Successfully completing a college degree can sometimes feel like an impossible and unending odyssey. Inevitably, one hits a point in the academic year where the whole affair feels like a slog. No matter how much work is completed or time is spent studying, the toil seems to amount to nothing.
It is possible that this sense of futility is at least partially engendered by a near-sightedness. When one is actually hunched over a textbook, trying to read the same sentence over and over, it can be difficult to get out of a state of frustration. In this frustration, one fails to take into consideration the basic fact of progress. Simply put: when I’m irritated or tired from doing academic work, I am unable to realize both that the work I’m doing is actually work (and not just suffering) and that this work is part of a broader project (that of getting a college degree).
The question is: how does one manage to track progress, both at a small-scale (the progress I make in doing individual assignments) and at large-scale (my overall progress in my degree path)? The unhelpful advice here would be to say: try getting less annoyed when you’re doing work so that you can keep a clear enough head to register yourself as being productive. The reason why this advice is unhelpful is because getting a degree and doing assignments are just the kinds of things that will inevitably be hard to do.
Therefore, I want to give some advice about tracking progress and growth, even when one is annoyed or in a general state of panic. I’ll start my advice by going through an analogous case. I happen to love knitting, but it is quite a labor-intensive and time-consuming hobby. I love the look of a finished object, but sometimes doing row after row of stitches feels like torture. Hours of knitting can yield just a centimeter or two of fabric. So, how can I remain motivated enough to finish a nice garment?
Knitters who are struck by knitting fatigue may find their energy revitalized if they place markers indicating where they started knitting to where they ended knitting for that particular day. In other words, I’ve learned that I can take a little clip and attach it to the fabric at the start of my knitting session, and then when I’m done, I can compare the amount of fabric I’ve created by measuring the distance from this initial marker. The reminder is a physical reminder – its physicality is what prevents a slip into a near-sightedness that makes one unable to mark progress.
What is the equivalent of this physical knitting-marker to real life? The answer is: “It depends!” What counts as a marker to an individual is dependent on what they think they would be able to see even in a state of agony or despair. With knitting, it’s pretty easy for everyone to pick out a physical clip stuck on to a particular section of fabric. But what people see as a ‘marker’ in a similar fashion in real life is harder to identify.
Probably the most common thing people do to create physical markers of progress is to keep a journal. It doesn’t have to be a daily thing, but it can be good to write about persistent issues or concerns. When I was in high school, I had persistent issues with interpersonal relations and would use journaling as a means of thinking through my problems. It’s not clear to me that the act of journaling itself helped me to resolve my issues, but when I rediscovered the journals and read through them, I could very clearly see the ways that my thinking itself had evolved. Even though I was struggling through some of the same issues, I could see that I had made progress.
Being able to visualize my own development through my writing gave me impetus to continue working on issues. My journaling was in no way consistent; my entries were far-apart and often disconnected. Still, thumbing through them was useful to me: when I was struck by something particularly unpleasant or difficult, I noted it down and this was enough to yield a fruitful point of comparison.
If you have difficulties taking the time to write things out in a journal, it can also be useful to talk to friends when you feel stuck in an academic slog. Near-sightedness, and generally an inability to see one’s own progression, is a you-specific problem. Your friends are more likely to be able to keep a clear-head and assess you — because they are not you.
Of course, journaling and consulting friends are not the sole ways of tracking personal growth and progress. What will work for one individual may not work for another, but the trick is finding some way of creating markers. Progress can be difficult to estimate, particularly when one is feeling annoyed or irritated. Consider making your life easier by intentionally creating markers.