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How to End Unproductive Studying

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This is a guest post by Austin Baker. He is a premedical/biochemistry student who attends Southwestern University in Texas. In addition to his love of science and medicine, he is beginning to branch out into entrepreneurship and can be found at his upcoming site http://austin-baker.com/



A lot of us approach studying with the best of intentions. But no matter what we do, we can’t seem to focus. Nothing seems to stick, and our grades suffer.

Having the right study habits can make or break your educational career, whether you’re in high school, college, or grad school. They can make the difference between mediocre grades and graduating with honors. But a lot of us are thrown into educational settings without the study habits we need to succeed. Through experimentation and advice from experts, I’ve found several highly effective study techniques.

Anyone can implement these, whether it’s to reach your goal of attaining or maintaining perfect grades or to salvage poor grades from the past.

How to Defeat Procrastination

One of the most important components of educational success is straightforward and simple: eliminate procrastination. Procrastination is one of the biggest obstacles preventing you from achieving your goals.

A remedy for this comes from employing contexts from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. If I have to do some serious studying, I head to my university’s library or a local coffee shop. My dorm room is not ideal for me because there are too many opportunities to get sidetracked, and there are a lot of distractions that I don’t have control over.

In contrast, my university’s library is perfect for studying. The first floor is a wide, open space that usually has at least three or four other people studying. This not only sets the mood for me, but it also gives me a sense of accountability. It’s a place for serious study, so I don’t feel tempted to surf Netflix or other outlets that detract from my objectives.

Set Your Goals

Once you’ve found a productive setting, you need to determine exactly what you need to accomplish. In OmniFocus, another task manager, or on pen and paper, write down the most basic steps you need to complete in order to make progress while you study. Do this well in advance of any upcoming due dates. If you really want to retain the material, you need to review frequently and not just the night before. This strengthens your ability to recall the information and saves you the time, panic, and sleep deprivation of trying to learn it all the night before.

One reason I like OmniFocus is that you’re able to set up repeating items in a project for classes that may have repetitive tasks. For example, I have a chemistry laboratory class that requires me to do some prep work beforehand. This is also applicable to classes that require readings before lectures. For more information on how to use OmniFocus, explore some of Asian Efficiency’s in-depth guides.

Schedule Your Time—So You Don’t Waste It

A big mistake a lot of students make is sitting down to study whenever they have the time, which means time-wasting (but more fun) activities come first. If you’re going to make studying a priority, you need to schedule it. Time blocking is the simplest, most effective scheduling method I’ve found.

I recommend an absolute minimum of two hours of studying for each credit hour that you are taking, but an ideal ratio, recommended by experts, is four to one. Gary Keller, author of The One Thing, is known to completely isolate himself while he focuses on his most important task. 

Start with turning off your phone or putting it on airplane mode, which will prevent you from checking your apps, texts, email, etc. every five minutes. I recommend something similar for your computer. Whether you’re using a Mac or PC, there are several options you can use to limit distractions. If you’re looking for a very basic way to do this without any extra software or tools, you can do the following:

  • Turn your Mac to Do Not Disturb, disable sound notifications, and drag away distracting apps that are on your dock.
  • For PC, you can turn off notifications for chat and email services. 

Anti-Distraction Tools

I’ve gotten better results by using a few third-party apps and services that have proven invaluable for not only canceling distractions but also for tracking my productivity and sending me summaries in easy-to-read reports. Here are some I use, along with alternatives.

  • RescueTime (Mac/PC/Chrome) — Free/ Premium $9 a month or $72 a year (at $6 a month)

RescueTime is a downloadable program that tracks and analyzes your web traffic and applications. It gives you a productivity score, along with the time you spent on certain utilities and basic charting that compares your current and previous results.

It also classifies all of your activities as, “Very Productive,” “Productive,” “Neutral,” “Distracting,” or “Very Distracting.” (You can edit its classification of certain tasks.) These functions are all available in the free version, and there are even more in the premium version. Premium features include the ability to block websites for durations of time, view more detailed and extensive reports of your spent time, receive notifications with custom messages related to your performance, keep track of your time offline, log daily accomplishments, and more.

This app lets you block websites and internet services for free. It features two approaches to blocking online connections. You may either opt for blacklisting (block certain websites) or whitelisting (blocking all internet services EXCEPT those that you manually specify). These two options make it a very powerful tool. Be warned, though. If you start a session, you’re forced to wait until it expires, even if you delete the app.

Alternatives:

Blocks all internet connection for a designated amount of time.

  • Antisocial (Mac/PC) — Trial available/ Full Version ($15)

From the same people that bring you Freedom, Antisocial allows you to greatly customize your experience, including blocking distracting sites and setting up time blocks.

This is the Windows equivalent to Self-Control for Mac (same people). The free service features multiple groups, website blocking, and a timer. Upgrading to the pro service unlocks a bonus scheduler, the ability to block applications, and allows wildcards and exceptions.

This is by far one of the most impressive services available. It features a maximum time setting, scheduling, daily reset time, blocked sites, allowed sites, smart blocking, and a “nuclear option.” You can even have it issue you a challenge whenever you try to visit a blocked site.

How to Learn New Material

Now that you’ve determined your goals and set up your anti-procrastination tools, it’s time to approach studying itself productively.

Perform an assessment of what you know about the topic area(s). I recommend the Feynman technique, a technique championed by theoretical physicist Richard Feynman and more recently Scott H. Young, who has refined the process.

Step 1: Choose Your Concept

This sounds simple, but it’s a crucial step. Don’t just sit down to “study physics.” Define exactly what concept you’re studying.

Step 2: Pretend You’re Teaching the Idea to a New Student

On a piece of paper, start to jot down pertinent information about the concept, including diagrams, if applicable. Go into as much detail as possible.

Step 3: Consult Resources If You’re Stuck

When you hit a subtopic you’re not knowledgeable about, consult resources until you understand the material well enough to explain it on paper.

Step 4: Simplify Confusing or Technical Language

Read through your explanations of the concept you’ve chosen. If there are any wordy or technical areas, try to simplify the language as much as possible. Use an analogy (a comparison of the concept to something else) to help if you’re stuck.

In sum, you’re creating your own version of crash-course notes that are simple and easy to understand. This method is also a form of self-testing, which is invaluable if you need to see how you fare for an upcoming test.

When doing the above steps, I recommend the Pomodoro technique, which Asian Efficiency has covered extensively. Depending on the rigor of the subject, a single (25 minutes) or double (50 minutes) Pomodoro may be used.

Do More Than the Minimum

For STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects, you should do several activities to develop and nurture your understanding of the topics. You should complete all section reviews to sow the seed of general understanding and follow up by doing three to seven problems per section or topic area in the back of the chapter to fully solidify your understanding and mastery of the subtopics.

Pro tip: if there are learning objectives given at the end of the chapter, take advantage of these. These are the “official” names of the topics that you’ll be tested over and can be used to find other relevant resources.

How to Take Effective Notes

If you need to take notes for STEM subjects, the humanities, or social sciences, I recommend adopting a handwritten Cornell style of note-taking with a minor variation—have a small box in the corner for new vocabulary terms and equations.

I recommend hand-writing your notes because several studies have shown that this method is a more effective memory aid than typing. In addition, rotate the subjects that you are studying between Pomodoros. For example, you could study chemistry, take your break, and then do a different subject. This may seem counterintuitive, but it actually strengthens your knowledge of the material because, when you come back to it, you’re exercising recall, further strengthening the synapses in your brain.

Don’t Fail in the Final Stretch

All this prep will go to waste if you don’t get high-quality sleep the night before a test or due date. An all-nighter may seem like the way to ensure you’re ready, but trust me—it’s not! All-nighters are bad for your health, harm your future ability to think and concentrate, force you to consume obscene amounts of caffeine (which does more harm than good for your concentration after a certain point), and they make you feel awful afterwards.

For more information on how to establish healthy sleep habits, delve into Thanh’s article on how to establish rituals and get more sleep so you can feel better and accomplish more.

Final Thoughts

We have to fight distraction in a way previous generations never had to. But with the right tools, study techniques, and time-management processes, we can conquer that distraction. Doing so will put you miles ahead of your distracted peers and earn you the grades you’re capable of.

Did you like this post? We have some of our best productivity hacks and tips in the Asian Efficiency Primer. Check it out here.
Asian Efficiency Primer


This is a guest post by Austin Baker. He is a premedical/biochemistry student who attends Southwestern University in Texas. In addition to his love of science and medicine, he is beginning to branch out into entrepreneurship and can be found at his upcoming site http://austin-baker.com/

 

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3 Comments

Posted by Devin Baillie  | August 17, 2015 at 11:49AM | Reply

All this discussion and no mention of spaced repetition?

Posted by VI  | August 14, 2015 at 2:07PM | Reply

Excellent idea about studying in groups. A combination of individual focus and then meeting with others can be helpful! The great thing about staying ahead is that if something unexpected happens (like the flu), you are still okay.

Posted by Guilherme  | July 21, 2015 at 2:54PM | Reply

I did quite well in university, last year actually amazing in terms of results (top10-20%) and efficiency (probably top5-10%).

the below might “seem like a lot” depending on your personal standards but it’s also important to note that I probably partied the hardest (top 1%) and travelled a hell lot during university time (top 5-10%) – just thought to quantify to provide better perspective.. on the partying thing it all gets easier if you’r organized and actually time the partying in a smart way

what made it for me were:

1. I loved the subject (business) had some experience and read quite some marketing blogs, in some subjects there was nothing university could really teach me but rather put what I knew into theories and concepts

2. Breaking down the workload, work on a consistent pace and put in some library days once in a while to STAY AHEAD (never played catch-up). From 2nd semester on I was NEVER stressed 0

3. Getting summaries from older students, break down summarizing with study groups and actually sitting together with them couple of days before the exam (we often used review questions in the end of the chapters to debate and set a time cap to debate per chapter). If anyone had questions we made sure to have them covered

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