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Reaching Big Goals: How high school students can use highs and lows to succeed

goal achievement Sep 16, 2022

If you are performing research, working on an independent project, taking on leadership in a club, or planning to do any of the above, you should be prepared for the highs and lows you will experience along the way because it can mean the difference between success and failure! 


Let’s talk about the highs first because these can really motivate us through the lows. What I mean by the highs are when you are in the state of flow or in the zone. You know what I mean. Words are flowing onto the page. You are seamlessly adding lines of code to your program. You’re hitting your mile splits faster than expected, and you still feel like you have more energy in your tank. You’re reading research papers and finding ideas for your own project everywhere. This is amazing, remember these times! 


I still remember maintaining my focus to set up computational biology simulations until 2:00AM and being so excited to test a new idea out during my PhD. When training for my ironman a few years ago, I vividly remember a specific tempo run where my pace beat all of my expectations, and I still felt like I had energy left at the end. Even years later, those memories still inspire me.


There are a few things to keep in mind to make the most of these periods of great productivity:


  • Capitalize on productive moments! You have momentum and you are accomplishing things. The thing about experiencing the state of flow is that it rarely leaves us burnt out. It much more frequently invigorates us and leaves us excited for more. Win-win!   


  • Don’t expect flow to happen on your time schedule. Flow happens when we are inspired. This is very different from the focus we experience because of a looming deadline. That’s deadline induced panic which is not productive. We might get things done in those times, but it will leave us burnt out and the quality usually suffers as well. We end up desperately needing a break. The cycle goes from periods of extreme work to no work which is - maybe not intuitively - much less productive than consistent work. 

When I was in grad school, there was a student in another lab who worked intensely through the night for days to meet deadlines and took short naps in a sleeping bag under her desk. Everyone talked about what a hard worker she was. But then she was so exhausted that she took several days off completely. She repeated this cycle over and over again. Overall, she was much less productive and accomplished less than those who had more consistent (but less extreme) work habits.


  • Remember what these periods of extreme productivity feel like. Remember how much you love what you are doing and how great it feels to get results because there will be times where you struggle and you need to remember how good it can feel. And if you don’t feel that love and satisfaction at these times, it might be a good idea to reassess where you are focusing your energy and consider exploring a different field/project/topic.


Now the lows. Know that everyone experiences times when they struggle. When you just can’t seem to focus on reading the words on the page. When your legs feel like lead on your run. No matter how long you stare at the blank page, you can’t come up with the words. You can’t find the bug in your code, and your frustration is on the rise.


  • Step away. Giving yourself a break can actually help you see the problem in a new way. You’re thinking about it subconsciously, so you might draw inspiration from unexpected sources. I almost always find inspiration during a workout. Even if I don’t find inspiration, I can always focus better afterwards. What is that for you? What leaves you in a better frame of mind afterwards? This is the kind of self-care that makes you more productive in the long run.


  • But don’t step away for too long. The longer we step away from what we are working on, the harder it will be to get back into it. We lose the habit of consistently making progress on a project or research. Taking a few hours break for yoga, a bike ride, or some fun reading is great. Even a day or two is fine. If you step away for a week or two, it can easily turn into a month, then two. At that point the barrier to restarting is high, you’ve lost momentum, and you’ve lost precious time. This is the kind of break that makes you much less productive in the long run. 


  • Plan for things not to go right all the time. When we have the time and space for things to not work perfectly, it actually helps us get back on track faster. If we are scheduled too tight, and then something doesn’t work perfectly, it leads to panic which decreases productivity even further. Start early and leave extra time.


  • Know that this will pass. If you expect to struggle, you will be prepared for it, and you will be less likely to give up entirely when you hit the wall. You’ll say, “now I know what the struggle feels like.” Remember those times of great flow that felt amazing? Know that you will experience that great productivity and motivation again, so don’t give up!


Big goals are accomplished through good habits and consistent action. And you are capable of great things! :-)

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