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How to Avoid Burnout

September 19th, 2006
Let’s face it: when we set lofty goals for ourselves, we usually aren’t thinking in terms of what we’re likely to do, we think in terms of what we ought to do. If you start your GMAT preparation by taking a diagnostic test and decide you need to increase your score by 80 points, your reaction is probably to plot out an extensive study schedule for two or three months. You might not have details in mind, but you decide, then and there, that you’ll devote an hour or two a day–more on weekends, of course–to your GMAT preparation.

Will it work? You tell me. I’ve had some students who hew to their plan. I’ve had more who don’t.

The Perils of Poor Planning
First, let’s think about what happens if you burn out–if that well-devised plan works well for a few weeks, and then you can’t look at another Data Sufficiency problem without vomiting. Odds are, in those few weeks, you learned quite a bit, got some momentum going, and were right on schedule. However, if you don’t pick up GMAT materials for a week, you negate all the positive effects–momentum, skill, strategy–that you built up.

As a matter of fact, that should be a cautionary tale for anyone, regardless of the reason. Whether you burn out or go on a business trip for a week without your GMAT practice materials, you’re moving away from your goal of a higher score.

Three Ways to Avoid Burnout
How, then, can you avoid burnout? First and foremost, set reasonable goals. I’m sure you’ve read those words elsewhere, probably dozens of times, but they bear repeating, especially when it comes to unpleasant tasks that need to be done over long periods of time. Can you improve your score 100 points in two weeks? Probably not. Can you improve your score 100 points over two months? With steady work, that’s a reasonable goal. Will you spend two hours a day working on the GMAT, every day, without fail, for eight weeks? No. Could you spend 7-10 hours per week, including at least 15 minutes per day? I hope so.

The second way to avoid burnout is to give yourself days where you don’t do much GMAT. I strongly recommend doing something related to the test every day, but some days, that need only be 20-30 minutes. Say, 20 Sentence Correction problems or a math content review during your lunch break. At least twice a week, don’t let yourself work any more than that. If you’re jonesing for more GMAT, great: let your enthusiasm build until the weekend, or the next day you’ve planned to work for a few hours.

The third method of avoiding burnout is varying your routine. Many students put most of their eggs in one basket: that is, improving their score purely through ramping up their math skills. That’s often exactly what you should do. Even within that framework, you can alter your daily routine: one day, spend 75 minutes doing a full-length math section; another day, focus on a specific content area–say, combinations and permutations–and make sure you thoroughly understand five to ten questions.

The key takeaway here is that, in order to effectively leverage your time over several weeks, you need to be working steadily, consistently toward your goal. It may feel more efficient to spend 25 hours studying for your first two weeks, but if you sacrifice consistency for those bursts of effort, you will not see the results you want in the end. Instead, do something every day, mix it up to keep things interesting–even, far-fetched as this may sound, fun–and set goals that you are confident you can accommodate within your lifestyle.


Jeff Sackmann is a GMAT tutor based in New York City. He is available for one-on-one and small-group tutoring sessions in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington D.C. He welcomes comments, questions, and inquiries via e-mail.

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