December is here, and the only thing standing between you and holiday cheer is finals week. Joy to the world. Truly. Whether you’re cramming for finals, or putting together “group” project presentations, it’s not long before you can break for home, vacation or whatever you’re planning. These weeks can be intense, and it’s really easy to burn out, so we’ve pulled together six tips to help you stay healthy during finals week. Stay focused, stay healthy and get ready to rock those final exams.
This is no mystery. Our bodies are over 60% water, we need water for every bodily process, to move, to think… quite literally everything. But when you’re in the middle of a marathon of accounting exam prep, it’s easy to down venti after venti without giving much thought to your water intake. Here are some quick tips to help you stay hydrated, and some ways to know if you’re creeping into dehydration territory:
- At the very least, carry a reusable water bottle or tumbler with you. Having that physical object with you will serve as a reminder that you should be drinking water; if that’s not enough, add timers using your phone’s alarm, or use an app like MyFitnessPal to remind you to sip every so often. Some people will bring clear bottles around and mark different water levels to show where they should be at certain points in the day. Do what works for you.
- Back in high school my best friend and I attended two weeks of Penn State’s girls lacrosse camp and one of the most memorable lessons we brought back with us was about hydration: the lemonade-apple juice test. Gatorade hosted a midday session and advised us to keep tabs on the color of our urine throughout the day: if it was clear / almost like lemonade, we were “in the clear,” and if it was darker / almost like apple juice, we needed to tap out and get water or Gatorade before we could continue playing. Years and years later, it’s something I regularly check to understand how I’m doing.
- If you really can’t get into plain water, try a naturally flavored option like Hint, drink teas or add fresh fruit to your bottle to give it some flavor. Gatorade is an option but because it’s so sweet I only really recommend it if you’re actually dehydrated and need it to “come back” to life.
- If you’re drinking water but still feeling parched, add some electrolytes to the mix. You can go the natural food route by eating watermelon or avocado, or consider drinks like coconut water, electrolyte-infused water like Essentia, SmartWater, Core and others. You could even drink tablets like Nuun that mix into your water and replace electrolytes. See what’s best for your body. .
Get to sleep
Ask any of my friends: I’ve always been the one to forego sleep to get things done, to really hunker down and focus on something for a long time. But in recent years I’ve been learning more and reevaluating my habits – still certainly a work in progress but between recovering from crazy hours I kept while working and attending bschool, learning as I go with marathon training, and researching sleep and recovery, it’s all helping to shift my mindset, and most importantly, my behavior.
- If you do nothing else as a result of this article, please look at Dr. Matthew Walker’s work. You can get a brief intro of his work through the Nike Trained podcast episode where he discusses the importance of sleep on performance and recovery with host and Nike Senior Director of Performance, Ryan Flaherty. Did you know the optimal sleeping temperature is 67F (19C)? Or that while alcohol might help you fall asleep, it ultimately is a toxin, and your body, instead of recovering and rebuilding, will divert energy toward ridding your body of the alcohol, preventing you from truly getting a deep sleep? Seriously such an illuminating discussion. Read Dr. Walker’s book, Why We Sleep or watch his TED Talk, “Sleep is your superpower” when you can.
- It’s often the first thing to go during a stressful time, but really work on prioritizing your sleep. Missed sleep will negatively impact your ability to think, to focus, and your reaction time will start to mimic that of someone who has been drinking all night. Do your best to get your 7-9 every night (or however many hours you need, everyone has a different number). Avoid allnighters; but if you really can’t, here’s a piece from Furthermore by Equinox about how to recover from them.
- When you do sleep, make sure you’re creating space for true rest. Darken your room with blackout shades or wear an eyemask. Create nightly rituals that start with skincare and lead to removing technology from your room (Thrive Global has created an actual phone bed which is great); take steps to signal to your brain and body that you’re going to sleep.
Eat to fuel your brain
The urge to carb up more than usual will be strong, but really looking at food as your fuel will go a long way. Because you’re already stressing, and sweets are everywhere (especially between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve), try to focus less on deprivation and more on cramming as many healthy things into your body as you can, to fuel your body and mind so you’re bringing your best self through the finals week.
- Focus on healthy fruits and vegetables, lean meats and proteins; even if you do take an occasional muffin or cookie, filling the rest of your meals with healthy food helps counteract the “bad” foods, and limit the effects of the sugar coursing through your body
- Meal prepping has always been a hack, and when I’m not prepping, I really notice a difference. By carving out a few hours on Sunday to prep lunches, you’re preparing your meals, saving time, saving money, and reducing decision fatigue all in one. Deciding what to eat can be the last thing you want to do, and at that moment, there’s no better feeling then when you realize that Sunday-you already took care of Tuesday-afternoon-you.
- One quick hack I swear by is prepping a healthy smoothie every night. Fill a Nutribullet cup with frozen kale, frozen berries, a spoon of almond butter and some chia & flax seeds, and pop it into the fridge. The next morning, all you need to do is add your liquid, blend, and throw it into your travel mug. I’m a creature of habit when it comes to smoothies, but figure out recipes that work for you and help you feel full until lunchtime.
Take a break
Even if you’re cramming at the last minute for tomorrow’s exams. Schedule regular breaks to avoid burnout and keep yourself going. They’ll energize you and help you see things from a fresh perspective.
- Figure out the right timing; the Pomodoro method is a popular way to do this (named after the tomato-shaped timer Francisco Cirillo used to create this in the 1980s), or simply break up your time spent hitting the books (you could study for 50 minutes, and take the rest of the hour to get up, take a walk, go see a friend, check Instagram… just don’t let the breaks overflow, time those, too, if you need)
- Infuse some movement into your break if you can. My old office was an entire city block, so when I needed a break, I’d walk the entire hallway. Stop for water on the way, say hi to a friend in another department, keep it moving and come back refreshed, all in five minutes.
- Breaks can help you be more creative and productive. If you need more scientific proof, here’s a piece on the psychology and benefit of taking breaks.
Move your body
Get the blood flowing (through your body and through your brain). If you’re pressed for time, carving out an entire 90 minutes for a midday run and shower might not work out, but squeezing in a 10 minute strength, jump rope or yoga session is totally possible.
- Get techy with it. There are thousands of apps and plans out there, but using something that requires as little thought as possible really makes this easier. Apps like Nike Training/Running Club, Adidas Runtastic and Peloton Digital really allow you to check out by telling you what to do and allow you to just focus on movement.
- Go low-tech when you can’t. If you really can’t squeeze in a workout, try to go low-tech, by avoiding escalators, elevators, moving walkways and public transport. The goal is to move as much as you can, so any way to get the blood moving counts.
Pause to breathe
This is more of a checkpoint, as you’re reading this article. Even if you don’t have time to establish a daily meditation practice, infusing some mindfulness into your day helps you be present and reduce the stress you’re already taking on.
Take a moment to check in right now. Are you:
- holding your breath?
- clenching your jaw?
- slowly shrugging your shoulders up to your ears?
Pause. Take a second to breathe. Deeply. Reset it all.
Some of us are walking around all day taking shallow breaths, so when you catch yourself, work on taking a full, deep breath, and when you inhale, envision the breath entering your lungs and then pushing out to your arms and legs. It might sound odd but it’s a thing I learned in yoga, and hey, it feels refreshing when I do it, so passing it along.
Keep things in perspective
Most importantly, try to keep things in perspective: these are final exams, this is one semester, you’ve got plenty more in grad school, and there are thousands of challenges behind you and ahead of you. You’re going to be just fine. Take care of yourself and you’ll handle the rest. Crush those exams and have a great holiday season! Wishing you and yours all the very best.