Fuelling up this exam season

Tips and tricks on how to survive a pandemic study season; habit-tracking, rewarding yourself, and fuelling your body.

This article contains specific references to eating and food habits.

As the academic year comes to a close, we face the annual hurdle of examinations and end-of-term assignments. This year, having spent over 365 days now in a pandemic, most of us have reached burnout stage and few of us have the energy and willpower to maintain good nutrition. With that said, here are some tips and tricks to help you overcome this final hurdle before summer, including how to eat well, how to stay hydrated, and how to form effective study habits. Fuelling your body is the foundation for meeting all of your other needs; to get on the right track, prioritising your health is crucial. The most important part of this is striking a balance between the things you are eating. It is also important to have a healthy relationship with food. If you or a friend are struggling with disordered eating, speak to a counsellor or go to eatingdisorderhope.com for resources on how to get help. 

Habits and Habit-tracking

I recently began using a habit-tracking journal which has helped me organize my food prep for the study week ahead. Food is fuel, and once I realised that I wasn’t getting enough energy from my meals, things started to change. My habit-tracking journal is just a grid that I’ve drawn up with a list of habits that I want to achieve each day in the side-column and the days of the month in the top column. Each day I achieve a habit I get a tick in the conjoining box. At the end of each month, I can see how many days I achieved the things that I wanted to do. It was extremely rewarding realising that, for 28 days out of 31, I ate three full meals a day. Not only are you making sure to fuel your body, but you’re also recording tangible proof of what you’ve accomplished that day, week, or month.

My habit-tracking journal is just a grid that I’ve drawn up with a list of habits that I want to achieve each day in the side-column and the days of the month in the top column. Each day I achieve a habit I get a tick in the conjoining box.”

The key to using a habit tracker for the first time is not to set unrealistic goals. In fact, I would go so far as to say set easy goalsones you know you can achieveand then you won’t become quickly disheartened because of a lack of progress. This is not to say you can’t indulge—in times like these we have to indulge—but setting realistic goals is great for getting simple tasks accomplished. For example, if you’ve noticed carbs are making you tired throughout the day, try to save them for after you’ve finished your work day. Don’t try radically adjusting your diet; it’s much easier to stay on track with goals that are realistic and manageable. 

The following two tips in particular have kept me motivated in my final year of college while also tackling a dissertation. Firstly, create a countdown on your wall of the amount of days until your final assignment/exam is due and tick off each day as you go. This has kept me aware of the time that is passing and of how long I have to go. It has helped me with meal planning and ensuring that I don’t get stuck unprepared on a busy day. It has also given meaning to my time. Because I know that each day I don’t optimise my study routine I am losing precious time, I’m more likely to push through my workload. The second tip involves setting specific habits for myself every day. James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, has been very helpful to me during the unpredictability of this pandemic. The best tip I’ve come across so far in the book is that setting vague goals like “I will eat healthy tomorrow” does not work, whereas setting specific goals does. Try setting a goal to incorporate certain vegetables into your diet and watch how much easier it is to accomplish. The sense of accomplishment that you will feel after achieving the goal will be enough to make you want to do it all over again. 

The brain is composed of 73% water, so don’t expect to be able to concentrate if you’re dehydrated.”


The brain is composed of 73% water, so don’t expect to be able to concentrate if you’re dehydrated. There are apps you can download such as Hydro Coach, WaterMinder, or Daily Water Tracker Reminder, that help you to log the water you drink. You can use your habit-tracking journal to hold yourself accountable for the amount of water you drink each day. When you hit a lull in the day and feel drained of all energy, try a glass of water instead of another coffee. You will see a difference. It works, I promise. Oh, and buy an ice-maker for your freezer. Icey water at your study desk mixes things up and changes the game. 

Eating well

The best food tip of all time is to eat for energy, and for reward. If you’re a total foodie like me and you survive the day solely because you envision a takeaway at the end of it, then exploit this! Fantasize about the delicious takeaway you’ll get once you complete work for the day and you might just be more productive. As you power toward your reward at the end of the day, eat for fuel. Do NOT skip your meals because you’re full on coffee and do NOT switch out your breakfast for a coffee either. Food is sustenance, and if you want your body to perform and complete tasks, you have to fuel it for the day ahead.


Breakfast: Eat slow-release foods in the morning. This can be your usual cereals or breads, but try the wholegrain or wholemeal version instead and keep an eye out for the difference. White breads and cereals are processed and don’t have the energy supplies that brown and wholemeal foods do. Opt for a brown bagel over a white one, or wholemeal cereals over sugary ones. Porridge or eggs on toast are always a safe bet if all else fails. If you want to try something new, try baked oats or porridge bread. 


Lunch: Baked beans on wholemeal bread is a nice, simple meal for a slow release of energy after lunch. A baked potato, put in the microwave for five minutes, with tuna and/or cheese on top is easy too. Avonmore or Cully & Sully soups from the fridge can also be quickly heated up and even accompanied with a quick cheesy toasty or some brown bread. Omelettes are another quick and easy way to eat a healthy lunch that provides you with both nutrients and energy. 


Dinner: An easy, wholesome stir fry is my go-to these days, and I usually make two portions so that I can eat the other half for lunch the next day. In general, a two-portion dinner is always a good idea if you fancy having the same thing twice to save time cooking, or if you’re feeling extra hungry. Another tip is to cook a good, delicious meal in one big batch and freeze it in containers. Pre-prepped meals make dinner time a very easy and relaxed affair.


Snacks: My preferences for study snacks at my desk include a hot coffee, sugary tea, an iced coffee to mix it up, dried fruits in packs from Lidl or Aldi, or normal fruits like berries or bananas. Chocolates and sweets are definitely permissible, especially during study season. You know that picture of the guy who eats a Swedish Fish every 500 words or so in an attempt to reward himself while reading? Swap a fish for your favourite treat and get working.

 “If you can’t find fun in this pandemic-labyrinth, then try something different instead.”

Make sure to do something fun as a reward for studying hard. If you can’t find fun in this pandemic-labyrinth, then try something different instead. Eat your meals outside in the sun, meet a friend and eat together, watch a genre of movie you’ve never watched before, or cook something outside your palette’s comfort zone. Make sure to break the repetitive lifestyle that we have all become accustomed to and change up your day, if only to a small degree. Try it out and see how much your mood can change—your brain will feel a sense of achievement for tackling something different and new.


If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating habits, go to eatingdisorderhope.com for resources on how to get help.

Lisa Jean O’Reilly

Lisa Jean O'Reilly is an English Literature and Philosophy graduate and a former Online Editor of Trinity News.