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Anyone Can Get an A+ by Geetanjali Mukherjee

Anyone Can Get an A+

by Geetanjali Mukherjee

Giveaway ends January 14, 2017.

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Falling Out of Your Head: Constraints of Our Working Memory

Scientific studies of the brain have shown that for most people, our working memory or the part of short-term memory that holds items that we are immediately processing in our mind is only able to remember four things at a time. This might seem impossibly short, but consider the last time you went grocery shopping without a list - it was hard to remember more than 4 or 5 items, and you came home and remembered - oh, I needed yogurt! This is because you were relying on your working memory to remember what you needed to pick up. The other option is to go row by row and think - do I need pasta sauce? What about cereal? As you know, that's an incredibly inefficient way to shop (not to mention bad for your waistline as you might end up picking up too many extra things you didn't need!).

Another interesting discovery from neuroscience (the science of learning about our brain and how it works) is that we are really bad at evaluating priorities in our heads. This is because prioritizing is an activity that takes up a lot of energy, and it is difficult to remember the tasks you need to do and prioritize them at the same time (again, due to the limited capacity of your working memory). We get distracted, or give incorrect weightage to tasks; for instance deciding to spend two hours reading an article on Tuesday for a seminar on Friday, and running out of time to work on an economics homework due on Wednesday in class. It may seem obvious now in what order to do the work, but when you're in the moment, everything can seem an equal priority. This is why sometimes we tend to get really stressed and overwhelmed with everything we have to do.

I shared last week about the importance of creating a weekly plan. This is mostly because of the problem of our working memory - trying to remember things and juggle them and decide in which order to work on them is all too much for our brain to tackle. I read this articlerecently on the method that a business consultant gave a steel magnate to improve the productivity of his staff. It’s really simple, and can be easily adapted for organizing your schoolwork.

The method is this: the night before, write down the six priorities / tasks you want to accomplish tomorrow, and order them in terms of priority. So for instance, if you have math homework due the next day and reading for history due at the end of the week, put the math homework first in the list, and the history reading later.

Then basically tomorrow when you sit down to study, take the list of 6 items that you already prioritized with you. Work on the first one, and then when you’re done, move on to the next one. This way, you know you are always working on whatever is most crucial, and you don’t need to waste time when you sit down to work deciding what to work on, you already have a list prepared. Then whatever you didn’t manage to get to today, you just add to tomorrow’s list of 6 tasks. Of course, if you find yourself routinely completing all your tasks, maybe you can add a few extra to your list, just in case you have time to get to them.

The main lesson here of course is that don’t overburden your brain or work against its limitations, instead by knowing how it works, you can apply some simple routines to get your work done with as little stress and friction as possible.

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Create A Weekly Plan

Some of us think that we don’t really need a plan - we will remember everything that is important. After all, I have homework due in microeconomics every week – don’t really need to write that down, do I? And that big paper coming up, well it’s been stressing me out for a while, so hardly likely to forget that. Why waste time when I could be actually doing work on planning?

Here's why. We think we are good at remembering, but we aren’t. Crucial items fall off the radar. We forget to return or pick up an important library book. We meant to go to office hours with the TA, but we forgot. They may seem only small things, but niggling things that we fail to do can cause stress and add disruption to our life. And you might remember something crucial in the middle of doing something else. If you don’t have a plan, or a system for capturing important information, you will feel tempted to stop what you're doing and make that phone call right away, or send that email to your Professor. And you get distracted, and one thing leads to another, and an hour passes before you get back to what you're doing, losing important momentum.

A simple but incredibly effective solution is to create a plan for the week. Whenever you're feeling overwhelmed - just take out a sheet of paper, and create a rough plan of everything you need to get done. When you start to create a weekly plan on a regular basis, you will find you’re not getting stressed or overwhelmed by your schoolwork. Just seeing your plan, even if it might change, or you realize that you have a lot of things to do, can make you feel calmer.

The other advantage to having a written plan is that you have something to use when plans change for some reason. Perhaps your teacher announces a surprise test for the next class, so you need to add in time to study this evening and tomorrow for it. Or maybe a seminar is cancelled, and you need to decide what assignment you can complete in the time that is freed up. Relying on our brain to just decide what to do when things change, which they invariably will, is a recipe for wasting time and leads to overlooking ways to utilize your time in the best way.

Make your plan at the same time every week. Cal Newport, author and advice blogger, calls this a "Sunday Ritual". You can make it a Friday evening ritual or a Saturday ritual if that suits you better - just pick a date and time that you can commit to every week. You can even make it a recurring event in your calendar, with an alarm to remind you to do the plan.

All you need to create your plan is your syllabus for each course, and your calendar. First make a quick list of all the assignments that are due in the following week, with their due dates and what you need to do for each. Then scan for bigger projects that are coming up - paper deadlines, tests, internship deadlines to apply for. It’s really crucial to use your syllabus for planning, to check for potential problems, and plan ahead.

Ideally the larger deadlines would also be flagged in your calendar - if not, go ahead and put the due dates, and reminders for a week earlier, in your calendar. Depending on what your larger projects are, put the next step(s) on your plan for this week - as something to get to after all the work due earlier is completed.

Ideally you would also have a daily plan, something that you can look at before you sit down to study, so that you are working on what's most important. As things come up, you can make changes to the weekly plan, and even make notes for anything that you know you will need to get done the following week. If you usually do this in your current week's plan, make sure you use that as the basis of your new plan next time.

This is an edited excerpt from my book "Anyone Can Get An A+: How To Beat Procrastination, Reduce Stress and Improve Your Grades".  It makes the perfect back-to-school purchase or gift. Click here to buy this book from your preferred retailer:

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Get Enough Exercise

Unless you are involved in some form of sports or other regular physical activity, the hectic pace of classes, assignments and other activities can push out finding time to get to the gym or maintaining a regular exercise regimen. This is especially true if you were used to compulsory PE classes in school and find yourself in college no longer forced to go through hateful forms of group torture.

Like many students in school, I didn’t really have a preferred form of exercise, I didn’t play any sports (not well anyway), and I only did the bare minimum in school sports activities, especially in the final years of school. I went to college and didn’t realize that if I didn’t schedule some physical activities, they just wouldn’t happen. I had danced in high school, but my skill level seemed amateurish compared to the competitive college dance clubs, and I never really joined any of them. I tried doing ad-hoc things - going swimming or jogging a few times a week, and walked around campus a lot, which provided a basic level of exercise. But not having got into the habit of scheduling exercise, I would let it fall off my radar whenever I got busy.

I had even less time for exercise during my Masters’ program, and even though I signed up for the gym, I only went for short durations, and that too not very often. It was only much later that I realized how important a regular exercise regimen is, not just for physical fitness, but for your overall mental health as well.

Exercise helps you release endorphins, which contribute to your feeling of well-being. College (and even high school) can be pretty stressful, and if you don’t have a way to release that stress, it can build up, at the very least affecting your ability to study. Regular exercise keeps stress levels at a manageable level, helping you to feel much more in control of your life. Even something basic like a walk makes all the difference.

Exercising is also a great way to take more breaks, and we often get our best insights while stepping away from what we are working on, and doing something completely different. In fact, recent research shows that when you are stuck, and looking for inspiration, exercise can help to unleash your creativity.

Studies also show that moderate to high intensive exercise, even a few times a week, helps increase cognitive abilities, especially for those who were previously inactive. Exercising, along with making you feel better, releases a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), which repairs memory neurons and also resets certain processes, helping to clear the clutter from your mind as it were.

In other words, you are literally getting smarter while you work out, creating more connections and improving your memory.

This is an edited excerpt from my book "Anyone Can Get An A+: How To Beat Procrastination, Reduce Stress and Improve Your Grades".  It makes the perfect back-to-school purchase or gift. Click here to buy this book from your preferred retailer: