Opinion | Tips for a very merry finals week

By Julia Kreutzer, Senior Staff Columnist

If you’d asked me a week ago what I was thankful for, near the top of my list would be a full week of Thanksgiving break.

I imagined myself diving into my favorite books of poetry under my weighted blanket, finishing the final season of “Schitt’s Creek” and gorging myself on pounds of mashed potatoes with my loved ones all week long. However, I spent much of my break in my hometown Starbucks writing essays and cuddled up with some not-so-light comparative politics readings. The reality of an extended break is, evidently, a to-do list that grew right with it.

Now that we’ve returned to our homes away from home, the workload has only grown. With finals week upon us and the dreaded pre-finals-finals week behind us, it may seem the task of balancing rest and academics has only become more arduous. Additionally, the extended break seems to have ushered in another obstacle — a cut in the amount of time between returning from holiday recess and the kick off of finals week.

Typically, students have two weeks to prepare for exams and complete an often overwhelming list of assignments. This year, there is seemingly no divide between preparing for holidays and completing an exorbitant amount of work.

While the final stretch before winter break is one of the busiest times of the year academically, the holiday season can be a particularly difficult time for those of us trying to manage mental health struggles like depression and anxiety, according to the Banyan Treatment Center. During this time especially, it’s imperative we find ways to balance a sleigh-full of responsibilities and stressors.

According to WebMD, many people experience symptoms of the “holiday blues” due to factors like stress, fatigue, unrealistic expectations or over-commercialization. For some, however, even for folks who do not consider themselves chronically depressed, these feelings can spiral into seasonal depression and bring on stress responses like headaches and insomnia.

This year, we may be rotating between digging through a semester’s worth of notes to find the definition of Glavgolodnosteptsroi — a real word I have to write an essay on this week — and scrounging up the funds for gift exchanges. While certain elements of holiday prep can encourage negative psychological responses, by understanding what you are most equipped to handle on a given day, you can limit your likelihood of experiencing such symptoms and lean into the holiday spirit, while still acing our last week of the semester.

Say no to that random Pollyanna with students from your academic foundations class if it will bring you more stress than it’s worth for the payoff of a limited edition Bath and Body Works hand sanitizer from a kid who you’re almost positive is named Bobby. Avoid holiday parties that conflict with finals prep or simply ones you don’t feel like attending. This year in particular, we must balance these stressors with the additional tasks on our to do lists.

One of the best ways to accomplish this is to be prepared for the effects of the holiday slump. Plan out your week ahead of time so you know exactly what to expect. Google Calendar and a festive planner are your new best friends. Think about when your most productive hours are and plan some study dates with friends in Hillman to make use of those spurts. Think about a good day to go ice skating downtown or when your favorite show’s holiday special is airing. Preemptively blocking out time for both productivity and rest can help make sure you’re prioritizing balance.

In a similar vein, time management is not only the key to surviving finals week, but can help lessen the stress of the season. Occupational psychologist Emma Donaldson-Feilder explains how working harder is not always working smarter.

“As a general rule, taking at least 30 minutes away from your desk will help you to be more effective in the afternoon,” she said. “Go for a walk outdoors or, better still, do some exercise … you’ll come back to your desk re-energised, with a new set of eyes and renewed focus.”

It’s important to give yourself a break from being under those horrible fluorescent lights in Hillman and venture out into the world, even if it’s just to grab a quick bite at Market or take a yoga class at the Stress Free Zone in the William Pitt Union. Many of us know self care goes hand in hand with productivity, but the culture of finals week often encourages us to believe that the more overworked you are, the better student you are. Resist the pressure to camp out in the library and be cognizant of what your body needs. 

You can also bypass the sometimes toxic culture of finals week by knowing who to study with and which friends may be better partners for a dinner break. While studying with peers can help motivate you, it’s easy to fall into the traps of comparison or distraction. Remind yourself it’s okay, and maybe even more productive, to have some time alone on the fourth floor of Hillman or at your own desk. 

One of my favorite ways to escape the chaos of finals week and enjoy some holiday cheer is to get out of Oakland altogether. Get dinner in Shadyside or Squirrel Hill to change things up — I promise Market will be waiting when you return. Try studying in a new coffee shop — some of my favorites are Rock’n’Joe in Market Square and The Abbey on Butler Street in Lawrenceville. Not only will these places likely be a bit less crowded, as in not filled with three colleges’ worth of students writing final papers, but since study environments have a dramatic effect on productivity, finding a new go-to spot may even help boost your productivity. Preferences on privacy, noise, scents, mood and temperature can impact your ability to study most effectively, according to Chegg.

Finally, reward yourself. Make goals, meet them and give yourself a treat. For example, commit to writing four pages of your final term paper before you wind down the night with a Hallmark holiday movie. This can also be as simple as rewarding yourself with five- or 10-minute breaks every time you finish a page or memorize a chapter’s worth of concepts.

While navigating holiday planning, preparing for finals and tying up loose ends before leaving campus for a month, ‘tis the season to prioritize your mental health. While the final weeks of the semester have brought an unusually long list of stressors, there is nothing quite like getting to round out the semester in beautifully decorated Nationality Rooms or sipping on a special-edition peppermint hot chocolate with Cathy in her most festive get-up. By taking some small preparative steps, emphasizing time management, changing your environment and setting goals, you can survive the final push.

Julia is a sophomore majoring in English Writing and Political Science. She writes mostly about social issues and politics. Write to Julia at [email protected].