10 Ways to Avoid Burnout in Exam Years
Exam years at school can be incredibly tough, even when the exams themselves are still weeks or months away.
We’ve written before about how to keep a positive mindset during exams and the immediate run-up to exams, but in some ways it can be easier to cope during exams, when the end is blissfully in sight, than at the start or in the middle of the school year, when it feels like there is an unimaginable slog of work to get through before it’s all done.
During exams, you face stress – you’re hyperactive, can’t switch off, overreacting to everything, swamped with adrenaline but lacking in energy – a state that is by no means fun, but it can get you through those hellish few weeks and out the far end. But during a tough year, you face burnout – a state where you’re exhausted, can’t motivate yourself, struggling to react fully to anything, detached, and still lacking in energy but without any kind of adrenaline buzz to get you through. Stress isn’t fun, but burnout is worse, and the long challenge of an exam year is exactly the kind of thing that causes it. So how do you avoid it? Here are our top tips.
1. Get a little help from your friends
It’s very easy to notice when you’re stressed – buzzing around like a caffeinated hamster but not feeling like you’re getting anything done. But noticing when you’re approaching burnout can be considerably harder because it doesn’t involve the intensification of emotion that goes with stress, but rather a blunting of emotion. You might find yourself getting irrationally annoyed with people, but you might also find yourself becoming increasingly indifferent towards things that you probably ought to care about. And when it’s over a long haul, you might adjust to a new “normal” that isn’t normal at all.
This is where supportive friends and family are invaluable. If you can, agree with your friends at the start of the year that you’re going to keep more of an eye on each other than might have been necessary previously, because it can be easier for others to spot the warning signs of burnout in you than it is for you to notice them in yourself. Once you’ve noticed warning signs, it’s easier to do something about it.
2. Don’t compete over who can be the most stressed
Humans are naturally competitive, but sometimes we compete over unnecessary things. Think about the diet group that competes so much that its members are pushed into unhealthy levels of weight loss, or the running group where the runners want to be the best so much that they end up with otherwise avoidable injuries.
It’s possible to end up doing the same thing with hard work and stress in an exam year. If your friends are saying things like, “I’m so stressed, I only slept 5 hours last night” and “well, I’m so stressed, I only slept for 3”, it can be hard to break in with, “I’m doing OK, I slept for 8 hours last night” – you can end up feeling like you’re doing something wrong by taking adequate care of yourself. It’s obvious that competing for who can work the most could be damaging, but competing over who is the most stressed seems self-deprecating rather than boastful, so it seems like it might be OK – yet it can be just as harmful. Friendly competition can be motivating, but keep an eye on how it’s making you feel.
3. When you’re eating, focus just on eating
Does it seem odd that this is a point all on its own? Yet it matters a great deal. It’s intuitive that you should do your best to sleep the right amount, and well, but less logical to care about how you’re eating as well as what you’re eating.
During exam times, it does make sense not to worry too much about what you’re eating or when you’re eating it, so long as it contains a decent amount of vitamin C and you’re not going to be facing a sugar crash halfway through an exam. But for the rest of the year, it makes sense to take more care of yourself.
This isn’t a lecture about healthy eating but instead about avoiding distracted eating. Distracted eating is a sign of burnout – shoveling food into yourself in front of a computer, over a textbook or on the bus, and focusing on it so little that you let it go cold, or can’t remember how it tasted. Food is a simple pleasure, and taking the time to focus on it and enjoy it, even for the 15 minutes or so that it might take you to eat a meal, can do a great deal for your well-being.
4. Focus on one thing at a time
Our world is set up to help us multitask – you can have your morning coffee while on the bus, while listening to an audiobook, while scrolling through social media. This is great if you’re at peak productivity, bouncing full of energy, but if you’re struggling to keep afloat, it can feel less like you’re doing lots of things at once than that you’re failing to do lots of things all at the same time. The feeling of trying to juggle too many balls at once is a warning sign of both stress and burnout.
Focusing on one thing at a time can help a great deal with this. If you’re doing schoolwork, focus on each specific topic at a time; if there’s more information you’d like to look up and cross-reference, great, but it might be best to write down what you’d like to look up and come back later. Similarly, if you’re relaxing, take time to relax – don’t watch a TV show with your textbook on your lap, because that way you won’t learn anything or enjoy the show. And most of all, if you’re trying to concentrate on anything, turn off your phone.
5. Take care of yourself if you feel unwell
Depressingly, it’s not unusual to find your health suffering during exam years. However healthily you eat or however much exercise you do, stress might be affecting the quality of your sleep and you’re certainly unlikely to be getting as much fresh air or sunshine as would be good for you.
So if you start to feel unwell, take good care of yourself before it snowballs into something worse. It will feel hard – perhaps even lazy – to take a couple of days off when you are just about well enough to study or go to school, but better that than running the risk of making yourself properly ill and then setting back your work schedule by a week or more.
6. Take breaks
Lots of advice on coping in exam years or other situations where you have a lot of work to take on will advise you to take regular breaks – for instance, daily periods of “me time”, when you’ll do yoga, indulge in a bubble bath, or go for a run. Or at weekends, they’ll suggest that it’s OK to take time out for a hiking trip to clear your mind.
If you enjoy yoga, bubble baths, running or hiking, then by all means take this sort of break. Setting aside regular “me time” every day is an excellent idea. But the crucial thing is that the way you take a break is relaxing. It shouldn’t need to be virtuous as well. So if you’d sooner watch soaps, play video games or get to the next level on Candy Crush – and these things leave you relaxed and refreshed – then by all means prioritise them over breaks that you enjoy less. It’s foolish and self-defeating to turn relaxation into just another area where you have to strive to achieve externally-set goals.
7. But also find something fun to do that doesn’t involve a screen
If you’re struggling with sleeping, it can help not to do anything like working, reading or watching TV in bed. This helps you associate bed with sleeping rather than with other wakeful activities. And to a certain extent, this applies to relaxing as well.
If you work at your computer, and you socialise at your computer through social media, and you relax at your computer by watching Netflix or playing games, it can make it harder to relax fully just as it is harder sleep in bed if your mind is full of non-sleep associations. This is one of the reasons people do recommend worthy-sounding means of relaxation like yoga or running, because they’re likely to be distinctly different from the work you’re doing, which helps you relax. So among the things you do when you’re relaxing, whatever they may be, build in something that takes you away from a screen.
8. Get things down on paper
When you’re feeling worn out from studying and like you’re losing focus, one thing that can help is getting your thoughts down on paper. For some people, this means writing a diary, or starting a journal where they can put down whatever is on their mind, with no intention of rereading it. For others, this can mean something much simpler like a series of to-do lists.
Whatever format works for you, this can be very helpful in overcoming the feeling of having a brain that’s exhaustingly full of thoughts. And in a work where we can write on paper, laptops, phones and a dozen other things, it makes sense to write down notes and thoughts without giving yourself the additional stress of trying to memorise anything that’s important for you to know.
9. Plan for the long run
There are two parts to this point. The first is that when you get yourself into a schedule of study, remember that this is for the long haul. Previously, you might only have had to work at full intensity for a few short weeks in the run-up to exams, and you might plan to work at the same rate now – but that almost certainly won’t work. You need to work out a schedule that you can stick to; plan for a marathon, not a sprint.
The second is to have a backup plan. This doesn’t have to be complicated or fleshed out. But remember that things don’t always work out how we hope. What if you end up seriously ill halfway through the year? Can you repeat the year? Can you manage with lower exam results than you would have hoped for? This isn’t about doom and gloom; this is about the reassurance of knowing that if things don’t work out precisely as you’d like, you still know that there are good options available.
10. Ask for positive feedback
Some really great teachers motivate their students with criticism that inspires the students to strive for the best work they can possibly do. They’ll give a student 19 out of 20 and the student will feel gutted that they didn’t put that little bit more effort in to get 20 out of 20. This can be a wonderful way to do your best work in normal circumstances.
However, in an exam year, if you’re struggling to keep motivated as it is and you don’t really have that extra bit of effort left to put in, teachers who take this approach can instead by deeply demoralising. It can feel as if none of your work will ever be good enough. Be reassured that your teachers don’t want you demoralised; they want you to do the best you possibly can, and they’re just trying to help you achieve that. If this sounds familiar, and you could really do with a little positive reinforcement, don’t be afraid to ask. Any teacher worth their salt, when told that you’re struggling and could do with motivation, will provide the positive feedback that you need to get yourself feeling motivated and engaged again.
What techniques have you used to avoid burnout? Let us know in the comments!
Image credits: burned match; tired cat; candle; friends; bedroom; breakfast; sofa cushions; medicines; dog in bath; children playing on computer; diary; marathon runner; exercise book;