How To Stay Focused During Exam Week

The 7 Habits for Highly Effective Studying

I’m probably not the first one to tell you (and if I am, get your act together) but exams are around the corner. Which means you’ll be studying all day and night. Or maybe not? Teddy Roosevelt, in his time at Harvard, usually needed only about a quarter of his day for studying. This was significantly less than his peers, and he still got honorary grades in five out of his seven courses. Here are seven tips that will help you stay focused during exam week.


“Let us watch well our beginnings, and results will manage themselves.” -Alexander Clark


Before you can actually start your fully focused studying session, you need to know where you are going. To do this, begin with the end in mind: the exam. Grab the mock exam and see what it is like. The mock exam doesn’t say everything and it’s almost (yeah, almost) never a copy of the real one, so make sure to also have a quick look through the syllabus and slides to find stuff that repeatedly comes up. You’ll know better what to expect on the actual exam, which will increase your focus while studying.


“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Not everything can be important. If everything is, nothing is. Focus on the most important first while studying, and don’t confuse enthusiasm with importance. About a 100 years ago, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto noticed that 80 percent of the land was in hands of 20 percent of the population. The interesting thing is that the Pareto Principle, as it was dubbed, can be applied to all sorts of situations. Such as studying. Ask yourself, what 20 percent of the material will make up 80 percent of the exam? It might be integration on a calculus test, or understanding DNA replication on a microbiology test. Whatever it is, try to find it and concentrate all your efforts on those critical few things that will give you the highest return on your investment.


“If you don’t want to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery.” -Alcoholics Anonymous Maxim


Interruption is the enemy of productivity. If you are interrupted it takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task and you make up to 50 percent more errors. When you are not distracted on the other hand, you will reach a flow state more easily. A flow state is an enjoyable state in which you are at your most productive. So if you want to get actual work done, put your phone on “do not disturb”, go to your favourite quiet place and rule out any other possible distractions you might face. I know it can be fun to have a study buddy or to talk to everyone who enters the lounge, but try to make sure you keep work and play completely separated if you want to be effective. Tell your study buddy when she can interrupt, and for everybody else, just look super busy. That will scare them off. Keep in mind that inner conflicts, such as whether to go home and watch the new South Park or continue studying, are distractions as well. Eliminate these too before you begin, so you can fully focus on what you need to get into your brain for your next test.


“Concentrate all your thoughts on the task at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to focus.” -Alexander Graham Bell

Depending on what you’re doing, it takes about 10 to 30 minutes to get into a flow state. Once you’re in it, you actually forget time and work at the peak of your performance and productivity. Eliminating distractions is the first step to getting into the flow. The next step is to fully focus on one thing at a time, at all times. By eliminating distractions, you have already decreased the likelihood of doing more than one thing at a time, but it can still be hard to keep it up. You might be inclined to pick up your phone, even though it is on “do not disturb”. If you are having this problem, use this app to combat that. If you are big on multitasking, stop that habit now. When you feel the urge to multitask, write down what you want to do and do it later. You might feel that multitasking increases your productivity, but it actually does the opposite. Neurologically, your brain is unable to multitask. It is not really parallel processing—you’re just rapidly switching your attention from one thing to another. Every time you’re switching back you have to start getting into your flow again, which takes more time in the end. And if that's not convincing enough for you, listen to Clifford Nass, he’s an expert: “People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand…they're pretty much mental wrecks.” So, one thing at a time. Unless you want to be a mental wreck of course.


“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” -Cyril Northcote Parkinson


You probably need less time than you think for studying. As the historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson noted last century, “work expands to fill the time available for its completion”. In other words, the time you set out for studying will be needed for studying. When you promise yourself to go to the library the whole day to study, you’ll be there the whole day. Regardless of whether you actually need to. Time is as money. The less you have the more likely you are to spend it wisely. What happens when you have a deadline to make? You make it happen. The same thing goes for artificial deadlines. It helps you focus on the important and disregard the unimportant. The trick is to keep your artificial deadlines right at the edge of feasibility. You are going to have trouble memorizing every little part of the human body for anatomy if you set your deadline in one minute.  


“Just do it.” -Nike Brand Slogan

You might have trouble starting to study, favoring the latest memes or PewDiePie video over grasping what 'β, δ-preferences' is supposed to mean. You might avoid starting because you want to push the feeling of sitting in front of your books, notes and slides for the rest of the day as far away as possible. Fear not, because there’s even a tip for that: start small. Set a ten-minute timer or use an app such as this one and start studying. If you’re not productive after those ten minutes, you have permission to stop and watch dog videos again. The thing is, it's rarely the case that you are not productive by the end of these first ten minutes. Overcoming the initial resistance is easy when you tell yourself it’s only ten minutes. Once you’ve started working out, it’s easier to keep going. It takes more energy to start than to continue. Momentum motivates.


“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson


Every single person has a limit when it comes to concentration each given day. After that limit is reached, you start to see diminishing returns. It has been estimated that for the best this comes after a total of four hours of intense focus. For people like you and me, it is probably more like one hour of intense focus each day. Whatever it is, you’ll hit your ceiling at one point, and that’s okay. More is not always better. You only have so much time and energy each day. Regularly resting your brain actually improves the quality of your focused work. Be fine with not knowing it all. The good thing is you focused on the most important stuff first, right?


Now there are no more excuses. Good luck.

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