How to Improve Your Focus on the Integrated Reasoning Section

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This tip for improving your GMAT score was provided by David Newland at Veritas Prep.

In part 3 of this article you learned what to avoid to get better at focusing. Now we look at two things that are known to improve your ability to focus on the relevant information (for long periods of time): exercise and sleep. Together, these two lifestyle choices, along with healthy nutrition, are responsible for your ability to learn and to focus.

You have always heard that exercise is important to your health, but did you know how important it is to your mental functioning? Here are some aspects of exercise that you might not know:

First, believe it or not, exercise is the only way to build new brain cells. Endurance exercise has been cited by evolutionary anthropologists as the reason for the extraordinary size and complexity of the human brain. At least 30 minutes of brisk exercise four times a week not only creates new brain cells—it also protects the ones you have. It’s the only thing that does this.

Second, exercise strengthens “nanny neurons” that help you to not overreact to situations. People who exercise regularly have demonstrably better levels of emotional control.

Third, exercise helps your body deal with the stress hormone cortisol. Only sleep and exercise allow the body to eliminate the stress hormone from the blood stream.

Finally, exercise can lessen test anxiety. Exercise makes your brain more resilient, allows you to deal with your emotions, and reduces stress levels throughout the body. In fact, regular exercise engenders a feeling of confidence and general well-being.

Sleep is essential to proper mental functioning for several reasons:

First, sleep helps gently wash away the cares and concerns from the previous day. If you don’t believe me, try to remember what you had for lunch three days ago. Unless that lunch was a particularly memorable occasion for you, you probably have no idea. That’s because during the intervening periods of sleep, slow waves in your brain came through and washed away all the trivial details of life so that you could wake up the next day ready for another heavy dose of daily details.

Second, sleep and exercise are the two ways the body has of dealing with stress hormones. So when you sleep, not only is your brain gently washing away the details that are causing you to worry, but your body is also dealing with the stress hormones. And that’s why you can go to bed sad and angry and wake up ready for a new day.

Third, sleep is necessary to proper cell creation and function. When you do not get enough sleep, the proteins in your cells do not fold properly. This means that the cells themselves do not function properly. Sleep scientists attribute some of the negative aspects of lack of sleep—such as impaired brain function—to the presence of clusters of poorly functioning abnormal cells in your body. The only way to feel better? You guessed it: Get some extra sleep.

How do you know if you’re not getting enough sleep? While it is normal to be a little less energetic in the afternoon, it’s not OK to actually be tired, and if you’re having trouble staying awake, that’s a sign of sleep deprivation. No matter what those commercials tell you, an energy drink or shot will not help. Sure, caffeine and other stimulants can keep you awake for a short time, but they cannot repair your cells, deal with stress hormones, or help you learn (by washing away the trivial details). Only sleep can do these things.

If you feel like you might not be getting enough sleep, try this advice from Prevention magazine:

Take a week or so to experiment. Keep your rising time the same, but move your bedtime back an hour for three or four days—say, from midnight to 11 p.m. If you’re still waking up tired and lurching to Starbucks in midafternoon, move your bedtime another 45 minutes to an hour earlier. Staring at the ceiling for 30 minutes before you drift off? Shift your new bedtime later in 15-minute increments until you hit your magic hour.

How will you know if this works? You’ll wake up refreshed, you’ll feel in top form at work, and decaf will do.

The Bottom Line
Exercise creates new adaptive brain cells and protects existing cells, while sleep makes the brain more flexible and is the key component in the learning process. If you are lacking in either area, you will not be able to focus as well during your practice or on the exam. And we know that focus is what Integrated Reasoning is really testing.

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