How To Stop Psyching Yourself Out (Or: Settle The Eff Down)

How to find courage.

Dear Sarah Von,
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 the eff out in the face of pressure and not completely psych myself out. A few things I learned:

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 aboutI find that when I know that I’ve tried my hardest, that I’ve done absolutely everything within my power to be successful at a given project, whether or not I succeed becomes almost secondary. 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 winge 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 little) 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 having a winge 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.Β 19 tiny things you can do to make the world a (slightly) better placeΒ  andΒ Why you should read + watch + listen outside of your comfort zone

photo by padurariu alexandru // cc


Becky Alyssa

Great advice for those like me who get anxious about this sort of thing – stuff like coursework grades, breakups, etc are usually such miniscule events in retrospect and can even work out for the best. As in, being broken up with by an angry, self-centered guy last year allowed me to find someone who's sweet & lovely & generally amazing; being kicked off my 'dream course' at uni allowed me to get on a course where I'm learning & doing so much more.


I love this! Wish I had seen it while I was going crazy over finals/presentations/interviews/pharyngitis, because there was one week this month where I didn't know how I was going to get through it all. Definitely sharing on my blog this week! πŸ™‚


Thankyou!! As I'm sit in front of my computer at midnight stressing over finishing an essay, this was exactly the kind of internet procrastination I needed!!


Thank you so much for this post! I'm graduating college in 12 days, nervous about a (nonsuccessful so far) job search, finishing up an internship, preparing for the GRE's and a couple final assignments. I've been a great student and my overwhelming schedule has caused some not so great grades this semester, but at least I am still graduating on time and passing the class! I'm still going to work hard on my last final exam, but I know the world will still continue to go on!


Thanks for the revisit. Very applicable – as my school quarter is gearing up right now I find myself deciding that I need to be human. Reading Y & Y every morning before I start my homework makes me a better person. πŸ˜‰


this is perfect. i always try to write all of my work down, then divide it up equally over the time it needs to get done. you don't do any more than you need, don't do any less, and there is more time to relax and netflix πŸ˜‰ thanks so much for these tips, sarah! πŸ™‚


I've been sitting at work all day stressing out about working three jobs (1 full- and 2 part-time), while also trying to manage grad school and my horses…and this just made me take one big deep breath and realize that yes I can do this! After all, I've been doing this for the last year, why would I suddenly stop being able to now? Even if I can't quite keep all my ducks in a row, I've still got people to help me!
And so, I've taken my deep breath(s) and scheduled a friend date with my bestie and everything's gonna be okay.
Thanks for reminding me of that! You've got perfect timing. πŸ™‚


Wow. This post was just shared on facebook by a page that I follow normally posts Marine Biology jobs. Worlds colliding!!! πŸ˜€


Haha. I am also a marine biologist, and slowly losing my mind trying to get my Master's thesis finished up! This post came at the perfect time.

Anne Fawcett

Try your hardest – so simple but excellent advice. Letting go of perfectionism is an important challenge. When I look back there's been nothing I couldn't do – even 85 pages which seems a lot – but it is POSSIBLE.

I like to give myself an hour, and just write for that whole hour. My colleague calls this "Shut up and write" – but it is an insanely productive hour. No internet, no phones, no faffing around…just bang out what you can in an hour. Simple but VERY effective.

Another tip: consider everyone else as busy as you. Sometimes I get myself in a knot where I think I am the busiest girl in the world. Then I talk to someone else who turns out to be twice as busy and think, "OMG! While I was stressing out she was just getting it done". That tends to lend some perspective and get me going.

Amanda @ Loitering Lion

This is a great post. I really like how you point out how often we don't try our hardest even though we think we do. Seeing the situation in percentages motivates me to push myself to try harder which is totally what I needed considering the time of year.


Totally agree with the 'try your hardest' point.

Sometimes I have really busy days at work and I think I've tried, but I'm like… actually, did you REALLY try your hardest? Did you avoid social media? Did you get distracted by making cups of tea and emailing your friends?

Yes. You need to try harder.

(good little internal pep talk right there!)

Jenn Rowell

Such a great post Sarah! My whole life, I've had way too much going on that anyone should ever try to do at once, but I keep doing it. I guess I've conditioned myself to it. Somewhere along the way, probably in high school, I adopted to policy of what gets done, gets done. I'd study as much as I could, work as hard as I could, do as much as I could, but at some point, staying up another hour to not remember what I crammed into my head wasn't going to make a difference on my final. I knew it, or I didn't. Usually, I did just fine. At one point, I thought I wouldn't graduate because of a class on Middle East affairs, guys it was flippin hard! We're talking a few all out panic attacks. And then, I got a B, graduated on time, and everything.
Last year, when I had quit another job because it was awful, but managed to have two offers almost immediately, or done something equally nutso, my mom said, "I wish I could be like you, you're never worried, you just do." I said, oh mom, you just don't see the worry on the inside. I promise you I regularly freak out on the inside. But every single time, things have worked out, so I trust myself that taking big, but somewhat calculated risks, will not kill me.
And on deadlines. I'm a journalist, so I rarely have the luxury of writing when I'm inspired, I have to write every day, in hours, inspired or not, for the masses. Sometimes I have big projects, news all seems to break at the same time and just way too much to do. I will panic and freak for a few minutes usually, then internally yell at myself to chill the eff down and write. Once I focus, I have a system of one thing at a time will get it done, and the next day, you have a newspaper. Every gosh darn time. I once told my mom it's like SEAL training, you condition yourself to breathe under pressure, lower your heart rate and then kick ass. Not saying I could ever be a SEAL, but it works.


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