Ellen’s Choice: Applying my Rules for Effective Time Management to the SAT, part 2: Break Time!

Ellen’s Rules for Effective Time Management, Part 2

3. Know when it’s time to take breaks.
Spending a good chunk of time on one subject is good; it helps you settle into a rhythm and lets your brain get into the correct frame of reference for the subject. But there exists a horizon beyond which no progress can or will be made. It’s the point at which your brain has become over-saturated with the current material, and if you continue on you’ll just end up working yourself into circles of frustration. In paper writing, it’s the point at which anything you wrote would make sense to you regardless because you’ve been reading the same few paragraphs to yourself for hours. In math, it’s the point at which you will just end up confusing yourself more and more as you try desperately to work it out. When that moment arrives, you know it’s time to take your break.

I don’t care how much work you have, there’s always enough time for a fifteen-minute break. The trick is making sure that that fifteen minutes doesn’t turn into two hours. Stick to your schedule, take your breaks when you need them (and take one every couple of hours even if you don’t think you need one), and you’ll stay refreshed and energized much longer.
And on those days when you’re fortunate enough to have plenty of time to finish something, take advantage of the time to take more breaks. Feeling confused about that one paragraph in your paper you can’t seem to get right? Stop writing and go take a walk. Let your mind forget completely about your paper for an hour or so. Then come back and you’ll have a much better idea of how to progress. Sometimes, especially with paper-writing, you just have to give it time to process.

Once again, these rules apply to studying for standardized tests just as much as any other subject, but with a slight twist. My rule of thumb for studying for a standardized test is to simulate test conditions as much as possible as often as possible during the studying process. For a standardized test, this often means timed drills. Before the big SAT redesign of this past year, the SAT was comprised of nine sections averaging 30 minutes each, which meant practicing staying focused for 30 minutes and then quickly switching subjects. After the redesign, though, it works much more like the ACT, with fewer sections that are much longer, keeping each subject confined to one section. Now, the strategy is to practice maintaining concentration for an hour at a time. Take the first of the two points above. That horizon beyond which no progress can be made? We want to train that horizon to happen after the section is over, not in the middle of it. So practicing with a timer, noticing when your personal point of no return is, and adding just a few problems each successive time can help to extend your concentration past the end of the section, when it’s okay to stop thinking about it.

The second of those two points is important as well, though once again, on test day you don’t get to choose when you take breaks. You’ll be given a short break, possibly two, between sections at a predetermined time in the test. Training yourself to shrug off the previous section and start the new one with fresh eyes is important, because strictly speaking you’d want to take more breaks than the test allows you. Learn to give yourself a tiny break, even if it’s just five seconds with your eyes closed, to help re-center in between sections on the test. Even within a given section – if you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t struggle with finishing in time, that gives you more time to take mini-breaks. Take a moment between passes through the section or after a particularly daunting problem to shake it from your mind. No use dwelling on question 13 when there’s 45 more of them and you won’t get any new information from mulling it over and over.

Stay tuned for part 3: Mix and Match!