Fighting the Pre-Exam Slump

Procrastination RisesProcrastination

A reader recently sent me an e-mail in which she admitted:

I think I am starting to suffer from deep procrastination — and it’s only six weeks until my exams! I need some motivatiom for this final push, but I just can’t seem to find it.

She’s not alone. I’ve noticed an uptick in similar e-mails, and this doesn’t surprise me. For students teetering on the precipice of deep procrastination, exam period, with its significant increase in work, is a perfect catalyst for pushing them over the edge. If you see exams looming but simply can’t muster the energy to start seriously preparing, then you may already be in the grips of this scourge.

In this post, I describe a collection of simple tips that can help you escape this pre-exam slump. It’s not a long term solution to your potenital deep procrastination (for this, you need to evaluate your relationship with your major and reconnect to your studies). But it will help in the short term.

Five Tips to Fight the Pre-Exam Slump

  1. Remove Decision Making From Your Studying.
    Some students construct their study plans one day at a time, each morning asking “what should I do today?” For someone suffering from deep procrastination, this is a recipe for falling deeper into a slump. Instead, you should remove decision making from your day to day work. Use the project/folder method to plan your exam prep and plot this work on a visual panic schedule. Then follow what you planned.
  2. Take Days Off.
    There is something magical about putting aside a day in which you do nothing related to schoolwork (outside of attending classes). No to-do lists. No studying. Just relaxing. Maybe you go see a movie in the afternoon or have a long lunch with friends. Because I’m a nerd, I use my off days to spend absurd amounts of time browsing bookstores. In the lead up to your exams, try to schedule one day off per week — even if it means piling up more work on the other days. The idea of working every single day for over a month is enough to drive even the happiest students into procrasination.
  3. Break the Rules.
    Identify the conventions that direct most students’ study habits. Then try to violate as many of them as possible. For example, convention says that most students start studying for an exam a few days in advance while the organized students might start a week or two in advance. Consider, therefore, doing something radically different, such as starting to study 6 weeks in advance. Does convention say that studying happens in the libraries on campus? Take the early morning train into the nearest city and work in a major art museum. Does convention say that you’re supposed to reread all of your notes? Build an elaborate system based on colored index cards. The novelty of approaching your work completely differently than your peers has a way of breaking the cycle of resentment that builds to deep procrastination. When your mind doesn’t recognize the work as conventional school work, it doesn’t generate the same sense of going through the motions.
  4. Blow the Curve.
    Combat your feelings to do no work by instead resolving to do the opposite. That is, choose one course and decide that you’re going to get the best grade in the class. Plan a strategy that has you ready for the exam a week in advance, then spend extra days really mastering the nuances. If it’s a non-technical course, for example, you might start reading some sources that weren’t even assigned. There’s a sense of purpose behind an A* effort that can neuter the impulse to curl up and do nothing.
  5. Make an Exciting Summer Plan.
    It’s a curious phenomenon, but human’s are willing to take on massive amounts of hard work if they feel it’s building to something worthwhile. (Consider, for example, the training top athletes endure.) You can simulate this effect by planning, and then getting excited about a cool summer project. This transforms your exam prep from a meaningless task among a long line of meaningless tasks, into the last challenge to overcome before your summer plot unfolds. For students, vision can act like a deep procrastination vaccine.

Exams are hard and deep procrastination is serious. But it’s surprising how often the little changes, like those described above, can knock you out of even the deepest ruts.

(Photo by xtheowl)

15 thoughts on “Fighting the Pre-Exam Slump”

  1. I like to take the middle of the weekend off–Saturday evening and Sunday morning. It makes the work so much more enjoyable, even though it’s on the weekend.

    I’ll definitely second your idea of reading sources that weren’t assigned. It impresses your professors and the sources are sometimes more exciting than the textbook stuff.

  2. Dear Cal,

    Thanks for this post. I am currently suffering from deep procrastination and already knows that my semester will probably be around a 2.9-3.00 GPA before I even took the finals exams. But the good news are, with the help of your posts, I am starting to see what works for me or not, and getting better study habits. I still have one big problem though; when you happen to have two midterms scheduled about one day appart, how do you do to balance your studying? I realized that my problem was that between my regular work and two midterms, one of the midterm always get neglected. Which results in me almost having, at the best, a D in calculus, and at the worst, failing the class. On another note, I am addicted to your blog, which, I think, is better than be addicted to Perez Hilton. Thanks for all the awesome posts, and I hope you get a professor position somewhere.


    PS: Have you thought of UVA, where I happen to be studying ?

  3. still have one big problem though; when you happen to have two midterms scheduled about one day appart

    In a perfect world, your regular work is contained in an autopilot schedule. You then setup seperate plans for each exams (perhaps using the project folder method?) that use time outside of the autopilot. It doesn’t really matter if the exams happen to fall on the same day or not, your study plans for the exams should spread out the work for both over a reasonable period of time.

  4. The first point is great. I actually plan my week on sunday. Or during the week, ‘this is something I can do in a couple of days, lets say thursday’

    Breaking the rules sound great. I did some things last days which stunned my classmates. ‘Why should you do that?’ is something I heard a couple of times. Great!

    Thanks for this good post, the picture reminded me of 3 episodes of Heroes I didn’t watched yet, I was doing good on studying, but I have to watch some heroes now!


  5. I love #3, especially the elaborate systems of index cards idea. I don’t know if it works yet (I’ll let you know in two months time), but boy, is it fun, especially in combination with glitter stickers, magic markers, an empty stretch of wall, and blue-tack. My wall looks like it was attacked by the Property Law Fairy.

    … Y’know, I am going to do this more often even if it does not make a single percentage’s difference to my grades.

  6. I love #3, the thought of studying often becomes very tedious, only heightened by the pressure with the thought of the work that HAS to be done. Breaking the rules seems a great way of overcoming resentment. In short, people who are just happy with the way their life is, are not preoccupied by anyone/anything, and have no ego AT ALL to hold onto, are the ones who genuinely learn the most. Living in the technology era, can lead to a lot of addictions, along with the regular intense emotions caused so often by that seemingly special one, which has existed in people for decades.
    My point being if you feel that your mind is carried away, and that you don’t want to be just another person because following conventions would make you a robot and mechanized, breaking conventions is a great way to remind you that you’re your own boss, your mind is independent and that you’re only following what your instincts tell you.

    As for people who find it hard to that the first step, I think identifying concentration zones as well as triggers makes it much easier for that first step. For instance, I have realized over time and enlightening dreams, that I work best in the morning time. This is not because as most people say the mind is “fresh” in the morning. In my case it is simply because so far, touch wood, I am not preoccupied by other things in the mornings. So though I’ve been a late sleeper-late riser all my life, I am now transitioning to the hopefully early sleeper-definitely early riser mode. I know I will have to break the pattern by myself, but it really only takes once to get the cycle going.

    I’ve also noticed that there are certain triggers that COMPLETELY distract me and are capable of making me reach an abysmal low, recovering from which can often be close to impossible.For instance, a bitc*y person who always talks bad of me, gets to me and I can reach that low. There are other triggers, for instance someone I really like, who used to make me go to that extreme comfort zone which I can’t shake myself out of, and am stuck being preoccupied for months about thoughts of the person(yes, I used to be a hopeless romantacist) This might be hard to imagine, and I know you might see this as a lack of self discipline, but believe me this isn’t a mentally controllable thing. There are some things that the human heart is so emotional about, that it can be close to impossible to jerk your mind to take control again. The way out of this is to become completely aware of the triggers.Triggers are almost always a person, that either drown you by shredding your self confidence or bring you to the extreme high comfort zone by boosting your morale to the extent that you are preoccupied by nothing other than thoughts of them. Once you’ve identified the trigger, promise yourself to just isolate yourself from the trigger. Just as asthmatic attacks are triggered from things like dust, mental rationality attacks are triggered from certain people that your mind is allergic to and needs to be kept away from for the sake your own sanity. Isolate yourself IMMEDIATELY from people and thoughts that addict you because they can and will ultimately take your sanity if you procrastinate removing them from your life. More importantly, don’t take things to heart. If a person talks badly behind your back all the time, just remind yourself ITS NOT YOUR FAULT, and stay as far away as possible from people who make you feel low about yourself. On the other hand, people who make you overtly happy and CONTENT are equally dangerous to your abilities to make your mind think independently and smartly(shrewdness is often needed in doing well in exams). Well in this case, and this is often harder than the being low case, remind yourself how horrible it feels to just be out of a broken relationship and remind yourself that there are ALWAYS people who are broken hearted. So its not fair that you’re on an emotional high and so contently preoccupied with one person when there are others around you who need support. The way you can empathize with them is being in your senses and doing work like a responsible person who has a mind of their own.

    I hope any of this made sense, maybe I’m venting a bit too much and should stop in the future to avoid long posts 😀

  7. specially in combination with glitter stickers, magic markers, an empty stretch of wall, and blue-tack. My wall looks like it was attacked by the Property Law Fairy.

    Definitely let me know how your system ends up working, I love hearing about outlandishly complicated schemes. (I once, for example, wrote a computer program to help me study for Art History. It was a blast…though, as it turned out, less effective than using a blank sheet of paper.)

    breaking conventions is a great way to remind you that you’re your own boss,


    I’ve also noticed that there are certain triggers that COMPLETELY distract me

    This analysis of triggers is insightful. Thanks for the addition…

  8. Thank you! Thank you and thank you! I have been looking around for a long long time for a block that motivates a student like me, and I am extremely glad that you take the time out to write blogs catering to students.
    My introduction: I am an economics student graduating end of this year. Any advice for me during job recession period?

  9. I know that grades are important (reading your blog since you started it) but I can never give the last 20% to work for the A+ average (exam procrastination hits me every single time and I tried all of your suggested methods and some). I already try to write seminar papers instead of taking exams as I`m much better in these but that option doesn`t always exist. Did you hear about any other outlandish methods since you wrote that article in 2009? maybe you though up some new methods and would like a guinea pig?

    Seriously desperate student trying to get an A+ average

  10. I’m one of those people who needs to be very physically active to do well at all in school. (We exist, we’re weird, it’s ok.) Normally, I work with horses (my horse and I do dressage and I have a job at the stables) and I road cycle (training for races) in addition to taking a full course load. I (very) recently had a bad accident on my bike just before finals, which means that I’m pretty much able to be in my house or at class, and I’m currently living on the horse farm. It is killing my motivation. (Somehow feeling like I can’t do anything I like to do, like ride horses and bikes, and watching someone else train my horse, makes me feel like I can’t do anything… period.) I’m definitely going to try some of these tips, because I have no idea how I’m going to get through my last two furious weeks of papers/exams. Thanks for the post!


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