Preparing For Finals: Stay Balanced

During the final push this semester, everything gets out of whack—you stop sleeping, you eat junk, you neglect relationships, your room is a mess, and your only exercise is walking to and from class. If it weren’t for your friends and classmates who act, feel and look like you, they’d probably want to drop a coin in your cup. It doesn’t have to be that way.

The problem with letting yourself go like this during finals time is that you abandon the practices and discipline that worked earlier for you. It’s like a ranked tennis player intentionally leaving her sneakers home prior to the match. She can still play the game, but she clearly won’t be at her best. Similarly, by abandoning your sleeping, eating, even washing your clothes disciplines, you’re not your best self either.

Here are some tips for staying in balance during the crunch time.

Prior Planning Prevents P___ Poor Performance

Plan your work before you pick up a single book. If you don’t already have one, buy a calendar or download one to your smartphone that will not only easily enable you to enter and track your appointments (classes, assignments due, exam dates, etc.) but just as important, you should be able to capture your “to do’s.” Your “to do’s” is a list of the tasks that indicate when you’ll do them (on what day) in order to keep up with your work. I use a “to do” list on my iPhone tied to Microsoft Outlook, the application I use for my calendar. You can use Google docs or any other app that has both a calendar and “to do list.”

When I was in college, absent of all of these high tech devices, I used a paper calendar and notebook paper to record my “to do’s.” Use your app to record your exam schedule, reviews, office hours, and anything else that’s relevant to your finals including sleep, meals, and exercise (more later). Now, jot down what you’re going to do and when on your to do list. For instance, if it’ll take 6 hours to prepare for each final, and you know you have four finals, then you have to block off 24 hours between now and the end of the semester.

Get Enough Sleep

You need 7-8 hours of sleep each night to operate at optimal mental capacity. We often skip or shortchange this by getting less sleep, then drinking coffee, espresso, Red Bull or some other stimulant just to stay awake. When you stay awake, you mortgage sleep from the next day, and you’ll need more stimulants to keep you awake. It’s a vicious cycle.

Researchers now know that your brain needs adequate sleep time to consolidate all of the information it processed during the day. The process of turning the electrical and chemical stimulation into memories is called encoding. Have you ever struggled with a problem, “slept on it” and, the next morning, the solution came to you? Your brain actually encodes these connections into the long-term memory while we sleep. In fact, the more complex the material you’re learning, the more useful sleep is at helping to solidify its understanding and ability to recall. That’s the power of the brain at work, or at rest. I tell students that getting a good night’s sleep before a significant exam is not only helpful for recall, but it will actually lower their anxiety levels as well, since the executive function of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is most active at thinking and reasoning when you’re rested.

Eat Balanced Meals

There is a direct connection between your diet and your mental capacity and health. Most college students choose foods that are heavy in saturated fat, sugar and other carbohydrates without balancing it with foods that are known to improve brain function. Proteins such as those found in lean salmon, lean beef, eggs, and other nutrients found in most vegetables such as spinach have been found to boost recall and improve brain function.

Carbohydrate Overloads Makes You “loopy”

Don’t go overboard on carbohydrates (chips, pastries, cookies, candy, and soda). They may fill you up, and even give you a short-term energy boost, but the boost will be short-lived. In fact, soon after the boost, you’ll experience an energy crash that’ll bring your energy level down below where you started. Then you’re forced to go to sleep or to take a stimulant to keep you awake. Not good. My friend used to call that sluggish feeling, “loopiness.”

Go Easy on Caffeine and Other Stimulants

I didn’t start drinking coffee until my junior year in college. Prior to that, I seemed to get by without it. Once I started though, I couldn’t stop. Coffee and other caffeinated stimulants like Red Bull are addictive in a sinister way. By regularly consuming it, your body craves more. For instance, the more coffee you drink, the more difficult it will be to wake up in the morning, thereby making more coffee necessary.

If you don’t drink coffee or other stimulants, stay away from them. If you know what I’m saying because you drink a lot, then try to wean yourself off of it completely, or limit how much you drink.

Keep Your Room Organized

If you have a messy room, it’s harder to be efficient in your work. Too much of your time will be spent looking for items, rather than doing the work. I tell my freshmen advisees never to keep your room “more than 5 minutes messy.” Say you get a call that an unexpected visitor is coming by to see you. You should be able to straighten your room in five minutes. If it’ll take you more than that to clean up your papers, put dirty clothes in a laundry bag or basket, hang up or fold clean clothes, then you’re not optimizing your time because your room is messy. More troubling, if you can’t find something—an old problem set, the solutions to a problem set, your notes or a textbook, you’ll be tempted to slip the assignment or avoid reviewing that material. Take a pause to straighten and clean your room. You’ll earn whatever time you spend back, and then some, with increased productivity.

Maximize Periods of Peak Efficiency

You’ve probably noticed that your body and your mind operate at peak efficiency during certain parts of the day. For me, it’s between 4 and 8pm and 4am and 8am in the morning. If I’m writing during this period, words just flow out of my mind onto paper with ease. Catch me between 1 and 3pm in the afternoon, however, and the opposite story emerges. I’m dragging, finding it hard to concentrate and stay focused.

Our brains cycles through periods of high and low energy called ultradian rhythms. These fluctuations last for 90 to 110 minutes. Do you know when it seems easiest for you to focus and learn, and when it’s the hardest?  Find the optimal times that work for you. Experiment with different times of day for various tasks. You’ll find your rhythm and then start taking advantage of it.

Godspeed as you make the final push. Like that tennis player, having the right equipment by staying in balance is the key to success. Now, go win!