Too Stressed to Study? 7 Better Ways to Prepare for Exams

Stress will ruin your ability to learn, decrease your skills, and even bring down your GPA. These seven tips will help you cope when you feel too stressed to study. These “stress management” tips are actually about better time management. Stress is often caused by feeling out of control and overwhelmed.

“Most students misunderstand the purpose of time management,” writes professor Cal Newport in How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less. “Students believe time management is used only to cram as much work as possible into the day. But this is not the main motivation behind controlling your schedule. As it turns out, a little planning goes a long way toward reducing your daily stress levels. Having deadlines and obligations floating around in your mind is exhausting-it makes it impossible to completely relax, and, over time, can lead you down the path toward a breakdown. However, once you figure out what work needs to be done and when, it’s like a weight being lifted from your shoulders.”

The more in control you feel – especially if you need to learn how to study when you can’t focus – the less stressed and anxious you’ll feel. If you gain control over your study habits and schedule, you will relax. You won’t feel too stressed to study, and you can focus on learning the material and getting good grades.

7 Ways to Cope When You Feel Too Stressed to Study

“If you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to e-mail, or put aside a few hours after dinner to catch up on an approaching deadline, you’re robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration,” writes professor Cal Newport in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Too Stressed to Study? How to Prepare for Tests and Exams

“Even if these work dashes consume only a small amount of time, they prevent you from reaching the levels of deeper relaxation in which attention restoration can occur. Only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow. Put another way, trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown.”

Your body and mind needs time to recharge – just like your iPhone does. Give yourself time to shut down and re-energize, or you’ll always be too stressed to study. Or work, or live, or enjoy time with friends.

1. Determine the cause of your stress. Poor time management? A busy environment? Illness?

If you’re stressed and anxious because you can’t keep up with your coursework, labs, extracurricular activities, work, and family obligations, then you need to focus on managing your time better. Poor time management involves procrastinating, underestimating the time it takes to complete tasks, and spending a lot of time on details that don’t matter. And that’s why time management tips decrease stress: when you have enough time to study, you feel less anxious and stressed — and you get better grades.

2. Create a schedule that fits your personality, college schedule, and lifestyle

When I was too stressed to study in college, I created a schedule that gave me time to work at my outside job, time to study, and time to play. I found that breaking my schedule into 30 or 60 minute chunks of time worked best — because even if I really really really didn’t want to study for a particular course, I knew I could study for just 30 or 60 minutes. And I wouldn’t stop if the studying was going well, which helped me get good grades in college. Creating a schedule is one of the best ways to succeed at college because it gives you structure and control.

3. Find ways to take control of your environment and schedule

The more power you have in your life (even perceived power), the less stress you’ll feel. Research shows that the amount of control you have in your life directly affects the amount of stress and anxiety you feel. Why are you too stressed to study at college? Are you overwhelmed by your class schedule, paid work responsibilities, or family obligations? Are you shy and nervous — do you need help overcoming anxiety about being in college? Finding ways to empower yourself will help with stress management.

If you’re too stressed to study because of financial problems, read What Are the Best Jobs for College Students?

4. Avoid unplanned study breaks

Not only did I have a study schedule in college, I have a strict work schedule now (I’m a full-time freelance writer and blogger). Before I created my current work schedule, I kept Twitter, email, my blogs, and various forums open on my laptop. If I got “stuck” for an idea or phrase, I’d surf through all those applications, which made me less productive and more stressed. Now I check email, Twitter, etc, at set times of the day. One of the best college stress management tips is to avoid surfing the internet, answering the phone, answering the door, or doing anything while you’re studying. Focusing on what you’re studying will help you get good grades in college.

5. Take 30 or 60 minutes a day to PowerJournal

This is another good stress management tip for college students, from The Other 8 Hours: Maximize Your Free Time to Create New Wealth and Purpose. My first hour of the day is spent writing in my journal, planning my workday and week, expressing my fears, frustrations, and achievements, and setting my personal and professional intentions. PowerJournaling allows me to clear my head of the fluff and focus on what matters. Taking time to think keeps you in tune with yourself, which is one of the best ways to manage stress and anxiety in college.

6. Build time into your daily schedule for mental strength training

I love Marcus Buckingham’s advice to work on our strengths and not worry about our weaknesses. He’s the author of Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance, and he encourages people to maximize their strengths. For instance, my strength is writing blog posts and learning about search engine optimization. My weaknesses is visiting other blogs and commenting (which is supposed to be a great way to market your blog). So instead of worrying about my weaknesses, I focus on my strengths. This empowers me and makes me feel in control of my career goals, which reduces my stress and anxiety.

Too Stressed to Study? 7 Better Ways to Prepare for Exams
Too Stressed to Study?

7. Declutter during study breaks

Clutter increases stress and mental noise. Clutter and disorganization also leads to spending more money, losing track of things important papers, and forgetting what needs to be done. Clutter creates confusion and chaos. Decluttering your home and study space will reduce stress, increase happiness, and give you a sense of space and lightness.

  1. Reduce clutter in a way that makes you feel empowered. Don’t try and bite off big chucks if that’s stressful – make a game of it.
  2. Pick one drawer, or one pile, and go through it. Create new piles: Toss, Keep, Give Away.
  3. Don’t worry if you don’t know where something is supposed to go right away. Just know it goes in the KEEP pile.
  4. Don’t keep anything that isn’t beautiful, useful or something you absolutely love. For papers, if you could find it somewhere else with a few phone calls, toss it.
  5. If you do decide to do a big area, or an entire room, or your garage, take everything out and start with the empty space, even if it means you create total chaos somewhere else. The results when you’re done will be worth it entirely.
  6. Put things where you will think to find them, not where you think you should file them. If you always go out the same door, then put your phone and your keys right there, on a hook or a shelf, so you know exactly where it is every time.
  7. When you use something, put it back where it goes. Create a place for everything.
  8. Don’t be afraid to throw things out – no matter who gave them to you, no matter how much “sentimental” value you think they have. Keep the memories inside your heart and create peace in your space.

Clutter doesn’t just increase stress levels and distract you from studying properly, it affects your physical health. Respiratory illnesses from mold and dust, accidents from stumbling over clutter, and even fires are caused by clutter. If your kitchen is cluttered, you are less likely to eat nutritiously.

Back to professor Cal Newport:

“The problem here is not the amount of available hours (if you’re too stressed to study), but rather how each hour is spent. I know this from firsthand experience. While researching How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less, I spent time with some of the country’s most accomplished students, and I can assure you that no matter how diligent you think you are, there is a Rhodes scholar out there who fits in three times the amount of work and activities you do and probably still manages to party harder than you would ever dare.”

Too Stressed to Study? How to Prepare for Exams

How do you cope when you’re too stressed to study? Take a break, write about your stress. Expressing it will increase your clarity and focus.


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15 thoughts on “Too Stressed to Study? 7 Better Ways to Prepare for Exams”

  1. A reader told me that she missed out an important application deadline for her student loan because she lost the form. By the time she found the form, the deadline for the loan application had passed. Another example of how clutter can increase stress and even make students too stressed to get to college, much less study.

  2. Thank you!
    Study time is very stressful for me. Due to the workload, tasks from the university, and part-time work, it is very difficult for me to keep up with everything, which causes anxiety and stress.
    I agree with you that the key to success in planning is when you manage your time properly. It helps to avoid stress triggers, but sometimes there is no effort or desire to do anything, you are too tired (not physically, but rather morally). And I think that in that case, only rest can help.

  3. Great advice. I always felt that the clutter in my house related directly to my self-esteem and academic achievement. Reading your article has made me see that house clutter is also effecting my study habits and the ability to get good grades.

  4. Good points, thank you! I have found that getting rid of my clutter has really helped me focus on school and reduce stress so I can study.

    My next question is if weight loss (fat clutter) will also happen to me. I can certainly see myself gaining energy and losing anxiety (and emotional eating) as I get closer and closer to being debt-free.

  5. Awesome, thank you so much for these tips, Jess! I wove them into my updated blog post for college students who are too stressed to study:

    How to Study When You Can’t Focus – College Students

    I really like your idea of planning in advance. You sound like you’re so dedicated and smart! And, you’re motivated to succeed. Thanks again for sharing not just your knowledge and wisdom, but your energy as well :-)

  6. A stress survival tactic I used in college was to try to prepare for classes in advance as much as possible. In many electrical engineering classes, large projects due at the end of the semester. I found it extremely frustrating and stressful to have to simultaneously learn the course material, learn how to use the design software (tools), and to complete a good design. Learning by doing is a good thing, but jumping into a project before you really understand the design flow, or even the basic principles involved is a very stressful and frustrating way to learn. The stress, time-pressure, and mental exhaustion make an already difficult situation worse. High workloads at the end of the semesters cause a significant portion of engineering majors to burn-out and switch majors.

    My solution to dealing with the end of semester stress? Start early. Procrastination is a killer in engineering colleges. I would go so-far as to buy textbooks in advance and study on my own during the summer and winter breaks to get a head-start on the classes for the next semester. I would also download the freebie or 30-day trial licensed versions of the software that was going to be used in the next semester’s classes and run through some beginner tutorials. I even bought a couple of books on how to use some software to help me scale the learning curve.

    I’ll admit, I am probably not the fastest learner. That’s why I had to adopt the pro-active “pre-study” strategy. That was a way I was able to reduce the stress of learning; Learn most of the basic material before the semester even begins on my own, then focus my energy on the projects during the semester. So many students short-change themselves when it comes to actually learning and understanding the course material. They do it because there isn’t enough time to learn the subject well. That kind of strategy is unacceptable to me. If I need to slow down a little bit instead of glossing over the details, so be it. Slow does not equate to dumb. I received the high score on the fundamentals of engineering exam the year I took it. I didn’t even study that much for it. I was able to remember most of the material from the classes I had taken.

  7. It really helps to live with someone who doesn’t want stuff, or clutter. If you live with a packrat or hoarder, it’s much more difficult to declutter. I realized this recently, because I’m married to a wonderful man who likes to keep his stuff, just in case he needs it one day…

  8. Hello, Fellow De-clutter People: A few more ways I plan to get, and stay, de-cluttered: (1) ask family and friends that buy gifts on special occassions, to give gifts that are expendable, instead of what-nots, pictures and candles. (2)Think “dusting, dusting.” (3)Pass special items along now instead of later. Especially bulky ones. (4)Most importantly – Resist the urge to buy items that cause clutter. Stay out of re-sale stores!

  9. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Yes, I saw Dr Phil help that lady in NYC with her incredibly cluttered apartment…he kept asking her what the payoff was, and she finally said it’s more comfortable to keep clutter around than decide what has to go. Something like that.

    I don’t know about her debt, though…that’d be a good show for Dr Phil: how reducing clutter decreases debt!

  10. Hi, on Dr Phil yesterday was a great show about reducing clutter. Dr Phil called the “Got Junk” guys to go and remove it all! That’s what you should do with your debt, too…just take it to the dump :-)

  11. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    I’m the same way, Max! I deplore clutter, I find it suffocating, and I love to be organized.

    And I’m not in debt, either (except for the home mortgage, but some debt just can’t be helped!).

  12. Hello,

    I find clutter to be suffocating. I can’t get work done at the office or relax if I’m surrounded by clutter. Being organized comes naturally to me. I guess it’s not a surprise that I am not overweight and I’m not in debt!

    Thanks for this article,

  13. Thanks for your comment, Valerie — and for sharing this article!

    I detest clutter, and my husband is a bit of a packrat, so we’re usually wrestling over what to keep and what to clear out. I don’t mind if he keeps things out of sight or in his garden shed. But, I do want my as little stuff around me as possible — I like the clean, open feeling.

    Now, that might be a great article…how a minimalist can live with a packrat! Maybe I’ll interview Paula about that next time…

  14. This is a great article. I’ve sent the link to several others.

    I love this comment too: Clutter is like a depressant. You don’t want to do anything because of all the chaos around you, so you tend to be less active as well.


  15. Paula Langguth Ryan

    Good point, Jessica — and reducing clutter does lead to possible weight loss. When you’re able to move around your home, you get more exercise, for starters. But in addition, when your kitchen and dining room table are uncluttered, you tend to eat there, and eat slower and cook and eat healthier meals – so you wind up eating less and eating better quality food, which leads to weight loss.

    Clutter is like a depressant. You don’t want to do anything because of all the chaos around you, so you tend to be less active as well.