Is sleep the secret to better grades?

Exam season is in full swing, exams left and right, so much revision to cram into every night! If this is you, on your fifth caffeinated drink* rereading the algebra coursebook, you may be experiencing burnout and tiredness. “But that’s just part of exams” some of you may be thinking, “you’ve got to push your minds to the limit!” But is there a better way? Do we need to favour productivity over health? Why not both?

*OK, the first step we’ll recommend is to avoid those said caffeinated energy drinks. As much as they claim to give you loads of energy, they’re actually loaded with sugar and, too much of that is going to mess up you functioning routine. Limit your sugar intake and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

The importance of self-care

Whether you’re sitting an exam or taking on a big life challenge, you need to take care of yourself. When you have a deadline, it’s tempting to push yourself to the limit, but this can make things feel more stressful. Instead, focus on YOU. There are lots of last-minute daily actions that can easily help you over the finish line for example: eat a healthy breakfast, get outdoors, and have a break… and most of all get plenty of sleep! 

When you prioritise sleep, you’re setting yourself up for success in all aspects of life. It helps you feel happier, more alert and ready to take on the world. When you sleep, all the information your mind takes in throughout the day gets processed and stored. Ready for when you need it, for example, exams! Little to no sleep means little to no memory of revision. And all those cram revisions become a waste of time. It may seem counterproductive at first, but sleep is efficient. Sleep is healthy, energising! So, how do we improve our sleep? 

Sleep Hygiene

No, sleep hygiene is not about being clean. But that said, a shower and freshly made bed can do wonders. Instead, it is about creating the most optimal bedtime experience, guaranteed to get a decent 8 to 10 hours a night. And that’s 8 to 10 hours straight, not in bits here and there. You may be thinking, “What if I just slept 4 hours now, and made up the other 4 hours this weekend?” That is what we call Sleep Debt, and sorry to say, does not work like that! If anything, you’ll only struggle to get any good sleep later.  

Do something relaxing before sleep, like reading, light exercising, or a bath! And by reading, we mean anything but revision or with a screen. The time you spend before sleep is crucial to getting you relaxed and tired, anything stimulating is a big no. Revision is important and we understand the clock is ticking, but if your brain is full of math equations and anxiety, you’ll be rolling over several times trying every side of the pillow.  

Do you study on your bed? Watch videos? Eat? If it’s anything but sleep, find a new spot! You want to build an association with your bed to sleep. Just sleep. Anything else, and your mind will wander to procrastinations that will keep you up with hour-long video essays about topics you have never heard about before. When your head hits the pillow at your regular time, your brain will instinctually fall asleep. 

What if I am Still Struggling to Sleep?

This is a process, not an instant step to success! The first night especially will be hard, you are teaching your brain a new routine. If you are wide awake and unable to sleep, just get up. Use up that remaining energy in the day by doing something relaxing and mindless. Hot milk or snuggling in freshly laundry-dried clothes can help you reach that sleep sweet spot. Likewise with warm baths or showers, stepping out and cooling off lowers your core temperature to what your body associates with sleep. 

Alternatively, do something a little more active like some light stretches. If it’s your mind keeping you up, filled with too many thoughts to rest, write it down. The act of writing is you actively engaging in those thoughts, which is the most you can do at a late hour. Let the thoughts leave your mind and enter the page. In a sense, you are making it tomorrow’s problem. Not every night will be perfect but eventually, it will get easier! And when your next exam arrives and you sit there full of energy and all the revision memorised, it will be all worth it! 

If you found this useful and would like to learn more life skills to help you in exams and beyond, check out our book “Don’t Get Your Neck Tattooed.” Helping you create healthy habits, much like sleeping, to build a positive mindset. Remember you are the most important person in your life, so it’s time to put yourself first! 

For more information on this topic

Listen to our ‘Y for You | Self-care in Exam Season’ podcast episode.

Z to A of Life Skills Podcast with Mark and Jules Kennedy.

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