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Zen Boot Camp for the GMAT

Earlier posts have talked about the values of breathing, mindfulness, and disattaching from one’s stories.  Over the course of a lifetime, a committed meditation practice or daily yoga practice would be the way to develop all these wonderful skills.  What if you would like to move in that direction as much as possible between now and your GMAT, but your GMAT is only a month or two away?  Starting a meditation practice would help a little, but here are some steps you can take now to accelerate your progress in this direction.

Understand, these steps are not easy, and may even appear radical.  If you wanted to design a culture that would maximize human distractedness, uncenteredness, and inner dissatisfaction despite external comfort, you could hardly do better than our current electronic media-driven culture.   What I advocate here flies in the face of everything this culture values, so in that sense, it is “radical”, but at the same time it is deeply consistent with what has sometimes been called the “perennial philosophy“, so in that sense, it’s also traditional in the deepest sense.

If you want a fast-track to decreasing your stress and anxiety, increasing your focus, calming your mind, and enhancing your memory and your intuition, here are the steps I recommend.

1) (review from the previous article) Deep breathing throughout the day: slow full breaths during virtually all activities, especially in the quiet “in between” moments of the day (on the elevator, in traffic, before a meeting, etc.)  This stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), the “Relaxation Response.”

2) Cut down drastically on excitement.  Excitement and stress feel different, but they both exercise the same pathways in the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS).  A little excitement is fine, but if you chase a lot of excitement, you are asking for a lot of stress.  To practice one is to practice the other.  This is precisely why a diminutive Zen Master was famous for saying: “Adventure — heh.  Excitement — heh.  A Jedi craves these things not.”

3) Lowering SNS stimulation means: Exceedingly little TV.  Very few action movies.  Very few video games.  No adrenaline-inducing thrills.  In fact, spend the majority of your down time without electronic stimulation of any sort, without anything electronic in front of your eyes, not “plugged in.”

4) Eight hours of sleep every single night.  Nothing enables the encoding of new information into long-term memory more effectively than REM sleep, and in an eight-hour period of sleep, your longest REM period is in the last 1.5 hour sleep cycle of the night.

5) Exercise daily.  Make sure a thorough stretch of the whole body is included in your workout (that’s particularly easy if your daily workout happens to be yoga or a martial art form.)

6) Use caffeine sparingly at most.  Absolutely no energy drinks.  Avoid “high fructose corn syrup” (think of that as ADD-inducing juice!)  Be abstemiously sparing with alcohol.  No recreational drugs at all.

7) Eat healthy: more fresh fruits and veggies, fewer processed foods.  Eat more organic, if that’s possible.  Drink plain water  —- not any liquid, but plain water —- at least eight big glasses of water a day as a minimum; 3-4 liters per day would be better.  Use a sauna or sweat lodge, if you have access to one (drink even more water if you do this).  If you are really ambitious about cleaning toxins from your body, then do a colon cleanse (drink even more water if you do this).

8) Insofar as you have the possibility, spend quiet time in Nature, daily if possible.  That could be a walk in the woods or walk on the beach if those are close to where you live.  It can be looking up at the Moon and night sky in a relatively quiet place.  For folks in intensely urban areas, with essentially no easy access to pristine Nature,  it even can be as minimal as sitting and staring at potted flowers, or feeling the wind or rain on your skin.  —- In the STAR WARS movies, the “Force” was described as flowing from Nature, from living things, and all the planets that played a significant role in defeating the Evil Empire were forest or jungle planets.  The human mind spontaneously enters a calmer and more spacious emotional place when we spend some time walking around in Nature.  Whatever else the “Force” is, it is about stimulating relaxed mindful awareness of the PNS.

9) For mindfulness practice, start the habit of noticing one new thing in each familiar environment of your life: your office, your own living space, familiar stores, friends’ houses, etc.  Each time you are there, force yourself to notice something you have never noticed before: it may be an object, or color, or scent, or sound.  It may be just a perspective or point of view.  It may be a quality of light & shadow at a particular moment of the day.  It may be intuitive, a vibe about the place.  Force yourself to notice something new every day, or every time you are there.  At first, it may feel like there are only a few possibilities, and you will run out in a week or so, but the more you practice this, the more you realize: even the most familiar place offers a veritable infinitude of new discoveries.

10) Practice curiosity and wonder.  This is not so much inquisitiveness, needing to know the answer to things.  It’s more about opening up questions that may not have any clear answer.  Be curious about what other people’s experience might be like, all the “minor characters” in the film of your life.  Be curious about natural things: plants, birds, patterns of water flow, etc.  Be curious about histories and stories of people and things.  Every day, challenging yourself to entertain genuine curiosity about something which, previously, it never occurred to you to find interesting in the least.

11) If you feel ambitious about practicing mindfulness, read one of the respected authors: Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mark Epstein, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein.

12) If you feel particularly ambitious about becoming a Jedi Master, then start a daily meditation practice.


This is a difficult set of recommendations, I am aware.  If you can implement even half of them, you will be making excellent progress.  Even that would be a challenge.  The recipe for mediocrity is, quite simply: do what everyone else does.  If you want an extraordinary outcome, you need to take extraordinary steps.  These are extraordinary steps, steps that have been proven, in both traditional and scientific contexts, to support greater attention and focus and successful performance under pressure.

If you can implement these between now and the GMAT, you will find lower anxiety and greater clarity available for the test itself.  If you can continue with these practices after the GMAT, you will find the focus and centeredness will give you an edge in business school and in the business world.  And, much more importantly, you’ll be happier.

By the way, sign up for our 1 Week Free Trial to try out Magoosh GMAT Prep!

26 Responses to Zen Boot Camp for the GMAT

  1. Diego October 17, 2016 at 12:29 pm #

    Mike, I have a few questions.

    -If I’m limiting myself to play videogames or watch tv to just 4 hours a week, would that be ok?
    -I practice Muay Thai 4 hours a week-an hour per day-, is that helpful towards SNS?
    -I drink coffee every morning, is that too much?
    – And lastly, I feel I spend waaay too much time in Facebook, would you recommend me closing it at least until I get done with the GMAT?

    I’m currently following the 6 month study plan, and I’m at the third week.

    Thanks in advance, btw Magoosh rocks!

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert October 20, 2016 at 8:42 am #

      Interesting question. It’s good to know you’re thinking carefully about the “zen”– or lack thereof– of your daily habits.

      Regarding your TV and video game habits, this seems like a reasonably small amount of entertainment consumption. But as Mike mentions, what you consume for entertainment is also important. So make sure your games and TV shows aren’t distracting or agitating; some entertainment is more calming than other entertainment.

      Now for your coffee drinking. Coffee doesn’t give you the same jarring, non-zen power-boost that you’d get from energy drinks and some other sources of caffeine. If your coffee drinking is routing and something you’re used to, it probably won’t interfere much with your “zen.” In fact, a forced withdrawal from your regular morning coffee could be more disruptive.

      Now Facebook… Facebook is such a productivity killer. I would definitely try to minimize or stop your Facebook use during your studies.

      Other than that, congrats on getting to the halfway point in your study plan. Fight on! In a zen-like way, of course. 🙂

  2. Michael August 11, 2016 at 7:51 pm #

    Sigh.. if only there were more hours in the day. Great article.

  3. Ridzki March 13, 2016 at 9:38 pm #

    Wow such a really great advices you have here Mike! 😀 I found it as a very useful tips for not only GMAT prep but also Life prep!
    however, i probably won’t be able to do your third advice “not plugged in”, because even now I’m reading your article from my mac bro 😀 anyway, thanks for the other advices you shared Mike, its truly inspiring!

  4. Ashish November 29, 2015 at 12:26 pm #

    Wow! amazing article and set of recommendations! Just like your clear math tutorials, you hit the ball off the park! Thanks Mike!!

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike McGarry November 29, 2015 at 6:07 pm #

      Dear Ashish,
      Thank you very much for your kind words! 🙂 I am very glad you found this helpful! My friend, I wish you the very best of good luck on the GMAT and beyond!
      Mike 🙂

  5. Zia August 24, 2015 at 5:52 pm #

    WOW… BEst article Ive read so far. Not just about focusing GMAT its about whole life…
    I’ll do my best to follow these golden rules…

  6. Jhonattan July 26, 2015 at 6:49 am #

    Great article, looking forward to enhance my memory!

  7. Prateek April 23, 2015 at 5:51 am #

    Another amazing article!!
    Mike I have read many articles written by you, and all of these articles are flawless.
    Mike u r surely a Genius.

  8. David December 24, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

    This is perhaps the best GMAT article that I have read. You take the bold choice of actually telling people what they need to hear instead of what they want to hear. I have some knowledge on these subjects and really enjoyed reading your article. Everything you write is in line with the best available science.

    What you are doing for your students (and readers) is helpful beyond the GMAT — it is helpful in life as well. Thank you for what you do.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike December 24, 2014 at 5:21 pm #

      You are quite welcome! I’m very glad you recognize the value of what this blog discusses. 🙂 I wish you much good fortune in your future!
      Mike 🙂

  9. Vijay December 11, 2014 at 10:35 pm #

    Nice Article Mike, on mindfulness I did come accorss for an online course. do you have advocate this one or are there other options out there.

    The SNS and PNS systems both need to work right? So would you suggest we must combine mindfullness with daily exercise regimes.

    What I have found is that I tend to face fatigue during stuides and sim tests sometimes.

    What does the two activites mindfullness and excercise crub the fatigue bit.

    Also in relation with “train of thoughts” or roller coster ride you talked about in your earlier article can you suggest a few good books, I did some own reasearch and found a book called power of now.

    By the way thanks! for posting such a lovely article

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike December 12, 2014 at 10:32 am #

      Dear Vijay,
      Thank you for your kind words. 🙂 I am not in a position to recommend one online program over another. Frankly, I think with this topic, in-person support is much more helpful. I would recommend finding a place where you can meditate regularly: I think a live in-person event would be much more helpful than anything online.
      Yes, part of mindfulness is having good energy. Make sure you are getting enough sleep every single night. Make sure you are eating healthy. A daily exercise routine is very important. Sometimes folks find that mindful exercise systems, such as yoga or taiqi are helpful both for mindfulness practice and for physical energy.
      For the roller-coaster of the mind, a practice of meditation is the best. Tolle’s book the Power of Now is wonderful. I would also suggest books by the authors Jack Kornfield (esp. Path With a Heart and The Wise Heart), books by Thich Nhat Hanh, books by Pema Chodron, and Shambhala by Chogyam Trumngpa. Also, remember the spiritual classics of Buddhism and Hinduism — there are many books there you could spend a lifetime mastering.
      I hope all this helps.
      Mike 🙂

  10. Sriram August 5, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    Nice tips. I’ve been diligently working on the meditation part for close to a month now and there’s definite improvement – to think that I had trouble staying awake when I started, I’m able to focus for an hour now, albeit there are a few distractions, which, I’m conscious of. But I’m concerned about the 8 hr sleep bit; agreed this is a must, but a day before the exam, I find it difficult to get a good night’s rest – and this has been a consistent problem. Any thoughts or suggestions here?


    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike August 5, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

      Dear Sriram,
      I’m happy to hear that you are making progress with meditation. 🙂 That will really help you in the long run. Of course, meditation ultimately involves remaining calm and unperturbed even in the face of challenging uncertainty, but when you are just beginning, the night before the GMAT can still unsettle you. You may Google acupressure points you can use for calming anxiety and for insomnia. You may also experiment with a natural supplement, such as Melatonin — obviously, experiment, and see how it makes you feel the next day, long before you have to use it the night before a big test!
      I hope all this helps.
      Mike 🙂

  11. nazik April 12, 2014 at 10:34 am #

    great article, thanks a lot, Mike!

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike April 12, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

      I’m very glad you found it helpful, my friend. Best of luck to you in the future!
      Mike 🙂

  12. Lohith March 13, 2014 at 12:24 am #

    Well written Mike. That was awesome!!! Thanks a ton :):)

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike March 13, 2014 at 9:52 am #

      Dear Lohith,
      You are quite welcome, my friend. I am very glad you found this helpful. Best of luck to you!
      Mike 🙂

  13. Abid November 14, 2013 at 7:43 am #

    Gr8 article Mike!!


    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike November 14, 2013 at 9:42 am #

      Dear Abid,
      I’m glad you found it helpful. Best of luck to you!
      Mike 🙂

  14. Apurva October 28, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    Great article! Thanks 🙂

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike October 29, 2013 at 9:51 am #

      Dear Apurva,
      You’re quite welcome. Best of luck to you.
      Mike 🙂

  15. Nancy May 30, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

    kudos mike….!!!

    very nice article 🙂

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike May 31, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

      Thank you for your kind words. Best of luck to you.
      Mike 🙂


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