For most of us, finals week is a trying time, full of anxieties about our academic performance (or lack thereof). I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the subject of working and studying under pressure and how I try to maintain my sanity during finals week.

Personally, every dead week starts pretty much the same way. After the first weekend of debauchery, I force myself to the library and open up Piazza, now ominously bloated with 300 new unread posts. As I skim through them to see what’s been happening in class, a familiar feeling emerges in the pit of my stomach as I quickly become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material I don’t know.

I imagine most people experience something similar, as I know most people, like myself, would characterize their studying habits during the semester to be less than ideal. At this point it may be very tempting to indulge in defeatism.

There’s no way you’ll be able to master the herculean amount of material by next Tuesday, so what’s the point in even trying, right? That attitude reminds me of a possibly apocryphal factoid I once heard, that the biggest obstacle to quitting smoking is the fear of quitting itself1. In the context of studying for finals, we hear and repeat to ourselves so often that studying is awful and painful, that in our minds we develop this monstrously overblown idea of studying. Our anxiety, then, comes not from a dread of actually working hard, but this paralyzing fear of merely the idea of it.

The way I like to resolve this mental block comes from this paragraph from “Bird by Bird”, by Anne Lamott2:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

This idea is not particularly profound or even remotely new. Even in the 6th century BC, the philosopher Lao Zi was quoted as saying, “千里之行,始于足下”, or perhaps better known as “the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” However, I think it’s important to remind ourselves from time to time of these simple but important ideas.

On the other hand, there has recently been a spate of kind-hearted individuals going around the MLK student union passing out little notes of encouragement to their toiling comrades. While I appreciate the good intentions and positive energy, I never bought into the kumbaya idea that positive thinking will make everything better. In fact, recent work by Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at NYU, suggests that overly positive daydreaming can actually be counter productive to accomplishing our goals3.

Oettingen points to studies which show that indulging in positive fantasies ranging from weight loss, to romantic relationships and test scores, causes people perform worse than those who did not indulge in positive fantasies. By fantasizing about a positive outcome, we often lapse into a state of complacency and neglect to take the necessary steps to achieve their goals.

As Oettingen concludes, positive thinking is not bad in it of itself. Our fantasies are indicative of our hopes and aspirations, which we should definitely work toward. After recognizing the fantasy, however, we must identify and work to eliminate the obstacles between us and our goals. Like any good self-help author should, she’s branded this idea as the “WOOP” system, which stands for wish, outcome, obstacle, plan.

In short, my approach to finals week can perhaps be likened to the Confucian ideal of the doctrine of the mean. Despair and negativity will accomplish absolutely nothing, but on the other hand, puerile and self-indulgent fantasies won’t get you very far either. Instead, I try to recognize the various areas of study where I am deficient and remedy those deficiencies through a moderate yet sustained effort. That means working hard but also giving myself ample time to sleep, eat, and relax. I hope this helps, and good luck on your finals!

  1. This guy here explains it a bit more in depth:

  2. Full disclosure- I haven’t actually read this book, just an excerpt that our 11th grade American literature teacher showed us that has stayed with me ever since. 

  3. This NPR interview discusses her 2014 book, “Rethinking Positive Thinking”: