This post is the sixth in a series I’m calling “Freshman Fifteen” – a set of fifteen posts that will walk you up to and into your freshman year of college. Read up on the first post here, or just dive in:
Okay the title sounds trite but let’s be real here. Finals do suck. You’re not sleeping, you’re not eating right, you’re existing in a constant state of anxiety. Even if you love what you’re studying more than life itself, this is a rough time of year. So no. I cannot make finals super fun and enjoyable. It will never be our favorite. But from all my hindsight here, halfway through my senior year, I think I can help make it suck less.
How to Make Finals Suck Less
This sounds like a terrible idea, but hear me out. You will inevitably multitask a little, and that’s fine. But study after study after study shows that you’re going to do better work if you focus on just one thing at a time. So listening to a podcast while you put together a poster for a presentation probably isn’t a problem, but when you’re trying to do some serious thinking, stay focused.
We multitask almost instinctively, so take some time to actively prevent the habit. Clear your workspace of distractions, keep electronics that you don’t need out of easy reach, and make a clear study schedule for yourself. You’ll be less likely to stress out about needing to do all the things if you’re absolutely positive you’ll get to them later.
This is a corollary to the multitasking. It applies to your breaks, too. When you’re eating lunch, actually do that. Push your books away, close your laptop, put your phone on the charger in another room, and eat a meal with no distractions.
This is hard. In college, especially, eating is almost always part of multitasking. We go to eat with friends, and when we eat alone, we scroll through our phones or put on an episode of our favorite TV show. But it means we don’t really pay attention to what – or how much – we eat. How often have you zoned out while eating a bag of chips and suddenly, oops, they’re all gone?
So if you’re doing something for yourself – like making a snack or listening to some music – focus on only that for as long as you’re doing it. It’s a much more soothing study break than laying upside down on the couch, eating sunflower seeds and scrolling through Twitter. (I can tell you that from experience.)
Take Study Breaks The Right Way
Speaking of study breaks, there’s a right and a wrong way to do them.
The wrong way, as I mentioned, is upside down on the couch, eating sunflower seeds and scrolling through Twitter. What’s wrong with this break? Well, it’s multitasking, it’s addicting, and it’s poorly structured. Bear with me.
A good break lets your brain rest, keeps your stress down, and prepares you to start working again. I always have the urge to check social media, or start reading articles, when I’m studying. But the problem is, when I do, I get sucked into a black hole, and suddenly it’s been an hour and I really don’t feel like going back to my notes. This problem is helped by the fact that my break is arbitrary. When do I get back to work? When I feel like it? Spoiler alert, I’m never going to feel like it.
My savior in this case is the Pomodoro method. Adjust the exact numbers to your needs, but the Pomodoro method has you spent twenty five minutes working, and then you take a five minute break. Every fourth break is twenty minutes long. Study methods like this are optimized for focus, so fiddle with your timing until you find your perfect balance.
And then, of course, take productive breaks. On short ones, get up and stretch, get a drink of water, or listen to a song – something little, but not too addictive. Longer breaks are perfect for getting a snack, going for a walk, or even taking a quick power nap. (And if thinking about social media is distracting you, maybe let yourself check during long breaks only, and obey that break timer!)
Fun fact: I wrote this post in twenty-minute bursts during my long Pomodoro breaks.
Break Down Your Tasks
Making a little progress on a lot of things feels more productive (and therefore more rewarding) than making slow, steady progress on a single project. To trick your brain into getting that addictive I-did-something feeling, break up the work into smaller pieces.
If you have a fifteen page paper, instead of saying “Today I’m going to write the paper.” break down all the tasks you need to do to write the paper. You’ll need to assemble your sources, order your arguments, refine your thesis, write an introduction, write each argument or section, write a conclusion, and assemble a works cited list.
Now that might sound like more work, but it’s a lot more manageable to say “I’ll do [two of the tasks] before I have my study session, then [two or three more] after, then I’ll take a long break for dinner, and then finish up [the last few tasks].” than it is to just sit down and bang out fifteen pages.
Prioritize Your Self Care
I mean this in all ways. Don’t stay up late if you don’t have to, make sure you’re eating three square, healthy meals a day, and take breaks that let you relax at regular intervals. I know it feels like you don’t have time – trust me, I know. But you’ll do a lot better on that paper/exam/presentation/project if you’re well rested, well fed, and calm. It’s worth losing an hour of study time if it means you don’t fall asleep during the test.
Be careful about what you put into your body. Caffeine may keep you up when you’re tired, but it can also increase your anxiety and keep you up when you really need to sleep. Microwave dinners and prepackaged snacks take less time to make, but they aren’t giving your body high-quality fuel to get through the week.
Take a nap. Eat a vegetable. Eat two vegetables. Be good to yourself. We’ve got this.
And if you’re still feeling lost, I’ve put together a more extensive list to making finals suck less. Find it in the resource library – if you don’t have access, get it below!