For most of us, the experience of studying for an exam can be captured in one word: panic. You’ve got 18 hours, exhausted, and sitting there staring at an equations sheet full of gibberish. Whyyy? Why didn’t I start earlier?
Believe it or not, there are forces acting against you, pulling you away from starting early enough so that you can comfortably learn new material. Here are 7 of the most insidious reasons why you don’t start early, and what you can do about it.
1. You’re anticipating hard work
Procrastination is generally viewed as this guilt-ridden character defect shared almost universally by all students. The problem is, this is exactly what we should expect to happen from an evolutionary perspective.
Humans are known to be cognitive misers: we conserve mental resources whenever possible, especially when facing tasks not viewed as “essential to our survival.”
In other words, we put off studying until the last minute because (1) we know the work is hard and will require a lot of mental energy, and (2) until there’s the threat of actually failing the exam (and therefore potentially being humiliated publicly) we’re not in enough emotional pain to motivate us to start studying.
Additionally, when your brain anticipates multiple outcomes that are all viewed as “painful” (the pain of studying vs. the pain of failing out of college) you become immobilized, unable to choose the lesser of two evils, and push off the work even further.
Schedule in time for yourself first and then fill in the gaps with study time.
As Niel Fiore discusses in bestselling classic, The Now Habit, part of the reason you procrastinate is because you see no end in site.
Think of the difference between a 100 yard dash and a marathon. In the first case you’re able to give maximum effort because you can see the finish line and know it will be over soon. The marathon runner is not so lucky. They know there’s a long road ahead filled with pain and exhaustion, and subconsciously conserve their effort to ensure they can make it through all 26.2 miles.
This is all to say, if you know you get to go hang out in your buddy’s dorm room and goof off for an hour after you study, you’re much more likely to want to invest that energy.
As a side benefit, you end up taking advantage of Parkinson’s Law. Because your work expands to fill the time allotted, by scheduling less time for studying, you actually become more productive and focused.
2. You’re sleep deprived
Who in college isn’t pounding the caffeine?
Students who force themselves through weeks upon weeks of 4-6 hour sleep nights, are significantly deteriorating two aspects of their mental performance critical to studying for exams: motivation and vigilance.
Studies show that poor sleep negatively impacts motivation. But really, no one needs a study to tell them how much worse your outlook on life is when you’re low on sleep.
And vigilance, the ability to maintain concentrated attention over prolonged periods of time, is also significantly reduced during a period of either acute (staying up all night studying), or chronic (cutting sleep short for multiple days) sleep deprivation.
Set yourself an end-of-the-day alarm.
Yes, studying more consistently for shorter chunks will allow you to spread it over a longer period of time; therefore, preventing the need to deprive yourself of sleep just to get your coursework done. But really, it’s a psychological issue.
There are a million things we’d rather stay up and do, than go right to bed after a full day of classes, only to have to get up and do the same thing over again. This is a chicken/egg problem: if I don’t get sleep I procrastinate studying, but if I go to bed I’ll just have to get up and study. Again, lose-lose. We need to break the cycle.
Set yourself an alarm. But not in the morning. Set your alarm for 45 minutes before when you should get to sleep and allow yourself to sleep for a full 8 hours. If you adhere to that you’ll be surprised how many hours of free time seem to materialize.
Study time + free time + sleep = happy and successful students.
3. You have a false sense of security
Photo credit: funnfun.in
You may think you’re being a diligent student, sitting there in the lecture, listening intently, copying down page after page of notes from the professor. You might even be following along and raise your hand here and there. But there’s a big difference between feeling like you understand something, and actually being able to reproduce it on a test.
This is what we call passive learning, and it’s the best way to ensure that you’ll spend a lot of time and effort trying to learn new material, without actually being able to retain any of it.
Don’t be fooled by your professor’s overly logical explanations. This dude already knows the material, so it’s easy for him to explain it in a way that others find understandable. The real challenge is whether or not you can do the same.
If you’re wondering if you actually understand something, quiz yourself. Or better yet, explain it to someone (or yourself, but be warned: people tend to stare).
As Einstein liked to say, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
By routinely quizzing yourself, you’ll get a dose of reality of whether you actually know the material or not, instead of what most students do: assume they know it until the night before the test, when they proceed to freak out because they can’t do any of the practice problems.
4. Not all study time is created equal
Fact: seven hours of studying over 7 days is much more effective (more learning per time spent) for understanding new material than 7 hours of studying in one chunk. This is especially true for technical courses with new jargon you have to internalize.
Chunk your study time.
The brain uses a ton of energy (20% of our resting metabolic rate), and there’s only so much you can expend per day. To maximize your retention of new material, you want to take advantage of both active learning and recovery.
Because the brain consolidates new neural pathways during sleep, particularly during REM sleep, the more sleep cycles you intersperse between your study hours, the more likely it is that you will retain the material and be able to whip it out on test day.
This also allows you to take advantage of spaced repetition. Instead of having to constantly review your material to keep it in the forefront of your memory, you can follow a cycle of ever-increasing time intervals between review sessions (the “forgetting curve”), decreasing the overall amount of time needed to re-learn material you might have forgotten from the beginning of the semester when the final rolls around.
5. The planning fallacy
Humans systematically overestimate what can be accomplished in the short-term, and underestimate what can be accomplished in the long-term.
Ironically (and sadly), we only have this problem evaluating our own tasks – providing a pretty accurate picture of how long things will take when evaluating someone else’s situation objectively.
“Dude I’ve got this Calc final covered. Just need a couple days before to go over my notes. But you’re screwed for your Orgo class – better head to the library now or you’re never gonna pass.”
Use the 50% rule.
Estimate as conservatively as you can, how much time it’s going to take to study for your exam, assuming you start early and work consistently.
Okay. Now add 50% to that estimate.
This will give you a more accurate picture of how much time you really need to allocate to starting studying.
6. You think you have more study time than you do
Pull up your Sunday schedule. What do you see?
Oh looks like I’ve got a big chunk of free time from 4pm to 10pm. Perfect, I’ll just squeeze in 5 or 6 hours of studying and then call it a night.
Try again. It’s more like 2-3 hours.
This is another type of planning mistake: overestimating how much productive time we can extract from any given period.
Things we tend to forget: we need to eat; we need to sleep; there will be interruptions (yea right like you’re actually going to shut off your phone).
But another thing we fail to account for: the body goes through 90-120 minute activity cycles (called the Ultradian Rhythm). So even though you may be sitting there, highlighting your textbook for 3 hours straight, you really only have the ability to absorb material for 1.5 to 2 hours before you need a period of rest.
Cut your estimated hours in half.
If you think you have 8 hours on Sunday after the game to study, forget it. You actually have 4 or less when you take out time for eating, breaks, and normal daily activities.
7. You can’t get motivated or focused
A lot of us tend to sit around and wait…
Waiting for the wave of motivation to strike us to finally get started on the homework assignment due in 24 hours, or studying for the midterm.
Here’s the problem: motivation comes and goes, but the demands of school and learning and everyday life don’t. And if you’re relying on your motivation to keep you focused, everything you’re doing is going to be in a perpetual state of lateness and last-minute-ness, because there’s never enough motivation to go around.
Focus on the process, with the end in mind.
Why are you in school? Why do you want a degree? Get clear on exactly what your motivations are.
But thinking about the future is not enough. That vision of the future that drives your emotional intensity needs to be linked to your daily activities. (e.g. “Each day I study for Calculus brings me one step closer to being a doctor and making a difference in people’s lives.”)
What is the one set of activities each day that will virtually guarantee success in your coursework?
And what can you do to organize your day, set up incentives, quit things that don’t matter, etc. to virtually guarantee you will do that one set of activities day in and day out, despite motivation?