Smarter, Not Harder

Posted by Sam on April 21, 2016

Academic Success | The Vari Reel

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Boy sitting on a beach.

The life of a student can be complicated. Study too much and you can experience burnout, but study too little and you’re seen as lazy and incapable. No truer is this than during the most wonderful time of the year, by which of course I mean exam season.

Your room is a mess, the emptiness of your kitchen cupboards could put a model home to shame, the seams of your laundry bag are on the verge of bursting and the amount of takeout packaging on your desk could cover a king-sized mattress. That’s what two and a half weeks of exam/final project period will do to you. The grit and lack of personal hygiene all appear worth it, however, when you confidently stride out of your final exam with a deep exhale of celebration.

Leo Dicaprio walking happily.

So there you are on a Wednesday afternoon, a free man/woman. You hop over to Falafel Hut for a wrap from the value menu, and begin your trek home with the full intention of doing absolutely nothing for the remainder of the day. As you walk through the Curtis Lecture Halls, you notice the number of students still buried under their books. While you mostly feel a sense of relief that you no longer have to join them, a small part of you feels a twinge of guilt. Sure you worked hard over the past few weeks, but looking at all these students still with their heads in the books, the idea of relaxation isn’t as appealing as you thought it would be. Herein lies the problem.

As you get older and develop a greater sense of responsibility, the question of when you are deserving of a break appears to be a constant a source of debate. As university students, we are surrounded by high-striving individuals on a daily basis (professors, classmates, etc.), sometimes skewing our perception of when we are worthy of relaxation. Granted, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this scenario; “surround yourself with people smarter than you,” as the saying goes. But while the company of hardworking, smart people can make for incredible motivation, it can also diminish your ability to know when to ease off.

I remember reading a New York Times article a few years back called “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive,” which, as the title implies, dealt with the importance of relaxation. The article was written by Tony Schwartz, the CEO of The Energy Project, a company specializing in work efficiency that has lent its services to such companies as Google and Coca-Cola. I suggest you check out the full article, but here are some of the takeaway points:

  • A recent (at the time) Harvard study estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity.
  • In 2006, the accounting firm Ernst & Young did an internal study of its employees and found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their year-end performance ratings from supervisors (on a scale of one to five) improved by 8 per cent.
  • Working in 90-minute intervals, referred to as our Basic Rest-Activity Cycle (BRAC), turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity.

Besides heading The Energy Project, Schwartz has also authored six books. In support of the 90-minute interval theory, he describes the writing process involved in his first three books, during which he stationed himself at his desk for up to 10 hours at a time, in comparison to his two most recent books, during which he made use of three uninterrupted 90-minute writing sessions on a daily basis. The first three books took him at least a year each to finish, whereas his two most recent books only took him six months to complete.

Drawing of a study room.
CC Image courtesy of aesop.

In other words, three spread-out 90-minute sessions, or four and a half hours of writing a day, proved to be 50 per cent more effective than 10 uninterrupted hours of writing a day. Schwartz attributes this to our body’s Basic Rest-Activity Cycle, or BRAC. Discovered by researchers Nathaniel Kleitman and in the 1950s, the BRAC refers to our body’s tendency to sleep in 90-minute cycles, moving in and out of light and deep sleep. A decade later, it was discovered that the BRAC actually takes place during the day as well, the only difference being that our body oscillates between a state of alertness and fatigue. Keep this in mind when studying, as noted in an earlier article of mine called “Making Time.

If you were to condense this article in to one point, it would be that recovery is necessary for optimal performance. When you exercise and put stress on muscle, it’s only during a period of rest that this muscle can recover and thus come back stronger the next time you use it. The same thing can be said about your brain. That’s why after a long exam grind, it’s important to understand the benefits of taking your foot off the gas pedal.

To clarify, taking your foot off the gas pedal does not mean doing nothing for two months. It could be embracing the two or three weeks you have before the beginning of summer school, or maybe even just the two or three days you have before the beginning of a summer work placement. The idea is just to allow yourself some time to rest before throwing yourself back into work mode, whatever shape it might have. Take a day and explore downtown, walk through the cherry blossoms in High Park (FYI, they tend to bloom late April, early May), read that book you’ve been meaning to. My blogging colleague Rebecca made a few other great suggestions earlier this week. You will come back refreshed, physically and mentally prepared to perform better than ever.

Two men walking through a busy crowd.

Taking time to yourself when you have earned it does not mean that you are a slacker. It can boost productivity and provide unique perspectives unrealized when under stress (ever notice that you sometimes think of the answer to a problem while doing something completely unrelated?). So remember to take advantage of these periods of deceleration when you can. Happy relaxing.


Sam recently graduated with an Honours BA in Communications.

See other posts by Sam