How to use colour to study more effectively

Why is the notification button on your phone red?

This is no accident. This is a deliberate design decision.

It’s the same reason why fast food logos are often warm reds, yellows, and orange tones. These colours jump out at us. They create a sense of excitement and urgency.

In his book Drunk Tank Pink, Dr Adam Alter argues colour is a hidden force in our lives that can shape the way we think, feel, and behave.

In this blog, I’m going to explore how you can use colour as a tool to help you study more effectively and keep your brain focused and engaged on the task at hand.

Understanding colour psychology

There is whole field of research dedicated to exploring the impact of different colours.

One fascinating study looked at the impact of a particular tone of pink (Baker-Miller Pink/Drunk Tank Pink) that appeared to sap people of their energy. Researcher Dr Alexander Schauss found staring at this shade of pink could lower people’s heart rate and pulse compared to staring at other colours.

A 7-month trial was conducted in which prison confinement cells were painted in this pink shade. According to Dr Schauss, when people were exposed for just 15 minutes to this pink colour in their prison cell, it made them more relaxed, less aggressive, and reduced the incidence of violent behaviour.

But before you race off to the hardware store to buy a tin of pink paint, you need to understand a few simple things about the psychology of colour.

The research suggests that colour can act as a powerful trigger. It can cue different emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. For instance, when you see a red Stop Sign or light, this captures your attention.

But how we react to colour also comes down to personal preference and particular contexts. Colour can have different meanings in different contexts (e.g., on Valentine’s Day red generally symbolises romance rather than “Danger! Look out!”).

The bottom line is this: when it comes to colour you need to experiment to see what works for you.

Using colour to help you learn and do your work

Colour can evoke particular states (e.g., a state of calm or alertness). It can also perk up your brain and transform a dry, boring subject into something that’s a little bit more novel and interesting for your brain.

Below I share 9 ways you can use colour to study and work more effectively.

1. Create lists and reminders with sticky notes

There’s something about a brightly coloured post-it note that captures our attention. This is why I love using post-it notes to help focus my mind and stay on track.

On a post-it note, I create a list of no more than three things that I need to do. Once I’ve completed those tasks, I scrunch up the post-it and throw it in the bin. This action feels surprisingly satisfying! I’ll then grab a fresh post-it note (often in a different colour) to create a new list.

If I’m not sure how to get started with a task (e.g., Task: Write blog post on colour), I’ll grab another post-it note and I’ll scribble down the first tiny action I can take to kick-start the process (e.g., Tiny action: Open Word document).

2. Colour code your subjects

If you have trouble finding your study materials for each subject and they all look the same or are scattered all over the house, you can use colour to make it easier for you to find what you need.

Try assigning a particular colour to a subject. This makes it easier to stay organised and identify your materials. At home, I assign a light blue to my exercise files and folders. When it’s time to plan my workout for the day, I look for my light blue files and folders.

A simple and cheap way to colour code your materials without investing in brand new stationery is to gather a collection of paint swatches from your local hardware store. You can repurpose these as labels by cutting them into smaller sections and sticking them on your files, notebooks, etc.

3. Use colourful flashcards

Testing yourself with flashcards is a highly effective way to study for a test and/or exam. You can create your own flashcard decks by purchasing index cards in a range of different colours.

Try assigning certain colours to different subjects. Alternatively, you can simply pick a colour you want to work with depending on how you feel.

There are no hard and fast rules. Feel free to mix up your flashcard colours to keep things fresh for your brain.

4. Create mind maps

Creating a mind map on a topic is a simple way to combat study fatigue and inject a little colour and creativity into your study sessions.

Although using different coloured pens isn’t absolutely essential for mind mapping, it’s well worth doing. I use different colours to create the different branches on my mind maps.

I have dozens of colourful mind maps at home. Despite my lack of drawing skills, these mind maps look great and are fun to review primarily due to the different coloured branches.

5. Decorate your study space

It’s important that you feel good in your study environment. If you feel good in your study space, you’re more likely to sit down and study there.

I’ve decorated my workspace by putting up colourful posters, inspiring and funny pictures, and artwork on my walls.

If you don’t have access to artwork/posters, you can print out colourful pictures and quotes of things that make you feel good. The addition of a few indoor plants can also help to liven up your space as well as purify the air.

6. Strike a highlighter (but use these pens with caution!)

Fluorescent highlighters feel really good to use. It can feel both fun and satisfying to strike things off your to-do list. You can also use these pens to time block different tasks/events in your diary and draw your attention to important tasks that you need to do.

Word of warning: When it comes to studying for a test or exam, I don’t recommend highlighting your books and/or notes as a way to learn. I know it feels good but research shows it’s an ineffective way to learn.

7. Use a red pen when editing your own work

Red pen is often associated with failure and criticism. This is why seeing a teacher’s comments scribbled in red pen can trigger negative emotions in many of us.

Generally, we don’t like reading comments written by others in red pen. It feels nasty! But it turns out if you use a red pen to correct your own work, this can help you to pick up more errors.

Dr Adam Alter discusses one study that looked at the difference between using a blue pen and a red pen to correct an essay. Students who used a blue pen picked up on average 19 errors. In contrast, students using a red pen picked up an average of 24 errors.

But using a red pen has its limitations! If you are trying to solve a problem or taking a test, using a red pen can backfire by activating ‘avoidance motivation’. This is a distracting state of mind that can impair a student’s ability to solve problems and increase stress levels.

As a rule of thumb, use a blue or black pen when solving problems and taking tests. But when you need to cast a more critical eye on your work (e.g., in the proofreading phase), switch to using a red pen.

8. Dial down colour in certain areas

A lot of us use our phones as an easy way to escape from the boredom and discomfort we experience when doing our work. The apps on our phones are like candy. They are designed to be highly addictive and hijack our attention.

This is where you can be strategic with how you use colour: you can make your phone look more like a tool (and less like a toy) by turning on greyscale mode.

Viewing your phone in greyscale is a completely different experience to using it in full-colour mode. As a year 8 student recently shared with me:

“When I made my phone greyscale, it made it really boring to use.”

Try it and see for yourself!

9. Reward yourself with stickers and fun stamps

This strategy may seem juvenile. If it reminds you of being back in primary school and receiving gold stars, hear me out.

Too often we don’t stop to acknowledge and appreciate ourselves for accomplishing tasks. We finish one thing and we immediately shift our focus to the next task on our to-do list.

When you work this way, your work routine can quickly become soul destroying and your motivation can take a dive.

This is why every so often I pull out my fun stamps and colourful sheets of stickers. After completing a task, I pause and acknowledge what I’ve done by giving myself a stamp or a fun sticker. It’s a little celebration.

For some reason, my brain responds particularly well to quirky Japanese stickers featuring ogisan (Japanese grandfathers) exercising. We’re all different, so explore what stamps and stickers work for you.

To sum up

Colours are lot of fun! Incorporating a little more colour into your studies and work life can take things to the next level and perk up your brain when it needs a little motivational boost.

But the colours that I like may not be the colours that you like. Your colour preferences may also vary from day to day. Notice the colours that make you feel good and have fun seeing how you can incorporate them into your study sessions.