The Subtle Art of Getting Started

Let me guess. There’s a pile of dishes to do, maybe you should go to the gym, it’s your second-cousin-three-times-removed-on-your-stepmom’s side’s kindergarten graduation, your dog sneezed twice and should probably go to the vet, you need to get gas and vacuum and buy groceries so you can maybe cook a healthy meal and put laundry away and, and, and…

At some point you will need to actually sit down and study. Even though you can think of a billion other things to do to put off the boring, the massive, and the seemingly insurmountable,

It is only impossible until it is done.

We’ve all been there. Suddenly that big thing you have to do seems entirely too big and you just don’t know where to start. While I’m a firm believer in eliminating distractions (as a procrastinator extraordinaire) so you have literally no excuses to do anything but your studies, I’m an even firmer believer in lists. The beauty of a well-planned study to-do list is it breaks down the unbelievably huge exam into a collection of smaller bits which, one by one, aren’t nearly as bad.

That’s right, folks… it’s time for a task analysis.

We usually talk about task analyses as step-by-step sequenced guides for teaching up big skills, especially highly sequenced targets like independent living skills. What we don’t always talk about is that, by definition, the task analysis chains together a sequence of small responses to equate to the big picture. Your studies are no different. But in the spirit of ABA-ing the crap out of the whole experience, let’s do this all the way.

Your first step going into your studying task analysis is to take some baseline data (we recommend our WTF Do I Still Need To Study – Diagnostic Mock) and gauge where your strengths and weaknesses are. While you should definitely review all sections of the task list for the exam, ultimately, it will help you balance out your studies and identify which sections need the most support.  Each chapter also has a quiz on the publisher’s website which makes for good learning practice. For each section you study, your sequence is fairly straightforward: read, take notes, review notes, quiz. We’ve already broken it down by letter, and steps per letter in the task list. So far so good, right?

Now comes the fun part.

Let’s say that, for example, you scored the following on your baseline:

task analysis

Figure 1: (yes, I made a graph to illustrate my point. I’m a nerd. Roll with it)

By calculating a quick average of the scores, we can see that the average test score is about 55%, indicated by the dashed line. There are 5 sections scoring above average, and 6 sections scoring below. I like to pair one high scoring section with one low scoring section. Before you think I’m crazy and exit out of this window, hear me out. IT’S RESEARCH BASED, BABY.

Ever see a client lose it when you go in for an error correction procedure? Ever feel that way yourself taking a quiz? In a 2015 study that examined neurological markers in correct and incorrect responses in clients with autism and typically developing peers, results indicated that our brains are universally hardwired to elicit a stress response when we get stuff wrong. We are literally programmed to exhibit “both physiological and behavioral differences for correct and error responses during testing” (Henderson et. al. 556).

To counterbalance challenging sections of your task list that require a much higher response effort, and circumstances where you may be more likely to make errors, let’s implement some variation. By pairing a section you are already more comfortable and familiar with and a section that challenges you, you balance out the response effort between hard and less-hard. Other research has indicated that spacing out both topics and study time also helps increase studying success as it stops part of the mindless scanning that comes after reading the same thing over and over. To gain some behavioural momentum with studying, based on this example, I would pair section I and section G, and start with the more mastered domain.

Other important tips to help you succeed:

-DESIGNATE A REINFORCER. Yep. You heard me. Eat the snacks, take the naps, self-care yourself into a happier BCBA candidate one chapter at a time. This stuff can get tricky, you deserve it.

-DON’T OVER-STUDY. Remember friends, overcorrection is still a form of punishment. Know your limit and when to take a step back from a challenging section. Mistakes are part of the learning process, don’t let it get you down.

-INDIVIDUALIZE YOUR PROCESS. I don’t just mean find stickers that spark joy. If you know you don’t have whole 6-8 hour intervals of time to work through your notes, don’t hold yourself to that standard. Manage your time within your routine to make it a part of your ‘normal’.

-TAKE BREAKS. Your brain (and your feelings) operate best when well-rested. Did you also know you retain information better with more waves of deep sleep?

-FRIENDS WHO STUDY TOGETHER, STICK TOGETHER. Finding a study partner or community to bounce ideas off of will normalize your experience. Commiserate, collaborate, and come out even more badass on the other side.

-SELF-MONITOR. Be real with yourself. What’s working, what isn’t, is the effort matching the outcome. You know yourself best; trust your instincts.

And most importantly, BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. You’re brave enough to get this far, imagine how much further you’ll go.

task analysis quote


Henderson, Heather A, et. al. The Costs and Benefits of Self-monitoring for Higher Functioning

Children and Adolescents with Autism. Journal of Autism Development Disorders. 2015;45: 548-559

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