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Finals Ahead? Stay Focused with a Checklist

Checklists are used by many professionals, from airline pilots to doctors to building inspectors. So why not one for students, especially during finals?

Spoiler alert: Finals are coming.

You’ve managed to make it to most of your classes and keep up with the reading. Now it’s time to really buckle down. How do you get started? Consider creating a checklist.

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A checklist is simply a list of items you need to verify or do in order to accomplish a task. They’re used in every imaginable field — from building inspections to complex medical surgeries. The beauty of a checklist is that it means you don’t have to remember all the steps you need to do each time you take on that task.

Take it from pilots, who began implementing checklists in 1935 to increase aviation safety. It worked! Whether they were flying a prop plane a short distance or a jumbo jet over the Atlantic, the procedural steps were the same: Check the logbook, get a weather briefing, perform a preflight check, check the landing gear … you get the idea. Accidents decreased with checklists in place, as did medical errors when surgeons followed suit.

You can apply the same idea to finals week. Think about it: You know you want to do what it takes to ace your finals, but it’s hard to keep it all organized, and sometimes things slip through the cracks. A checklist will keep you on the straight and narrow — and free up some much-needed headspace so you can focus on the particulars of this semester’s exams, whether that means remembering formulas, writing a great essay, or nailing down important historical dates. (And of course there are a number of digital options to choose from, including Remember the Milk, Teaux-Deaux, or TaDaLists. )

Here’s our own Checklist Manifesto, a weekly countdown to finals for busy students like you.

7 Days till finals

Create a study schedule. Think about what time of day you’re best at retaining information and allot those precious hours to study time. Carve out mornings if you’re an early bird or block out evenings if you prefer burning the midnight oil. Pace your study time by taking breaks.

Organize your study spot. Spend a few minutes clearing your desk. Throw away unneeded papers, stow irrelevant books, make neat stacks. Ditch leaky pens and dried-up highlighters. Make sure you have the supplies you do need. A mess will cause stress. Spend 10 minutes decluttering and your brain will thank you. Organize your laptop desktop as well.

6 Days till finals

lucky charm for finals
Gather your lucky charm(s). You don’t have to be superstitious to get a leg up from a rabbit’s foot or that special hat that you wear backwards. People who believe they have a “lucky” object do better on tests and perform better in sports.

Let friends and family know you need to get serious. Whether it’s your roommate, BF/GF, or your mom, tell them that the countdown has begun and you’re about to hit the books. You’ll be amazed how much people will respect your space when you declare your intentions.

5 Days till finals

Steer clear of conflict. Don’t get into conversations or interact with people who push your buttons. Don’t pick a fight. You don’t need that in your life right now. If you and your mom tend to bicker on the phone, for instance, initiate a conversational “blackout” for the next few days. Upset and anxiety decrease recall and memory.

Fortify with health snacks. Take a trip to the grocery store and stock up on some nutritious snacks. Think high-protein, antioxidant-rich brain food like dark chocolate, unsalted nuts, low-fat yogurt, or hard-boiled eggs. Go easy on the caffeinated beverages. For a change of pace, try a matcha tea latte, said to improve mental clarity and alertness without giving you the jitters.

4 Days till finals

Buy some chewing gum. Bet you didn’t know you’ll do better on a long test if you chew gum. Just be mindful of your fellow bookworms and test takers, and don’t chew like a cow or blow bubbles.

Scope out more study spots. For what it’s worth, your brain retains more information if you stake out a new spot for study now and then.

3 Days till finals

get serious about sleep
Get serious about sleep. Now is not the time to start pulling all-nighters. You need three solid nights of good sleep to keep your brain and body in top condition. Even just a little sleep deprivation will put a dent in your attention levels, learning, and creative thinking. And don’t stay up late to cram: Research shows that cramming only leads to stress and diminished performance.

Break a sweat. Go to the gym and hop on the treadmill or lift some weights. Or just take a walk in the fresh air. Exercise is great for clearing your head, busting stress, and helping you sleep better. Research shows clear links between physical activity and better brain health and cognitive function. People who exercise appear to have greater brain volume, along with better thinking and memory skills.

2 Days till finals

choose clothes the day before finals
Figure out what you’ll wear. Do some advance planning. Make sure your clothes are comfy and won’t itch. Super-heavy sweaters can overheat you in a stuffy classroom; on the other hand, you’ll freeze in a thin T-shirt if the test room temperature is turned down. Dress in layers for room temperature changes. If your lucky shirt is under a pile of laundry, don’t wait till the last minute to wash it.

Tune in to yourself. Find little ways to pamper yourself. Check out the www.brain.fm app (available for iOS and Android; the first five sessions are free), a collaboration of music and neuroscience for whatever your state of mind. Or zone out to your favorite playlist. Indulge your sense of smell with some rosemary essential oil. One study showed that the scent improved the speed of math computations and led to an improvement in long-term memory. Lavender oil is known to soothe, calm, and promote sleep.

Finals day!

Nourish and hydrate. Hopefully you’ve been eating a healthy diet all week, but on the morning of your exam, be sure to have a nutritious breakfast. That can include whole grains such as oatmeal, low-fat protein like plain yogurt mixed with fruit, or scrambled eggs. Don’t opt for sugary, processed food (doughnuts or muffins) as they can cause a spike and subsequent crash in your blood sugar levels.

Bring a water bottle with you to exams. Being even slightly dehydrated can interfere with memory and sink your mood. Just don’t overdo it; you don’t want to be running to the lav every five minutes during the test.

Get psyched. A light review of your notes can be helpful, more as a confidence booster than for last-minute cramming of facts and figures. Self-talk works when you’re in the home stretch, so give yourself a boost with “I’m ready for this” or “I’m going to do my best.”

Because … check … you’ve got this.

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