How to Start Off the New Year Right

How to Start Off the New Year Right

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Winter breaks are for recharging, right? We think so, but if you ask a high schooler what they’re looking forward to most over the holidays, they might answer with “binging that new Netflix show” or “finally getting a chance to beat that new video game.” While we understand the importance of kicking back in front of a TV or computer, we also think there’s value in using winter break as a time to mentally reset before diving into the next year.

So without further ado, here are some of our best tips for how to make the most of your break (and start the new year off on the right foot):

  • Meditate

One of the best ways to clear your mind is to actually take some time to be mindful. Not only has meditation been shown to enhance academic performance, it has also been demonstrated to reduce stress, improve an individual’s well-being, actually change the way your mind works, and even potentially improve your health.

But how am I just going to sit there and meditate on my own?

Well, there are loads of classes out there dedicated to meditation – a quick internet search will almost inevitably turn up countless opportunities for meditation near you. In addition, there are many ways to experience guided meditation from the comfort of your own home.

If you’re having trouble finding some meditation classes outside (or if you’d prefer not to brave the tundra that is winter in the Northeast), there are many online resources dedicated to helping you meditate from the comfort of your own home. The New York Times has a some great guided meditations of different lengths, and there are some smartphone apps such as Headspace dedicated to helping you practice mindfulness, wherever and whenever you want.

  • Read Something

Instead of staring at a screen for your whole holiday break, try and take some time to read something. Reading can help you stress less, and much like meditation, it can clear your mind and transport you to a whole new world.

Ask your English teachers for some reading recommendations, or better yet, ask your parents or family members for their favorite books. Not only will it give the two of you something to talk about, but it may also help you understand your parent a little bit better.

If you’re stuck or looking for some other recommendations, check out the Smart Alec reading list, which includes some great picks from our expert tutors.

  • Give back

While volunteering or donating to charity is important all year round, the holidays are a great time of year to give back. Donating your time or money is clearly important from a moral and interpersonal point of view, but did you know it can also have positive psychological effects?

In fact, psychology researchers have found that spending your time doing things for others can actually increase your subjective sense of time affluence. More simply, by using some of your time to “give back,” you can actually feel as if you have more free time than if you never took the time to volunteer in the first place.

So, take some time this break to give back in advance of the new year. You’ll feel as though you’re starting this new year with more time than ever.

  • Get Moving

You probably know that feeling – that “rush” after breaking a sweat at the gym or playing a sport. We all know that it’s good to exercise, and getting active can actually have a tremendous impact on brain power. A recent study from the Journal of Science Medicine and Sport reported that boys who spent the most time sitting (and least amount of time moving) had poorer reading skills than the rest of the students. Who knew that the easiest way to flex your mental muscles was to get moving?

However, you don’t need to even hit the gym to start benefitting from these effects. Grab a family member, bundle up and go take a short walk. Even better, find somewhere that isn’t heavy with traffic where you are able to enjoy nature — it just might make you happier and more attentive. Plus, it’ll give you a chance to spend some quality time with a loved one.

Don’t wait until your New Year’s Resolution to get your blood pumping – kick your year (and your brain off) right by getting off your couch now.

These are just a few ideas for how to use your winter break to recharge before heading into the new year. Enjoy the holidays, and try to get in a little mental relaxation before you head back to school in 2017.

How to Find the Perfect Last-Minute Gift

How to Find the Perfect Last-Minute Gift

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The holidays are quickly creeping up on us, so you probably have to get gifts for your parents, your siblings and maybe even a significant other.

While it’s easy to find the right gift for some people, others can pose a serious challenge when it comes to gift giving. Don’t worry though, the academic experts here at Smart Alec have used their brainpower to help you find that perfect last-minute holiday present!

1. Give a book or two (or a million)

It’s the best time of year to cozy up with a great book, and nothing truly says “I love you” quite like literature.

With Goodreads, you can get personalized book recommendations and see reviews from thousands of other readers around the world. If you have some idea of what type of books the person likes to read, Goodreads makes it easy to find the right one and then purchase it online.

If you’re stumped (or if the idea of searching around a huge database of books is a little overwhelming), you can always check out the Smart Alec reading list, which includes personal recommendations from our expert tutors. We’ll be updating the list weekly with more recommended reads, so stay tuned for even more amazing books.

If you’re still not finding anything that piques your interest, head down to your nearest local bookseller (yes, brick-and-mortar bookstores still exist) and ask an attendant for their recommendations. There’s nothing quite like the smell of a new book fresh off the shelf – and it might even inspire you to pick up a book for yourself as well.

2. Games

Bored of video games, movies and television? Board games are a very un-boring alternative to sitting in front of a screen all night, and nowadays, it’s not just your basic Monopoly and Scrabble (which are both superb games, by the way). There’s pretty much a game for anything you can imagine.

Here are just a few of our favorites that allow you to stretch your mind (and still have a good time):

  • For the person who is obsessed with Top Chef, there’s Foodie Fight, an addicting culinary trivia game. Pro tip: this game pairs nicely with an aged brie!
  • For the person who likes to think outside of the box, there’s Concept. This game forces you to use your imagination and creativity to solve riddles. Pro tip: ignore most of the rules and get creative with your own!
  • For the person who secretly wants to be an engineer, there’s Jenga. In a test of balance, precision and luck, you need to pull out blocks from a tower without making the entire thing come crashing down. Pro tip: don’t remove all the blocks from a single row if you’re trying to win.

3. Go Do Something Together

If all else fails, get tickets for you and the person to do something fun. It’s a great way for you and your loved one to spend some time together, and plus, you are sneakily getting yourself a present as well.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • A concert for a band / artist that your friend likes
  • A concert for a band / artist that your friend hates (and you can go and laugh at the band / artist together)
  • A musical (because who doesn’t like to pretend that we lived our lives through song)
  • An interactive play such as Sleep No More (because the only thing more fun than watching theatre is actually actively engaging with it)
  • A dog show (because who doesn’t love puppies)
  • A pottery class (because everyone needs a handmade mug)

Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box and look online for some fun events happening near you. If the you think the two of you’ll have fun, it’s probably a good idea! And if money is an obstacle, there are tons of websites dedicated to free (or cheap) events near you.

At the end of the day, in a world with millions of options finding the perfect present is always going to be a challenge. Hopefully this list can help you think of an amazing idea, and if you’re still stuck, just go with your gut. After all, you likely know your loved one way better than we do!

The Smart Alec Reading List

The Smart Alec Reading List

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There’s nothing better than cozying up with a great book, so we’re starting a Smart Alec reading list to aid you in your quest for the next amazing read!

Check out some of our picks below.

1. I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Smart Alec’s review (courtesy of Julia de Lorimier):

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2. The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander

Smart Alec’s review (courtesy of Michael Glendening):

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3. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Review (courtesy of Amazon):

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Stay tuned and check back every Tuesday for updates – we’ll be adding to this list every week with some more of our favorite reads!

How to Stress Less

How to Stress Less

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For most high schoolers, the beginning of December is a wintery mix at best. On the upside, you’re looking forward to the holidays, there’s only a few weeks left until winter break, and there’s plenty of great food to eat. However, standing in the way of this holiday cheer is a mountain of tests, essays, college applications, and SAT/ACT studying. With so much going on, it’s important that you stay focused without stressing out too much.

Here are some of our best tips and tricks to make sure that you can sail towards winter break while staying relatively stress-free.

1. Stay Organized

One of the best ways to stay calm is to stay organized. Before you start working, write down all of the tasks you need to accomplish and how long you think each task will take. As you complete your work, cross off the items you have completed. With each task, your list will get shorter and you’ll also be able to look back at all of things you have accomplished!

2. Remember to Breathe

It seems obvious, but remembering to breathe can help you relax and focus when you have to overcome stress and get work done.

We recommend the simple and effective abdominal breathing technique outlined by Time. Take in 6 to 10 deep breaths through your nose each minute (for 10 minutes) to help reduce your heart rate and blood pressure. When practicing this breathing technique, it’s important to make sure that you inflate your diaphragm (not the chest) and that you inhale enough air to create a stretch in the lungs. We’ve found that doing these breathing exercises can help calm you down before a big exam (or before a big study session).

If this works for you (or if you want to try some more advanced breathing exercises), you can check out some other breathing techniques here.

3. Take a Break

Although it seems counterintuitive, one of the most important parts of working hard is taking breaks. If you have regular breaks as part of your work schedule, you’re able to take a minute to de-stress so you’re re-energized to continue working! We like the Pomodoro Technique, which encourages you to work in 25 minute increments with 3-5 minute breaks in between. You can read more about the Pomodoro Technique in our blog post here.

4. Read More

If you’re reading at school and reading when you do homework, why would you read more during your limited free time?

In addition to being a great source of entertainment, reading has been shown to reduce stress and may work better and faster than relaxation methods such as listening to music or going for a walk.

And you can choose any type of book you want to reap the benefits of reading! Neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis, who conducted an experiment about reading and relaxation at the University of Sussex, stated, “It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.”

So you officially have our permission to read a chapter for fun before you dive into your work!

5. Have Fun (and Be Social)

Even when you’re busy with all the stress that comes with high school life, make sure you take time to have fun and do activities that you’re passionate about. Go play a sport, listen to some music, or take a walk outside. Even better, go do one of those things with a friend, as surrounding yourself with a strong social support network can be important when reducing stress.

So, there you have it! It’s normal to get overwhelmed during stressful times, but if you just follow these simple tricks, you’ll be de-stressed in no time. Happy holidays!