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Stress tips during finals week

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

It’s finals week—that time when students suddenly shift into study-hyperdrive in the race toward end-of-semester exams and projects. If the overwhelming number of “to dos” planned for the week and the ongoing performance anxiety is all getting a bit much, you’re not alone. Grayson Kimball, a psychology professor at Northeastern who also works as a mental performance coach, gave News@Northeastern some tips on how to manage overwhelm and stay on friendly terms with your brain so it can deliver at peak performance.

Grayson Kimball, psychology professor. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Don’t focus on the outcome

When a student looks at their upcoming schedule and sees that they have three exams, four papers and two projects due in six days, it can be very overwhelming. That’s because they’re focusing so much on the outcome, rather than on the process. They need to think about how they’re going to break up their studies and projects in a manageable way, and that’s when they can start using some basic goal-setting strategies such as tapping in to your motivation and ditching the idea of perfect.

Expand your motivation

Students ultimately need to be intrinsically motivated to want to do their work. So if they say, “I’m doing this because I want to get an A,” well, you might get that A, but you’re doing it for an external reason. That shouldn’t be the reason you do an assignment. A more motivating reason to do it is because you want to learn more about the topic or it helps you learn about yourself. When a student is doing things for themselves, rather than for some external reason, it can help facilitate motivation.

Practice self awareness

A lot of the time people don’t pay attention until an outcome happens, and then are mad if they don’t get the outcome they want. When you’re in the moment, say you’re a golfer and you just teed off, check in with yourself. The more aware you are of what you’re thinking about in that moment, the easier it is to go with it and embrace your success, or recognize that you’re dwelling on a mistake and try to reset your focus to something more helpful—like the best way to tackle your next golf swing (or exam question).

Check your mindset

Whether you’re a CEO, an athlete, or a student, you need to be aware of your mindset going into an activity like exams. Are you going into this trying to achieve something, or trying to avoid something? Students with an avoidant mindset are thinking things like, “As long as I don’t fail this, as long as this doesn’t happen, as long as I don’t get assigned more … then maybe I can get that done.” That makes the focus about avoiding something, as opposed to focusing on the steps needed to get the job done. If you want to avoid failing a test, think through the steps you need to take to successfully complete the exam. Then make sure to practice finding those positive steps. It can be very hard to think through the situation and find those steps during a high-pressure moment. That’s why you practice, so that you can have the ability when you need it most.

Perfection is your enemy

Something that I deal with a lot, especially with students, they want to be perfect. What I stress to them is that striving to be perfect is setting yourself up to fail. You might put in all the work and feel like you’ve written the greatest paper, and you end up getting a 92. Which isn’t bad, but it’s not that perfect 100 and that can fuel frustration. So instead of striving for perfection, strive for consistency, because consistency is a process. And if you’re putting in the work, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to get the outcome you want.

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