Are you having trouble maintaining focus? Feeling anxious or unusually irritable? Prone to angry outbursts? Eating and sleeping too little or too much? Feeling tired or exhausted? Maybe even more than a little anxious or panicky? If you’re browsing online posts about studying for the bar exam (like this one!) and experiencing one or more of these symptoms on a regular basis, there’s a good chance that you personally are somewhere in the thick of studying for the bar exam.
No doubt, preparing for the bar exam is a stressful and anxiety-producing ordeal. Bar studiers frequently experience any number of the above-mentioned symptoms. Although you may feel comforted by the fact that your symptoms are fairly normal and that – once you actually take the exam – they are likely to subside, you almost certainly will benefit from taking steps throughout your preparation to alleviate your stress and anxiety.
Stress negatively impacts concentration, learning, retention, and productivity. Over the long term, it also can contribute to negative physical and mental health outcomes like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and panic disorder.
Of course, if you want to practice law, there is really no way to get around taking the bar exam (unless you graduated from a law school in Wisconsin, the only state in the country that allows graduates of in-state schools to practice law without first taking and passing a bar exam). Thus, experiencing some amount of stress is inevitable. Hence, the old saying – “If you can’t go around it, you’ll just have to go through it” – applies.
With that said, there are ways to do more than just outlive the stress you are experiencing. In fact, a few simple practices can help you successfully minimize its impact on your studies, your exam performance, and your physical and mental health. Here are three you can try right now:
1. Get on Top of Your To-Do List
One of the most effective ways to reduce stress is to minimize its source. (Or, metaphorically speaking, if a dragon is getting in your way and causing you problems, you need to tame it.) Your stress will only build during your bar preparation if, at the end of each day, you’re not sure what you’ve accomplished or what you should be planning to accomplish the next day.
To help you stay focused, keep a daily and weekly checklist of tasks, and periodically review your progress. This will provide you with a much-needed sense of accomplishment over time. Note how much you’ve learned since your last progress-check in terms of content memorization and your exam-taking skills. Also, periodically evaluate your areas of challenge and adjust your schedule to focus more time in those areas. Taking time to assess your progress in these ways will help build your confidence and, correspondingly, reduce your stress and anxiety as you approach the exam.
2. Clear the Clutter
Some students find that having clutter in their study area increases their stress levels, preventing them from obtaining maximum learning efficiency. They find it essential to regularly de-clutter and organize their workspace. If you’re a student who needs to clean in order to concentrate, there is no problem with allowing yourself 10-15 minutes here and there to “spiff up” your surroundings between larger blocks of study time. Your studies are bound to be more effective if you are not feeling constantly distracted by the dishes in the kitchen sink, the laundry that needs to be folded, or the piles of mail collecting on your desk. Just be careful not to allow your urge to organize to become an end unto itself.
Be vigilant about retaining and protecting dedicated blocks of study time. Avoid any sort of distraction during these blocks that prevents you from fully focusing, even an arguably good one like cleaning. In other words, go ahead and address your need to clean and eliminate clutter. Just be careful not to allow your proclivity for neatness and organization to devolve into the potentially dangerous habit of procrastination.
3. Seek Joy (Even in Studying for the Bar Exam!)
If you’re having trouble finding joy in the middle of your bar preparation marathon, you probably need to adjust your perspective. As a starting point, I recommend listening to the “The Comeback Kid” episode of the Seek the Joy podcast by Sydney Weiss, a recent law school graduate who passed the California bar exam on her second attempt. In this episode, Sydney details a number of adverse personal, health, and mindset issues that negatively affected her performance on her first attempt. Her story about what came next is truly inspiring – how adopting a more positive perspective and focusing on the things she needed to do to support her personal and emotional health led to her second-round success.
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