Let’s simplify studying a little bit. Forget your test date, to-do list, and notes for a second. Instead, let’s focus on having great 60-minute study sessions. That’s it. Take your studying one hour at a time, and crank through your work until you’ve crushed all the material. You don’t need to be a perfect student to nail a test—you just need one fantastic hour of studying, and then repeat that hour until you’re done. Here’s the recipe for that great hour.
What Makes Study Sessions Great?
The best study sessions are intense. At the end of 60 minutes, your brain should hurt a little. Good study sessions are mentally challenging because learning and working through practice problems requires a lot of focus. If you’re not a little tired by the end of your session, then you’re probably just idling, not working. Plus, if you learn to study with intensity, you can finish more work in less time.
What does this look like? When you sit down to study, you spend an hour staring at your work and nothing else. No phone, no texting, no social media, no BS. I know, I know, it’s a tall order. When I was in high school, I too was reluctant to study intensely. What’s wrong with Snapchat once in a while? But as I matured, I got better at focusing on my work, and it paid off. My grades went up, I had more time for extracurriculars and friends, and I started to enjoy studying. It’s fun to challenge your mind by learning new things. Now I’m an intensity junkie.
Alright, so if intensity is so important for study sessions, then how do we do it? How do we learn to focus on the material and nothing else? You have to follow one simple rule: eliminate distractions and maximize your focus. Let’s break this down.
A distraction is anything that takes your eyes or mind off of your work. Texting, calling, chatting, and background noise are the most common kinds of distractions and must be eliminated at all costs.
Turn your phone on airplane mode and store it in your bag. Work in a quiet place that is made for working like a library or coffee shop. Wear noise-canceling headphones or AirPods to block out any noise. Close all non-work-related tabs on your browser. Don’t study with chatty people who will interrupt you constantly. And never check Instagram, Netflix, YouTube, or Twitter when you study.
This may seem a bit extreme. Will answering one text really kill your productivity? Probably not, but it’s never just one distraction. By the time you’re done texting your mom, chatting with your friend, and ignoring the loud people around you, 20 minutes will have passed, and you’ll still be re-reading the same sentence. Study sessions are a war against distraction—don’t give the enemy any ground!
Maximize Your Focus
In my opinion, improving your focus is a lot harder than eliminating distractions. Distractions are usually a choice and can be dealt with by making good decisions about where you work, who you’re with, what you’re listening to, etc. But focusing isn’t a choice, it’s a skill. You can’t just choose to focus better, you have to train your mind to concentrate on one thing at a time. Fortunately, there is a procedure that I have developed that radically improves focus:
- Pick a concrete task. This is any task that has a clear endpoint or finish line. “Study physics” is not concrete because it doesn’t describe what you have to do or when you’re finished. Instead, choose something like “read chapter 3” or “do problems 1-14 from the study guide.” Make your action and your stopping point explicit.
- Write this task down somewhere. Use the Notes on an Apple device or a notepad. It doesn’t really matter where you write it, just write it somewhere.
- Set a timer for the task. Your task should take between 25 to 50 minutes to complete. If your task is too big or too small, modify it. Then set a countdown timer for your goal to finish the task. Completing the task in that time should be difficult but not impossible. I can usually write 500 words, for example, in 50 minutes, but only if I’m really focused.
- Once the timer goes off, take a short, distraction-less break. Take 5 minutes off for every 25 minutes you’ve worked. Respond to your texts and walk around. Don’t go crazy and check Instagram—this is the time when your attention can rest, so move around, get a little bored, then jump back into your work.
- Repeat the cycle. Do more cycles until you’re done with your work or your brain is fried.
When you begin working like this, start at 25 minutes on/5 minutes off. Once you adjust to this intensity, slowly increase your cycle length up to over a few weeks. It should take you a few months to reach 50 minutes on/10 minutes off. You’ll know you’re ready to increase your “on time” once the “on” cycle feels a bit too short. Also, if your chosen task doesn’t quite fit your work cycle, that’s ok. Some tasks take longer or shorter than you think. Adjust your expectations over time, and keep your concentration at a high level.
Putting It All Together
Here’s what all of my work sessions look like: I only work in quiet places where I won’t be disturbed—my desk, a library, or a coffee shop on campus. When I sit down, I turn my phone on airplane mode and put it in my bag. I close all unnecessary tabs and applications on my computer. I have disabled texting notifications on my MacBook, so no one can reach me. I wear noise-canceling headphones and play non-verbal music from my computer. Then I write my chosen task into BeFocusedPro. I usually write something like “read 40 pages,” “write 500 words”, “finish editing blog post”, or “400 flashcards.” I work in 50 minutes on/10 minutes off cycles, and I never open Facebook, YouTube, or any social media during those 50 minutes. I rarely look away from my computer screen—my whole being is directed toward what I’m doing. When my timer goes off, I walk and (usually) respond to my girlfriend’s texts. Then I get back to work.
That’s it! Full disclosure, it took me years to get to this point, so don’t be afraid if this seems overwhelming. Just start by eliminating your distractions. Once you’ve mastered that, train your focus with the protocol above. Rinse, repeat, improve. You’ll be seeing improvements in no time.
If you want to discuss how to improve your studying even further, talk to a Dewey Smart tutor by following this link: Dewey Smart!