This is the time of year when even the most dedicated students start fantasizing about burning their textbooks. Here’s how to make finals week easier.
“If I sleep less I’ll magically have more time and finish everything I need to do.”
You stare at the computer screen at 3 a.m., headachy and confused, wondering how to write a conclusion for your final paper. You get up at 6 the next day, assuming you can get a little more studying in. You show up for an exam about to collapse, mess up half the questions (even the easy ones), and head home feeling ashamed of your performance and wondering what’s wrong with you.
Why sleeping enough helps you study for finals:
Your brain needs sleep to solidify anything you study. Sleep helps you catch grammar or math errors so you don’t lose points for mistakes. Getting enough rest also enhances creativity for tasks like brainstorming topic sentences for your final paper. If you’re sleeping enough, you’ll be able to work much faster, the quality of your work will be higher, and you’ll feel better, too.
2) Eat every 2 to 3 hours.
Why eating every few hours will help you during finals week:
Your brain needs glucose to run. If you skip meals, you might find yourself confused and fuzzy. If you want to do great quality work, and if you want to actually finish everything that is due, you want to be on top of your game. Eating properly can help you do that.
I recommend seeing a dietician when you have time. Until then, a combination of protein, fat, and carbohydrate is generally accepted by the medical community to be a reasonable and healthy way to eat. For example, you might have toast (carbs) with peanut butter (protein and fat) and banana slices (carbs and vitamins).
Make sure at least some of your carb is complex (rice, bread, potato or other starchy foods). There are a lot of misconceptions about carbohydrate. Fruit is not a complex carb just because it’s healthy. Fruit is a simple carbohydrate (the chemical structure is a shorter chain of molecules, meaning it will break down faster, but also “fizzle out” faster). White rice and white bread ARE complex carbs because their chemical makeup is a longer chain of molecules.
If you have digestive problems like me, don’t feel ashamed to have white bread or white rice or white potato as your carbohydrate. Not everyone is able to digest whole grains and that is okay. Again, see your dietician and doctor if you have questions about what’s right for you.
3) Drink water
Your brain gets fuzzy when you are dehydrated. I hate being told to drink more water, especially because I have gastroparesis and drinking is very uncomfortable for me, but it really does help my energy and cognitive status. Two liters a day is standard medical advice, but you’ll need more if you exercise, are exposed to heat, or have any illness that causes diarrhea or vomiting (sorry to be a bit graphic, but this is safety related, and some students aren’t that familiar with it).
Some people need more water or less water depending on their health status. If you have health conditions, ask your doctor how much water is appropriate for you.
4) If you drink alcohol occasionally, skip it
Alcohol doesn’t help you think clearly, and there is some evidence that drinking can even affect your brain when the alcohol wears off.
5) If you drink daily or are addicted to alcohol, never stop drinking “cold turkey” (all at once)
If you drink often or a lot, your body starts to expect that alcohol to function. If you suddenly stop drinking, this can cause a life-threatening crisis (meaning, you can die). If you have an addiction, don’t try to stop by yourself. Get a doctor’s help – it might save your life. I know it can be embarrassing and many people are very ashamed to seek help, but doctors have met many people with substance abuse problems. A great doctor wants to help you feel better and will respect you for seeking help.
6) Write a to-do list with tiny tasks
“Write final essay” should NEVER be on your to-do list, even if you have to write a final essay. Why? Seeing a huge task makes most people dread doing it. If you dread doing it, you won’t start.
A more effective way is to keep a “Projects” list where you write the big things you need to do, like writing your essay. Then keep a to-do list with tiny tasks. For example, if you are dreading your final essay and you are avoiding starting it, write “open my laptop and type my name at the top of the page” on your to-do list. It seems silly, but it’s so little work that you’ll be more willing to start. “Write one paragraph” is another appropriate to-do item for working on an essay.
7) Insert little breaks and rewards into your to-do list
When I was writing my dissertation at Duke, I was in severe pain from headaches that wouldn’t respond to treatment. It was hard to manage the stress and exhaustion from having a huge pile of work.
I recommend inserting small breaks into your to-do list. After doing a task, you can watch an episode of a favorite show, draw in a coloring book, make yourself a cup of hot chocolate, or take a walk.
8) Consider a big reward for after finals
Therapists often recommend rewards for doing unpleasant but values-based behavior. If you can afford it, you might like to buy yourself a pair of shoes at the end of the school year. If you’re a knitter, buying some yarn can be a nice reward. I do believe in being mindful of purchasing (for your financial health and also for the planet) but I know for a fact there are people like me, who have a habit of living very strictly and not allowing themselves nice things. If that describes you, I hope you can find some space to be a little gentler with yourself.
Good luck this week ❤️
Photo by Pim Chu (@pimchu).