“I could do better on the SAT if I didn’t lose focus so easily”
“I could remember more if I weren’t so stressed.”
Do these sentiments sound familiar? It seems our electronically driven culture recognizes two basic human energy states —- manic and stressed while on task, and then completely blitzed and unfocused afterward. Popular junk food serves to intensify this energetic dichotomy even further. Of course, neither of these states is optimal for mastery on the SAT.
The best state both for learning & remembering and for performing under pressure is relaxed yet energized and focused. While this state was common in other times and places, it’s hard for modern Americans even to imagine it. Suppose I told you there was a way to get into that state, totally organic, with only beneficial health effects. No, it’s not the newest thing — it’s closer to the oldest thing! For over three thousand years, throughout the world, people have practiced meditation, and over time, this practice allows people to build focus and mental clarity while reducing stress. Trying meditation a couple times probably will not make a big difference, but if you could commit to this practice at this point in your life, the benefits over time would be considerable.
Suppose your SAT is coming up soon. Even if you start meditating every day, it probably won’t be long enough between now and your SAT to have much effect. Well, some of the beneficial effects of meditating simply come from deep breathing. When you breathe long, slow, deep breaths, this sends a message of relaxing and releasing stress to the body. (By contrast, if your goal it to make yourself as stressed as possible, it will help to make your breathing rapid and shallow.) You can practice this kind of silent deep breathing anywhere — in the car, waiting on a line, sitting in class, etc. If the breath is particularly deep (i.e. both belly & chest expanding with air), then the increased oxygen in your blood will help to keep you awake and alert. Experiment with this, and notice how it shifts both your energy and your state of mind.
If you are even more ambitious about releasing stress, and building focus, I have some particularly challenging recommendations.
(1) Eat well. In particular, avoid high-sugar foods and anything with high-fructose corn syrup. Make a habit of drinking lots of plain ordinary water.
(2) Get as much regular sleep as possible. In an eight-hour stint of sleep, the greatest REM period is in the last hour, and that’s when the brain encodes memory. If you skimp on sleep, you can use energy drinks to feel awake, but you can’t replace the opportunity to increase what your brain remembers and knows.
(3) Avoid external excitement. You may recall a diminutive Zen Master who said: “Adventure, heh! Excitement, heh! A Jedi craves not these things!” You see, excitement and stress run on more or less the same brain circuitry, so the more you excitement you give yourself, the more stress you invite. Explore what it would mean to pursue appreciation rather than excitement.
(4) Minimize any entertainment that involves watching an electronic screen. Believe it or not, the visual cues of such a screen stress your body. When you do relax, pursue non-plugged-in forms of recreation: exercise and stretching, creativity and the arts, or time in Nature.
Yes, those recommendations would be hard to put into practice. They are out of the ordinary. Here, I would remind you of the Great Law of Mediocrity: if you do what everyone else does, you will probably wind up with the results that everyone else gets. If you want standout, extraordinary results, say, on the SAT, then you have to pursue extraordinary preparation such as these.
The most fascinating thing about all of this — meditation, deep breathing, and the other recommendations — these will help you not only on the SAT, but in most other academic endeavors in your future. And, you’ll be happier!
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About Mike MᶜGarry
Mike creates expert lessons and practice questions to guide GMAT students to success. He has a BS in Physics and an MA in Religion, both from Harvard, and over 20 years of teaching experience specializing in math, science, and standardized exams. Mike likes smashing foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets.
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