5 Things You MUST Do When You Sit Down to Study
Let me take a guess how you sit down to “study.” First, you put your phone on vibrate and set it on the table next to you. Second, you take out your laptop and put it in front of you, with your social media apps running the background. You probably even have your text messages synced with your laptop so you’re getting doubly-texted by your phone and computer. Then you take out some of your stuff, plop it on the desk, see who just texted you, shuffle around some papers, text them back, open your textbook, check your email, open your notebook and write your name and date at the top of the page, text your friend to see what they’re doing for dinner, read the first homework question . . .
Tutoring for the past several years, I’ve noticed that students’ attention spans today are much shorter than even a few years ago. Many students skate by with terrible study habits, doing as little as possible, and catering their studying to getting good test scores. Most teachers are predictable and students often get a hold of old tests, which are identical or very similar to the current test. I call this “surface studying,” because students are merely trying to “hack” the test and will forget virtually all the material shortly after taking it.
But for many classes, especially college-level courses, you need to understand the material at a deeper level because the exams require more than regurgitation of notes, homework problems, study guides, or practice exams. For these classes you must have good study habits or you won’t pull the grades you want. Plus, you should want to understand the material because a college major has a cumulative effect when it comes to knowledge: the more you learn, the easier your future classes are. Math and science build and elaborate on previous concepts, so the better you understand the material in your introductory classes, the easier your upper division classes will be.
This is also true for upper division high school classes. An investment of good study habits today will pay huge dividends, and save you hundreds of hours of studying, as you progress through your academic career.
Here are 5 simple things that you MUST do when you sit down to study. They must be done in order, and they must be done every time. Who knows, your classmates might start to notice:
“OMG, look at that guy’s study muscles, they’re so BIG.”
“I know, right? He must work out his brain ALL the time.”
“I bet he gets all the A’s.”
“That girl’s study skills are SO hot, I’m going to ask her out to our next study session.”
“Yeah dude, ask her.”
“What if she says no?”
“Dude, just do it! Look at how disciplined she is!”
Thing 1. Decide when your study session will end.
One of the worst things you can do is not decide how long your study session will last. If you don’t set an exact time, your brain will find all kinds of reasons to procrastinate, stop early, and check social media. Your brain needs to know exactly when you’re going to finish. Set a reasonable amount of time, usually 30 minutes – 2 hours. Then your brain will understand that you’ve given it an order and all those excuses and procrastination behaviors will be quieted to a level that they can be contained.
When you sit down, look at the clock and decide the exact time you’ll finish studying. I recommend setting an odd target time like 2:30 p.m., 7:21 p.m., or 9:08 p.m. Write it down, because it will be more clear in your mind. We all think of times like 7:00 as “7:00 plus or minus 10 minutes”, so setting an odd, exact time will have more impact. Plus, you can set more precise times to study, who says that 45 minutes is best, why not 41 minutes?
Then, absent a natural disaster or other emergency, don’t stop studying until that time. A friend seeing you at the library and asking if you want to grab dinner doesn’t count as an emergency. If you’re on a roll, feel free to study a bit longer than your target time. But don’t study too much longer because next time your brain will say “Hey, you tricked me last time and made me study an hour longer than you said! Now I don’t believe you and I’m going to play even more games to prevent you from studying this time!”
Thing 2. Put your phone in Airplane Mode.
Smart phones are the number one killer of study intentions. Text messaging plus Internet access is a lethal combination. They are the ice cream and chips of the well-intentioned person on a diet. One taste and 1000 calories are suddenly digesting away in your belly. One text can quickly turn into an hour of scrolling through Instagram. But it’s okay, because you’ll do better tomorrow, right?
If you’re on a diet, you have to prevent the ice cream from getting into your freezer in the first place. If it’s already in your freezer, then you have to put it in the sink and let it melt. Melted ice cream isn’t nearly as enticing as frozen . . . sugary . . . creamy . . . delicious ice cream.
Hang on a sec, I’ll be right back.
Okay, I'm back.
Since you will undoubtedly bring your cell phone to your study session, you have to do the equivalent of melting ice cream in the sink: put your phone in Airplane Mode. Better yet, power it down. And put it in a place where you can’t see it or reach it right away, like the zipped pocket of your bag. If you need it to check the time, that’s fine, reach in, check the time, and put it back. But don’t you dare take it out of Airplane Mode until you’ve reached your target time. That would be like putting the ice cream in the sink, letting it start to melt, and then putting it back in the freezer after 10 minutes. You’ll sabotage your efforts.
Also, I didn't forget: if you have an Apple watch or other electronic device anywhere else on you that buzzes, dings, beeps, pings, vibrates, rings, or disturbs you in any other way, put it in Airplane Mode, too!
Thing 3. If you Need Your Laptop, turn off your social media apps and use a separate Internet browser.
The laptop is the second biggest killer of study intentions because it has Internet access and a nice big screen, perfect for surfing and scrolling. And now you can even sync your text messages to your laptop so a text bubble appears in the upper right hand corner of the screen, making it equally lethal to studying as a cell phone.
Sometimes you NEED your laptop for writing a paper, doing research, or looking things up. If that's the case, then you MUST shut down all your social media apps – no streaming text messages, no Messenger or gChat going on in the bottom corner, and no open Facebook page. If you even have these sites bookmarked, get rid of the bookmarks. Just seeing the bookmarks at the top of the browser staring you in the face, knowing that a single click can allow you access to pics of what your BFF ate for lunch is too enticing. Sign out of everything.
Better yet, use a separate browser for your study sessions. For example, if you use Chrome for all your normal Internet browsing, chatting, Facebooking, then have a separate browser (i.e. Firefox or Safari) for your study sessions. Make sure this browser has no social media bookmarks, and you never access social media accounts from it. Then you only have to be disciplined enough to not open your usual browser during the study session, which is easier than not clicking a bookmark.
Thing 4. Take out everything you need and arrange it on the table.
I’ve tutored many students and some are always unprepared for the session: “My book is in the car, I’ll be right back,” “My calculator is up in my room, I’ll go get it.” Make sure you have everything you need for your study session. If you’re trekking to the library across campus you'll likely plan ahead so you don’t have run back to your room to grab your calculator!
After you’ve decided how long you will study for, put your phone in Airplane Mode, and have your laptop out (if needed), take out everything else that you need.
Textbook: Take out your textbook, open it to the pages you will be working on, and prop it up in front of you, leaving space for your working paper in between you and the textbook. It’s important to prop up your textbook because it’s easier to read at an angle. You don’t need a textbook stand, just another relatively thick textbook to place underneath.
Notes/Notebook: If you have notes from class that you will be referring to, then take out your notebook, binder, etc. (I hope they're on gray paper!) and place it next to your textbook in front of you.
Working Paper, Pen, Pencil: You should do your work on paper that is separate from the notes you take in class so you don’t have to keep flipping between the pages in the same notebook to copy things or look things up. Place this paper closest to you, between you and the textbook, because you’ll be writing on it.
Calculator: If you’re doing math, science, economics, or the like, have your calculator ready to go.
Now you’re set, and you won’t have to interrupt your work to grab something out of your bag. Just make sure everything is easy to access, not stacked on top of each other, and easy to read. If your working space is tight, you may have to compromise a bit. The point is to have everything readily available so you don’t have to waste time or break your concentration by rifling through your belongings to find what you need.
Thing 5. Force yourself through the first 8 minutes of studying.
This is the toughest step. I know there are dozens of things you’d rather be doing, all of which make it extremely difficult to focus on the task at hand. There is an actual physiological reason why it’s difficult to build study inertia. If you understand it, you should be able reach critical study inertia every time.
When you sit down to study, your brain is in a completely different state. If you were just having a conversation with a friend, then your auditory and speech centers were activated, as well as all the frontal lobe machinery involved in maintaining your social relationships, keeping tabs on everyone you know, and storing that information for later use (“OMG, did you hear what Heather did last night?!”).
These pathways need to be turned off in order to focus on studying. However, your brain does not function like an on/off switch, it functions like dimmer switch. You have to slowly turn down the juice on the social networking pathways and turn up the juice on the studying pathways, like an engineer diverting power from one part of the electrical grid to another.
Your brain can’t fuel both pathways at maximum power, it can only fully power one at a time. So you have to choose. Some students try to run both simultaneously but it results in powering the social networking pathway, and whatever power is left is diverted to studying. Your brain requires time and must be forced to divert the power from one pathway to another.
Your brain is like a wild bull that must be ridden until tamed. The only problem is that while 8 seconds is good enough to make you a professional bull rider, your brain requires about 8 MINUTES before you qualify to be a professional brain rider. This is about how long it takes for your brain to turn down the power in the social networking pathways and turn up the power in the studying pathways. It’s impossible for your brain to flip from one task to another without any lag time and it will constantly try to buck you off your studying. CHECK YOUR TEXT MESSAGES! CHECK FACEBOOK! SEND AN EMAIL! GO GET ICE CREAM! PLAY FORTNITE! You just have ride it and say “Yeeeeeehaw! Easy brain, I’m gonna ride you until you until 8:54 p.m., so we can do this the hard way, or we can do this the easy way!” Then sharpen your spurs and dig in.
To help, I recommend trying to tackle a really tough problem right out of the gate because it will require all of your mental faculties to get started. Working on a tough problem will force your brain to activate multiple pathways at once as it searches for an answer. That way, instead of turning on the dimmer switches to different areas of your brain one section at a time, you will simultaneously turn on the multiple areas of your brain you’ll use during your study session. Sometimes this trick will sedate the wild bull quickly because your brain will be tricked into thinking that the tough problem is actually as interesting as eating ice cream, playing Fortnite, or whatever it was telling you to do instead. Even if you can’t solve the problem, you can set it aside after 8 minutes, start working on the easier problems, and then work back up to it.
You’ll see that around the 8-minute mark your brain will be in pure study mode or close to it. And then you’ll make it to your target time.
So here’s the summary, now get to it:
Thing 1. Decide what time your study session will end. Make it an odd time.
Thing 2. Put your phone in Airplane Mode.
Thing 3. If you need to use your laptop, turn off all social media apps and use a separate browser for study sessions.
Thing 4. Take everything out and organize your study space before you begin.
Thing 5. Force yourself through the first 8 minutes. Try tackling the toughest problem first.