Wednesday, June 3, 2020
Dear Bar Takers,
I’d like to talk to you about breaks. I see you. You are overwhelmed, you are stressed. Some of you don’t even know if you have a seat. Let me stress – I see you.
In addition, I’d like to acknowledge that there are a million things making it hard to focus right now. I’ve been struggling to focus, and I’m not studying for an exam. The non bar exam world is causing a great deal of anxiety, anger, sadness, and fear. For some, more than others. It’s understandable to have those emotions, and not feel like you can 100% focus on the exam in front of you, especially if you aren’t even certain when you’ll take it. That’s all valid.
So, I want to talk about breaks, and why they are important. Taking frequent breaks helps improve your memory and focus, and helps reduce stress. Basically, research tells us that your brain can only focus for so long. It doesn’t matter how studious or determined you are, the human brain will not stay focused for 8 hours straight. In fact, if you aren’t taking practice exams to work on your stamina, I suggest taking a short break every hour or so. This is not my advice, this is advice from the neuroscientists.
Specifically, if we don’t take breaks, our brain gets fatigued. Once an hour, if not more, stand up and stretch. Or go for a brief walk. Switch your focus. All of these things help you improve memory and focus.
Also, taking breaks for mental health is ok. In fact, it’s encouraged. If you are getting frustrated with a topic of a question, take a break. Walk away and grab lunch. Take a walk outside. Just take a break from the frustration. If you push through, and continue to attempt to study while frustrated, your brain is not processing the information. It’s also ok to plan for entire mental health days. Your brain might need a longer break, and that’s ok too. If you are struggling to focus, maybe current events or family worries are weighing on your mind, step away. Do something for yourself and come back to studying later.
Finally, taking breaks for your physical health is ok and encouraged as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students get sick, maybe a bad cold for example, and they refuse to take a break. Not only are they not letting their body heal, which is not ideal for the long run, but your brain isn’t as focused as it could be, nor is it properly processing information. It’s far better to take a few days off, fully heal from the cold or other illness, and then dive back in feeling better.
So, in summary, while it is important to get in enough study hours – which are, let’s be honest, many – you owe it to yourself to take care of yourself. This includes breaks, and taking time for yourself. It’s also ok to be human, and give yourself permission to have unfocused days.
In addition, reminding yourself of your motivation is going to help improve your memory and learning. Write a litter to yourself, or a post it to put on your laptop. Why did you go to law school? Why do you want to take the bar exam? Yes, I know, you want to take the bar exam so you’re licensed. But why do you want to be licensed. Keeping your goals and motivation in sight, literally, will help you focus and learn.
I’d also like to stress the importance of a different kind of break. We learn best by doing different things. So, don’t just focus on video lectures. Or do an entire day of MBE questions. (Unless you are taking a practice test.) Mix it up. Spend 30 minutes writing an essay, and then review it. But then, do 15 MBE questions. Then watch parts of a video. The more you jump from one item to another, the better your brain is working, and the less likely you are to suffer from fatigue and lack of focus. The same goes for the subjects. Many students think they should spend a day, or even a week, on only one subject. But you actually stretch your brain, so to speak, by doing a mix of subjects.
Finally, despite my profession as bar professor type person, I can assure you that the bar exam is not the most important thing in the world. It really isn’t. Yes, you need to pass it to be licensed. And I want you to be licensed! But it doesn’t define you as a person, and if you fail, or have to take time off, that won’t even define you as an attorney. So, what I’m saying is that if this is not the right time for you to take the bar exam, that’s ok. There is no shame in that. You need to do what works best for you, and if that means delaying the exam because you are afraid for your health, you are focused on other things, too anxious or unfocused right now, or any number of reasons, the exam will still be there in 2021.
No matter what you choose, good luck! I look forward to seeing you as a colleague soon.