Conquering finals week

Plan your work like a battle, and then defeat what needs to be done.
November 26, 2012

The end of the semester approaches, its ominous horizon bringing both elation and dread. For the last 13 weeks, we’ve worked, written, studied and stressed over our academic careers. A respite is needed and deserved, but we are not there yet. We still have some time left in the semester, and we need to power through the remaining work.

As both a student and teacher, I understand all too well the burden of coursework on both the mind and body. Many don’t realize the mental drain inherent in coursework. It isn’t always about physical labor. Victor Hugo famously wrote, “There is both visible and invisible labor.” Most assuredly, college coursework is more consumed by invisible labor. This  issue often gives to observations: “Oh, you don’t look like you’re working” or “Oh, come on, just write it.” These observations, ones I’ve experienced plenty of times, are baseless.

We know that we work. We work hard because we want a better future for ourselves. The last few weeks of the semester are when we are tested. Our stress is stretched to an almost breaking point. We push forward toward the light at the end of the tunnel. We are stressed, we are irritable and we are tired. All of these things are reasons to slip, and no one would blame us. I wouldn’t blame myself, and I wouldn’t blame my students.

Yet, in order for us to finish, we need to think about strategy. We need to plan our work, and then we need to attack it. Here are a few strategies that have served my students and me well:

1. Understand what needs to be done; more often than not, we don’t always know everything we need to do. As such, we become frustrated and overwhelmed by the magnitude of all our work. We stew and become so irritable that our friends avoid us. But we can easily solve this problem. It’s as simple as making a list. I’ve used both a laptop and a legal pad. I prefer the latter.

Get a yellow legal pad, and make a list of every single assignment or work that needs to be finished. Then, under each item put how long you think it’ll take you to finish it. The point of this exercise is to see what you have to do. That’s it. It’s amazing how productive it can be to see the big picture.

2. Find time. Once you’ve gotten what needs to be done out of your head and onto paper or in a computer document, it’s time to schedule. Pull up your calendar or print a blank one from an online source and start penciling in blocks of time to finish your work. Name each assignment, and then work to finish said assignment in the time allotted.

If you don’t finish the work in your allotted time, that’s fine. Do not stress. Pencil in another time to finish it, and move on to the next assignment. It’s important to keep the flow of work going because it builds momentum.

3. Use tools to help you. There are many tools or techniques that will help you write or work. One of my favorites is the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a time management method geared toward getting things done. Francesco Cirillo developed it in the 1980s, and it is super simple to learn and do.

Here’s the helpful technique: Decide on what needs to be done, set a timer for 25 minutes, work until the timer expires, take a 5 minute break and then repeat until you’ve finished what you need to finish. See? It’s super simple and easy to follow. Once you get into the routine, your work will flow out of you. Of course, this technique doesn’t always work for everyone, but it is a way to be productive that my students and I have found helpful.

4. De-stress and recharge. Everything I’ve talked about so far has been about working and getting things done. However, not working to get work done is equally important. You need to have a time when you are not working. You need to have a time when you can take a long break, eat and recharge. This will avoid burnout.

Some of the ways I avoid burnout are easy and low cost. I go for a slow walk. I know it’s getting cold out now, but bundle up and go for a nice leisurely stroll. It helps clear the head. I also play World of Warcraft. I didn’t think I would like it, but slipping into another reality and living through a character is amazing. It takes my mind off what’s going on around me. Similarly, I have friends over, order a pizza and play UNO for hours. It’s a fun, easy game, and having friends over makes me smile and laugh. Smiling and laughing can decrease stress.

These strategies are meant to be guides. Everyone has a different style, and you should tweak these guides to fit your style. We have a lot of work to do before the end of the semester. Hopefully, these strategies can help you in the same way they’ve helped me.

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote, “Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.” Find out how you work best. We know the enemies are our assignments. Prepare, plan and attack. Be victorious.

At the end of the semester, you should feel like you won. These battles, these assignments are fleeting. Each one is but a stepping stone to winning the war and graduating. By planning in such a way, the work becomes less intimidating and more accomplishable.

Go forth, work and good luck.

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