This week marks the final week of classes for the Winter Term on campus. With final exams on the horizon, we take time today to look at the connection between a study being conducted on chaos and disorganization and the task that lies before Proctor's student body as preparations for final exams, papers, and projects are underway. Margaret Moore
, co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, and Dr. Paul Hammerness
, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, have teamed up to research a cognitive basis to chronic disorganization. In this
article highlighting an interview with Moore, we learn, "Organization is not just about a cluttered desk. It's about regulation, a skill that is developed by the pre-frontal cortex--the seat of executive function in the brain. Modern life, with its barrage of incoming emails and phone calls and texts, taxes the pre-frontal cortex, inhibiting the brain's ability to focus." Moore adds, "Those who have a naturally strong self-regulation can handle the overload - and those who don't are left feeling guilty and out of control."
For adolescents, this process of organization seems even more over-bearing in part because of the sheer amount of information intake between classes, activities, and social media outlets, but perhaps more importantly because their pre-frontal cortex has yet to fully develop. Moore adds in the interview linked above, "When you can focus all of your brain on one thing, that's when you're at your best…But it also consumes a huge amount of resources. You get tired."
As anyone on campus can attest, the Winter Term can seem like a long stretch, filled with emotions and, at times, a feeling of exhaustion. Moore provides scientific reasoning for this process, "It takes a lot of energy [for the brain to learn], and when it's depleted it isn't able to manage the emotional brain…Your emotions rule the day."
So how do we best embrace this seemingly impossible task of helping our students (and ourselves!) deal with the stresses, organization, and planning involved in preparing for and completing culminating projects in five academic classes at the end of the term? Moore sheds some insights into this question with her explanation of stress, "Stress is designed biologically to be powerful; it takes over your brain much more than positive emotion. Your heart rate goes up; you breathe faster; your blood pressure goes up. It's got a purpose, but it doesn't help when it's time to sit down and work on something for thirty minutes."
Close relationships with teachers, advisors and learning specialists play a critical role in managing this stress by simply allowing students to process the emotions they are experiencing, both related to academic courses and in their life outside of the classroom. As Moore says, "Naming the emotion, giving it a language, in an empathetic caring way - just a little self-empathy instead of 'I'm an idiot for feeling like this' - that in itself can shift [the stress]."
Moore also believes strongly in the power of positive self-talk, "Perhaps you have the motivation, you've got the willpower, but the confidence is crap. The motivation goes to sleep when you don't think you can do it. You can only build from confidence by doing it, by actually experiencing it." This is where faculty become a critical piece of the equation at Proctor; by focusing on the 'you can' rather than the 'you can't', we are able to help students manage the various stresses that build up over time.
As students enter this final week of the Winter Term, we must all take a few moments to slow down, identify which emotions are at play in our lives and make an intentional plan to redirect our energies in the most effective way possible.
The most encouraging aspect of what Moore has to say is that the brain can change, you can learn new things and, "every time you make a change that lasts [like becoming more intentional in your organization habits], you're changing your brain." Those feelings of stress and helplessness that often accompany the end of an academic term do not need to stick around forever!