content notes: university, dissertations, exams, revision, stress and panic about exams, work stress, mental health, clinical depression, food, exercise, difficulties with sleep.
Hello! I’ve been very busy since my last post on the blog, when I spoke about how I make my space my own when I get back to university. Since then, my room is still a lovely little haven, and I have, happily, managed to keep it pretty clean and organised at all times, something that always helps keep my head clear. Since then, I have also:
- turned 21 years of age and celebrated by birthday with my glorious, gorgeous friends (yay!)
- handed in my third year dissertation, the first piece of work towards my final grade for my degree (eep!)
- had my first academic meetings and classes of the new term (ok!)
- started revising for my final exams (hmmm…)
It is, I will be honest, a really really long time since I’ve properly revised for anything. After being an absolute revision fiend throughout my school years, especially at GCSE and a fair amount at A Level, I have found myself, throughout my years at Cambridge, really struggling to prepare for exams. Last year, my exams did not count toward my final grade, which I was really grateful for. Because I just couldn’t seem to work. In this term, my mental health was so poor that I did not prioritise my exams at all, and I did very little towards them. I was exhausted from a year of figuring out what mental health meant to me, what realising I was clinically depressed meant to me, and trying different treatment methods. I was always tired and often incredibly anxious and working really hard at not always being defeatist. Days where I got out of bed and could talk normally with friends were successes to me. Essays written were not. And that was fine. It was really what I needed to focus on then.
So now, when I still struggle with my mental health but I feel in a much more stable position than this time last year, I’ve sort of got to get back on the horse revision-wise. I don’t want to push myself incredibly, meanly hard, or hold myself to impossible standards of all the things I ‘need’ to complete. But I want to challenge myself, and most importantly I want to re-engage with my work in ways that will both help me to succeed in my examinations and enjoy studying English Literature at this university. I want my memories of the experience to be of how I thrived, not the times I was stressed and emotional and overwrought and too stuck in my head to care what I was reading about. So the way I structure work and revision and reading is going to be sensitive to all my needs and aspirations, not just the academic ones.
Now, this may all sound very well, but how to actually make it happen? Well, I’m not exactly sure quite yet, and I am not BuzzFeed, or a teacher, or a motivational speaker, so I’m not trying to offer a 10-point fool-proof plan for excellent revision and perfect results. But I thought I would share a 5-point rough ‘things it is helpful for me to bear in mind and try to do often and maybe you would like to do them too perhaps?’ plan.
I am mindful that lots of the things I do to relax, to ground myself, to feel present in my body, to focus my mind, and maximise my reading are not available to many people. And the last thing I want to do is offer some kind of list of impossible standards that is not only really optimistic but also exclusionary, and ignorant of the fact that lots of the things you might want to do to make yourself happy and healthy and focused in the run-up to exams are really, really damn difficult. And not achievable self-care for lots of people. So I’m just going to make a little list of things I am trying out, small things that structure my days mostly, that I feel like keep me going, and encourage a certain headspace, more than anything. They actually have very little to do with actual revision, or with imminent exam stress, but I suppose its a sort of guide for how one might SETTLE into having to work in new ways, whatever that might mean.
Plan work by units of a day or smaller – work to your capabilities now. When I was younger, my undoing was always writing up incredibly detailed, well-balanced, broken down revision schedules, where I plotted exact tasks onto exact days, weeks and weeks in advance of my exams. This was, ultimately, a lot of time and logistics spent on something that became incredibly stressful and then was abandoned altogether. Plans that stretch far into the future, or even a month or so ahead, can’t accommodate the fact that at 2.35pm on Tuesday 9th May, you might not be physically or emotionally capable of writing out all the notes from Chapters 10-12 of the History textbook. And so, when, inevitably, I would not be able to do something on the designated day, because my plans and my health and wellness had changed around the schedule, the whole schedule was off, by a day, or two, or a task, or three, and there was no hope of working it all in again. Now, I generally write lists or mindmaps of all the things I would like to go back over before exams, but I don’t split tasks down and allocate them to days. I see revision as a continual process, and so each evening I decide what it would be most helpful or pertinent to work on the next day, and make a note in my diary. The next morning, I specify this into activities I have enough energy for (e.g. re-reading a text and writing a timed practice essay take very different levels of focus), and decide how best to spread the work over morning, afternoon and evening, depending on other activities.
Assert your space as your own, and keep work and leisure spaces separate. So that neither my focus nor my sleep and relaxation are disturbed or confused, I am trying my best to separate out where I work from where I chill. The most purposive version of this is walking to a library or study space to work, as it means you’ve made a journey, you’ve had to pack up your things and leave your leisure space, and you are going to a location specifically to work. If this isn’t an option or easy for you for any reason, it can also help to maintain this separation even in the space of, say, a bedroom. If you can give you room different ‘zones’, it might help with the feeling that one zone is productive, and the other is relaxing. It can be difficult to get away from the stress of work if it seems to be everywhere, so simple things like not working on your degree/school work in bed, or not watching YouTube tutorials at your desk, can help structure work and rest, for the sake of rest just as much as work.
Keep a note of your daily achievements, whether they match up to initial plans or not. This is something I have taken up doing at the end of every day before bed and it has really put all of the things I do to keep going into perspective. In my desk diary I list appointments, commitments and deadlines with a colour-code, but I have now added a section called ‘Also achieved’ in which I write down all of the other things, big or small, that it is important or significant that I managed to do. For example, a colour-coded achievement might be ‘write my weekly essay’, but here I’d make a note of something small but significant, like ‘did all my laundry’, or something nice that happened, like ‘ran into a friend and grabbed coffee’. This has the effect, especially if it has been tricky to complete some of the colour coded things and I have to rearrange them, of showing me that there is no such thing as a day where I do ‘nothing’ – even on the worst days of my depression, where I didn’t work, didn’t leave my room, didn’t speak to anyone, I would always have something to write, even if it was ‘kept breathing’ or ‘watched videos to calm me down’. The point is that every day your idea of an achievement might change, but all of them are important to the whole healthy you.
Vary your work methods within a day. Obviously different methods work better for different people, and are also more effective for different kinds of learning. But having a go at trying a few of these different methods a day could help you if you tend to get bored or bogged down in a task, and can’t seem to find it’s end. If something has been taking you ages and your brain is switching off, then you aren’t going to be learning very effectively anyway, so switching it up might help. Do something to break the monotony – go for a quick walk, or listen to a super upbeat song and sing or flail around the room a bit, or just go and grab a drink or a biscuit. Then come back and switch pace or approach. For example, if you are taking notes for a long time and keep getting distracted, try setting a timer and doing a quick brainstorm of your own ideas and questions based on what you’ve read, to make sure you are engaging and not just rehearsing.
Do your best to nurture your body as much as your mind. Most revision tips will tell you that getting a good night’s sleep, eating healthily and exercising will all contribute to making you more awake, focused and confident. These will all help your general health in ways that are really important when you are also pulling long stints in libraries sitting still, spending more time looking at screens and books and straining your eyes, and occasionally depending a little too much on caffeine, perhaps. I agree with all of these tips, but a lot of the people that write this advice don’t seem particularly aware of how charged a lot of these topics are, and how difficult looking after yourself can be, even without the pressure and stress that might be felt during an exam term. So, rather than straightforwardly trying to get more/better food, sleep, water, exercise, I instead vow to be more responsive to my body.
I really struggle to eat breakfast sometimes, and I usually miss it as I am prone to sleeping in really late. But I know that I feel better when I’ve had it, so if I am up a few hours before lunch, I make sure I eat something. I don’t drink nearly enough water, so whenever I empty my drinking glass, I fill it up again, and if I have a headache or I feel particularly sleepy I make sure I have a big drink. I stop working by or before 10.30pm whenever possible, so that even if I am not ready to sleep, I can take my make-up off and put my pyjamas on and establish a routine where I have a clear ‘evening’ period to start winding down. And, by and large, I absolutely hate exercise, but if I know I need some air or a bit of movement I will make sure I give my body the chance to move. This is usually just going for a very short, very gentle walk, as I get sore legs fairly easily and, like I say, I am not a fitness buff. Last night I felt like I wanted to move about in my body and feel more in touch with it, but didn’t want to feel exhausted, so I went for a swim this morning. Your mind and body are both so important, and so as far as health is concerned, just eat as well as YOU can, drink as much water as YOU can to be hydrated, sleep in the ways YOUR body needs, no shame if that is a lot more sleep or a lot more difficult than for some others, and move in the ways YOU enjoy and feel comfortable.
That’s all for this post; I’ll be continuing to try out these ways of structuring my work/life balance and may do a follow-up post closer to my exams about what has really worked for me. For now, I hope that some of this has resonated with some people doing coursework or exams or similar things, and that you find some of it helpful! I’m hoping to be able to do more creative posts soon too.