If you're studying for hours on end, pulling all-nighters and skipping sleep and the gym you're probably not learning effectively. So just how can you study efficiently for long periods and make sure you remember what you learn?
After years of studying and working as a surgeon and entrepreneur I can study and work for long periods of time using the tips and methods in this video to help me do so without burning myself out. For subjects like medicine and surgery where there are a huge volume of facts and concepts to learn you need to study smart and effectively.
Just like we can maximize our benefits from the gym by eating healthier and getting a good night’s sleep, we can maximize our learning after studying by implementing certain tactics. So in this article I'm going to give you 7 strategies that I use regularly to help me to study effectively and be more productive when learning. We're going to cover taking breaks; getting exercise; your study environment; sleep, nutrition, mindfulness and mindset. But first let's get into how to breakup your study sessions and reward yourself to avoid burning out.
Breaks and Rewards
Now your ability to study and stay focused is very much like your cardiovascular fitness. At first you might only be able to focus and learn things for a short time before you lose concentration and become distracted but with practise your study intervals will become longer and longer. When you're starting off you'll notice that you might get distracted after a set period of time. Just like a muscle your brain will tire after focusing or working for a set period of time. Research in Cognition shows that taking regular breaks can maintain focus and as we know from using spaced repetition the brain needs time to consolidate what we learn between testing sessions.
Taking breaks to maintain focus was popularised by the Pomodoro Technique developed in the late 1980s by then university student Francesco Cirillo who broke up study sessions into 25 minute sessions with 5-minute breaks using a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato hence Pomodoro. Your study periods and break lengths can be whatever you want them to be and you should return to studying feeling refreshed. Taking breaks also helps to apply game design to learning and reward yourself for periods of study. I try and reinforce study sessions with breaks and fun rewards and as you do this, you’re training yourself to study and your sessions can start becoming longer. I usually break study sessions up with rewards of coffee, food or a longer break to the gym or catching up with friends and as you've seen from some my study with me videos I can work and focus for long periods of time. So when you plan your study timetable and your day factor in breaks and rewards. For me exercises focuses me and is a reward in itself so let's look at that next.
We all know regular exercise benefits the body and the brain. Short bursts of exercise are also helpful for cognition. Just 10 minutes of physical activity can boost attention and memory performance and make you feel healthy and energised.
Exercising plays a role in how well our memory works and also has a reciprocal relationship with sleep as we know from my video on How To Stop Being Tired All The Time. A study done at the University of Georgia in 2008 found that young adults who did just 20 minutes of low-intensity exercise 3 times a week experienced both higher daily energy levels and much lower levels of fatigue.
One meta-analysis looked at 21 studies and the effect of acute and long-term cardiovascular intervention on human memory
Acute exercise improves memory in a time-dependent fashion by priming the molecular process involved in the encoding and consolidation of newly acquired information. - Roig et al., 2013
Regular exercise has also been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends 30 min of moderate- to high-intensity exercise for at least 5 days a week for all healthy individuals as regular exercise significantly reduces causes of mortality by up to 30% for men and women.
I prioritize exercise always and I usually feel energised and more focused after exercising. I'll usually do a HiiT class, Crossfit or go for a walk in the morning as a break to set me up for the day and on other days I'll hit the gym for a weights session. Whatever you do whether a walk or a quick 20-minute HiiT class from home make sure you get it in.
I've covered sleep in detail and the science behind why sleep is so important for health, memory and productivity in my video on How To Note Feel Tired All The Time. So be sure to check that out for a deeper dive. In short dozens of studies have confirmed that memory depends on sleep and if you've ever got to bed late you'll know that waking up to study when feeling tired is a real struggle and you often lose concentration and are just not that great at retaining information.
To elaborate on how sleep helps with memory let's look at some research. In one experiment published in Nature, participants were asked to complete the Tower of Hanoi task. Subjects attempted it once and then were re-tested but in different scenarios. When they were retested one week later with normal rest they had a 40% improvement in performance. However, if you let them try the next day, but mess with their REM sleep the night before, no such improvement was seen suggesting that sleep plays a powerful role in consolidating memories.
In another experiment published in Nature, subjects were taught a complicated algorithm for solving a math problem. Secretly, however, there was a much easier way to solve that problem, which none of the subjects discovered during that training. What happens if you retest them 12 hours later, before sleep? Well, some get it, some don’t. But, what if you test them after a night’s sleep at that same interval (12 hours), the rate of discovery of this “easier” way more than doubles suggesting that while sleeping out brain better connects information and helps us to solve problems. So if you're stuck solving a problem get a good night's sleep.
To summarise, when sleeping our brain consolidates memories and will also link memories to help solve problems while we're sleeping. So make sure you get a good night's sleep and don't stay up late to ensure you consolidate what you are studying and always prioritise a good nights sleep before an exam or test.
For more specifics and information on sleep be sure to check out my video looking at How to Not Feel Tired All the Time which covers many of the concepts from Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, Ph.D. I'll always have a wind-down routine when studying or working so that I switch off a few hours before bed and I'll go to sleep and wake at consistent times. I'll aim to sleep 7-8 hours and wake up naturally while avoiding stimulants like caffeine in the later afternoon and evening.
Mindfulness and Nature
In my video on mindfulness and music for learning more effectively we looked at the evidence behind mindfulness and how it can help to improve productivity, memory and relax you if undertaken for just 10-minutes a day. I routinely practise 10-20 minutes of mindfulness as part of a work or study break and usually do this using Calm or the Peloton app on my phone.
Research also shows that nature exposure is restorative for the mind. One study reported better working memory scores after a walk in a natural environment, but not in an urban environment and there is even evidence that simply looking at nature scenes on a computer can help be restorative. I'll combine this with exercise and will try and get outside for a walk over lunch where I'll listen to music or a podcast and get some Vitamin D which also helps with sleep.
During times of stress and study it can be easy to forget to eat or to grab junk food at the end of the day as a treat. When studying it is vital you give your body the food it needs to keep you alert and healthy and not feeling sleepy or sluggish.
Water accelerates the chemical reactions in our bodies and can quicken the rate at which our brains process information. Dehydration, on the other hand, can cause fatigue, forgetfulness and sluggishness. It's recommended that we drink around 1.2 litres of water a day and so I usually keep a large water bottle with me at all times and keep hydrated during study sessions.
There is often the temptation to snack on sugary food while studying. It has been discovered that this is counterproductive because excessive sugar consumption leads to a temporary rush of energy which is quickly followed by crashing blood sugar levels causing fatigue among other things.
Instead of sugary foods, try to snack on nuts, cottage cheese, figs, dried fruits, oatmeal, eggs, and yogurt. These protein-rich foods have been proven to improve memory retention, mental alertness, and increase energy levels.
Try green tea instead of caffeine
To stay awake and alert, students often resort to caffeine. However, it has been discovered that caffeine only provides short-term support. Green tea is a good alternative to high-caffeine options, as it provides antioxidants as well as boosting your concentration.
Vegetables like broccoli, spinach and kale are packed with vitamin K, which helps build pathways in the brain, as well as naturally occurring nitrates and antioxidants. They also contain B6 and B12 which are associated with improvements in alertness and memory.
Environment and Habit
As in my video on forming habits it is important that you get into a routine for studying. Over the years I have trained myself that when I sit down in front of my computer or at my desk I am there to work and this has become a habit for me. If you are studying try and keep a regular study area that is only used for studying and study at regular times when you know you are most alert. Don't study from your bed or couch and get into a routine where you are free from distractions and can get into a flow state conducive to deep work.
As in my video on time management I will prep my study area the night before and ensure that I know what I'm learning and my daily study goal. My phone and notifications will be switched to silent and I have any social media blocked off.
In the morning I'll go straight to my desk put on a lo-fi spotify playlist, open my computer and get to work. I'll then leave my desk and study area to take breaks such as leaving the library or my home to go to he gym or eat lunch or go for a walk in nature. By having a regular study routine you can condition yourself to study for longer periods of time.
Mindset and Focus
This brings me onto my last tactic which is all about focusing on the reason for your studying. Even if I don't want to study I'll hold leverage on myself by reminding myself about the reasons I need to work or study and will visualise what passing an exam or test will look like. Motivating yourself is a superpower to help you hit your goals and whether your motivation is to better yourself, beat others or get a job or please your family use this motivation to hold yourself accountable. I will also routinely focus on what I need to do that day or week rather than letting the volume or length of study overwhelm me and will then reward myself for hitting milestones and learning. Finally I will try and make learning a game and remind myself how much fun it is to learn new facts and challenge myself to do questions. Maybe I'm a bit weird but when you start seeing studying as a challenge learning becomes quite fun and hopefully what you are studying genuinely interests and excites you on your path to your future career.