Mental Fatigue, Well Being and Confidence

How we process information has an impact on confidence and self-esteem

In my confidence building workshops and coaching I take a holistic approach. It’s not just about tips and tricks to appear confident. It’s about working from the inside-out too. It’s also about using basic human psychology to unlock inherent abilities.

One of the most visited posts on this blog is aimed at mental fatigue when studying. However the basic message doesn’t just apply to students. Feeling tired mentally will have an impact on how we all process information. This has a knock on effect in terms of confidence and self-esteem. The main ingredients for dealing with mental fatigue are: keep hydrated, exercise, breathing exercises, check your posture, eat healthily and build variety (and novelty) into your life and work schedule.

We’re All Water – Hydration and Mental Fatigue

Professional athletes know the importance of staying hydrated. It’s not just that we need water on a physical level but also at a psychological level. Even if we are dehydrated by a few percent this can have a negative impact on our ability to process information. So why make things more difficult when a humble glass of water can have a positive impact on our cognitive processing abilities? However, don’t over do it. A glass of water on your desk and a few sips might make all the difference. It’s a question of remaining hydrated not drowning in the stuff!

Health body, healthy mind

Tests on various brain training activities have found that the best way to boost memory is to spend just twenty minutes on a running machine rather than hours on a brain training machine. The mind needs time to recuperate and the increase in oxygen uptake is more effective than solving puzzles. Just a break away from your desk and go for a walk will have a positive impact. Perhaps a few sit-ups or squats in your breaks from study. Mental fatigue often occurs because we have created an imbalance by overdoing the mental activity. Taking a holistic approach helps to redress the balance. It’ll also help you get into better shape.

Take a deep breath and beat mental fatigue

Again top athletes know the value of breathing exercises. When stressed we breathe more shallowly. When relaxed we breathe more deeply. By practicing breathing exercises we take control of our stress response. When we are in a relaxed state we take ourselves out of survival mode. Being relaxed improves our ability to absorb information. By taking control of our breathing, our pattern-seeking brain assumes we are more relaxed too.

Check your posture – boost your attention

Having good posture is associated with confidence and other positive mental states. We we feel ‘down in the dumps’ we slump down in our chair. When something interests us we sit up and take notice! So check you posture for signs of tension. Are you carrying the proverbial weight of the world on your shoulders. Having a break, taking a deep breath, stretching and doing a bit of physical exercise can improve your posture. It will give you a confidence boost and once again send positive signals to the brain. The brain works with congruence and so adds to your positive state.

Food and mood – eat healthily and think healthily

When stressed we often reach for the junk food – the comfort food. This might temporarily give you an emotional boost. However it is more likely to create spikes in your blood sugar followed by the lows. During the lows you may be tempted to hit a bit more junk food. However this creates a vicious cycle. Instead, if you practice all of the things already discussed you are much more likely to boost your cognitive processing. The temptation, when facing a tough deadline, is to go for a quick fix. However it’s a false economy. Quick fixes actually slow us down in the long run.

It’s not just a cliché, variety really is the spice of life

In information terms, variety really is the spice of life and it’s also true that a change is as good as a rest. Fixating on one activity for too long can tire us out mentally. It’s as if we have little power sources attached to each of our senses. Students most commonly pick a strategy for exam revision and stick to it. All this achieves is that it depletes one of the power sources and so mental fatigue occurs. It becomes more of a struggle to retain information. The temptation is to embrace the ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy and just press on with more of the same. You won’t break through a mental fatigue barrier. It will only make matters worse. So what do you do?

Instead, I advise students to switch tasks. This taps into different power sources and gives the depleted sources a change to recharge. Use mind maps, draw diagrams, use picture based cue cards. In short anything to create variety and interest in the task. Surprisingly human attention span is only about 20 minutes at full capacity. After that our ability to absorb information reduces quite dramatically. So sitting there for hours without a break is counterproductive. The answer is to take a break or switch task, or better still incorporate both. When I’m studying or writing, I usually do so in intensive 30 minute blocks with short breaks in between.  I also have a proper lunch away from my desk and make sure I go out for a walk in the fresh air.

Positive mental attitude and fatigue

Things are more tiring if we are met with resistance and this can be our own mental resistance. If we resent doing something it adds to the burden. It’s important to be philosophical. We can’t like everything we have to do in life but if we look carefully enough we will find at least something to like about it. It can be as simple as recognizing our own personal resilience and resolve in tackling a task we don’t like!

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodAll of these points taken together create a powerful mental fatigue prevention programme. The reason for the efficacy of these tips is that they work with human psychology rather than work against it thus building confidence in your own inherent abilities.

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Studying, Highlighter Pens, Defacing Books and Learning

Scribbling on Books

Picture: Highlighting Books is NOT an active learning strategy

Highlighting books is NOT an active learning strategy

One of my pet hates is seeing books covered in fluorescent highlighter pen. On one occasion I lent a student a pristine, personal copy of a book that was in high demand in the library. My reward? It came back defaced in highlighter pen!  I was not pleased and the student didn’t seem to see it as a problem. I recently found out that one of my favourite writers, Oscar Wilde, would routinely scribble in the margins of his personal books. For some people it’s part of an active learning process. Hopefully, most would agree that it’s unacceptable to daub library books and other people’s books with your own personal thoughts (and ‘pretty’ colours). However, is the practice of daubing a book with highlighter pen a good learning technique?

Annotating Books: A Good Learning Technique?

As much as I disapprove of both, there is a fundamental difference in terms of learning between writing notes on books and daubing fluorescent highlighter pen on books. The Wildean approach is all about engaging with the material at a deeper level. Highlighting bits of a book is surface response ‘Ooh that looks as if it might be interesting’. Recognizing that something might be useful is at much shallower level than adding your own thoughts about the material.

Deep versus Shallow Learning

Students often engage in shallow learning techniques such as repeatedly (but passively) reading through notes (and using highlighter pens). Another favourite is recording lectures. There’s also photocopying. All of them require some form of action and some a great deal of effort. The problem is that they create the illusion of learning rather than actually learning. It’s important to engage with the material on a deeper level. Reader through notes only aids recognition not recall. You recognize the material when you see it which is not much use in an exam. You need to be able to recall it, spontaneously. Highlight falls into the same category, for the reasons described above. Recording lectures allows you to put in less effort at processing the information during the lecture. Often people don’t actually listen to their recordings or if they do, it’s only passively. Unless you have a sensory impairment you would be much better off paying attention in lectures and focus on trying to get the gist of the material. It’s more helpful to write down questions that occur during the lectures. These questions will help to guide and shape your reading after the lecture. The lecture is the starting point of your learning, not the be-all-and-end-all!

Students seem to have an almost passionate affair with the photocopier and copy much more material than copyright laws allow and much more than they can usually read. There’s no point in copying material if you are not going to read it. The knowledge will not be transmitted by a form of osmosis! It’s probably a much better strategy to spend time in the library, read the passage and make your own notes, not on the book, in your note pad! Of course some universities wantonly profiteer from photocopying and arguably turn a blind eye to breaches of copyright law (despite the notices). Surely you have noticed how much more expensive it is to photocopy on campus than at a local shop? You are just topping up your fees and you’re not necessarily learning. Owning a pile of paper is not the same as knowledge.

A Better Strategy for Learning

If you spend time writing stuff in your notepad you already engage more cognitive processes. If you read a passage in a book don’t just copy it out. Pause, think about it and write it down in your own words. The idea is that you condense the material rather than faithfully reproduce it.

If you photocopy material then go though it and make your own notes in the margins. Add some of your own thoughts. Make connections to other areas of knowledge. Write down some questions and then research them.

If you record your lectures (and assuming you have permission from lecturers to make recordings) then review the material afterwards. Make a written summary of the recording. You don’t need a word by word account. Personally, I wouldn’t bother recording on a routine basis. It encourages laziness. Better to engage fully at the time.

Being an Active Learning and Building Confidence

Active learning is much more likely to lead to understanding than is the passive, daub-on-it-record-it-photocopy-it approach. Passive learning is also very boring.  Just putting in time is not studying. Just being there is not enough! You have to participate more fully in the learning experience. The extra effort in actively engaging with learning will save you time in the end and help you to achieve better grades. Active learning is also more likely to build confidence in your abilities as you understand what you are learning and are able to recall it more readily and make connections.

So please stop daubing over your books and other people’s books. If you want to colour something in, then buy a colouring book.

Check out these posts on study skills:

Mental Preparation: Look for What Sparkles

As a coaching psychologist I’m often asked for tips on mental preparation for interviews, exams or presentations. Recently I was asked for help on something that didn’t really fit any of those categories and so I used a technique that I used in coaching, called ‘looking for what sparkles’.

Personal Resourcefulness

At the beginning of the first coaching session I spend a little time finding about about how you like to spend your time. It’s not idle chit-chat. What I’m looking for is a topic where you come alive more. So that might be flower arranging, baking, horse-riding or what ever else ‘floats your boat’. It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it’s somewhere or doing something where you lose sense of yourself and feel more resourceful. Once you have discovered what sparkles in your life, you can transfer it to another less resourceful area or task.

Learning by Association

We learn by making associations between concepts, ideas, thoughts and events (classical conditioning). Think about Pavlov’s somewhat cruel experiments with dogs at feeding time. The dogs learned to associate the sound of a bell with food and eventually would salivate over the mere sounding of the bell. One of the most evocative aromas in British culture is the small of fish and chips. We can’t help pass a chip shop and have positive memories flooding back of family holidays and so on. We can use this innate ability to make associations to prepare for new challenges.

The Luxury of Learning

Having taken a fair few exams one of the importance of the context of learning was perhaps the most important thing I learned. In academic coaching I work with students who haven’t yet made the connection between attitude and knowledge retention. They resent the time spent revising for exams when they could be out enjoying life’s many luxuries. I suggest that learning is a luxury. Everything above basic survival is a luxury.  We then discuss ways to make studying more enjoyable. Now for me that was getting in some great coffee and biscuits and creating a really comfortable place to learn. Resentment acts as a barrier to learning. If you let go of the resentment and realize that learning is a luxury and will lead to further luxuries, this positive mental attitude makes learning easier. If you remove the block to learning then ironically you don’t have to spend so much time and working so hard to force the new information in. Context is a vital component of learning. The positive attitude and the positive environment become encoding with the information.

Preparing for New Challenges

One of the main techniques I use for exam preparation  is active rehearsal of the material. I don’t just sit down with the books and try to cram the knowledge in. Not only is it more passive it’s usually quite boring. Instead, I give lectures or presentations to an empty room! I pretend I have an audience and with just a handful of flash-cards or a few brief notes, I stand up and talk to my imaginary group for 20 minutes. If I struggle I can look at my notes but I can’t stop until the 20 minutes is up. What this does is put me under a mild amount of stress and forces me ‘think on my feet’. As new connections occur spontaneously they are added to existing information. Understanding deepens and it becomes more memorable.

Another way it which we can prepare mentally, is to learn the material while we are doing something we love doing. So if you’re preparing for an interview and you love baking, then combine the two. If you’ve got a presentation, rehearse it on horseback. Or it may be something as simple as going for a walk in nature. This is a great way to generate new ideas, connections and associations. Research has shown that a humble walk in the park can help to boost self-esteem (and confidence). You achieve the same by combining learning with something that you love doing.

The new information takes on a positive association with what sparkles in your life and so is easier to recall. Then once you have worked everything out in your head, you can take a more formal approach of dressing up as you would for the presentation, interview or exam and use the ‘lecture to an empty room approach’ and talk for 20 minutes.

Finally, when studying or preparing for anything, never underestimate the effects of a relaxation.

The Importance of Relaxation

When we are stressed we switch to survival mode which tends to narrow our range of thoughts and behaviours. When we are relaxed, that range is broadened. The effects of working with what sparkles in your life is that you are more likely to be in a relaxed state and are able to tap into a broader range of emotions and cognitions. In short, you are more resourceful. So never underestimate the benefits of taking two minutes out of your busy schedule to take a few, long, slow deep breaths. It will give you a physical, emotional and mental boost.

So there you have it. Mental preparation is about exploiting a few key, innate learning abilities. Relax, adopt a positive mental attitude and use the associations of what sparkles in your life to create positive context for new learning.

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Dealing With Overwhelm – Step by Step

At times in our lives were are faced with a heap of tasks that seems insurmountable. It’s one big amorphous blob of potential misery with not enough hours in the day to tackle it. Invariably this seemingly unmanageable blob of perceived misery is usually made up of smaller blobs of stuff that are reasonably manageable that we’d prefer not to do. Overwhelm is a form of cognitive overload. There’s just too much information to take in. We simply can’t process the enormity of the task and so we don’t bother. We just sit there and look at it. We become transfixed by it. We can’t possibly start anything else with the blob staring us in the face. And so, the blog gets bigger. We protest that we don’t have enough time to do everything and at the same time we don’t do anything at all.

The cognitive overload (overwhelm) distorts our perception of time. The problem is that we don’t have objective data to counter our subjective response. Here’s an idea, from my coaching practice, to help break the viscous circle. The aim is to find accurate timings for tasks and instil confidence that your abilities to complete tasks.

  1. Break the big blob up into smaller tasks. It’s not going to make them any more appealing but it each one will seem more manageable.
  2. Pick one task, preferably a smallish one that you think you may be able to accomplish relatively quickly.
  3. Do the task and time yourself.
  4. Make note of the timing in a note pad, that you will keep. This becomes the objective evidence that you can look at when you feel overwhelmed.
  5. Repeat the process with other sub-tasks.

What you will find is that the smaller tasks are often completed much quicker than you’d expected. You will also have objective data to call upon next time you are faced with the task.

As a psychology lecturer, it has not been unusual for me to be faced with a pile of more than 100 or 200 student essays to mark (grade). I simply split them up into batches of five, and then tackle those. I put the big pile out of sight and just focus on five at a time. I make a note of how long it takes me to do each batch of five. What usually surprises me is that the essays don’t usually take as long to mark as I first expected. You can apply the same principle to mundane things such as the ironing. Look at the labels in the clothes and create three piles based on the dots on the label. Three dots need a hot iron. Tackle those first, switch the iron setting down to two dots then have a little break to allow the iron to cool. Then tackle the two dots and final the one dot clothes. Make sure you make a note of the timings. Ideally do it a few times until you get your average timings.

What this “break-it-up and time-it approach” does is it creates smaller more manageable tasks and it provided objective data.

I now know that after an elaborate dinner party where I’ve used used just about every utensil in the place, it only takes about half an hour to wash them. When I first look at the pile it looks as though it’s going to take a three times that. Now that I have the data, my perceptions have changed and my feeling of overwhelm has reduced. Conduct your own personal experiments to see how it works for you.

Based on material from: Book: Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out to Meet It

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Preventing Mental Fatigue – Good Study Habits

drgarywood_blog_subscribe copyAny one who has ever studied hard knows how tiring it can be. Many consider studying to be a boring but “necessary evil”. However, boredom don’t have to come with the territory. The old adage that  “variety is the spice of life” definitely applies to study life. Furthermore, reducing the boredom can also reduce the mental fatigue.

We take in information through out five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell), but mainly through sight, hearing and touch. If we think of each of these senses as having separate energy sources to run them, it helps to explain why we suffer mental fatigue. These energy sources are rechargeable but we can drain them faster if we over use one of them. So boredom, is really a warning signal that we need to do something different. The best way to avoid mental fatigue is to switch activities regularly so that the focus is not on just one sense for long periods of time. So read through your notes, condense notes, use mind maps or spider diagrams, asking and answering questions and so on.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodThe same principle applies to the business world and everyday life. Creating variety in tasks and making sure you involve more of your senses will help prevent mental fatigue. Finally, never underestimate the power of a glass of water. Keeping hydrated can help maintain optimal cognitive functioning and boost confidence.

If you found this post useful you may also like: Mental Fatigue, Well Being and Confidence. For other study related posts see the following links and please do consider using the buttons below to like this post and share with others.

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17 Top Study Skills Tips From a Psychologist and Lecturer

Applying principles from psychology, learning theory and teaching practice will take the guess work out of studying for exams. Here are some top tips that have worked well for me as a student, a psychology lecturer and for my students. You can also adapt these for driving test or preparing for presentations. Some of these tips are also useful for confidence building.

Study Skills Top Tips:

  1. Information sinks in better if we start with a positive attitude, so don’t be resentful, recognise the privilege of studying and actually ‘enjoy’ the experience.
  2. Begin each study session with some deep breathing exercises. Use the Two Minute Stress Buster throughout the day in your short breaks.
  3. Drink water throughout the day as dehydration can lead to a reduction in your cognitive functions. However, don’t force yourself to drink too much – just enough so you don’t feel thirsty.
  4. Avoid junk food and eat those all important fresh fruits and vegetables.
  5. After the first day, the first 30 mins of study should be a brief review of the material you covered the previous day. This is easy,  it gets you ‘in the mood’ and it helps with retention.
  6. Try to study in the same place as a routine. Context is very important in memory recall. Memories of where you study are automatically linked with the facts.  In exams, don’t panic, instead of trying to force the information out, begin by closing your eyes, taking some deep breaths and imagining your study space. This will help to release the study material associated with your study space.
  7. If you have to listen to music while studying, just choose something instrumental that just helps focus your mind and block out distractions. Lyrics just get in the way.
  8. Create variety in your study routine so that you don’t get bored. Try mind-mapping, condensing notes, asking yourself test questions etc.
  9. Try  giving  non-stop 20 minute presentations (to an imaginary audience on a topic) with only a handful of cue cards. Even if you falter you have to keep going and deliver the whole presentation. The act of keeping on going helps to build and strengthen associations between different facts and makes it more likely that you are using your own words.  At the end of each presentation, review where you got stuck, and try it again.
  10. Revise in shorter sessions (30 mins) with small breaks in between to prevent mental fatigue.
  11. Try this study routine: Morning: 30 mins study, 5 min break, 30 mins; 5 min break; 30 mins, 5 min break; 30 mins; 15 minute break – for which you should get away from your study space. Repeat again, but this time you can have lunch after 40×30 min sessions. Repeat for afternoon up until dinner time.
  12. Five sit-ups or press-ups in the short breaks will also help limit mental fatigue, and you may end up with a toned-stomach at the end of it.
  13. Create a study timetable where sandwich the subjects you don’t like between the ones you do.
  14. Practice relaxation exercises (eyes closed and take long slow deep breaths) – see my Two Minute Stress Buster post.
  15. Get out in the fresh air, in daylight everyday, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
  16. Get exercise – build this into to your weekly study timetable.
  17. Don’t study right up until bed time, this can ruin your sleep. Instead, spend the last hour relaxing before you go to bed.

Wishing you happier and more productive studying.

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