Before we get into this burnout thing, let me ask you a question real quick…
How many people you know have set a goal to “lose 10lbs for summer” only to slide into poor eating habits JUST 7 DAYS after “beach day”?
It’s fascinating that they all do the same things:
- They cut the calories too low
- Appetite control starts to suck
- They still stick to this “dreaded diet” until beach day
- And it’s exactly at beach day they slide into their old eating habits
After 7 days…
BAM — they’re back to their old weight again. (with worse eating habits on top)
Have you noticed how you burn out the same way whenever you study so hard for exams?
- You study for 7 hours per day every single day for 3–4 weeks, kept yourself indoors, and avoided all your friends
- You’ve basically become a young hermit
- Studying sucks, but you still gotta keep on going even if it sucks
And after that dreaded exam’s done…
…you just lose ALL your motivation to study. (…even more so when you see your scores not reflecting your efforts. Ouch.)
If that’s you right now, you’ve probably spent the last two days doing absolutely nothing; slacking harder than you’ve ever studied.
You STILL have to study your finals coming up in 2–3 months.
You KNOW you should start studying a week in advance to avoid burnout, but you wonder…how am I supposed to? There’s just ZERO motivation. You can’t even pick up your damn textbook to read a single word, for Pete’s sake.
Yet if you don’t study for that, ALL of that initial hard work will be for NOTHING.
Well, here’s the thing:
You CAN do well in your exams — even BIG exams — without burning out.
Just like you don’t have to starve yourself to death to get a leaner body, you also don’t have to study for extra-long, saturating hours to do well in your exams.
Well, that’s what you’re going to learn here today.
In this post, you’re going to learn not just “what to do about after-exam burnout” but also a complete gameplan to remember what you need for your exams without studying for long hours.
Instead of studying while you’re still burnt out (which is counterproductive)…
You’ll learn a few “quick fixes” that you can do today to stop feeling burnt out.
Instead of feeling like you constantly have to study for 10 hours each day…
You’ll learn better ways to think about your strategies so you can make decisions that do NOT lead to burnout
Instead of being stuck in a never-ending cycle of needing to catch up, studying so hard, getting poor scores, burning out, and needing to catch up again…
You’ll learn the 4 pillars for becoming a “burnout-free” student.
By the end of this article, you’d have learned how to reduce the time it takes you to study, create a realistic study plan that doesn’t burn you out, and build strong study habits even if you feel like “lazing around”.
Plus, the “Post-Exam Burnout Workbook” to help you take action.
But first, if you’re REALLY exhausted right now, you may want to start with a few quick-fixes…
Section 1: 5 Quick Fixes to Overcome Burnout After Exams (Based on Science and Experience)
We’ll talk more about this later, but most burnt out students think of burnout as a “loss of motivation.” You’ll see them listen to these motivational videos that would constantly tell you how hard you need to work and how lazy you are for sleeping 8 hours…LOL.
But it’s not really the big picture.
According to decades of research, burnout is caused by three deeper problems:
- Extreme exhaustion
- You don’t feel fulfilled with what you do
- Lack of perceived ability (i.e. no matter how hard I study I’m going to fail anyway)
Sure, it doesn’t take a genius to know that — but it’s good that we have defined the REAL problem because now we can find the REAL solution.
And I can recommend 5 quick fixes that I’ve tried myself. I KNOW they work because I’ve been doing these for years whenever I feel too exhausted.
1 – Small precommitment: Invite a friend (or a group of friends) to walk outside
Preferably, in nature + late afternoon for at least 1 hour. Once your friends agree, you have no choice but to de-stress. It just takes a single message and could be done in under a minute.
2 – Body clock regulation: Expose yourself to early morning & late afternoon sunlight each day
I cannot stress this enough. People get sad just for the simple reason that they lacked sun exposure. (No, literally, it’s “SAD” — seasonal affective disorder)
Low angle sunlight will turn your circadian rhythm back to normal, you sleep better, and well, your body just needs sunlight. I learned this from a research paper I read before, but you can listen to Andrew Huberman’s podcast if you want to learn more about this the easy way.
3 – Get into Flow: Practice a small skill at the edge of your abilities
In my opinion, this acts like a “source of perceived ability.”
Sometimes it gets you into the Flow state — which is an enriching state to be in — because the skill looks like it’s just out of reach, but realistic enough that you can stretch yourself to do it.
The moment you see yourself making progress, you instantly build confidence.
Self-esteem: +5 points.
4 – Eliminate Open Loops: Do a brain dump about everything you’re thinking of right now
Ever watched Kung Fu Panda? I LOVE this line from Master Oogway:
“Your mind is like this water, my friend. When it is agitated, it becomes difficult to see. But when you allow it to settle, the answer becomes clear.”
The more your mind is filled with open loops, the more cloudy “succeeding” gets.
Translation: No perceived ability.
You may feel like you suck because you can’t possible learn all those topics, but in reality, you CAN learn everything. There’s just this “mudded thinking” preventing you from doing so in the first place.
Later, I’m going to make you do this exercise in a workbook.
5 – Large Precommitment: Get a gym membership at your nearest gym and schedule your next gym session
This one is more like a “commitment device” — once you set it, you’re off to the races. Because if you’re completely healthy but you’re NOT exercising or doing cardio, you’re doing yourself AND your productivity a disservice.
I wouldn’t call it a life hack, because the body NEEDS movement. And when you don’t give your body what it needs, you can’t expect your brain to function and recover quickly.
Plus: exposing yourself to voluntary effort like jogging or strength training helps you perceive “starting to study” as a smaller, easier task. You can therefore say it increases your perceived ability, too, besides giving you crystal clear thinking.
Sure, everything above is “evidence-based,” but it doesn’t take a genius or a ‘scientific study’ to know what makes you feel refreshed.
But I’d like to note that these are NOT the solutions you should rely on because frankly, they don’t address the root causes of after-exam burnout. They take care only of the symptoms.
Still, it’s IMPLEMENTATION that matters here.
Most people reading this won’t try them because they’ve seen it before — don’t be one of those people!!
TAKE ACTION! Do you think anything’s going to change just by reading?
If you feel like you “don’t have time for this,” just think of it this way:
Even the BUSIEST people on earth make time for exercise, family, social life, hobbies, learning, and doing brain dumps.
And they do that for a reason — your body NEEDS that.
Now, let’s transition to the long-term solutions: mindsets, strategies, and systems.
Section 2: The Right Mindsets for Avoiding After-Exam burnout
Have you noticed there’s a never-ending cycle of grinding so hard, burning out after the exams, procrastinating, needing to catch up, grinding so hard, and then burning out again?
You can short-circuit this endless swirl of crap by changing the way you think about studying.
Let’s start with the first, most counterintuitive one.
1 – Studying hard/too long every day is NOT required to pass
Listen, what makes you productive is doing the right things — NOT spending more time. (i.e. busy ≠ productive)
If you’re spending too much time on studying — especially if you’re just aiming to pass — then you’re most likely using an inefficient/undefined study process.
An inefficient process WILL burn you out quicker than an efficient process!
The worst part is that your results won’t be proportional to your hard work.
So, know that 10 minutes of planning and 50 minutes of execution will make you more efficient than 60 minutes of diving headfirst and “doing everything faster.” The former eliminates more waste.
And another reason to define your study process thoroughly is to make it possible to continuously optimize your process in the long-term. (Kaizen!)
Later we’re also going to work on that.
2 – Stop thinking of motivation as “fuel”
We’ve been SO conditioned to believe that “discipline/willpower/motivation” are the keys to beating procrastination and making ourselves do good behaviors, and that’s why we fail at building study habits.
Because the best way to work against your psychology is to constantly FORCE yourself to do hard, herculean behaviors ALL THE TIME.
NO WONDER WHY A LOT OF STUDENTS BURN THEMSELVES OUT!
Because even though you see all these loud, motivated dudes on YouTube shouting at you for how hard you need to work to be like them…
…the reality for 99% of people is that their motivation will NOT stay at high levels. In fact, motivation often behaves like waves:
Having low levels of motivation isn’t terrible; it’s NORMAL.
But without motivation, what should we do instead? Let’s look at the research.
In his article, A behavior model for persuasive design, Dr. Fogg  states that Perceived Ability and Prompts are two other factors that make behavior occur.
The most basic idea is that as long as the right Prompts for behaviors are present, Motivation and Perceived Ability can “trade off.”
What does this mean for you?
It means that if you were given a CRYSTAL CLEAR task, you can reduce the “laziness” for your desired behaviors so long as you can perceive yourself doing it successfully — EVEN IF YOU DON’T HAVE HIGH MOTIVATION.
So at the top of my head, you can follow two principles:
- Clarify Prompts — we think and plan to get to extreme clarity and eliminate overwhelm
- Increase Perceived Ability — either by making it easy or improving our study skills
(BTW, did you notice how everything’s tightly connected so far?)
3 – Time for yourself is CRUCIAL
Imagine two gym bros — Gym bro A and Gym bro B.
Gym bro A has this habit of scouring the entire internet for the “best underrated program,” secret exercises, special meal plan, the ultimate protein supplement…
And Guy B just follows a program he can stick to in the long haul — even if it’s suboptimal.
Who do you think will get better results? Let me tell you:
All the calorie counting, all the meal planning, all the strict dieting takes its toll on his psychology. Gym bro A couldn’t even enjoy life. He’s just SO consumed by “getting results fast” that he couldn’t even stick to his program.
After 12 months, his newbie friend, Gym bro B, who did “just the basics” and followed the most basic system, stopped black-and-white thinking, made more progress than he never would’ve imagined.
Gym Bro A is left WAY behind.
And this is NOT any different when planning your study schedule.
Consistency beats intensity!
Don’t listen to all these study influencers that you need to study for 10 hours per day until your exam. That’s total bullshit.
Compare what really happens in practice:
- Study 8h per day for 7 days sleeping 6 hours per day, then the next 7 days you procrastinate = 56 hours POOR QUALITY studying → need to go back to what you learned bc you forgot everything
- Study for 2.5 hours per day, revise for 30 minutes for 14 days, sleeping 8 hours per day = 42 hours of HIGH QUALITY studying + spacing effect + no stress + you have more time for doing the things you love
You tell me which is better.
The ironic thing when you start caring more on yourself & your system rather than the outcome is that you tend to get higher grades, you study more efficiently, and you’re less stressed.
Plus, Parkinson’s Law:
The more you restrict your study time, the more you’ll be forced by the time constraints to finish the task quickly and focus on what’s important.
I still practice this mindset to this day and after 4 years, I can say that the results were great. I was always ready to concentrate because I don’t overexert myself often.
There’s a time for “hard days” but you should NOT do hard days all the time.
Sectio 3: The 4 Pillars That Make “After-Exam Burnout” a Thing of the Past
Now we’re going to actually address the root causes:
- You constantly have to convince yourself every time that you need to study
- You constantly don’t know where to start, and are overwhelmed with the amount of material you need to learn
- You constantly don’t know how to approach studying your textbooks and lectures in the first place
- You constantly don’t have a detailed plan for executing your tasks
The key here is “constantly” — because the fact that the problem repeats itself means that there’s an unresolved root cause.
Combined, they drain your energy tremendously fast, leading to burnout.
We have limited brainpower that we can use each day, and if we constantly having to THINK and NEGOTIATE with ourselves every time we have to study, then you won’t have any mental energy left when you study.
Based on the system I’ve been using for almost half a decade now, there are four pillars for that:
- Behavior design
- Productivity System
- Study Workflow
- Daily Execution
Let’s talk about each in-depth.
Pillar 1. Behavior Design
There’s one study where researchers placed entire refrigerators and baskets of bottled water all over the cafeteria and compared the effects of that vs without it.
After three months, sales of bottled water increased by 25.8 percent — ALL without “trying to motivate” people to buy water.
Lesson learned: Your environment has a MASSIVE influence on your habits.
We won’t go into the details, but suffice to say that “having a conducive environment” beats “convincing yourself to study” every time.
The former makes good behaviors virtually non-negotiable. All the cues are there, and it’s harder not to do the good behavior in the first place because there’s a constant urge to study. (i.e. the cues)
So here’s what you can do as a permanent solution:
- Find out all the steps you need to take before you start studying
- Which steps can you eliminate by modifying your workspace?
- With the steps you’re left with — can you think of ways to make them easier? Or lessen the thinking required?
For example, if you’re using a PC, get a UPS or just a multi-socket, anti-surge extension cord with a switch. Instead of plugging in your monitor, your speakers, and your computer all the time, you’ll be able to do so just by plugging in the UPS/extension cord and turning on a single switch.
Way easier to start.
And you can do the exact opposite for bad behaviors:
Before I start writing here at my bedroom, I leave my phone downstairs so my “lazy self” will procrastinate on getting my phone.
As simple as that, and there’s no more wasted time. Your mileage may vary, though, and you may need more than that.
Pillar 2. Productivity System
Constantly thinking about school all the time is the BEST way to become mentally exhausted quickly.
Here’s a truth bomb for ya: Thinking about your tasks all the time doesn’t do sh*t for task completion. It just drains your mental energy unnecessarily.
But you don’t want to let anything fall into the cracks, right?
That’s why you need a trusted place for holding all of those tasks — your productivity system.
Because it’s better to use your brain for focusing, thinking, learning, and mastering a topic — NOT for remembering “what you need to do”!
If you’re not using one already, you absolutely need to use one because it will make you confident not only of the things you need to do, but also of the things you’re NOT doing. (reference to David Allen’s Getting Things Done)
It must have three elements:
- A master list — where you can keep track of every topic you have to study
- An execution list (or lists) — where you can place the ONLY things you have to worry about this week
- A capture list — or a “things to remember” list where you can write-and-forget about things that pop up. (Ex: Return Physics book to Kathleen)
It might seem too simple, but don’t mistake simplicity for a lack of power — it’s POWERFUL. Again, I’ve been using some version of this way back in 2017, and I learned it from Cal Newport who has also been using some version of a productivity system way back in 2009 or 2007, IIRC.
As you get used to your new system, you can eventually add a more sophisticated project management method like Tiago Forte’s PARA.
Here’s an example implementation:
For the master list, a friend of mine Rafa — who is studying medicine and is a long-time reader of the blog — created what we call an “autodidact curriculum”. It details everything you need to self-study at your own pace. This means that you’re not simply following the lesson schedule in school, but rather that you’re creating your own schedule as though you’re treating your lectures as supplementary material.
I recommended this because following your classes doesn’t consider your knowledge gaps, and also you can build a better foundation by studying from the ground up.
Now this may look unmanageable to you, and you still probably don’t know where to start. I mean, how do you finish all these mountains of materials?
That’s where the execution list comes in.
For the execution list, since the master list was simply a recurring set of activities, e.g. “Read Chapter X,” we computed what we call “Minimum Viable Effort.”
The concept is simple. If you had 90 days to finish 70 chapters, then you can study 1 chapter per day. As long as you finish 1 chapter per day, you can give yourself permission to do anything you want.
But the principle here is to pick a few things from your master list, and break it down into the tasks that you will write for your daily plan.
It should be “top-down” or hierarchical, if that makes sense.
And there’s also a psychological effect: by treating your Master List as your “inactive projects” list, and treating the Execution List as the only things you need to worry about for the week, you literally obliterate overwhelm/Zeigarnik Effect.
Finally, I always recommend capturing “stuff” that pops up throughout the day so you can “tell” your brain to worry about them later. It’s a common “Getting Things Done” practice I’ve adopted and it’s eliminating all unnecessary stress from “holding everything in my head” for me and my students.
Just a “Things to Remember” list will do. See recent example below where I used Todoist:
This is how I stopped being “all over the place” when studying — back in College, at least.
I don’t have to carry everything in my head because I have a trusted system like this.
Pillar 3. Study Workflow
You’ve probably seen all those study influencers/YouTubers showing off their pretty, color-coded notes (i.e. garbage) who tell you to “do Pomodoro Technique” without any guidance whatsoever.
WHAT DO YOU DO DURING THOSE 25 MINUTES?!?
That’s where your study workflow comes into play.
Your study workflow is the actual sequence of steps you take to study a topic — from start to finish.
And in my opinion, it’s a system that you MUST optimize over time — just like how Toyota has been doing for DECADES. They call this long-term philosophy kaizen. (continuous improvement)
When you do adopt Kaizen, you’ll eventually realize that you don’t need as much time to study AND remember a chapter when your process already guarantees retention. (which happens when your process is based on Encoding-Storage-Retrieval)
Here’s an example study workflow:
- 5m: pre-read Chapter 1 and turn objectives into questions
- 60–120m: Process chapter 1 using the questions as a guide
- after 50 minutes, walk for 5 minutes, stretch for 5 minutes
- 15–30m: Formulate questions from notes, if I have any notes about details
- 5–10m: Recall session
Some points to add:
- Notice how there’s Encoding-Storage-Retrieval in my process
- Depending on the material you need to study, the time required could be more or less
- Sometimes I combine the process of formulating questions to processing the text, especially when the text is easy to understand
Using this workflow, I typically finish a long chapter in 2 hours especially if it’s a conceptual chapter.
Pillar 4: Daily Execution
And finally, from your Execution list will come your daily plans.
Notice how around 2/3’s of the pillars just consist of planning and “systematizing” everything? And we’ve basically eliminated ALL the guesswork:
- “Where to study” comes from behavior design
- “What to study” comes from your productivity system
- “How to study” comes from your study workflow
- “Why study” comes from, well, you
And finally, “When to study” comes from your plan.
Similarly, you shouldn’t be guessing what to do every hour. DEFINE IT.
You have two options:
- The “Time Block Approach”. Use a timeblock or a schedule, a la Cal Newport.
- The “Energy Management Approach”. Just use the execution list itself (or a daily list that you’ve taken from a weekly list) as a list of items to tick off, and work with your energy levels.
There’s an advantage to both, and you can even combine the two if you have a consistent body clock, but the key is to take tasks from your execution lists and follow through.
So you can use a timeblock if you have other appointments for the day:
Or you can simply use a daily list if you feel like schedules don’t work for you:
Do whatever you want. But go for the option that ACTUALLY helps you follow through.
And like I said, you want to prioritize YOURSELF.
You want your plan to be SUSTAINABLE.
With everything above working together, you do NOT need to study for long hours.
Use a PROPER workflow and take as much time as the material needs.
Take Action: Download the “Burnout-Free” Workbook
You now have all the knowledge you need to recover from burnout, build great study habits that don’t need willpower, and study effectively without overexerting yourself.
Now you need to take action.
NOTHING is going to change if you don’t take action.
No matter how many blog posts you read or how many YouTube videos of Jordan Peterson and David Goggins you watch, you will not get results without implementation.
And to make that process easier, I’ve created the “Post-Exam Burnout Worksheet” for you.
Download it, print it out or just answer the PDF directly, and then TAKE ACTION!
Let me know how it goes.
References used in this article
Bandura, A. (1978). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Advances in Behaviour Research and Therapy, 1(4), 139–161.
Fogg, B. (2009). A behavior model for persuasive design. Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Persuasive Technology – Persuasive ’09, 1. https://doi.org/10.1145/1541948.1541999
Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(2), 103–111. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20311
Fogg, B. J. (n.d.). MotivationWave-BJFogg–2012.Mp4.