With exam season upon us and students facing periods when they’ll need to work really hard, under stress, and still need their best energy and focus and wellness, it occurred to me that some of the things I do to keep myself well and strong through exhausting times could be useful for exam students. It’s all about taking control by planning: working out what the challenges will be and where the pressure points are and finding as many solutions as possible. Taking control of what we can. It’s NOT about coffee.
“Your schedule sounds exhausting,” is a comment I often get. My schedule isn’t always exhausting – I have plenty of days when I’m sitting at my desk working hard, which isn’t exhausting. But sometimes, yes, I have a gruelling schedule of events and travelling. Last week, for example, I went to Turkey, which involved several very early mornings, four flights, a country where I speak none of the language, nine tough sessions over three days, a mind-boggling combination of topics and a mass of preparation, both for the actual talks and for the journeys. I reckon it occupied two weeks. And I lost weight.
The week after next, I have a mad schedule that’s concerning me. On the Monday, I’m going to Buckinghamshire to do three talks, finishing about 9pm. I then have to go to London that night and stay in a hotel, before a very early start for a school event at 8.25am. I will rush from that to South London to speak at an education conference. From there to a publisher meeting before heading home, arriving home late evening. The next morning I’m driving to Bedford, again leaving early, for two sessions in a school there. Then driving home, about two hours each way. Each talk will be different, which is challenging – need to remember to say the right thing at the right time!
Next month, I’m going to Dubai twice. First for a week to speak at a conference where I’m doing four sessions to unpredictable but high-powered international audiences; I’ll arrive home on the Friday and leave again for Dubai on the Sunday morning for the Emirates Literature festival. Book festivals are exhausting even if you don’t have to do many sessions. I admit I’m being very well looked after for these UAE trips, and flying Business Class, which helps a lot, but there’s still a lot of stress and mental energy to factor in and lots of unpredictability, which is more stress and mental energy.
On any work trip, my absolute priority is that I do the very best job possible. It’s not enough just to be good enough. My career depends on my reputation for speaking as much as reputation for writing. The worst-case scenario for me is that I feel unwell and that it affects my performance. Since I know the science behind why and how stress (in all its forms) affects performance (including via wellbeing) I have the knowledge and tools but I have to put them into practice.
So, how do I keep myself fit and well despite often burning a mass of energy?
How am I preparing for my rather scary schedule in Bucks, London and Bedford in a couple of weeks? Time for my Table of Wellbeing!
For me, wellbeing is like a four-legged table. The four legs are 1. Food and Water 2. Exercise 3. Sleep and 4. Relaxation. As with any four-legged table, if just one of those is weak, the whole table collapses.
So, I do everything in my power to keep each table leg strong, even if the actions might be very small: each action helps me feel in control of my wellbeing. Wellbeing means energy and fitness and focus and power.
In practical terms, what does this mean?
So, let’s look at the scary schedule coming up in a couple of weeks, the Bucks/London/Bedford one.
First, I scrutinise my time-table and work out the potential problem points. For the trip in question, the potential problems are:
- Not enough time between the first two events. My talks are not like lessons, where a teacher would be sometimes getting the class to do something: these are solo performances and burn extra energy. Also, the audiences for this particular day are large, with several year groups at a time. I’m always more exhausted after a large group of Year 9/10s than a small group of the same age.
- Lunch involves talking to students and interested teachers so I won’t get to eat. Food is crucial. Lettuce will feature. Lettuce is not helpful.
- Probably the time-table won’t actually happen as it’s written, because it’s a school book festival and they’re always a bit fluid. So any free time allocated will be likely to shrink.
- A very late arrival at my hotel in London, without having eaten.
- A likely short night with an early start on Day 2. Likelihood of broken sleep.
- Need to eat between the early school event and the HMC event, but no time.
- Late arrival home and no one to cook for me (husband away).
- Early start for Day 3 and tiring day with two longish drives (I get sleepy while driving).
- Switching between all the different talks and audiences will be tough.
My solutions (the numbers don’t relate to the challenges):
- Alert the Day 1 organiser to the fact that I need a bit more time on my own. Asking for the time I need is something I’ve learnt to do and something I teach others. Not everyone needs it but introverts do and I’m a high-functioning introvert, which means I look as though I’m managing perfectly well in an extrovert world but I’m burning energy at a faster rate than you might think. You want me to work well? Give me the time I need.
- Ask for forensic detail about the schedule: “Will the students be registering at the start of the session?” (This subtracts time from the talk, which is very stressful if I’m not prepared, as my talks always have too much in them anyway!) “How close is that venue to the other venue?” “How long to get to the station?” And ask for any adjustments necessary. This is not diva behaviour: we will all gain from it.
- Take excellent food with me to make sure I don’t lack energy. This means lots of nuts and fruit, and porridge pots for the morning when I won’t have time for the hotel breakfast. I have a favourite baker – Bothams of Whitby – and I order their Nutty Jack before any trip like this, as it’s packed with protein and energy. I make sure I have water, obviously, and also plenty of herbal teabags, which I find very calming and good for my voice. I take a brilliantly insulated cup so that I can carry this tea all the time. I ensure I’ll never be hungry before or during an event. The brain can’t work well without food and I need my brain to be working very well.
- I will bank sleep. In the days leading up to the week, I will get the best sleep I can. I won’t panic about it because I know adrenalin will carry me through, but I’ll do very sensible things in the evening, to help me be sleepy: winding down, reading a relaxing book, avoiding caffeine, switching off my phone in good time.
- I will try to keep up my exercise. I run 5k three times a week and I won’t be able to do this on those three days, but I can do it twice at the weekend and then on Thursday and Friday. Although I’ll be burning energy for the three days, and on my feet most of the time, going for a run is relaxing and makes me feel good so I will do my best to do it but not beat myself up if I don’t.
- Relaxation is essential but it won’t be easy. I’ll take a novel with me and make myself read it before bed. In a hotel it’s easy to keep looking at my phone, which otherwise wouldn’t be in my bedroom, so a good novel will help. I’ll also take ear-phones so I can relax with music on a train.
- I need to make sure I have an easy meal at home, all ready to cook when I get in. Cottage pie is best for this!
- I will make sure I have food and drink in the car to give me energy while driving, too. And I’ll stop for a coffee if I feel the need.
- Proper preparation for all the talks is obvious, but an extra trick is to make sure I get 5 minutes before each talk to go over what I’m about to say. This means I may need to tell whoever is talking to me to stop talking to me!
- I’ll also prepare what I have to take with me, with everything ready during the weekend before the trip, and lists of what I need to remember. The more I can take off my mental inbox, the more my mind is a) free to think and b) unworried by practical details.
- I will avoid coffee and caffeine from lunchtime onwards. Caffeine is great for keeping energy levels up but it hangs around in the body and affects sleep and stress levels. I’d rather keep my energy up with food and relaxation and still be able to sleep.
- I will make sure I have a reward planned for after it’s all over.
- I will remind myself that I can do this and that adrenalin will carry me through. And that afterwards I will be wiped but satisfied. And that is part of the reward.
After working all that out, I still had a point of concern: the early drive to Bedford on the final morning. It will be rush-hour and I’ll be tired. I’d obviously looked at trains (always my first option) but there’s a bus replacement laid on so I’m not doing that! So, I’ve decided to stay a second night in London. The cost will be very little different and I avoid some risks and some energy loss and probably get an extra two hours of sleep. Win win!
Exam students: what can you learn from this to control your own energy levels during your challenge ahead? What particular pressure points are there, days when your time-table looks most scary? How can you take control of your food, improve your sleep chances, build in relaxation?
For extra tips especially about exam stress, see my ebook, Exam Attack. Individuals can buy it here or schools can buy a perpetual school licence here, giving a copy to every student in the school, forever. (Members of the SLA can get a generous discount on the school licence. See the members section of the SLA website.)
We can’t control everything but we are perfectly capable of functioning well through stressful and tiring times. If we can focus our mind on the things we can control, we can help our brain and body work brilliantly. Go for it!
Thanks to young artist, Katherine Lynas, for my two new illustrations. Katherine has provided a range of illustrations I use in presentations and on my website. Let me know if you want to get in touch with her – she’s fab!