It’s the beginning of the school year and for me that usually means two things: I’m super excited about all the things I’m going to learn and I’ve completely forgotten how to study. Here are some tips I’ve learnt from previous years.
1. Ease into it. Our brains can’t usually concentrate on anything for more than 40-50 minutes at a time. If we do manage to work for longer than that, we need a looooonnng break afterwards to recover. Not productive. My goal is to work in 40-minute blocks with 10-minute activity breaks where I try to move my body as much as possible. However, at the beginning of the year even 40 minutes is too ambitious. So I ease into it. 15 (or even 10!) minutes of reading followed by 10 minutes of stretching or making tea or smiling at myself in the mirror (positive reinforcement!) will mean that I absorb all the information rather than let it slowly be replaced by thoughts of kittens tangled in balls of string. Each day, I increase my study blocks by 5 minutes till I hit my 40-minute target.
2. Pick your moments. 5 years of university have taught me that I don’t think well after 4pm. Weirdly, I can think really well the moment I wake up, even as early as 6am. So I structure my day around this knowledge. On a study day, I try to be at the library by 8am and finish by 3:30. Usually, I am most productive during these hours and I still have time at the end of the day to do something fun or relaxing. Other people might work better in the afternoons or the evening. Basically, figure out what works best and you do you.
3. Pick your spaces. I can’t work at home because my cats are too cute. This is a true fact. The library helps me to stick to my 40-minute blocks because leaving requires packing everything up and lugging it somewhere else. I also love the feeling of being alone together that the other students in the library can provide. Solidarity!
4. Pick your people. You need support. It took me awhile to accept this. I didn’t want to ask for help. I didn’t want to ask for extensions. I wanted to please my friends by never saying no to their requests for my time and attention. I’ve since discovered that one conversation about whatever you’re struggling with can save hours of depression and confusion. Due dates are there so that markers can get their work done in a timely fashion. If you don’t finish an assignment in time, it does not mean that you are stupid or a failure. It just means that life happened or that you needed a little longer to properly grasp this particular topic. Talk to your tutor, they usually understand because life happens to them too.
5. Procrastinate productively. Do you need to print out notes from a lecture? Do those notes need filing? Does your reference list need bulking up? Do you need to search for more articles for your essay? Do you need to email your teacher, your classmates or research participants about an assignment or project? Do all of these things in the moments when you feel as though your attention and energy are dwindling. Feel the weight lift itself off your shoulder. I find it useful to have a list of procrastination activities that need doing for just such moments!
6. Ignore everything you’ve been told. Until someone explained the thing about studying in 40-minute blocks, I felt like something was wrong with me because I couldn’t concentrate for very long. Television/movies/the world had taught me to associate university with cram sessions and all-nighters in the library. High school taught me I should be doing homework for hours each night. That there was no excuse for handing up an assignment late. That due-dates were more important than successful engagement with the topic at hand. That everyone learns in the same way. It’s all bullshit. And no one teaches you how to look after yourself while you study. If at the end of 5 years, you understand Foucault but not yourself, what good is that?