Demystifying study: How to make studying part of your daily routine

How to study

Has someone ever said to you “Go to your room and study!”?

Study is such a vague term.

Many students know they should study, but they’re not exactly sure what study is and what they should be doing.

This is a problem.

If you don’t know what study is and what effective study looks like, chances are you probably won’t be able to do it.

You’ll be winging it.

How can you develop a solid study habit?

I’m going to breakdown what study is and how you can study in the most effective way to optimise learning. I’ll also share a simple way to combat procrastination and kick-start your study sessions.

What is study?

Study is where you spend time understanding ideas. It also involves cementing ideas into your memory.

Study is different from collecting information (e.g., downloading articles, buying books, and saving videos to watch later). Study involves taking that information, spending time trying to understand ideas, and making connections between different ideas.

Let’s be clear . . .

Study is different from working on homework and assignments.

Homework and assignments are relatively straightforward. The teacher tells you exactly what you need to do. If you’re not sure what to do, you can ask for clarification.

Study is not so clear cut.

Unless you have a private tutor, a friend, or teacher who spells out what you need to do in your study sessions (e.g., “Go test yourself with this flashcard deck tonight and then test yourself again in two days’ time”), no one is telling you what to study and how to do it. This is something you need to figure out for yourself.

The good news is there are simple things you can do to help you pinpoint what you need to study (more on this shortly).

What’s the point of studying?

You will forget most of what the teacher says in class unless you make an effort to retain it. This is why study is so important. Study is what embeds ideas into your memory.

In psychology, there’s a concept known as the Forgetting Curve.

Forgetting Curve

The idea is simple: information leaks out of your brain over time. But by studying, you can slow down the rate of forgetting and even interrupt it completely.

How we delude ourselves when it comes to learning

Most of us have unrealistic expectations when it comes to learning new ideas and skills.

A lot of students expect learning to be fast and easy like in the science fiction film The Matrix.

There’s a famous scene in The Matrix where Neo gets plugged into the ‘Knowledge Upload Machine’. A floppy disk with combat skills is inserted into the machine and Neo rapidly acquires all the skills of jujutsu.

Neo in the Knowledge Upload Machine

Many of us want instant results like Neo. If we can’t understand something straight away or nail the skill the first time, we give up.

What do we do instead?

We run to things that deliver instant gratification (e.g., TikTok, video games, and YouTube). These things bring us temporary relief from the negative feelings and discomfort that arise when we are faced with challenging work.

But they also take us further away from our goals.

Here’s the reality of study . . .

Study isn’t easy.
It takes work.
It takes time.

But if you can get yourself to sit down and do a little bit of study every day, you’ll see that over time all those study sessions will add up to something solid.

Breaking down study: A step-by-step process

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of study as being one giant overwhelming task. This makes the work feel scary and extracts all the fun from the process.

When we see study as being overwhelming, we feel stressed and when we feel stressed about any task, we are more likely to procrastinate.

So, let’s break the process down into more concrete simple tasks to make it seem more manageable and less threatening.

Step 1: Prepare your environment

Before you sit down to study, set yourself up with the things you need to learn. Get out your pens, paper, notes, textbook, flashcards, a glass of water, post-it notes, noise blocking earmuffs/headphones, etc.

Is there anything that could distract you when you study?

Deal with distractions from the outset. Create a barrier between you and Big Tech (this way it will be hard to run to the fun stuff when things get tricky with your work).

The simplest and most powerful thing you can do is take your phone and place it away from your body in another room. Turn it off or put it on silent.

If there is any visual clutter in your space, collect it up in a box and put it in another room. Being surrounded by piles of clutter can increase your stress levels and make it hard to focus.

Setting yourself up is an important first step for several reasons:

1. It will help you get into a state of flow with your learning;
2. You’re warming your brain up and mentally preparing it to do the work; and
3. You’ll be less distracted which will allow you to learn more in less time.

Once you’ve set yourself up, this bring us to the next step . . .

Step 2: Pinpoint what you need to study

Select a subject and then ask yourself these simple questions:

1. What didn’t I understand in class today?
2. What topics were confusing?
3. Where are the gaps in my knowledge?

These questions can be difficult to answer several hours after a class, especially if you didn’t take any notes in class.

This is why it’s a good idea to scribble down on a post-it note anything you don’t understand in class. This post-it will help guide your study sessions later in the day.

If you can’t answer the above questions, here are some ways you can gain clarity on what you need to study:

• Check the unit content section of your syllabus. Focus on the content you have already covered in class. If any words are unfamiliar or confusing, that’s a clue you need to study those ideas. Why? Because you’re going to be assessed on this content at some point in the future.
• Test yourself with a practice test, past exam paper, or flashcards. Stumped by a question? There you go! That’s a sign you don’t understand this particular topic so well.

When you realise you’re a bit rusty on a concept or don’t understand something, don’t feel bad. Instead, write the concept on a post-it note and tell yourself “Good job!” You’ve just pinpointed something to study. You’re one step closer to getting a better understanding of the content.

Step 3: Choose your study strategy

You’ve figured out what you need to study. Now it’s time to decide on the best strategy to learn the content.

The strategy you select will depend on where you’re at on your learning journey and what you need to be able to do with the content.

I see learning as being made up of two distinct parts:

• Part 1: You first need to understand the information and make sense of it
• Part 2: You need to commit the information to memory so you can easily retrieve it when you need it (e.g., in a test or exam)

Doing part 1 well will help you with part 2 (remembering the information). But it won’t be enough to cement the ideas into your memory. You’ll need additional strategies for this.

Here are some ideas to help you with each part of your learning journey . . .

When you are trying to understand a topic

• Grab a sheet of A3 paper and draw out the ideas as you read
• Watch an animated video explaining the topic
• Ask for help from an expert (e.g., teacher), friend, or Google
• Access children’s books or graphic novels on the topic

When you need to remember information on a topic

• Do a practice test
• Teach a friend, a pet, or the wall
• Write or draw out as much as you can remember
• Record yourself explaining an idea

If you want to remember something, you need to practice remembering that information.

It’s okay to incorrectly recall the information but it’s critical that you find out what the right answer is immediately. If you do this, you won’t embed the incorrect information!

Steer clear of studying in the following ways:

• Passively rereading your books and notes
• Highlighting your notes
• Copying out your notes
• Summarising your notes or a chapter (this is worth doing in the early stages of learning something new but it’s not a good way to prepare for a test or exam).

These are what I call ‘Feel Good, Get Nowhere’ study strategies. They feel good to use because they’re easy. But they get you nowhere because they’re not very effective ways to learn.

Step 4: Embrace the pain and go!

We live in an environment that has trained us to seek out pleasure and immediate gratification. This makes sitting down to study incredibly difficult for a lot of people.

Study forces us to face up to the fact that we don’t know everything and/or we may suck at some things (at least to begin with).

This explains why you probably won’t feel comfortable when you first sit down to study. You’ll feel the urge to distract yourself. But resist the urge.

Sit with the discomfort. Don’t run from it. Push through it.

Use an electronic timer to time your study sessions (25 – 45 minutes). This way your brain knows there’s an end point and you won’t be stuck in the discomfort forever.

Step 5: Take a break

Take a study break

When the timer goes off, give yourself a break. These breaks will help you to mentally re-energise.

A recent study from the University of Sydney confirmed this. Researchers found taking a five-minute unstructured rest break improved students’ ability to focus and learn.

Force yourself to step away from your computer screen and go outside. Look up at the sky and some trees. If you can, add some movement into your breaks.

You are not a machine. In order to engage in quality study, you need to take regular breaks.

Recapping the process

We’ve just broken down study sessions into five simple steps:

Step 1: Prepare your environment
Step 2: Pinpoint what you need to study
Step 3: Choose your study strategy
Step 4: Embrace the pain and go!
Step 5: Take a break

Your first few study sessions will require a bit of willpower to carry out. But why would you want to rely on your willpower reserves all the time?

That’s far too draining.

This is where creating a study habit can help to streamline the process and conserve your mental energy.

How to create a study habit

Most of us have easy access to an abundance of endless entertainment options. There are many cues in our environment that remind us of the fun things we could be doing instead of study.

If you can establish a study habit, you eliminate all these options from your life for that part of your day.

Once you decide when and where you’re going to study, you’re no longer overwhelmed by all the choice. Your brain knows exactly what it needs to do.

Here are some examples of tiny study habits:

1. After I have a snack, I will take my phone and place it in another room (on silent).
2. After I finish dinner, I will take out my flashcards and place them on my desk.
3. After I unpack my bag, I will grab a post-it note and ask myself “What didn’t I understand in class today?” I will write down one thing.
4. After I have a shower, I will place my textbook on my desk.
5. After I hear a concept I don’t understand, I will write it down on a post-it note.
6. After I have pinpointed what I need to study, I will ask “Which strategy will I use to learn this?”
7. After I hear the timer go off, I will get up and go outside.

These study habits are tiny but that’s the whole point. When we are starting out, we keep the study behaviour small so it feels fun and easy for the brain.

Still feeling resistant to study? Let’s reframe it

“Study” can sound mighty grim. It can bring to mind images of staying up late into the night cramming. It can feel repetitive, dull, and pointless.

“Study” sounds like what your teachers and parents want you to do. It doesn’t sound like something you’d do for fun.

Frankly, the term “study” comes with a lot of baggage.

But that’s okay. There’s no reason why you need to use the word.

You can create a mind map or test yourself with a flashcard desk without calling it “study”. Just do the tasks you need to do to understand and remember the information. There’s no need to name the tasks as “study”.

If you do want to call it something, try using a fun and playful term that has no baggage. For example, you could frame study as doing bicep curls for your brain.

To sum up

Think about the things you are good and confident at doing now. What were you like when you first started? You probably weren’t great!

But you kept at it and over time, you got better. Your skills and confidence developed.

The same thing applies with study. You’re not going to be amazing at studying to begin with. You’re going to feel awkward and clumsy as you wrestle with new ideas. But cut yourself some slack.

Approach your study sessions as mini experiments. Go into them thinking, “Let’s test out this strategy and see how it goes”. If it doesn’t work, you can try again or try something different in your next study session.