By  Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien

Everybody knows that getting straight A ’s is hard work. It requires a lot of studying. It requires late nights. Sometimes you have to miss out on fun stuff to make sure you finish that project. Sometimes you wake up at 3 a.m. with a drooly textbook on your face. But setting goals is about sacrifice, and if you want that perfect transcript, you have to accept that you’ll deal with a ton of stress.

The link between success and stress has become so strong in some students’ minds that they actually view stress as proof that they’re good students. They humble-brag about how late they stayed up last night writing a paper or how many hundreds of flashcards they made. The prevailing view is that if you’re not pulling your hair out, then you’re not really trying. Our recent survey results show that teens spend a third of their study time feeling worried, stressed or stuck. 

So that’s the choice students have to make. Get great grades, or enjoy school. No one says that explicitly, but we all know that’s the deal, right?

Here’s the thing that most students don’t realize: stress is not a natural part of studying; it’s a sign that your study time is not going well . In no other part of life do we think that furrowing our brows and sweating buckets mean that something is successful. You don’t want the person making your latte to seem tense and nervous. You don’t want the pilot of a plane you’re boarding to look totally overwhelmed. If you see a surgeon who’s sweating and gritting his teeth, that doesn’t convince you that he’s “really trying.” It convinces you to find a different person to remove your appendix.

That’s a smart response. Emotions interfere with our work. Neurologically speaking, your emotions can shut down your ability to pay attention. That’s right: when you’re stressed out, you may think that you’re more focused, but in reality, you’re giving your brain permission for no learning to happen. As scientists have unlocked the secrets of the brain, a picture has begun to emerge of why so few students get great grades. It’s not because students aren’t willing to be more stressed; it’s because being stressed prevents you from reaching your academic best.

You may be stressed-out and still getting good grades. But we can promise you that you could be achieving those grades (and better) in far less time with far less pain and suffering. Imagine a world in which you could get A ’s as efficiently as possible. All of that free time that used to go to staring down the cursor in your Word doc or frantically running to Staples for more index cards can instead go to music, sports, filmmaking, or any of the activities that really expand your learning (and make that college application truly pop).

The most important change that you can make today is to stop putting up with (or bragging about!) stress when you study. The best students get amazing grades and actually enjoy the process. And every student can have that experience. The key is to shift your focus from what you’re studying to how you’re studying. The minute that stress starts to get in the way, use these student-tested, neuroscientist-approved tips to discover your real A -game. 

1. Forget about speed. Focus on accuracy.

Being good at something means you “get it” right away, right? Wrong. Rushing is a surefire way to guarantee mistakes. Scientists have studied experts in every field and found that to become great, those experts focus their practice on only one thing: accuracy. The people who become world-class go as slowly as they need to make sure that every move is 100% correct. They know that with more and more practice, they’ll get faster at that skill. (In fact, your brain is wired to make you faster at the things you practice.) Slow down and focus on doing the work correctly.

2. Stop Stressing, Start Doing.

Students spend a lot of time stressing about how much they have to do. It gets them no closer to mastering the material, and it’s no fun either. Talk about a lose-lose. So, take your attention off how much work you have to do and put it on work you can do. Pick one vocab word and learn it. Do one problem from your math homework. Doing anything you can to chip away at that assignment will get your attention off the stress and back where it belongs.

3. How do you do the thing you love?

What’s your favorite thing to do? It can be playing video games, skateboarding, dance, or even a certain subject in school. Whatever you choose, it’s the thing you can happily do for hours without noticing the time fly by. You get better at it all the time, but practicing never feels like work. Here’s the good news: improving at any skill requires the same steps: breaking things down, practicing small pieces, and being persistent without letting emotions get in the way. That means you already know how to work very successfully--and keep it stress-free. Take the way you work at the thing you love doing, and start working that way in the thing you hate doing. Pretty soon, the process will become painless, and your grades will start to soar!

4. Listen to your brain!

If you’re at soccer practice and your ankle starts hurting and swelling, you likely wouldn’t run harder . You would rest it, elevate it, and ice it. That pain tells you to stop what you’re doing. If you’re at an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet and your stomach starts hurting, and you start to feel sick, would you push through the next stack of pancakes? Not if you’re smart! Your stomach is signaling you that it can’t handle more, and you change your behavior accordingly. So why don’t we listen to our brains in that same way? When our brains get overwhelmed and stressed out, they’re telling us to stop what we’re doing and change our approach. Consider why you’re stressed, try a different tactic, forget about the stakes and refocus on the work. Rather than just grinding through the stress, use it as the valuable feedback it is.

A car that’s running smoothly and a car that’s clunking and has smoke pouring out of the hood may both get you to school…but you wouldn’t consider them equally desirable. The clunker needs to stop, cool down, and get a tune-up. Students need to start giving the same attention to their brains. If your gears are grinding, that’s a warning sign. We’ve seen plenty of students start from A ’s but burn out before the finish line.

So take it from the scientists. Stop bragging about your all-nighters. Stop letting stress run your life. It’s only getting in the way. It’s time we all changed our idea of what being a good student looks like. A stress-free school experience isn’t just a nice idea; it’s essential to you achieving your academic best over the long term.

Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien are co-collaborators of the Student Life in America Study and authors of The Straight-A Conspiracy: Your Secret Guide to Ending the Stress of School and Totally Ruling the World .

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