When was the last time you thought that? For me, it was sometime within the past week. I knew that this problem was not beyond my reach! Meanwhile, the clock was ticking away and all I could focus on was the fact that I couldn’t remember something that I should have been able to remember.
That horrible, sinking feeling is universal: we’ve all felt it before and – unfortunately – we’re all going to feel it again. How can we deal with this?
Recognize the “But!” feeling
You almost certainly already know what this feels like, but here’s a longer list of the ways in which this manifests. When was the last time you thought any of these things?
- But I studied this…
- But I should know how to do this…
- If I just had a little more time, I’m sure I could figure it out…
- I’ve already invested so much time, I don’t want to give up now…
- I’ve been struggling with this for 2 minutes but I really did finally figure out now what I need to do; it’s just going to take me another 1.5 minutes…
Then, of course, I’m sitting there staring at the problem and stressing over it – which makes it even harder to think clearly.
These feelings all have one crucial thing in common: I don’t actually know how to do the problem right now. If I did, I wouldn’t feel any of the “But!” feelings. I’d just do the problem.
What does that “But!” feeling really mean?
I don’t know how to do the problem right now and the clock is ticking. Well, I could sit on the problem for the next five or ten minutes… but I still probably won’t figure it out right now. Meanwhile, my stress levels are skyrocketing and I’m at risk of using up time that I should be spending on other questions. That’s not a desirable outcome.
Practically speaking, then, this is equivalent to a problem that I really don’t know how to do at all – because, on a test like the GMAT, it’s now or never.
Our brains aren’t perfect. Sometimes, we’re going to forget or stumble over something that we really do know. (Also, sometimes, we’re going to think we should know something that we really don’t know as well as we thought we did.) By the way, I’m using “we” here, and not “you,” for a very good reason: this happens to me, too! The experts are not immune; this phenomenon really is universal.
Change your response
We’re never going to get rid of the “But!” feeling – so the remedy here is not to try to train ourselves to lose it. Rather, the remedy is to realize what this feeling really means and react accordingly: I don’t know how to do this problem right now, which is the same thing as not knowing how to do it at all.
So, when you feel the “But!” feeling, start treating the problem like one that you know you don’t know how to do. Don’t give into the feeling; it’s trying to distract you and cause you to waste time. From now on, “But… but… but…” = I don’t know what I’m doing.
It’s a lot easier to cut ourselves off when we know that we don’t know. Oh well! They got me on that one. If I’ve already used up all my time, I guess randomly and move on. If I still have some time left, and I have some ideas about how I might make an educated guess, then I try to do that for about 30 seconds or so. Then, I pick and move on.
Either way, I’m radically changing my “natural” reaction to the “But!” feeling. I’ve trained myself to know that that feeling really indicates that I don’t know what I’m doing, and so I can take my next steps accordingly.
Still struggling with the idea of cutting yourself off like this? Read my mindset article In It To Win It to understand why it’s really not a big deal to let go on a few problems here and there. Here’s another resource for Time Management. (Probably 97% of people currently studying have timing problems – though many of them are unaware of it! So if your initial thought was that you don’t have a timing problem, think again. I talk to students every day who tell me they don’t have timing problems, but the data says otherwise.)
Key Takeaways for the “But I should know how to do this!” feeling
(1) If you knew what you were doing, you wouldn’t be having any of the “But!” feelings. Therefore, you don’t really know – not right now, which is all that matters.
(2) Change your response. Acknowledge that you don’t know what to do and switch to educated guessing instead (if you still have time left). Train yourself on this until you can switch tracks almost immediately when the “But!” feelings start.
(3) If you think you’ve already used all of your time, don’t waste a single second longer on anything, even guessing. Just pick randomly and move on.