If you are like me, you do more in the 2 hours before you sleep than in the 4 hours after you wake up combined. Why are we so unproductive in the morning? If you are like me, you only start studying the day before the exam, yet you don’t do that badly. Why are we so productive right before the exam?

The answer lies in the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which states that there is a quadratic relationship between stress and performance.

When your stress level is low, you are stuck in a stage termed “disengagement” in Psychology. You are disinterested and unmotivated. When stuck in this stage, you are likely to be watching sitcoms or napping in bed. Even if you study, you may find that you are unable to concentrate; you can stare at a simple question for 10 mins and still not register a single word.

As your stress level increases, triggered by perhaps a looming dateline, or a difficult yet interesting question that you are determined to solve, your performance also increases. You are “in the zone”, “performing at your peak”, or “getting your act together”, to name just a few ways to describe this feeling of undistracted focus, clear mind and high productivity. This is the stage named “flow” in Psychology.

However, everything should exist in moderation, and stress is no exception. When we have too little time to do too many things or the tasks at hand are simply overwhelming, our brains start secreting more stress hormones than is optimal. This is when the “frazzle” stage sets in.

This stage is characterised by first, an inability to focus. Your senses become dulled and your thinking becomes muddled. You feel frustrated that something that you could have easily done on other days is now posing a problem to you. What more, negative thoughts keep popping into your mind and no matter what you do, you just cannot shush them.

Second, you suffer mood swings. You are extremely irritable and other people’s minor mistakes can lead to an outburst on your part. Sometimes, even if there isn’t any trigger, you just want to cry. If that sounds like you, then you are living with an unhealthy level of stress.

As you can see, neither extremes are good; instead we should settle for the middle part –  the optimal stress level. How?

If your stress level is too high

1. Force your body to relax

Listen to calming music. Go for a run. Watch a funny video (don’t forget to laugh!). Have a good sleep. All of these reduce your stress level, which will then improve your mental state.

2. Confide in your close friends

Studies have shown that during a stressful event, children ages 10-12 who had their best friend with them did not produce as much stress hormone cortisol as those who were not around a friend. In other words, friends help to lower your stress level.

3. Plan ahead

Know how many things you have to do and know how much time you have to do them. Prioritise the most important things. Leave some buffer time so that even if some unforeseen event crops up, you will not be overwhelmed.

If your stress level is too low

1. Take a well-deserved break

Perhaps your stress level is low because you really do not have much to do and you can afford to slowly take you time. If that is the case, why not mindfully take a break? You can do anything from going shopping with friends to simply sleeping the day away. When you have spent quite some time relaxing, doing something other than homework, you will discover a new sense of urgency to complete your homework fast and well, which will heighten your performance. What’s more, you will be refreshed from the time you took to relax. That is how you can have your cake and eat it too – by deliberately placing yourself in a higher stress situation. 

Do try out these tips and see whether they work for you! They sure did for me.