Simple things you can do to make studying feel easier

It’s the start of a new school year.

With this usually comes shiny new pens, fresh notebooks and renewed hope and optimism. But this year feels a little different . . .

Last week I heard someone say:

“It’s only January but it feels like it’s the end of the year. I’m so over it.”

Can you relate?

In this blog post, I want to share with you a strategy I use to make difficult things easier to do. In other words, it’s a strategy that can make studying challenging subjects a little easier.

Unhelpful conversations I hear in schools

The other day I did my first job at a school. I’d been asked to run some study skills sessions with the senior school students.

Before I started running the workshops, I had a brief conversation with a year 11 student. It went something like this . . .

Me: How are you feeling given the situation (i.e. COVID-19)?

Year 11 Student: Some of us are stressed but it’s not because of COVID. It’s because of what our teachers have just said to us.

Me: What have your teachers been saying to you?

Year 11 Student: They keep saying this year is going to be really hard. The subjects are going to be much harder.

On my way home from the talk, I thought about what this student had said. I thought about the stressed look in her eyes.

This conversation reminded me of an awkward experience I had last year.

Here’s what happened . . .

I had been asked to present a talk to 150 year 10 students. My talk was scheduled for the last period of the school day.

In case you’re not aware, the last period of the school day is not an ideal time slot for a guest speaker. It’s usually a tough gig because students are tired and they just want to go home.

Students don’t hide how they feel at the end of the school day.

When I arrived at the venue to set up, I saw two teachers. I introduced myself to them. One of them said in an alarmed tone:

“Oh! You’re the guest speaker? I just need to warn you that these students are a horrible group. They do not warm to guest speakers!”

She continued on . . .

“Does your talk have a structure to it? Do you know what you’re talking about? These year 10s are a really hard group to work with!”

I felt my stress levels begin to rise and by accident, I knocked my glass of water off the stage and it broke. Glass went everywhere. Instead of helping me pick up the glass, the teacher said:

“Look! It’s a sign of things to come!”

At this point, the young IT guy arrived to help connect my laptop to the AV system. He overheard this teacher banging on about what a bunch of ratbags these students were. He looked kind of shocked. He said to her:

“Why are you saying this to our guest presenter? I don’t think it’s helpful.”

The teacher reacted defensively. She blurted out “She needs to know! It’s important we tell her!” and then she left.

I took some deep breaths and continued setting up my stuff.

What happened next may surprise you . . .

The students arrived.
I delivered the talk.
The talk went really well.

It turns out these students weren’t horrible at all. They were normal students who happened to be a bit tired and over it.

I learnt an important lesson that day: Worrying about how hard something is going to be doesn’t help. It just uses up your precious brainpower and energy that you could have spent doing something else (i.e. something more productive).

Whenever I focus on how hard something is going to be, I’m filled with fear. Imposter syndrome and self doubt kicks in (“Will I be able to do this? What if I fail and it turns out to be a total flop?”). This usually leads to a bad case of avoidance and procrastination.

In the book Make It Stick, Peter Brown explains:

“A fear of failure can poison learning by creating aversions to the kinds of experimentation and risk taking that characterize striving, or by diminishing performance under pressure, as in a test setting.”

If you feel worried that you’re not going to be able to perform well in a subject, this is going to use up a big part of your working memory capacity. Instead of thinking about the content, you’ll be thinking, “Am I going to be able to do this? What if I can’t? Should I drop the subject?”.

In short, you’ll have less brainpower to learn in class.

What makes a difference?

There’s a simple question I ask myself when something feels really hard. And it’s this . . .

How can I make this behaviour easier to do?

Professor BJ Fogg calls this the Breakthrough Question. According to Fogg there are three ways you can make any behaviour easier to do:

1. You can increase your skills
2. Get tools and resources
3. Make the behaviour tiny

Tiny habits

In his book Tiny Habits he explains:

“Regardless of what your aspiration is, increasing your skills, getting tools and resources, and making the behaviour tiny are what makes things easier to do. . .

Sometimes all you’ll need is the right tool to make a new habit easier to do, like using skinny floss [for flossing teeth], and other times all you have to do is scale the behaviour back to its tiniest version, such as flossing just one tooth. Think of making something easy to do as a pond with three different ways to enter the water. Whether you jump off the dock, wade in at the beach, or drop in from a rope swing, you’ll soon be swimming in the same water.”

In other words, you have plenty of options!

There are lots of things you can do to make studying those so called ‘hard’ subjects a little easier.

So with that in mind, here is a short list of ideas to get you kick-started:

1. Heal your attention

If you can focus better, you can learn and retain more information. If you find yourself constantly checking your phone, put it on silent and away from your body before you sit down to study.

2. Upgrade your study skills

Strategies such as active recall (e.g. flash cards) and dual coding (e.g. mind mapping) are way more effective than rereading and highlighting your notes. Like any new skill, they take a little bit of time to get used to, but they’ll save you a lot of time in the long run.

3. Try a different textbook

Some textbooks explain ideas better than others. The textbook on your school booklist is not the only one (or necessarily the best one) out there, so don’t feel wedded to it. Check out other study guides and resources.

4. Build good sleep habits

A good night’s sleep allows you to focus better in class, retain more information and feel better. Make sleep your top priority.

5. Ask questions

If you’re confused, don’t suffer in silence. Ask your teacher for help. That’s their job.

6. Take notes in class

Make life easier for your future self by jotting down key ideas in class. If something is confusing, make a note (you can focus on that in a study session at home).

7. Keep chaos at bay

Create some kind of system to organise your notes, past exam papers and handout sheets. Over time, you may need to tweak and refine your system but that’s okay (I’ve been tweaking and refining my system for years).

8. Make your study sessions tiny

If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of doing several hours of study each day, start with just five minutes. Five minutes of study is infinitely better than doing nothing!

Once you’ve developed the habit of sitting down and studying for 5 minutes, you can ramp it up. But start small.

9. Celebrate the little wins

When you do manage to sit down and do a little study, congratulate yourself. Say to yourself, “Good job!” This positive reinforcement makes us feel good and when we feel good, it helps wire in new habits.

To sum up

When your teachers says, “This subject is going to be really hard”, what I think they’re trying to communicate to you is “You need to actually sit down and study. You can no longer wing it.” Instead of worrying, simply be in action.

You’ll feel better and do better if you focus on doing the things that make studying that subject a little easier.