Run Clinic: Running out of motivation due to exam stress

Tue, Aug 13, 2013, 12:11

Q I had tried running before reading your book, with the “couch-to-5k” plan, but I quickly got bored with the recordings and hated running with my iPod in so I tried it by myself. With no motivation or plan, I started drifting. Then I found your book online.

I couldn’t put it down, I pored over the plan and eagerly started it right away. I won’t lie, I skipped a few stages and had a break of a month while I was on a nursing placement in Nepal, but I have kept at it. (And have so far lost 2½ stone – 1½ stone of it while following your plan.)

But in the past few weeks my motivation has gone down the pan, my runs are dwindling rapidly: last week it was two and this week I have yet to go out. I know what is behind it though and I need your advice.

I am just finishing the second year of my nursing degree, and I failed my last exam (a practical one). I failed an exam once before, in my first year of A-levels, and my mom told me she had lost faith in me. That broke my heart as she, being a strong, independent single mom and my closest friend, had meant everything to me.

What made it worse was that she died before I finished my A-levels and got into uni, so I never found out if she regained that faith. So when I found out I’d failed an exam again, all those memories came back to me and I have felt so demotivated and worthless for the past three weeks.

I am doing a re-sit in a week’s time and have started revising, but I am struggling to stay motivated with anything, be it revision, keeping up with household chores or running. I am flitting from one thing to the other and not finishing anything. I feel like I’m barely living at the minute. Anon

A Your self-awareness of what is at the root of the problem is at least two-thirds of the cure. You realise what is happening here and you are keen to take responsibility and stop doing it. Bingo.

The bottom line is that you are afraid of failing this re-sit and, in classic self-sabotage mode, are using what happened with your mum as an excuse for faffing and procrastinating. Fear is at its root. Fear of failure. And it is entirely normal. You failed your nursing exam and you failed an A-level before that. You lost your mother at a tender age. All these things are very challenging.

But the greatest challenges are never the events themselves. It is not what happened that defines us, it is what we make it mean and how we then act that matters.

We create a narrative to our lives based on all our experiences, good and bad, which can be hugely enriching if the story we tell is full of positive things. It only becomes a problem when we use our “story” as a reason for not trying, or as a justification for our failures and shortcomings. And, I’m afraid, the gritty truth is that this is precisely what is going on here.

First things first. Stop telling yourself the story of why this is all happening, because it is sapping you of all your mojo.

Your mum never really lost faith in you. She made one comment because she was disappointed about your exam result and probably thought she might inspire you to pass if she came down on you a bit hard. How right she was, because you passed second time round. Tell yourself this positive story if it helps re-motivate you: that she told you she lost faith because she knew it would make you succeed. And she was right.

The good thing about your problem is that it couldn’t be easier to solve. You just have to begin the revision. Go for a run first and focus on what needs to be done revision-wise. Really think about what went wrong in the last exam on your run and what steps you can take to remedy it for the re-sit. As soon as you get home, sit down at your desk and begin. No timetables or charts or any other time-wasting faff. You have only a week and you know already what needs to be done.

Run every day if you can during the build-up to the exam. You know from experience that running will make you feel great and it’s a brilliant tool to deploy in times of stress. Not only will running ease your anxiety levels, it will help you sleep well and concentrate better.

I am sorry you lost your mother so young. I am quite sure she would not have intended for you to allow a throwaway comment to affect how you view exams and failure for the rest of your life.

If you fail this re-sit, it won’t be because of anything your mother said to you. It will be a simple case of failing because you didn’t do the work. Anything else is just a story.

The Grit Doctor says:

There are no shortcuts in exam revision. Just get stuck in; grit it out. Running helps get your brain in the mood but it can never replace the nitty gritty of the revision itself. One week of your life. Give it up entirely to this cause and nail that re-sit.


Tweet your running queries to Ruth at: @gritdoctor


Ruth Field is author of Run, Fat Bitch, Run