, I actually had a productive day and did work today.

  20. Eliza the Brute

    Lately i have been getting sick of the people around me, and often myself, saying, "I'm so busy," because I know it' not true. sure, there are a lot of things all of us should be doing, but how many of us are actually doing them, and not just wasting a lot of time on the internet?
    Honestly, the advice of ACTUALLY trying your hardest is the best I have heard in ages. I remember the first time I read this and having a lightbulb go off, and the second time it worked again!
    Thank you, I can already feel myself getting pumped.

  21. Eliza the Brute

    @Martina Lynne: woof, that sounds rough. I think I feel okay with you calling yourself busy 🙂 My only advice would be preemptive: know what you can handle, and don't bite more than you can chew. Superheroes are fictional for a reason, don't equate exhaustion with success. Best of luck, girly!

  22. Jess the Reader

    Just wanted to let you know that I randomly came across this article a few days ago. Had a read, had a laugh, back to the world.

    But when I found out my little sister is bailing on her studies to hang at her boyfriend's place in a really unsafe part of town, with his friends doing drugs, and not telling our dad where she is, the sentence about knowing when you're trying your hardest came back to me. I'm sitting her down for some home truths tonight (using your opening line: I would be remiss as your sister if I did not tell you that you need to re-assess your priorities) and will be taking a printout of this article. It has a stack of home truths, as well as a light touch I think will be really welcome.

    Love your work Sarah.

  23. Sarah Von Bargen

    Jess! You just made me all verklempt! I'm so glad this could be of use.


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