Ship's wheel
By Lena Lopez Bradley (Assistant Professor of Counseling and Family Sciences) - May 1, 2020

Sometimes you can't see the road ahead but as you keep going, it gets clearer. Stay the course as the fog of life dissipates.
-Sanjo Jendayi

It can be challenging under normal circumstances for students to stay focused on studying, reading, and writing papers. The impact of the pandemic and the subsequent quarantine has created an additional mental and emotional burden. Some may find it ever more challenging to stay motivated, to study, and to complete required assignments and papers. Around this time of year, many students are preparing for the final weeks of school before graduation. Sadly, the pandemic has abruptly halted most of the traditional markers of ritual and celebration associated with accomplishing academic goals. This sense of loss may also contribute to a lack of motivation and an overall negative mindset.

Despite the numerous roadblocks, it is possible to remain focused on accomplishing your academic goals.You've worked hard to be where you are today! There are many ways to combat negative internal and external barriers that have the dangerous potential to derail your efforts and success. Here are some ideas to help you "stay the course."

First, be honest with yourself about the emotions you feel in the present moment. Many may feel a sense of discouragement, sadness, and/or grief right now. Remember that these feelings are normal under the circumstances. All feelings are valid and deserve to be acknowledged, so give yourself permission to feel (Brackett, 2019). Be mindful of and try to minimize external influences that may contribute to feeling hopeless and discouraged, particularly overconsumption of news and social media. It may be helpful to reach out to peers who might be experiencing similar feelings. When possible, attempt to find sources of strength in connection with others. It's important to find healthy outlets for emotions that stand in the way of personal progress. These outlets need to be meaningful and personalized to you. All too often, fear, doubt, and insecurity trick us into believing untruths about our abilities. Though negative emotions can be powerful, remind yourself of what motivated you to begin your educational journey in the first place. What are your dreams and aspirations for your future? Who are the people who matter the most to you? What do you see yourself doing with your education? What do you need to tell yourself so that you can stay the course? Focus your intentions on the aspired outcomes of your efforts, feel your emotions begin to shift, and set your spirit in the direction of finding harmony with your meaning and purpose (Zukav, 1989).

Second, focus on your mindset. Many have been in quarantine for several weeks now. The impact may be creating stress and mental fatigue as we are spending more time in front of the computer and other digital devices (Ali, 2020). For some, additional responsibilities such as child care and tending to the needs of others in the home have compounded this stress. It can be helpful to stay aware of the mental messages and fatigue impacting your ability to stay focused. Notice when you need to take a break to attend to your mental health. Do you find yourself in a negative mindset? Explore the ways you can challenge negative thinking (Leahy, 2020). When possible, seek support from others who may be able to offer encouragement and/or motivation. (For those who may need additional support, resources are available at the local, state, and national levels. A few links are provided at the end of this post.)

Next, become aware of your distraction triggers and begin to take active steps to effectively manage your time (Eyal, 2019). Ironically, the current circumstance is creating an opportunity to seriously reconsider how and what we need to devote our time and attention to. This requires that we be more purposeful when planning out our daily schedules. Challenging as it may be, try to utilize this time to the best of your ability. Identify specific amounts of time to focus on your work. Be clear and specific when creating a daily plan of action. Detail the precise goals you have for each day and think about what is going to work best for you. We are each different when it comes to the routines that work best for our environment and the resources available to us. However possible, set up your environment in a way that is going to be conducive to staying focused. Break down larger goals into smaller, more manageable goals if needed. Admiral McRaven (2017) reminds us that if we make our bed every morning we will have accomplished one small task that will give us a sense of pride and will encourage us to do another task. Staying motivated takes momentum. Begin with one goal in mind and take small active steps to accomplish that goal. The Solution-Focused Brief Therapy model firmly abides by the tenet that small steps can lead to big changes (de Shazer & Dolan, 2007). Do not discount any success, big or small. Instead, openly congratulate yourself for a job well done. For some, this may seem strange at first, but it can be a necessary change to keep you motivated.

Brené Brown (2010) writes, "Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success." I've learned to admit that I’m a perfectionist in recovery. I've spent much of my life battling the countless cognitive distortions that trick me into thinking that if something is not completed perfectly, then it is not worth doing. I've had to painfully learn that to stay the course, I have to accept that I am perfectly imperfect. What has become more important to me is feeling a sense of accomplishment and a belief in my abilities in order to be a source of strength and support to others. I had to get out of my own way and focus on my goals and the people I want to share my life with. It took me a long time to learn this wisdom and I share these words in hopes that you too will embrace your amazing imperfection without fear.

Finally, each of us is on a journey filled with battles and victories that make up our own unique experience. You have been called to action. Continue to make the decisions necessary to accomplish your educational goals and all of the other personal victories that are in store for you. See beyond the current set of circumstances and remember your hopes for the future. You have the ability to find the internal and external means necessary to stay the course.