The (academic) messy middle
Navigating your way through the long, difficult parts of a semester
Image: Bit Cloud on Unsplash
When I was a student, I remember being full of motivation at the start of each semester. I was excited about my classes and all the new things I was going to learn, and I couldn’t wait to start. Those first few weeks, I listened attentively in class, discussed what I was learning with my friends, and effortlessly completed the reading and writing I had to do.
Fast forward to mid-semester. I hate to say it, but at this point, there were nearly always one or two classes I was no longer excited to attend. Many of my assignments bored me – I would rather be anywhere than sitting at my desk, drafting yet another paper on a topic I didn’t care about. Even in the courses I still found interesting, I often would feel uninspired, exhausted, and overwhelmed.
This phenomenon is not unique, and it’s often referred to as the “mid-semester slump” or the “mid-semester blues”. It doesn’t just affect students, though. In the business world a popular term for this phase is the “messy middle”, and it refers to the time period after the initial excitement and drive at the beginning, when progress starts to slow, you have to adjust your expectations, and everything just feels like more of a slog.
In this post we look at some of the ways the messy middle can manifest itself and offer some specific tips to help get you through it.
- It’s not just you – the beginning really was easier
It’s often the case that things feel easier at the beginning. Whether it’s a new relationship, a new semester, or a new job, the promise of the new activity keeps us interested and motivated.
We’re not just seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, though. The beginning of the semester is also objectively much easier than the middle. In your first weeks of classes, you’ll likely be reviewing what you learned in the previous semester and learning new foundational concepts. Later weeks build upon each week before with content slowly getting more and more complex. If you struggle to grasp a key concept near the beginning of a course, everything that builds on that concept later on will be much harder.
Along with the increase in complexity in each course, your workload also increases as the semester progresses. In addition to smaller assignments, you’re more likely to have longer-term projects coming due. Combined with other commitments outside of the classroom, life can start feeling a bit overwhelming.
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Recognize that it’s not just you. The reason your semester no longer feels effortless is that your classes have gotten harder, your coursework has gotten more complex, and there is simply more work to do. This part of the semester should feel challenging – because it is.
- Same old, same old
Boredom is another aspect of the typical mid-semester experience. The main cause is that the novelty we experienced at the beginning has long since worn off. We know what to expect from our instructors, we know all the people in our classes, we have the same weekly schedule and the same grind of homework and studying day in, day out. Monotony can really kick in at this point in the semester, especially since the end is still a few weeks off.
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It can help to bring some novelty into your study sessions. For example, you can turn more routine tasks into a game, you can change the location where you do your work, or you can team up with your classmates and quiz each other.
- Lack of motivation
It happens. Sometimes you may end up in a course that’s a requirement and that you just don’t care about. You’ll feel like you have to drag yourself to class and that it’s difficult to get started on assignments.
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When your courses are uninspiring, it can help to focus on the big picture. Think of the degree you will earn and the career you might have afterwards. There are a number of visualization and writing exercises that can help make your long-term goal feel more concrete, which can help your motivation in the here and now.
As a strategy for completing work for uninspiring classes, don’t wait for motivation to kick in, since it might never happen. Build a habit of sitting down and just getting started on assignments (ideally at the same time each day), even if you feel like doing anything else. To keep yourself focused, try using the Pomodoro Technique®.
- Feeling the pressure to always be working
Unlike in a 9-to-5 job where you have a natural demarcation between work and your private life, the flexibility of the typical student’s schedule can make it difficult to ever switch “off”. During evenings and on the weekends, there’s always something more you could be doing, and it’s often not easy to recognize when you’ve done enough. This can lead to chronic stress, so if you often get into this mindset, it’s important to take time to recharge. If taking breaks feels indulgent, keep in mind that you’re helping your brain make connections whenever you do so.
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If it’s not possible to take a whole day off each week, look for hours or even moments during your day where you can take some time for yourself. Even just taking a step back and focusing on your breath for three minutes periodically throughout the day can calm your nervous system and reduce your stress levels.
- Getting off track
At the start of the semester you may have wanted to work out every day, volunteer with a student organization, and take a 30-credit courseload. You had a plan in place to study for four hours each day and to start writing your term papers by week 2. Now, by the mid-point in the semester you have long since thrown all of your plans out the window and feel like you’re barely treading water. You’re simply reacting to all the tasks you have to do.
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Planning can be detrimental when your goals are overly ambitious and then lead to feelings of failure when you can’t keep up. It can help to intentionally make plans that are much easier to complete than what you could accomplish in a day. For example, instead of planning to read and take notes on a whole book in one day, write down a plan in which your reading is broken up over the course of a week. When you easily complete your 30 pages for the day, you can cross that task off the list (or mark it complete in Citavi) and feel good about what you’ve achieved. You may even decide to work ahead for the next day. This practice builds up momentum and helps you associate positive emotions with completing your work.
What if you’re really, really behind on your reading or a project and need to play catch-up or have an impending deadline? Sometimes, in spite of the best planning, you may need to pull an all-nighter. Don’t beat yourself up for that. Just continue on, and try to see how you can avoid it next time, since cramming is not a good way to learn content long-term.
- Manage negative emotions
The psychological aspects of the messy middle should not be underestimated. As a course increases in difficulty, even the best students may feel as if they’re not smart enough for a particular course or they may get down on themselves for procrastination or laziness. It can also be especially hard to cope with the mental strain that goes along with constant mid-semester stress.
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Humans can bounce back from difficult times well as long as periods of stress are balanced with rejuvenating activities. For this reason, it’s important not to cut all activities out of your life that you enjoy as your workload increases. Continue to exercise, engage in a fun hobby, meet friends, and eat meals away from the computer.
If you find thoughts and worries keeping you up at night, listening to a guided meditation before going to bed can help you re-focus and relax. You might think you don’t have time, but you’ll reap benefits even with only twenty-seven minutes a day if you practice consistently.
If you feel at wit’s end and don’t know where to turn, seek out your university’s counseling center. Even though it sounds simple, talking to a trained professional can help you sort out your thoughts and find some perspective. There’s no shame in asking for help during a tough time.
- When everything feels really, really hard, recognize that you’re in “the dip”
In my second year of college, I studied abroad in Bonn, Germany. In our very first language classes, we were told that it was normal that our German abilities would rapidly improve during the first month of immersion and then plateau.
This was indeed what happened, and it was incredibly frustrating. My language skills increased exponentially during my first month, but in the months that followed, progress was painfully slow. Sometimes I would even feel like I was getting worse when I’d find myself making beginner mistakes in simple conversations! Still, at the end of the year I had become fluent – I just didn’t realize it while it was happening.
In The Dip, Seth Godin describes the drop that occurs after the initial phase of a challenging endeavor. Analogous to the messy middle, the dip is when everything just seems unbearably hard and progress is slow as molasses. For example, you might feel like you’ll never grasp organic chemistry, even though you’re trying really hard and putting in long hours.
Our instincts in times like these are to give up, because the feeling is uncomfortable. However, it’s during the dip that our brains are really being stretched and we’re learning the most. Recognize that if you just keep going, continue doing your work and attending class, and going to office hours or getting additional tutoring when you need extra help, you will come out on the other side and eventually have a better understanding of the material.
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The key here is to keep yourself from getting so overwhelmed that you give up. Break up homework assignments or research papers into smaller, manageable tasks and then take each task step-by-step. Instead of thinking about how much you still have to do for a course, focus on the actions you can take during this study session. If a task is very difficult, put all distractions aside, and give it a dedicated try. When you reach the point where your brain aches, take a long break away from your work or even set the task aside for a day and come back to it. You’ll often find that it’s easier the next time you look at it.
We sincerely hope that these tips will help you boost your mid-semester endurance when it is starting to flag! When all else fails, just remember that the discomfort of the messy middle is temporary, and things will get easier.
Are you currently going through the messy middle? Do you have any personal tips for coping that we left out? Let us know on our Facebook page!
For Further Reading
This blog post was inspired by the following two books, both of which are aimed primarily at a business audience rather than an academic one:
Belsky, S. (2018). The messy middle: Finding your way through the hardest and most crucial part of any bold venture. New York: Penguin.
Godin, S. (2007). The dip: A little book that teaches you when to quit (and when to stick). New York: Portfolio.