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When e-cigarettes hit the market 10 years ago, they were advertised as a clean, safe alternative to traditional smoking. To some extent, that’s likely true; they do seem cleaner and safer, and they may prove helpful to smokers who are trying to quit. That said, they may also carry some health risks of their own. If this evaluation sounds noncommittal, it is—scientists and federal regulators are still duking it out, and the research on e-cigarettes (vaping) is in its early stages. Here’s what we know so far:
What are e-cigarettes?
E-cigarettes were designed as a way for people to hold and inhale something that looks and feels like a cigarette without being exposed to tobacco smoke and its indisputable health risks. E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that contain a liquid cartridge. When heated, the cartridge releases a vapor that the user inhales.
Here’s what the vapor contains:
- Nicotine (usually—some e-cigs do not contain this)
- Propylene glycol, a synthetic chemical that also shows up in some foods and toiletries, and other chemicals
- Flavorings and coloring; these vary by brand
Here’s what the vapor does not contain:
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only just started the process of regulating e-cigarettes, so manufacturers have been operating without much oversight. This means that some e-cigs may contain higher nicotine doses than it says on their packaging. The FDA has not approved e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation aid.
How many young people are vaping?
E-cigarettes are in use, but maybe not as commonly as you might think. That’s according to a 2015 survey of 6,300 college students.
Source: American College Health Association–National College Health Assessment, Fall 2015; anonymous, randomized survey.
Could e-cigarettes harm my health?
At this point, researchers are sounding reasonably confident that e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional smoking—but the research is far from complete. And e-cigarettes are unlikely to be completely safe.
The Framework Convention Alliance, an international organization focusing on eliminating tobacco-related harm, acknowledges the many areas of dispute regarding e-cigarettes. Nevertheless, it concludes, “e-cigarettes are almost certainly considerably less hazardous for individuals than cigarettes.”
If young people vape instead of smoking traditional cigarettes, they will avoid the harsh health effects caused by smoking tobacco, according to a 2016 study in Nicotine & Tobacco Research. These include cancers and heart disease caused by inhaling tar, a substance released as tobacco burns.
That said, no one can realistically tell you that vaping isn’t harmful at all. “The use of e-cigarettes cannot be labeled ‘safe,’ because that implies no risk. Any time you inhale anything into lungs, even air, you incur some level of risk,” says Steve Lux, a former senior health educator at Northern Illinois University (who supports the use of e-cigarettes for smoking cessation).
In people who would not otherwise smoke, using e-cigarettes could potentially contribute to health problems, researchers acknowledged in the Nicotine & Tobacco Research study.
The nicotine in some e-cigs has the potential to harm brain development in people in their early twenties, according to the World Health Organization. It’s conceivable that vaping could aggravate respiratory diseases, such as asthma and bronchitis.
Again, e-cigarettes vary in their ingredients, so their health effects likely vary, too. And relative to traditional smoking, e-cigarettes are the safer choice.
Do e-cigarettes help smokers quit or create new smokers?
This is a point of contention among health professionals.
Vaping may be helpful in smoking cessation
Researchers are trying to figure out whether or not these devices can help people quit smoking altogether. The current evidence is mixed. E-cigs containing nicotine may be more effective for quitting smoking than a nicotine patch, according to a 2014 study published in Addiction. A 2016 analysis of multiple studies, however, found that e-cigarette use was associated with reduced rates of smoking cessation (The Lancet Respiratory Medicine).
In this context, it may be reasonable to try e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation aid—with caution. “I think that all smokers who are exploring options for quitting should look into the use of nicotine e-cigarettes as one of the many options that exist today,” says Steve Lux, a former senior health educator at Northern Illinois University.
Vaping does not appear to be creating new smokers
The 2016 study in Nicotine & Tobacco Research explored whether vaping could create new smokers. The researchers (looking at a cohort of people born in 1997) found that although e-cigarette use has risen, traditional cigarette smoking has continued to fall. This suggests that vaping is not creating a new wave of smokers.
Could my vaping harm people around me?
E-cigarettes don’t contain smoke, but they do create secondhand emissions. It’s still unknown what effect these emissions may have.
“Vaping involves exhalations, containing mainly water vapor, but also containing small amounts of other substances that may or may not have a negative effect,” says health educator Steve Lux. But traditional tobacco studies indicate that passive smoking in social situations is a lot less risky than living with a smoker, he says. This is not a license to vape anywhere: Many campuses and other institutions ban the use of nicotine-containing substances, including e-cigarettes.
Why don’t we have better answers on how e-cigarettes may affect health?
Vaping hasn’t been around long enough for us to see its long-term effects. If e-cigarettes can potentially contribute to serious illnesses—such as cancer, lung disease, or heart disease—we won’t see that for years. Researchers can study how e-cigarette vapors affect the cells of lab animals, which may offer some insight but can’t show us exactly how vaping affects people in the long term.
In addition, we don’t have much data on people who vape and do not also smoke (or never smoked) traditional tobacco products. Potentially, those people could serve as a control group, helping scientists untangle the relative influence of vaping versus traditional smoking on health. Among people who do both, that’s hard to figure out.
Lastly, some researchers are studying how e-cigarettes may help people quit smoking altogether. For these claims to hold water, the products’ (relative) safety and effectiveness have to be proven through a series of clinical trials.
Are e-cigarettes regulated by the government?
Starting in August this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began evaluating all e-cigarette products that are on the market. Each product will go through a new application process to determine whether or not it can continue to be sold.
While the FDA is working through a mighty high stack of applications, manufacturers can keep selling e-cigarettes. All this can take two to three years.
If manufacturers can’t show that their product has therapeutic benefits (e.g., helping smokers quit), that e-cigarette will be regulated as a tobacco product.
Could I get addicted to e-cigarettes?
Nicotine is a highly addictive substance, whether you find it in traditional cigarettes or in e-cigarettes. The amount of nicotine in e-cigarettes can vary by product and manufacturer. There are no data yet on whether vaping leads to nicotine addiction.
Ready to quit? You can do this
November 17 is the Great American Smokeout, and there’s extra support available for quitting smoking.
Trying to quit without a plan can leave you without a way to cope when you get cravings. You’re more likely to succeed with a structured approach, says Smokefree.gov, a governmental resource for all things tobacco-free. Ask your health care provider for tools and strategies that have been evaluated in studies and shown to be successful. To get started, click on these links:
Principles for successfully quitting
Steps in your tobacco liberation movement include:
- Choosing the date you’re ridding yourself of tobacco.
- Telling friends and family about it for support and to make you accountable.
- Giving your environment a makeover: Remove cigarettes, ashtrays, and anything that makes you think about smoking. Find alternatives to help you replace the habit, especially when you have cravings (e.g., healthy snack food, such as carrots or popcorn, or an assortment of delicious teas).
To quit permanently, your strategy has to be sustainable:
- Look for life changes that you can live with; for ideas, check out former smokers’ strategies.
- Make a list of things that are important to you and aim to keep doing them after quitting. This might mean spending more time with friends or pursuing your own goals, like joining the track team.
Quitting strategies that work
In studies, these tobacco cessation approaches have been shown to be helpful. For professional support, talk to a doctor or counselor about what has been shown to work best.
- “Motivational interviewing” is a specialist counseling approach that helps you come up with your own solutions. In a 2015 Cochrane review of 28 studies, motivational interviewing with health professionals was more successful in helping people quit smoking than traditional health advice. Single, brief sessions appeared effective for quitting.
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The “dialectical” piece refers to two valid but opposing thoughts: (e.g., “I want to quit smoking” and “I would feel calmer right now if I had a cigarette”). DBT helps us understand our own stress triggers and develop effective self-soothing techniques. Mindfulness techniques are a foundational skill of DBT.
- Nicotine replacement therapy (e.g., gum) or prescription medications (e.g., bupropion). In studies, using one of these two substances helped 80 percent more people to quit compared to a placebo, according to the Cochrane Collaboration, which reviews medical research.
- Stress-busting alternatives help you avoid “just one” cigarette when you have a bad craving. One cigarette tends to lead to more, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- Text-message, Twitter, or email program for regular quitting tips and support. Cessation programs delivered through Twitter can help keep people on track, evidence suggests.
Tobacco QuitLine: American Lung Association
Steve Lux, former senior health educator, Northern Illinois University.
American Cancer Society. (2016). Guide to quitting smoking. Cancer.org. Retrieved from
American College Health Association. National College Health Assessment. Fall 2015 Reference Group Data Report. Retrieved from
American Lung Association. (2016, June). E-cigarettes and lung health. Lung.org. Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/stop-smoking/smoking-facts/e-cigarettes-and-lung-health.html
American Lung Association. (2016). What’s in a cigarette? Lung.org. Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/stop-smoking/smoking-facts/whats-in-a-cigarette.html
American Lung Association. (2011, June). General smoking facts. Lung.org. Retrieved from www.lung.org/stop-smoking/about-smoking/facts-figures/general-smoking-facts.html
American Lung Association. (2015). The facts. Lung.org. Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/associations/states/colorado/tobacco/the-facts.html
American Lung Association. (2015). What’s in a cigarette? Lung.org. Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/stop-smoking/about-smoking/facts-figures/whats-in-a-cigarette.html
Amsted, D. (2015, December 21). E-cigs’ inconvenient truth: It’s much safer to vape. Rollingstone.com. Retrieved from
Brown, B., & Kotz, M. (2014, May.) Real-world effectiveness of e-cigarettes when used to aid smoking cessation: A cross-sectional population study. Addiction. Retrieved from
Cahill, K., Stevens, S., Perera, R., & Lancaster, T. (2013). Pharmacological interventions for smoking cessation: An overview and network meta-analysis. Cochrane Database of Systematic
Reviews, 5. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD009329.pub2/full
Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. (n.d.). Philip Morris and targeting kids. TobaccoFreeKids.org. Retrieved from https://www.tobaccofreekids.org/research/factsheets/pdf/philipmorris.pdf
Cancer Research: UK. (2016). Headlines about e-cigarettes don’t mean they’re ‘not safer than tobacco’. CancerResearchUK.org. Retrieved from
Carter, B. D., Abnet, C. C., Feskanich, D., Freedman, N. D., et. al. (2015). Smoking and mortality—beyond established causes. New England Journal of Medicine, 372(7), 631–640. Retrieved from
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014, November). Tobacco-related mortality. CDC.gov. Retrieved from
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014, November). Trends in current cigarette smoking among high school students and adults, United States, 1965–2011. CDC.gov.
Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/tables/trends/cig_smoking/
Cochrane. (2015, March 2). Does motivational interviewing help people who smoke to quit? Cochrane.org. Retrieved from
Dale, L. (2014, November 25). What are electronic cigarettes? Are they safer than conventional cigarettes? MayoClinic.org. Retrieved from
Framework Convention Alliance. (2014, 13–18 October). FCA policy briefing: Electronic nicotine delivery systems. [Policy briefing]. Retrieved from https://www.fctc.org/images/stories/policy_brief.pdf
Hartung, T. (2016, August 1). They’re far from harmless, but e-cigarettes can get people off tobacco. Scientificamerican.com. Retrieved from
Kalkhoran, S., & Glantz, S. A. (2016). E-cigarettes and smoking cessation in real world and clinical settings: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine. doi 10.1016/S2213-2600(15)00521-4. Retrieved from https://keepitsacred.itcmi.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/821/sites/5/2016/01/15tlrm0537_Glantz.pdf
Khan, A. (2014, July 9). Quitting smoking the geeky way. US News & World Report. Retrieved from
Landro, L. (2013, April 29). To motivate patients to change, doctors stop scolding. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323528404578452862092810552
Lineham Institute and Behavior Tech. (2015). Is DBT right for me? Retrieved from https://behavioraltech.org/resources/clients-family.cfm
Levy, D., Borland, R., Villanti, A., Niaura, R., et al. (2016, July 14). The application of a decision-theoretic model to estimate the public health impact of vaporized nicotine product initiation in the United States. Nicotine and Tobacco Research. Retrieved from https://ntr.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2016/07/12/ntr.ntw158.abstract?sid=687cbbf1-1d86-41a7-af36-22f80a156b87
Madhani, A. (2016, August 7). It’s about to get much harder for minors to vape. USA Today. Retrieved from
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Student Health 101 survey, July 2016.
World Health Organization. (2014, July). Electronic nicotine delivery systems. WHO.int. Retrieved from https://apps.who.int/gb/fctc/PDF/cop6/FCTC_COP6_10-en.pdf
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Some call college the best time of your life. It can also be the most stressful. Is it worth it? Yes. Now more than ever, you need a degree. Bachelor-degree earners make about $1,100 a week, while those who finished only some college make about $740 a week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- If you’re questioning whether college is for you, what’s not working? Finances? Time? Grades? Personal issues? Then think about your academic and career goals. What would it take for you to make progress in this (or another) college environment?
- “Move away from big resolutions. Instead, think about competing commitments that are getting in the way and how to resolve those conflicts,” says Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs & enrollment management, San Francisco State University, California.
- Know what academic, health, counseling, career, and social supports are available. In a recent CampusWell survey, college students’ most recurring regret was not taking advantage of campus resources sooner.
1. School better have my money
When money may be a deal breaker, get guidance from the right sources (e.g., a financial aid advisor or the sites recommended below). “You don’t want to (by default) seek financial advice from people who aren’t financial experts just because they’re your parents or friends,” says Zac Bissonnette, author of Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents (Portfolio, 2010).
How to get a handle on your finances
- Even if you don’t think you’ll need loans, submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) early on so you can get federal loans faster if you need them, says Rachel Fishman, senior education policy analyst at the New America Foundation.
- Find out whether your school has hardship policies, emergency grants, installment payment plans, and support with scholarships based on academic excellence or financial need, says Amy Baldwin, director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas. Search online for additional scholarship opportunities.
- Talk to an advisor or financial aid officer about finding a part-time campus job that can help you pay for books and other swag.
- Avoid shopping. Save as much as you can.
For in-depth savings tips and other strategies, try these sites recommended by author Zac Bissonnette:
2. Scandalous scholastics
Almost every student has moments of academic failure. “Students who get knocked off their feet academically need to know that they are not alone and that there is help,” says Amy Baldwin, director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas.
How to get a grip on academics
- Show up for class, show up for class, show up for class.
- Relieve the pressure: Ask your academic advisor how to get assistance with time management. Then speak to your professors about accommodations relating to assignment expectations, if needed.
- Get to know your faculty; take advantage of your professor’s office hours to discuss questions, ideas, and study strategies.
- Form a study group with people who have taken the course or are doing well in it.
- Search online for supplemental YouTube videos that cover the concepts.
- Talk with a university counselor about available help and how to make sure your schedule matches up with your level of experience.
- Even if you don’t expect to stay in school, keep your grades in shape. It’s way better for your future options to withdraw from a class than to fail it.
“We shouldn’t be discouraged after failing one exam. Instead, seek help from the professor and see how to do better next time.”
—Jie Z., third-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
“Students underestimate that showing up for class is essentially studying for a test! Also, many students think black or white, all or nothing and are too hard on themselves. Students don’t give themselves credit.”
—Sonya M., third-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University
3. Better together
“The key to staying in college is making sure you take advantage of as many opportunities as possible to integrate yourself with your campus both academically and socially,” says Dr. Luoluo Hong, vice president for student affairs & enrollment management at San Francisco State University.
How to feel like you’re a part of it
- Live on campus if you can.
- If you have to work, get a job on campus rather than off campus. “I worked on campus and made friends through my job, which made it easier to transition,” says John H., a fourth-year undergraduate at Redeemer University College, Ontario.
- Join a student club or start one.
- If you feel as though you cannot get socially connected, talk with a counselor or advisor, or even a professor. They may be able to point you to resources on campus that can help you adjust.
- Remember that many students experience “impostor syndrome”: the feeling that they don’t belong. “It often takes time to develop relationships and to find groups that you feel most comfortable in. This is normal,” says Amy Baldwin, author of The First-Generation College Experience (Prentice Hall, 2011).
4. Find your fight song
Hang in there if you can, maybe with the help of a short-term leave. Students who leave college and return later in life may have to navigate additional challenges, according to a 2014 study of 4.5 million “non-first-time” students.
- “If life is getting in the way of school, try to find a way to do at least two classes so you can build momentum toward graduating and stay eligible for federal financial aid,” says Fishman.
- You can take some classes in person and some online. “Your local community college’s online classes are likely cheaper than the competition’s,” says Fishman.
- Take the right classes: Always check which courses you need with an academic advisor or admissions officer.
- If you may transfer to another school, rigorously check that your credits will transfer too and accumulate.
- If you just cannot hack it right now, make sure you leave your future options open. Ask whether you can defer your enrollment (e.g., take a year’s leave) without academic penalty and without needing to reapply. Also find out whether you’re eligible for refunds on tuition and fees, and whether you’ll need to repay loans or scholarships.
“My parents were there to give me the support I needed to finish. I transferred to a university that was only 45 minutes from home as opposed to five hours, and also was literally five times cheaper. At my new university I don’t mind taking a little longer to finish because I’m not amassing debt. I also have come to terms with the fact that not everybody graduates in four years and that nobody really judges you for taking longer.”
—Spencer B., third-year undergraduate, Rowan University, New Jersey
“I stayed, because I knew it would pay off in the long run. Even though it seemed hard at the moment, I knew that supporting myself in the future would be even harder without a degree. I also thought about all the sacrifices my parents made in order for me to attend college, and I did not want to disappoint them.”
—Aliyah Giden, sophomore, University of Memphis, Tennessee
“No matter what I was told, I knew that it came down to myself. It was up to me to continue college and it still is. So another tip is to not be afraid to reach a point where you are not sure if you can go on. Pushing through it all was what I needed, and I feel amazing. I love college now! Plus, I am ready for graduation because I am no longer totally afraid of the future.”
—Amy N., fourth-year undergraduate, Western Washington University
A few years ago, they were rarely seen in the wild. Now you can find them next to the Blow Pops in gas stations. They’re E-cigarettes, and they got popular fast. Researchers are scrambling to determine the health impact of these gizmos, which emit vapor laced with chemicals—including nicotine—when users inhale.
Can E-cigarettes help you kick butts?
The pencil-sized machines are marketed as a convenient alternative to lighting up—and as a tool to help folks quit tobacco. With the Great American Smokeout on November 20, if you’re a smoker, you might be eager to join the 88 percent of college students who have not smoked in the last month. Can E-cigarettes really help you kick the butts?
Few studies have addressed the question, and findings are mixed. But we do know that nicotine—which E-cigarettes deliver in varying doses—is bad. The drug can contribute to heart disease, cause complications during pregnancy, and act as a “tumor promoter,” the World Health Organization wrote in July.
Nicotine also has the potential to harm brain development among young people. That includes—please cancel your trip to Denial—college students.
Still, E-cigarettes are far less abrasive to your lungs than plumes of cigarette smoke, so they may be significantly less harmful. But we’re not sure.
In any event, “vapers” must be wary of nicotine overdose, which can result in bad things like vomiting, confusion, and seizures, according tothe US National Library of Medicine. (Users should keep E-cigs away from young children, who–being teeny-tiny–can overdose more easily.)
Bottom line, as we await more research: We should consider E-cigs a cousin of a pack of cigarettes. Stick to those Blow Pops.
Hold on—I gotta check Facebook just one more time before I finish this sentence. OK, I’m back. So! Procrastination: It’s bad.
Most of us want to be efficient, but time after time we find the day melting away as we watch “just one more” TV episode or click on “just one more” video of baby animals.
Good news! Procrastination isn’t just in your head. Experts have found that making some tweaks to the way you work can make it easier to buckle down.
Breaking up is easy to do
A task can seem easier if you break it into small segments, says Dr. Jesse Crosby, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. Try doing one bit a day, and start small.
“I always feel I can do anything for five minutes, so I set a timer,” Gail McMeekin, author of The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women, told WebMD. “Once I start, I usually go over five minutes and may finish the job.”
Crack the door
Completing just a small part of a project creates momentum and helps dispel fears that a given task is too difficult or complex. Think of that quote from the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” After you take a single step on that assignment, you’re moving.
Working with others can hold you accountable for making steady progress, says Gail McMeekin. Be sure, though, to discuss with a professor what sort of teamwork is kosher. You don’t want to be accused of cheating or plagiarism.
Find a Hermione
Find someone who’s consistently proactive, and stick close to that person. You could soak up some of his or her good habits. “Surround yourself with people who are doers,” Joseph Ferrari, a DePaul University psychology professor, told US News & World Report.
Ready to feel empowered? Next month could kick-off an era of Millennial political dominance. People born between 1980 and 2000 make up the largest generation in American history, and now that most of us can vote, we could prove pivotal to this year’s midterm elections.
Midterms are often unfairly written off as inconsequential placeholders that dot the years between presidential contests. But there’s a bunch at stake this year.
We Millennials number 80 million in the US—and only slightly more Americans (82.5 million) voted in the 2010 midterms.
Shaking up Congress
As you read this, 468 members of the US Congress are running for re-election, each hoping that young voters will boost them like they boosted now-President Obama in 2008.
Republicans think they can take control of the Senate by capitalizing on Obama’s low popularity. Democrats are hopeful that an improving economy—and a Supreme Court decision that threatens employee access to some forms of birth control—will convince voters to put them back in charge of the House of Representatives.
College costs & environment
Thirty-eight states and territories will elect governors—who play a pivotal role in environmental protections and college affordability.
Minimum wage & marijuana
In a handful of states, including Massachusetts, voters will choose whether to raise the minimum wage. Citizens in Florida and three other states will vote on proposals to loosen restrictions on marijuana, Ballotpedia reports.
Students pushing for change
In New York City, students have joined parents and teachers to protest the Common Core education standards. In North Carolina, students established the #DebtFreeUNC campaign for fairer student loan terms. They delivered more than 18,000 red squares—each representing a University of North Carolina graduate with loan debt—to the governor and to a leading candidate for the US Senate, The Nation reported.
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It’s four in the morning, and you’re triple-checking the verb tense of a Spanish assignment. You don’t hand in a draft of your history paper because it’s too rough, even though you need your professor’s feedback. You skip studying for a big econ test because unless you can review for three full hours on two straight nights, it’s not worth it.
If this sort of behavior sounds familiar, you might be a perfectionist.
Perfectionism can hurt us
Perfectionism can be much more significant in your life than some other personality quirks are. Research has found that perfectionist tendencies can solidify and grow, leading to behavior patterns that decrease productivity and increase the risk of developing serious conditions, including including obsessive-compulsive disorder and other anxiety disorders, and depression.
Perfectionism can also help us excel
But perfectionism is unlike many other health issues. While no good ever comes of tobacco use or driving drunk, perfectionism often boosts performance. LeBron James shot thousands of free throws before he mastered the skill. Pianists toil for years before they are skilled enough to play at Carnegie Hall. Monet set his canvas in the same spot day after day to capture every impression of leaf and sun.
Perfect red flags
But when perfectionism becomes maladaptive—that is, when it hurts more than it helps—it can harm students’ academic performance and personal relationships.“Generally, it’s a red flag when perfectionist efforts seem to be making things worse instead of better,” says Dr. Jesse Crosby, a researcher at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts (affiliated with Harvard Medical School), who studies perfectionism.
Joel B. of Binghamton University, New York, says he suffers from anxiety because of his perfectionist approach to grades: “As a result of the anxiety/depression, my grades suffered even more.”
Warning signs for maladaptive perfectionism include:
- Avoiding tasks
- Anxiety associated with trying to make everything perfect
- All-or-nothing thinking: e.g., “I don’t have this time to do it perfectly right now, so I’ll put it off”
How people become perfectionists
Perfectionism can represent an emotional struggle. “Perfectionists have an emotional conviction that in order to be acceptable as a person they need to be perfect,” says Dr. Tom Greenspon, a psychologist and author of Moving Past Perfect (Free Spirit Publishing, 2012).
The origins of that struggle might be genetic, research suggests. In a 2012 study, identical twins rated much more similarly than fraternal twins for perfectionism and anxiety. But perfectionist tendencies, like other behaviors, are also shaped by our environment. You don’t “catch” perfectionism. Instead, your psyche, your lifestyle, and your surroundings help determine whether you gravitate toward it.
For example, a competitive academic atmosphere might prompt students to set unrealistic standards for their work. Mary,* a university student in British Columbia, says, “I am very hard on myself in general. I always have to get As. I was my high school Valedictorian.” Another trigger for perfectionist behavior is vague syllabi and assignments, which give students room to expect more from themselves than professors do.
Strategies to keep perfectionism under control
There’s more to perfectionism than your environment. Students, parents, and professors can use certain strategies to avoid the harmful effects of procrastination, says Dr. Crosby.
1 Chunk your projects
Professors can break large projects—such as a 30 page research papers—into smaller pieces to be submitted periodically. Ask your professors to consider this approach. For example:
Week 1: the topic and research questions. Week 2: an initial list of sources. Week 3: an outline. Week 4: a draft. Week 5: the final paper.
2 “Crack the door” on tasks
Completing even a small part of a project creates momentum and helps erode fears that a given task is too complex or difficult.
Professors can “crack the door” by collaborating with students on the first homework question, or by setting aside class time to help students structure a research strategy. Alternatively, make the first steps a collaboration with classmates.
3 Be flexible and prioritize
Take a flexible approach to reading assignments and other tasks. If you’re burning the midnight oil to take meticulous notes on an optional reading assignment, your standards may be too high.To cope with a heavy workload, Dr. Crosby says, you must prioritize. For example, when I was in law school, professors assigned hundreds of pages of heavy reading a week. I quickly decided that I would skip reading dissenting opinions—writings by judges that have no legal impact—and focus on the other stuff. Just like ER staff must stop the bleeding before they treat the headache, students can distinguish between tasks that need heavy attention and those that simply aren’t so important.
4 Remember that improvement, not total mastery, is the goal
“If something is on the syllabus, you’re not expected to know everything about it before you take the course or even afterwards”, says Dr. Crosby.
Get help or find out more
Resources and treatment info:
The Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Institute, McLean Hospital, Belmont, Massachusetts
The Gifts of Imperfection: Brene Brown (Hazelden, 2010)