Our grades are a byproduct of our quality of work and our quality of work is a function of 2 factors: our ability to focus and our ability to be consistent.
In order to maximize our ability to focus we need to beat distractions and get into a flow state. If we want to stay consistent we need to stay healthy and keep our energy levels up.
The following study tips are all backed up by evidence:
1. The Energy Management Tip
Our first step towards studying consistently is to understand the principle of energy management.
Let’s be honest, we all have our own quirks and preferences. Some of us are early birds while others are night owls.
The key is to understand which one we are and plan our study strategy around it. After all, we can have the best environment, a clear set of goals and all the materials we need but it’ll all be for nothing if we’re running low on energy and don’t have the willpower to even open our laptop.
It's therefore crucial that we identify the peak times when we feel most energized and plan our study sessions during these periods for maximum efficiency.
For me I always found that going to bed around 10:30 and then waking up early around 6:30 and going straight to my desk was when I had the most willpower to overcome distractions and the most energy to work on difficult topics. Psychologist Roy F Baumeister outlined this in his book Willpower and he basically says that as our energy levels decrease during the day we're more likely to tire and become distracted or produce lower quality work.
Ultimately, when it comes to energy management and taking breaks we want to discover what drains our energy and what causes us to feel energized.
Recognizing the optimal time for studying allows us to organize work sessions in a way that promotes an efficient workflow. You then just need to come up with a schedule that works for you and stick to it!
2.The Breaks Tip
To manage our energy effectively we need to prioritize taking meaningful breaks between work which is study tip number 2. Maintaining a high energy level will result in a deeper focus and critical thinking, so prioritizing tasks for when we feel most energetic will work wonders for the quality of the work we produce.
We can always reserve the less demanding activities (like reviewing notes or organizing your study materials) for times when our biological battery is feeling a bit low.
It's also important we break our study tasks into manageable chunks. When I was in med school and attempting to study for hours on end without breaks it led to mental fatigue and exhaustion, not better grades.
Instead, I would set specific goals for each study session, such as completing a certain number of practice questions and reward myself with something fun or relaxing after hitting that goal. I'd reward meaningful progress rather than just time spent studying.
Short, frequent breaks of around 5 to 10 minutes every hour can help recharge our energy and improve our overall concentration. The best use of these breaks is to stretch, hydrate, or even do a quick mindfulness exercise.
3. Perform Active Tasks Tip
Now, changing your approach to how you study isn’t going to be easy but adopting good habits and positive strategies, even if it takes months or years, will definitely pay off in the long run.
Trust me, I know what it’s like to fall into the pattern of cramming for a test at the last minute, it's what I did during my first year at med school, but it’s not healthy or productive and I actually ended up burning out through cramming and learning far less than if I had stuck to a set schedule. And cramming is also stressful, which in itself can hinder our ability to concentrate!
To break out of this vicious cramming cycle, we first need to switch our study sessions from passive to active ones. The aim here is to increase our efficiency so that we waste less time and it becomes easier for us to sit down and focus on doing active tasks like active recall questions where we're engaged with the material than just passively reading which I always found was less engaging and I was more likely to get distracted especially if the chapter I was reading was boring.
So an activity like re-reading your notes is considered to be passive studying while self-testing (or getting a friend to test you) is an active study method. A simple way to think of it is that any activity that fails to challenge you is passive, whereas an active task may force you to find out you were wrong about something and allow you to rectify it immediately.
4. Reward Yourself
So that’s all well and good, but it still doesn’t motivate you to want to sit down and study in the first place. For this, we need to get into the mindset that the work we do is good for us and recognize that we’re building towards something positive in the future.
All too often, we tend to lose sight of our end goal, be it a career that pays lots of money and allows us to live comfortably, or passing a test that will ultimately let us do something we want or need (like being able to drive).
Creating a short-term reward system, might help you to combat this and it works as a good motivator for some people. If I'm struggling to sit down and work for example, I'll set a reward for myself at the end of it like going to the gym, grabbing a coffee or watching a show on Netflix.
It sounds a little silly at first, but having a clear sense of purpose can help you sustain your energy and enthusiasm. As long as you have the self-discipline to see it through, this technique can be very effective when used correctly.
5. The Organized Workspace Tip
Tip number 5, is probably the most impactful change I made when I was in medical school in terms of boosting my ability to get into a flow state and it's simply about creating a dedicated and organized workspace.
To really get the most out of our study sessions, we must eliminate as many distractions as we can, remember top grades are a function of our ability to focus and to be consistent. It goes without saying that the world we live in is full of distractions that limit out focus and consistency, from smartphones and social media to TV and games, but a simple way to avoid all of these is to keep them out of sight and out of mind.
I have my desk setup the night before with my workspace tidied and tasks for the following day laid out. Whn I wake up I go straight to my desk with my phone on silent or outside the room I'm currently in to avoid the temptation of looking at it. If you're really struggling here there are apps you can download that will regulate your screen time, blocking access to certain features during your scheduled study times.
Whether I'm working from home, on holiday or in a noisy office, I make sure my team, family and friends know when I'll be in deep work mode and I'll use noise cancelling headphones and lofi music to help me get into a flow state quickly.
6. The Study Group Tip
Now the study tips so far have been mainly centered on improving our ability to focus. Getting top grades is a function of our ability to focus and our ability to stay consistent and the next few tips are going to look more at consistency and building study habits. Tip number 6 is something that I highly recommend doing and it's finding a study community, this is either a partner or a group of people whom you can study with on regular occasions. Not only does this increase our focus and productivity, but it will also provide motivation and hold you accountable as a member of the group.
What’s more, the opportunity to pause and engage in discussions about challenging topics with fellow students constitutes a high-impact learning strategy (again it’s active, not passive). This approach enhances long-term retention and can help to identify and fill in the gaps in your learning that we may not have found on our own.
Whether you decide to study solo or with others, you’ll want to vary your studies to avoid suffering from burnout.
We don’t always need to be doing something heavy to be productive. Some people like to ‘gamify’ their studies, coming up with fun and interesting ways to test themselves. Personally, I find this doesn’t work too well for me but as I said before, we’re all different and coming up with a game to help you learn something could be a welcome change to the usual routine. No matter what anyone else says, you need to find study techniques that work for you.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and get creative!
7. The Well-Being Tip
To be consistent we need to stay healthy and energised but from personal experience it can be really difficult to do so around stressful exam times or if we're trying to find time to learn around a busy schedule as a working professional.
And of course, any strategies or techniques you choose to adopt have zero chance of succeeding if you don’t actively manage your personal well-being..
As with studying, we need to take time to appreciate things and understand what self-care means. For some people, this might involve going out with friends or doing some retail therapy by buying some new clothes. For others, it could be as simple as going for a walk, lifting weights, or reading.
There are lots of things you can do to de-stress and it’s crucial that you spend some time away from studying to focus on yourself.
For me self-care is a non-negotiable part of my learning routine. I'll actively practice a guided mindfulness meditation before and after a study session since there is strong evidence that doing so improves our ability to learn. My other non-negotiables are then getting enough sleep, exercising and eating healthily which we'll touch on in the next three tips starting with the importance of sleep.
8. The Plenty of Sleep Tip
Getting plenty of sleep because sleep is very important for learning. Given that sleep disruption is a key characteristic of burnout, it's unsurprising that a strategic and prioritized approach to maintaining healthy sleep habits is recommended by multiple studies. REM sleep plays a key role in solidifying long-term memories, while poor sleep can result in severe lapses in attention.
Making sure you get a good 7 hours of rest each night and sleeping at regular intervals will help to calibrate your body clock, providing a strong foundation for everything else we’ve discussed so far.
What I have found that works for me is having a fairly strict wind-down routine where I won't drink any caffeine in the afternoon and will then stop working around 7pm and relax before bedtime around 10 to 10:30. I've noticed that when I don't do this my racing mind stops me from going to sleep and my quality of sleep won't be as good. I'll then ensure my sleep environment is cool and dark and I'll wake up without an alarm ready to attack the day.
One of the main things I've noticed is that if I don't exercise during the day my quality of sleep won't be as good and there is tonnes of evidence showing that sleep and exercise and learning have a reciprocal relationship so let's look at exercise next.
9. The Regular Exercise Tip
Regular exercise, has been proven to rebalance negative emotions and alleviate stress. When you're less stressed, your mind is more clear and receptive to learning. Even just going outside and staying in touch with nature is a good way to keep yourself grounded.
Now if you’re not a physically active person the thought of this can actually increase your stress level, at least to begin with. If that’s the case, I'd suggest creating a list of activities that feel like a break or reward which are also easy for you to do like going for a walk while listening to your favourite podcast!
The aim is to gradually incorporate physical activities into our routine, dedicating short periods of 15 to 20 minutes twice per day.
I like setting myself exercise challenges to stay active, such as performing push-ups, sit-ups, or wall sits and trying to beat my previous record or following a lifting routine for the gym and trying to beat my max reps.
Just like sleep I'll also schedule in gym sessions as a non-negotiable and try and mix cardio, push and pull sessions with yoga and classes to mix things up.
Now occasionally if I do a really high effort crossfit class for example I can end up feeling tired afterwards if I'm not eating enough or following a proper diet and then this can impact my work and study ability so let's look at diet next.
10. Manage Your Diet
Managing our diet is another crucial aspect of active well-being that helps us to remain consistent when studying by keeping our energy levels high throughout the day despite our body's normal blood sugar fluctuations.
Healthy inputs equals beneficial outputs. So, staying hydrated and eating well are key for maintaining energy levels. I try to avoid drinking tons of coffee or eating sugary foods, which will lead to inevitable crashes in energy. Instead, I'll opt for balanced meals and snacks that provide sustained energy, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins as well as lots of healthy snacks like nuts and blueberries which have been shown to be beneficial to our brain's ability to function at it's best.
Just like exercise, the thought of obtaining, preparing, and enjoying meals during a dedicated study period can appear daunting to begin with, but you don't need to be a nutritionist in order to comprehend what you can eat everyday and what you need to avoid.
It needn’t be a costly or time-intensive process. Cheap, healthy meals cooked in a slow cooker can be prepared in bulk on a Sunday, and you can reserve special meals as a treat or reward to simplify the overall meal preparation process.
11. Practise Stress Management Techniques
Okay so my final evidence-based study tip is to incorporate stress management techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or mindfulness practices into your daily routine.
I mentioned earlier I do these daily and I find just 5-minutes of meditation reduces stress and can also help prevent burnout during intensive study periods.
When working I find it enhances my ability to concentrate and maintain focus on tasks, reducing distractions and improving productivity. Some studies suggest that regular meditation can improve memory and cognitive function too, making it easier to grasp complex concepts and recall information during exams.
Most studies recommend a quick 5-minute mindful breathing exercise or guided meditation prior to starting a study session and then one at the end will confer a significant benefit on our ability to focus and retain information.
Studying consistently and avoiding burnout involves optimizing our daily routine to align with our natural energy patterns, setting achievable goals, and taking care of our physical and mental well-being. By implementing these eleven principles, we can maintain a sustainable and effective study routine over the long term without burning out.
Keep in mind that our energy levels and circumstances may change, so be flexible and be willing to adjust your study routine as needed.