When winging it no longer works: How to have a study breakthrough

Breakthrough moment

Most of us can wing it up until the end of year 10.

We can get by doing the bare minimum.

Read over your notes a few times.
Highlight a few things.
We’re good to go for the test!

So when this approach no longer works in upper school, many students are confused.

It’s a massive shock to their system.

But there is a fundamental difference between upper school and your previous years of schooling. And it’s this …

The content is a lot more challenging.


Because if everything was easy, your brain wouldn’t grow. It simply wouldn’t develop in the ways it needs to be healthy and strong.

But here’s the interesting thing about your brain . . .

Your brain loves comfort and success. It rewards you when you do things that you’re good at (rather than the things you suck at).

But neurologists Doctors Dean and Ayesha Sherzai state your brain needs to be challenged daily. It needs to do things that make it feel uncomfortable (this prevents cognitive decline).

Learning challenging content is just what your brain needs. But with challenging content comes some discomfort and confusion.

Chances are you probably won’t understand a new concept straight away.

Learning a new concept may require engaging in several of the following actions:

• Reading your textbook;
• Watching a video on YouTube of an expert explaining the concept;
• Going for a walk to let the ideas simmer away (i.e. diffuse mode thinking);
• Reading a simplified explanation on Ducksters;
• Explaining the concept to a friend,your dog and/or the wall;
• Asking the teacher or tutor questions to clarify; and
• Practising doing some past exams and testing yourself with some flash cards (i.e. retrieval practice).

And then, finally, boom! You get it.

You have a breakthrough moment. Suddenly, after all that mental wrestling, you reach a critical threshold. Finally, things start to make sense.

As you go about your studies, you’ll enter what author James Clear calls “the valley of disappointment”.

Figure from Atomic Habits by James Clear

James Clear states:

“We often expect progress to be linear. At the very least, we hope it will come quickly. In reality, the results of our efforts are often delayed. It is not until months or years later that we realize the true value of the previous work we have done. This can result in a “valley of disappointment” where people feel discouraged after putting in weeks or months of hard work without experiencing any results. However, this work was not wasted. It was simply being stored. It is not until much later that the full value of previous efforts is revealed.”

When you’re struggling with a new concept, don’t see this as a waste of time. You’re just passing through the valley of disappointment. If you keep at it (one step at a time), you’ll arrive at a breakthrough.

Sounds like a lot of work, eh?

Well, yes. It is. But that’s how the process goes. It takes time. It takes effort.

You just need to take things one step at a time. Set the bar at a reasonable level. Focus on the process (don’t worry about your results). Because a breakthrough moment is coming.