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Breaking down mental blocks

Getting past mental blocks around studying and schoolwork can be tough. Try taking a break, changing your scenery, or using a planner.

Breaking down mental blocks

Nothing is harder than staring at a blank piece of paper or computer screen when you need to start working but you don’t know how. No matter how long you stare at the page, nothing comes to mind. You feel hopeless, with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. Or maybe you’re in the middle of a project and had a plan when you started…but now you’re halfway through and have no idea how to tie it all together. Panic settles in, and you’re feeling lost. You’ve hit a brick wall and you just don’t know how to get past it. So, how can you break down mental blocks?

You’re not alone in struggling to get started or finish a project. Every college or high school student goes through this–some more than others. It’s okay. When you hit that brick wall, know that there’s a way to break through it. There are several steps that you can take to get over mental blocks, and other steps to avoid them altogether.


Take a short break


When you hit that wall, your first instinct might be to push through it, sitting and staring at your project. This approach can cause more frustration and confusion. Instead, take a 15-minute break and time it on your watch or phone. A timer is very important—otherwise, you could lose track of time and before you know it, an hour has gone by. So, once you have set your timer for 15 minutes,  walk away, grab a drink, take a breather, and then come back. A short break allows your brain to rest and relax and puts you in a position to come back with renewed energy. You’ve probably experienced this phenomenon in a normal conversation. You forget what you were saying, and move on to something else…then the thought pops back into your mind later on. Taking a break while working is just like that, and the technique works really well for breaking through mental blocks. After a quick break and before you get back to work, review your assignment to remind yourself of your goal and action plan so you can move forward.


Change your environment


A cluttered study space can cause mental blocksAnother reason you might have brain freeze is because of your environment. A study space filled with distractions can be more challenging for students who struggle with executive function skills. If you notice that you’re not really focused because you’re staring at everything else going on around you, or maybe the mess in your work area is just making you feel anxious, then it’s time to get a change of scenery. Adjust your space. If you’re looking at clutter and just can’t focus then take fifteen minutes to clean up. A little bit of organization can go a long way!


If you aren’t in your own space, change your location. Many colleges have study spaces and libraries designed to minimize distractions. If you need help keeping your wandering eyes on your work, try moving to a space that meets your needs. Lastly, make sure that you aren’t working somewhere you usually relax or sleep. For example, it’s never a good idea to work on homework in bed or in front of the TV. Your brain associates those places as relaxation or sleeping spaces. Before you know it, you’ll be dozing off or scrolling social media on your phone.


Ask for help


If you’re really stuck and can’t seem to get over your mental block, don’t wait until you run out of time before you ask for help. This causes more stress and anxiety, and will likely result in a lower grade. Instead, find out what resources are available to you so you can get support and move forward. Every campus is equipped with a resource system, whether it’s a writing center, tutoring center, or peer-to-peer support system. Oftentimes, these groups will help you create an outline for your project, or give you clarification on what your instructor is asking for. They’ll also review your work prior to submission so you can put your best foot forward. Your instructor is another resource, and they’ll likely be happy to break down your assignments with you so that you know exactly what they’re asking for. If you have an academic coach, ask them to help you utilize the resources available to you. They can even help you write an email to a teacher or tutor to ask for the help you need.


Prevent mental blocks with planning


Student using planner to get over mental blocks while studyingIf you want to avoid a mental block altogether then planning ahead is your best tool. If you’re given an assignment that you’re not confident about completing, break it down into smaller pieces. This will allow you to focus on smaller segments over a period of time. You can do this by creating an outline of your work, then focusing on each step one at a time. Assigning each step a deadline will ensure that you complete your work by the due date, and will keep you from getting overwhelmed by the big picture. With this strategy, students see a rise in their average grades and a decrease in mental blocks.


This is why Thrivister coaches recommend using a planner–to record your action plan, then follow it to get your assignments done. It doesn’t matter if you use a paper or digital planner, just create a routine where you write in it each day. However, that can be easier said than done, so create an accountability system with your parent or your coach. If you find it hard to incorporate your planner into your everyday life because you forget, pair it with another habit you do religiously. For example, if you sit and drink coffee every morning while you scroll Instagram, replace the scrolling with writing in your planner. Once that’s done, you can reward yourself with some social media time.


Mental block strategies to remember


When you’re stuck staring at a blank page or screen, take a short break to recharge your batteries. Come back and review your assignment before jumping in. If you’re distracted by your environment, clean it up or move to the library so you can keep your eyes on your assignment. If you’re unsure about project requirements, check in with your professor or use your campus resources like a writing or tutoring center. The best thing you can do is to prevent mental blocks before they happen by using a planner to break down your assignments as soon as you get them. With these few extra tips in your toolbox, you’re ready to overcome mental blocks when they try to stand in your way.

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