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Maintaining Academic Momentum During a Pandemic – Christina Jelinek, HCOP Academic Success Counselor

The brain is a fascinating organ. It’s the birthplace of our emotions and also the workhouse for our academic lives - it’s where we work through, wrestle with, and store information. During this uncertain time as we stay in our homes to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, I have heard a lot of students tell me about their struggles to stay motivated, to stay productive, and to maintain the great momentum they had in their semesters. I hear things like, “I miss being at school, because I just can’t seem to study at home.” or “At school I had my classes at regular times, now I have a hard time staying motivated.” Whenever issues like this come up, I try to point our attention back to that fascinating organ, the brain.

Many times, we expect our brains to work like a car. No matter the weather, no matter the time of day, we can turn the key and our car will start up and run (provided it’s had its regular tune-ups, that is.) The reality is, our brain’s ability to focus and to retain information can be very dependent on things like our surroundings, our stress level, our physical health, even the time of day. So, what does that mean for us when it comes to being productive at home? Let’s break it down and see if any of these strategies can help improve your study life.

1. Check your surroundings

If you’ve ever looked for tips to help you fall asleep better, you may have come across this common one: when you go to bed, don’t read or look at your phone. Only use your bed for sleep. Over time, your brain will associate your bed with sleep, and it will trigger melatonin release to help you become sleepy at bedtime. The same principle is true when it comes to studying. Your brain uses cues from your surroundings to tell it what it needs to do. During your school career, your brain has probably learned that the classroom is where it focuses, and home is for fun. Now, though, we are home all the time! In order to help your brain, create a new association with study, try to put together a place in your house - a desk is best, or the dining room table - where you always do your work. Over time, your brain will form a new association with that place, and you will find it easier and easier to concentrate. Certainly, don’t try to study where you sleep or relax - like the bed or the couch!

2. Check your mental and physical health

As most of our students know, I am a new mom. Our baby girl was born in December, and one thing new parenthood teaches you quickly is how little sleep it’s possible to operate on. Being a new parent is a stressful thing, but the other day I managed to get 7 hours of sleep in one night (the bliss!) The most amazing part, though? My anxiety level the next day was drastically lower. Our brains are not only where we learn, they are also where our emotions happen - and they are interconnected. If you are staying up late, not getting enough sleep, not eating well or taking time to exercise, your focus can suffer. Try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule and morning routine - and get outside for a walk to help improve your mental health and focus.

3. Check the clock

Do you feel like you get more done at a certain time of day? That’s not an illusion, we really do have times of day where we are more able to focus than others. Take some time to reflect and think; when do I feel the most productive? When do I get the most done without struggling to stay motivated? Whenever that time is, make it a habit to work on your most difficult tasks during that time. You will be setting yourself up for success if you do the hardest thing when you have the most motivation each day. A lot of times that isn’t possible for students, because they may be most productive in the morning, but have to work or go to class during that time. One silver lining of the pandemic situation is that you get to craft your schedule to fit when you’re the most productive - take advantage of that!

4. Check the “breaks”

Sometimes just the idea of sitting down to work on a big task can be so daunting that we don’t want to start. Many students who have a lot of work on their plate (perhaps a big paper or a lot of material to cover) can benefit from utilizing the pomodoro technique. This method is great for keeping us from getting bogged down or discouraged by the large amount of work in front of us. The process is simple: Set an egg timer for 20 minutes and commit to working on one subject for that whole time with zero distractions (that means turn your phone off, give it to a loved one, etc.) The key here is to commit to working hard for 20 minutes - we’re not focusing on finishing, just on working for that length of time. After the timer goes off, give yourself a five-minute break. Then, set the timer for 20 minutes and work on a new subject (or the same subject, if you only have one thing to work on) for 20 minutes. After you’ve done these five times, take a break for an hour. This method can be a game changer for students learning to work independently. It’s amazing how much you can get accomplished in 20 minutes distraction-free. Read more about it here. This is a great method to institute during this time of working at home but can also be used for homework once we’re again in the classroom (I even use it to motivate myself to do things I dread - like dishes!)

We’re truly living in unprecedented times as we all grow accustomed to the new normal that is social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Above all else, it’s important to be kind to ourselves and to set ourselves up for success. Your brain is an amazing tool and knowing a little bit about how it works can help us make choices that will help us stay productive, stay healthy, and to succeed - both now and once we return to the classroom.

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