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Strategies for managing exam stress

It’s that time of semester again and we all know that the exam period can be super stressful for many of us! Even though we know it’s coming and we have the best of intentions things often begin to unravel at the end of semester. It helps to have a plan and a reminder of some of the simplest things you can do to set yourself up for success:

Check in with yourself

Often we forget to really notice what’s going on for us. Stress can manifest in all sorts of ways but these are some common signs:

  • Feeling confused
  • Losing touch with friends
  • Feeling moody
  • Having trouble making decisions
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Lacking motivation
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Upset stomach, or feeling sick
  • Tense muscles and headaches
  • So how can you minimise the impact of stress when trying to prepare for exams and assessments?

    Get into a healthy routine

    It may seem like a good idea to pull an all-nighter but lack of sleep has a significant impact on your mood and energy levels. It’s hard to focus on revision when you’re sleep-deprived and your body starts to crave all sorts of things like caffeine! Try to aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep a night and also make time to enjoy other activities like spending time with friends and family. Balance is the key!

    Set realistic goals

    Make a plan and divide your tasks into realistic goals with a reasonable timeframe. It can help to break each unit into sub-topics to focus on in one study session. Chunk your time down to 30-minute sessions so that you can see what your priorities really are. Make sure you allocate time for breaks as well as food and sleep! Seeing a plan in front of you can also help you stay on track so try printing it out or add it to your screen background.

    Look after your body

    We all know that nutrition plays a huge part in our wellbeing but when we feel stressed it’s easy to reach for something quick and easy. Unfortunately highly processed food and fast-release carbs can make you feel sluggish and unmotivated after the initial food high. Surround yourself with healthy snacks (fruit, nuts, energy bars, healthy smoothies, eggs etc) and try to plan your main meals during the entire study period. Drink plenty of water and eat a balanced diet to give yourself the energy you need to power through this intense time!

    Look after your mind

    When you start to feel anxious or overwhelmed it helps to just stop and re-set. Take some time to close your eyes and just focus on your breathing for a few minutes. By calming down your breathing you can decrease your body’s response to stress and give yourself a new perspective. It’s also important to find time to exercise. Just moving your body for 30 minutes a day can increase your energy, focus, and boost your endorphins! You don’t have to fit in a full gym workout – just a walk will do.

    Balancing study with everything that’s going on can be a real challenge. Just remember that it’s only for a short time and there is always someone at QUT that can support you. There are also plenty of useful resources available!

    Dealing with distractions

    I might just quickly just check my phone. I need to create a new playlist before I start revision. I’d better put on some washing. Does this sound familiar to you?

    We can all get distracted when studying or when we have things we don’t want to do. During exam time particularly it’s really important to work out what is taking up your time so that you can avoid distractions and maximise your revision.

    Track your time

    Keep a time-use diary and list what you do each hour. After 24 hours, identify your patterns and see where you might be able to save time. Looking at time in blocks helps you be more productive.
    For example, are you spending too much time on these activities?

  • Reading or watching TV
  • Re-writing notes
  • Catching up with friends
  • Checking social media
  • Online games or browsing
  • Cleaning or organising things
  • Once you know where your time’s going it’s easier to manage it.

    Create digital discipline

    If you’re distracted by emails or text messages, turn off your phone or lock it away while you are concentrating on study. You can even schedule in specific blocks of time for calls and emails. You can also use apps to restrict access to sites that may tempt you away from your revision. Check out these tools:

      RescueTime to track your time on websites and apps.
      Cold Turkey allows you to schedule blocks when you need them or simply reduce distractions by adding pomodoro-style breaks or allowances.
      SelfControl is a free and open-source app for macOS that lets you block anything on the Internet.
      StayFocusd is a productivity extension for Google Chrome that helps you stay focused on study.
      LeechBlock NG is a simple productivity tool for Firefox to block those time-wasting sites.
    Avoid procrastination

    It’s more common to avoid things when you feel overwhelmed with a task. Use a study plan to break down your revision into smaller tasks and set deadlines for each topic or unit. Use checklists and quizes to test yourself and identify what you need to focus on. Perhaps reward yourself with a coffee or treat when you check something off the list.
    Try to be selective with your reading and always read with a purpose in mind. It can help to have a set of questions you want to answer.

    Maximise your time

    We are all different so it’s important to work out when in the day you concentrate best. If you’re more productive in the morning, try organising your time so you study early in the day and take breaks or socialise later on. Or if you’re a night owl you can use the morning to relax or exercise and plan your study for the afternoon. It’s important to schedule regular breaks so that you are working at your best.

    Set yourself up for success

    Find a place to study where you won’t be interrupted. Some people find it easier to concentrate in the library or a quiet spot on campus than at home. Music and background noise can make some people more productive. You could try classical music, movie or game soundtracks, or ambient sounds (rain, waves, birdsong etc.) to help you stay on track.

    Change your mindset

    It’s easy to feel like it’s Ground Hog Day when you are studying for large blocks of time so make sure you give yourself incentives. Arrange something to look forward to after your study session, or include something fun to do in your breaks. It can also help to change up the order you study in. It may help to start with what you find easier or more interesting. This can help you feel more positive and settle in to study mode.

    Learn to say no

    You may have made a detailed study plan, found ways of dealing with the things that distract you and been really disciplined but you still don’t have enough time! It could just be that you’re trying to do too much. If you have too much going on in our life you might need to say’no’ more often – even if it’s just during exam time.

    It’s ok to take a break

    As a student it’s really easy to focus on all the things you ‘have to’ get done and forget to look after your own health and wellbeing. As the semester goes by and there are assessments looming self-care often moves down the list of priorities or even drops off completely. When you are stressed and anxious about everything you have on your plate it can be hard to see things differently but you can start with some small changes.

    Change your daily routine

    Change doesn’t have to be massive. There are so many things we can do to look after our health and wellbeing without going to too much effort. Think about something you enjoy doing and build it into your routine. Start the day with your favourite music and a healthy breakfast. Take a walk, do some gardening or join a friend for a workout.

    Be nice to yourself

    It’s easy to be our own worst critic when we’re feeling the pressure but we can turn things around by being a little nicer to ourselves. Write a positive note and stick it to your screen. Treat yourself to your favourite food. Download some new music or buy some stationery to organise your study.

    Shift focus with a podcast

    Listening to something non-study related can be a great way to shift your focus while still staying engaged and informed. We really are spoilt for choice but here are a few great podcasts about life, the mind, and human behaviour.

    podcastoneaustralia.com.au/podcasts/the-briefing

    tofop.com/wilosophy

    abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/

    Remember – it’s okay to take a break! In fact, it’s often just what you need to refresh your mind and be more productive.