Ever wondered why it’s harder to start studying than studying itself?
We have our brain to thank for that. The human mind is trained over years of evolution to maximise efficiency and simply solve problems. It’s not a sign of laziness, nor intelligence. We evolved this way because it was essential to our survival. The process is called heuristics (mental rules of thumb) and it means the quicker the decision-making process, the better chance we stood to survive.
Studying is an investment of time, effort and money. On the face of it, it seems like a pretty rubbish way to solve anything quickly or efficiently. However, learning new things was equally essential to our survival and evolution as a species all those years ago. The problem, it seems, was never the actual learning, but the motivation to do it.
So why do we still find it hard to start the process of learning?
You’re anticipating that hard work and dreading it.
This is because the brain is excellent at conjuring the worst-case scenario (another evolution quirk). So, whilst you get ready to study, you begin getting anxious about how difficult the process will be, thinking about how much time and effort you will need to dedicate to the task and envisioning just how exhausted you will be by the end of it.
To make things extra nice for you, your mind also throws in some fear-of-missing-out thoughts about all the other things you could be doing instead of sitting at a boring desk.
The issue isn’t necessarily your brain though, but how you work. The key to studying successfully is working in a way that’s best for your brain so that it can overcome its hard-wiring and, in turn, help you. As long as you find what the mind is naturally inclined to do, you will be able to study better and more efficiently. So here are 10 tips to help you do just that:
1. Wall plan it
There are plenty of wall planners for students out there. You will find wall planners for university academic years, college, middle school, etc. Even preschoolers can have planners for parents to fill in. So, why not have a home study wall planner too?
Here’s one that you can download, print and fill out yourself.
2. Make yourself accountable
Get your family to quiz you. Talk to other students. Set up mock tests and ask a family member or a friend to supervise. When we make ourselves more accountable to others, failing to accomplish a task brings feelings of shame and guilt. These emotions prompt us to work harder and attempt the task again with more efficiency and energy than if we’d learnt completely by ourselves.
3. Short bursts, rather than long sessions
Our brains are far more efficient when faced with short sessions of study, rather than long blocks. We are not wired to focus on one topic for 7 hours. Even if you wanted to cram in a full night of study, science tells us that the mind will lose interest after about 45 minutes. So, if you cram, you will spend more energy bringing your attention back to study than actually studying.
4. Don’t re-read
Ask questions instead.
You just learnt something new so it makes sense that you should read it all over again. Yet, re-reading a piece of information you just processed is not going to cement it in your mind. Instead, asking questions about what you learnt forces your brain’s neurons to make new connections, thereby enhancing memory and making it much easier for you to retain information. Think of the saying ‘use it or lose it’.
Asking a question momentarily hijacks your thought process in such a way that you cannot think of anything else. The best thing about it is that you don’t have to force your brain to do this. It focuses in on it automatically thanks to a reflex called “instinctive elaboration”.
Take a moment to answer this question: “What was the last thing you studied?”. Have you been able to focus on anything else other than the last thing you studied?
5. Switch it off
Yes, the smartphone.
Imagine you put an hour aside to sit down for a study, reading, or assignment session but find yourself checking your phone every 12 minutes (that’s the average amount of time that passes before adults in the UK check their smartphone again). That means you have interrupted your brain 5 times from the study task. Even if you spent as little as 3 minutes checking a notification and 2 minutes returning your focus to study, realistically you have probably only completed 35 minutes of actual learning.
6. Mix it up
Once a week, diversify your learning with a film, documentary or a vlog from a professional in your area of interest.
This will tap into your existing knowledge and make new connections that will help you memorise things better. It will also raise new questions and curiosities that will drive you to learn even more. It’s a virtuous circle of learning.
7. Mind-map it
Speaking of mixing different learning styles, why not try a mind-map? You can check out this free downloadable mind-map below. If it’s not for you, at least it is easy enough to try out and see for yourself.
8. Use apps
Today, tech is everywhere and at our fingertips. And since it’s such a great distraction at all times, why not harness its power to help you learn more quickly and efficiently?
Here are 4 little apps that will work wonders for your study productivity:
- TED Talks
You can find TED Talks on YouTube, but the app has a full library you can search, save, and browse recommendations that are based on your interests. Whether it is nursing, teaching, business, politics, social change, music, medicine, or simply a dose of inspirational motivation, TED Talks are a sure way to get you engaged with any topic.
- Pomodoro Technique
It’s less of an app, more of a technique. You essentially put a tomato-shaped timer on your browser to measure 25 minutes of focused work, followed by a 5 minutes break. Simple, yet somehow very effective. Next time you have some study work to do, give it a try.
- Cold Turkey
Not for the faint-hearted, this app locks you out of your computer, tablet or mobile for a specified amount of time. By blocking the major distractions of the 21st century, you can set your mind solely on studying.
The app also has a handy writer feature that will force you to finish a paper before doing anything else.
This little meditation app will help your brain rest, de-clutter and get some balance after a hard day of work and study. Sleep is essential to memory and learning. Meditation can replicate the physiological changes similar to those created by the early phases of sleep. Thus, when you do drift off, it can improve the quality of your sleep significantly.
Not only can a tired brain not focus enough to take in any new information, but it doesn’t do a good job at retaining recently added facts either. Sleep has actually been proven to consolidate overnight the memory of what you learn in the day.
Dedicate at least 10 minutes of your day to meditation and make it a ritual; you’ll feel the benefits in no time.
Related post: Mindfulness for Beginners: A Guide
9. Curiosity killed the cat…
… And hacked the brain to help you learn.
Getting curious about things is our mind’s natural way of learning. Curiosity leads our first contact and interaction with the outside world and children do it best. As early as 20 weeks old, up until their teenage years, children go through multiple developmental stages where learning is a priority. They are also the fastest learners. As we grow older, we shy away from asking too many questions out of embarrassment or lack of interest.
But, asking a question actively gets you invested in finding out the answer and developing your knowledge. Plus, there is a greater chance you will remember the answer if you go looking for the information yourself.
Textbooks and case studies make use of this enquiry technique by asking a set of questions at the end of each lesson, to encourage further reflection. So why not boost your curiosity by writing out 3 to 5 questions on the topic that you are studying? That way you encourage your mind to naturally wonder, instead of forcing yourself to study, and you might find yourself not only drawn but excited to discover the answers.
For example, if you are interested in foot care, you could be wondering about these related things:
These questions can help you start a study session, simply by engaging a part of your brain that is stronger than the anxiety of starting to study – curiosity.
10. Are you sure about this?
Accept that learning will have enjoyable parts, but be prepared for the not so fun bits. If you cannot make peace with that, ask yourself: do you want it bad enough?
Everyone wants the best in life and it usually means the same for most people: good health, good looks, financial stability, good relationships. But not everyone is willing to put up with the sacrifice that the best comes with unless they want it bad enough.
If you’re ready for the challenge, take a look at our online courses and tell us if these home study tips helped!