How to improve your grades when you keep getting burnt out?

by Jessica Holsman

Dear Jess,

I've been putting so much effort into my studies and I feel like I'm doing everything I possibly can to get my grades back on track like doing textbook exercises, going through notes, and completing past papers. Lately I feel like I just want to give up, or that my brain and body have given up on me. 

My mom told me that the reason my grades are dropping is because I am pushing myself too hard and not sleeping, so I tried to go to bed early the other night and woke up early to study. I had two tests the next day and I failed one and only just passed the other. I am so upset, I couldn't believe it. 

My teacher said I should do something I really love, so I did but I don't think it helped. 

I feel like all my hard work is for nothing. I’m putting in so much effort to reach my goals but my room is messier, I have missed my exercise schedule, my marks have dropped and I barely have time to do the thing I really love, which is play my guitar. 

To add to all my stress, I spent ages helping a friend with her assignment and I don't even think she realises how much effort and time it took. Then, when I couldn't meet her after class because I had to prepare for a speech and make sure it was perfect, she got mad at me and didn't seem to care how I felt. 

What do you think I should do?

x Anonymous



Hi Lovely,

Thanks so much for reaching out! I'm so glad you feel comfortable to share with me everything that's been going on for you.

It definitely sounds like there's a lot on your plate at the moment and sometimes when we get into these challenging times in life, we can feel like things are starting to snowball. One event on its own might feel more manageable, but when we have one thing after the next, it can be quite a challenge to not let everything get to us. I can completely relate because I've been there too!

Let's try to break things down and look at each challenge, one at a time? I always find it much more manageable to tackle my challenges step by step. I'm not sure if you're familiar with the anecdote my grandmother told me but I shared it a while back. She says, "The only way to eat an elephant is still one bite at a time."

Okay, so first challenge is to do with your grades and it sounds like it's really shaken your self confidence and motivation. 

As I was reading through your email, I could sense there's a lot of pressure to succeed. You are definitely goal oriented and not afraid to put in the hard work which is awesome! I'm the same, which means I can also relate to the challenges you're experiencing because when my grades weren't close to what I was used to and they didn't reflect the hours and hours and hours of work I was putting in, I really felt like it was a kick in the guts. I remember crying because I failed a test, crying because I aced a test and I was just so relieved I got the marks to boost up my average - pretty much, I think my high school and uni self cried for a tonne of reasons that relate back to my grades! ...It was a turbulent time!

Have you spoken to your teachers to see if they have some other suggestions for how you can improve your grades? Maybe your teachers would be willing to go over the material with you privately or sit down with you and go through your exam paper and any corrections and feedback they wrote?

Also, I'm speaking from experience as someone who likes to feel super productive but also has a history of burning out: sometimes we have our 'off' days or weeks and it's okay. It's important to tune into our bodies and we even need to consciously choose to create space in our diary for ourselves so we don't get burnt out or brain fried. I'm getting the impression that this is where you are at the moment?

Have you ever heard of that story about the Harvard University student who chose to study every day and skip all their social events to make sure they didn't fail their course? 

I remember watching a talk on YouTube from a professor who shared the story and how this student had studied for hours every day and night while the other students would go out. While they thought that studying more meant they were less likely to fail, they actually ended up failing! When we don't attend to our own needs and we put them on the back burner and make our brain concentrate for hours without a break, it actually becomes unproductive studying and not much seems to sink in after a little while... 

It's so important you do things for yourself regularly and create that dedicated time. I think your mum's suggestion to get more sleep is a great point, but I do think it is something you need to be implementing consistently. Also, when we honour ourselves and integrate our hobbies and passions into our weekly lifestyle, it reduces our stress, improves our well-being and we are able to show up to our commitments and perform better. Plus, you're worth it! You absolutely deserve to do the things you love and it's fantastic you already have found a passion that is both creative and nurturing, like playing the guitar. I think it's about repeatedly practicing self care and not just once off. 

This actually reminds me of a teacher I had in high school who told me that I don't do anything creative and it's important for my mental health to have some kind of outlet: 

I went home, took out a journal and painted a few pictures of flowers and sunsets and said, "There, now I have done something creative." I was just trying to do what she said and again be "perfect" and tick it off my to-do list. I was expecting instant results, rather than integrating it into part of my lifestyle. Nowadays, I love going to pottery once a week to be creative and I realise it's because I do it for myself and I enjoy it, not because I can tick off, "Jess was creative this week", similar to how I'd tick off, "Jess took her vitamins today" hehe!

The other dilemma you mentioned was about your friend. 

It seems like you are putting in so much effort and not seeing much return - both in your studies and with this friend. I also get the impression that this person struck a nerve when they failed to acknowledge how busy you already are and how much pressure you are under. I think it's important we all have healthy boundaries and we need to decide for ourselves how much effort are we willing to put into something or someone. This can change depending on how many responsibilities we have going on at the time. At the moment, it sounds like you have so much on your plate that when you set aside hours to help your friend, you were using up your precious time, which you already feel you don't have enough of for yourself! 

Again, I think it really comes back to making sure you focus on meeting your own needs before you give to others. You can't pour from an empty cup, so it's time to make sure you fill yours up so you can be at your best!

Hopefully you find this helpful and reassuring :) I'm sure things will improve and just remember that it's important to take care of yourself and take things one step at a time.

You've got this!

Love, Jess x