I’ve been thinking about tackling the topic of study habits for a long time. This morning, I decided to sit down and write this article. I sat down in front of my computer. Then I noticed I needed to empty my recycling bin. Then I checked Facebook. Then I picked up the book I was reading last night. Procrastination happens to everyone!
Beating procrastination takes willpower, and willpower needs motivation – if you’re not convinced that you actually need to do whatever it is you’re trying to do, you won’t be able to get started. Ultimately though, beating procrastination and having productive study habits is a tool that will help you for the rest of your life, so it’s worth developing the habit now!
Good study habits are different for everyone. There are some things that everyone must do, some things that never work for anyone, and lots of in betweens! You need to find what’s right for you.
3 things that everyone must do!
- It’s important to make sure you’re not interrupted, especially if you’re doing timed practice. If this might happen, make a “Do not disturb” sign, and put it on your door or desk. It’s important that whoever you live with supports your commitment to whatever you’re trying to study for.
- Be disciplined with your phone. Don’t have it on your desk, and put it on silent. If you need to use it to time yourself, put it on airplane mode so you aren’t distracted. If you think this is too hard, you need to consider how much your phone use is distracting you in other areas of life.
- Also, if you’re working on a screen, you should take an eye break for 30 seconds every 10 minutes. Stay at your desk, but stand up, close your eyes to rest them, and stretch your arms and legs. Then open your eyes and focus on an object that’s far away for a few seconds. This seriously helps your eye health. I learned this the hard way!
The 5 aspects to your study habits
- Your work environment
- Noise level: If I’m trying to understand something very intense, I need to study in silence. Otherwise, I like white noise. I work very well in coffee shops. If you’re like me, but don’t want to spend a lot of money on coffee, this site surprisingly works pretty well! If you like to listen to music, consider whether music with or without words makes a difference to you. Sometimes it does, other times it doesn’t. If you’re putting music on, make sure you’re listening to an album or a playlist. If you have to keep stopping to change songs, that’s very distracting. A big no is watching TV when you study – it’s too distracting, and I don’t think this works for anyone.
- Mess level: I can work in a messy environment if I’m doing creative work, but if I need to be methodical, my environment must be tidy. I like to tidy my desk before I start studying – it gives a sense of control and organization. This isn’t just me being weird, tidying is psychological de-cluttering as well. Figure out what works for you, just don’t get distracted and reorganize your entire desk!
- Study spot: I also find it hard to work in bed, or even on the couch. To me, these places are associated with lazing around, so I’m not as productive. I have to use a desk. This is true for a lot of people. If you find yourself studying in bed, make sure you know that that really is as good as sitting at a desk, and that you’re not just doing it because you don’t want to get out of bed!
- Structuring your study and break time
Before you start studying, decide how to structure your breaks. Don’t allow yourself to bargain with yourself about when your breaks are going to be – it distracts from your study. Write your break times down if you have to. Your breaks should constitute no more than 20% of your total study time – e.g. if you’re studying for 3 hours, your breaks should be no more than 36 minutes. This gives you two 15 minute breaks, plus a little extra, so you can break your study up into three 1 hour long sessions, split by 15 minute breaks. You get the picture.
You also must make sure that you can concentrate for 1 hour at a time. If you can’t do this, you are unprepared for university, and poorly prepared for the ACT or SAT. Both of them have sections that are this length. Your first study habit to develop is to build up your concentration stamina so that you can do this.
Every time you take a break, make sure you leave your desk, walk around and stretch. This is a must for everyone. You can grab some food, a drink, chat to someone, or use your phone (but don’t start a conversation with someone who is going to keep messaging you when you’re trying to study). If you’re taking a longer break, it’s good to get some exercise. It really helps to increase your concentration when you get back to work again.
- Structuring your overall study plan
You also need to be strict about how much study you’re going to do. If you’re preparing for the SAT or ACT, and you’re serious about getting the best score you possibly can, you need to study for 4-6 months at 2-3 hours per week. You can double the number of hours and halve the time (2-3 months at 4-6 hours per week), but you shouldn’t expect to get your best score if you study for less than 2 months. Training your brain takes time. Putting in 40 hours of prep in the week before the test will not get the same result as 40 hours spread over 2 months. If you have a fairly regular schedule, you might find it helpful to set aside a specific period of time every week. If it’s less predictable, you might need to juggle around it a bit. Just make sure it happens. If you’re still planning how to prepare, this article might be helpful to you.
Being accountable to someone for the amount of work you do is the key to sticking to your study habits. That someone could be you, if you have a high level of self-discipline and usually manage to follow through on plans you make for yourself. Some people find this very difficult, so you might need to ask someone to help you. It could be a parent, if you trust them not to pester you. (This would never have worked for me – I hate it when people pester me!) If you have a friend preparing for the test as well, consider making a pact to study each week for a certain amount of time.
I read a book recently that discussed habit formation and how different people are able to hold themselves accountable and get stuff done. It’s called ‘Better than Before’, and it’s by the writer Gretchen Rubin. She theorises that people fall into 4 categories by whom they feel accountable to. You can take a quiz from her website to figure this out. This might help you to decide who you’re going to persuade into helping you study.
- Are you a carrot person or a stick person?
If you haven’t heard that expression before, it is an old country phrase about how to get a donkey to go where you want. You can offer it a carrot, or use a stick to prod it. Probably neither of those will produce good study habits, but the principle is the same! Consider whether you’re motivated by fear, or reward. If you’re motivated by fear, write a list of things that will happen if you don’t study. Don’t be overdramatic and make yourself panic; if you don’t study a reasonable consequence is that you won’t do well, or possibly you will fail the exam, but it’s not reasonable to assume that you’ll never get a good job! If you’re motivated by reward, withhold something from yourself. It could be a small thing like getting to use your phone in your breaks, or watching a TV show when you’ve done your weekly study. It could be something bigger, like buying a game or clothes. If you’re motivated by fear, maybe just think about this guy!
One last thing… Some people like motivational quotes and sayings. Pin some above your desk if it will strengthen your study habits. I don’t really go in for this, except for one that I think of when I find myself reluctant to do something: “the path of least resistance gets you nowhere”. The easy way out is never the way to achieve anything. Success requires discipline. Make sure you stay strong and dedicated to your goals! There’s no easy route to success.