If your habits don't line up with your dream, then you need to either change your habits or change your dream ― John C. Maxwell
Like college students in the midst of their first bad hangover, we swear we’ll never, ever wait to cram at the last moment again. We all know the perennial complaint of students everywhere:
“...if only I’d started studying sooner, then I wouldn’t be in this mess!”
Well, I have good and bad news for you. Studying effectively is hard. Getting yourself to do hard things is, well, hard.
However ... there is a secret shortcut.
This shortcut is building strong study habits. Yes, we know you’ve probably heard this many times before. So think of this as a message from your future self. This stuff really works. We know because we made the world's most effective study app.
When something becomes a habit, even if it starts off hard, it soon becomes easy. Studies have shown that once an action becomes habitual, it takes far less effort for your brain to accomplish it.
Habits are grooves carved into your brain’s neural network that eventually become hard-wired, like tracks for a train to run on. Once studying becomes a habit, instead of your brain trudging along muddy hillocky paths, pushing aside thorny bushes and stepping in cowpats, you glide along smooth rails, getting your study done easily so you can go out and play.
Sounds great, right?
Well, it is great. Once you’ve made studying daily a rock-solid habit, you’ll reap the rewards. Daily practice plays to your memory’s strengths, so you’ll be able to get knowledge solidly into your brain with less effort.
However, there are a series of enemies blocking your path:
If you want to become a study master and cruise smoothly through each study session, you will need to disarm these enemies and use their weapons against them.
We've given you 11 tips on how to do that:
- Anchor new habits to old ones
- Start one micro-habit at a time
- Keep the chain going
- Bribe yourself to study
- Discover your best time to study
- Use peer pressure to study better
- Combat the forces of FOMO
- Be unapologetic about studying
- Give yourself consequences
- Sort out your study environment
- The hidden benefits of daily study habits
Are you ready to enter the dojo and build strong daily study habits?
Then welcome, young padawan. It’s time to learn the ways of the study master.
1. The enemies of good study habits
The secret to improving study motivation and building good study habits is to realize it’s a game of two halves—you must play both offense and defense. This means you need to both defend against distractions and set your mind to do the work.
When you decide to do something hard, like study, the truth is that the responsible half of your brain is not running a dictatorship over the rest of you. It’s more accurate to think of your brain as a sort of council. There is more than one politician in Congress, and not all of them have your long-term interests at heart.
Sometimes the long-term planner (the frontal cortex) wins the vote, and you go and do things that are hard but will give you rewards later.
Many other times, however, the more ancient, less evolved parts of your brain win the day. This is when the lizard brain or limbic system takes over. These areas respond well to crises—but when there’s no emergency, they seek pleasure.
This is the part that’s in control when, instead of studying, you do whatever is easy and gives you a reward straight away. Think watching Netflix, playing beer pong, napping, surfing the net, shopping, or eating ice-cream.
The issue is that for most people, their frontal cortex has a minority government; It doesn’t have all that much pull. And both inside and outside the brain, the forces arrayed against it are multitudinous.
So now, you’re about to learn which obstacles are in the way of building your study habits and how to defeat them. Let’s get started ...
1.1. Social expectations, aka FOMO
This one is huge, especially if you’re engaged in campus life. The pull to skip studying and do fun things with your friends can be really strong.
Continually resisting temptation puts a heavy load on your willpower.
Many of the best-laid study plans are derailed by some random invitation that spirals into a whole day of distraction. Socializing is important. But there’s a way to prioritize your study so it gets done, and you can still have guilt-free outings with your friends.
1.2. Saving brainpower
The brain is an energy hungry organ. It’s only 2% of your body weight, but even when you’re resting, it demands 20% of your energy.
Thinking, studying, learning—all of these take up brain space. Normally, we prefer to conserve this energy, so it’s a natural thing for us to avoid tasks that are going to exhaust us mentally.
This is why you need systems to get you through the hardest part: actually sitting down to do study. Because this avoidance of spending brain energy leads to ...
A test that’s weeks or months away doesn’t feel urgent. As the test looms closer, however, it’s amazing how many people end up with spotlessly clean kitchens, perfectly ordered sock drawers, and crisply cut lawns.
This is a wonderful tactic to feel productive by getting everything else done… except for studying.
What’s at work here is a phenomenon called delay discounting. Researchers have found that humans prefer a small reward delivered in the near future over a larger reward they have to wait for. It’s a variation on avoiding delayed gratification.
The ancient parts of your brain HATE spending valuable brain energy on things that are not either a clear and present danger or a pleasurable escape. Back in the days when we were part of the food chain, humans needed their brains to stay focused on urgent problems, like staying alive.
Precious brain juice wasn’t spent on contemplating why apples fell off trees or other non-urgent problems. This urge to prioritize only urgent tasks is still very much alive in us all.
Our brains are very skilled at bringing up seemingly urgent tasks to do instead of hard mental work. Hence the emergence of the spotless fridge and ironed boxer shorts during study week.
1.4. Instant gratification
As mentioned before the ancient, emotion-driven limbic system in our brains craves instant rewards.
In the 1960s, a Stanford professor named Walter Mischel conducted a series of experiments designed to test four-year-old children to their furthest limits.
Mischel put a marshmallow on a table in front of a kid and said they could eat the marshmallow now. Or they could eat two marshmallows if they didn’t eat the marshmallow while he left the room.
Mischel then left the room, leaving a marshmallow sitting in front of a deeply conflicted four-year-old.
This now-famous test became known as the Marshmallow Experiment. While tormenting children for science was entertaining (some children had to scoot their chairs over to the corner, face the wall, and sit on their hands to avoid eating the marshmallow) what was most interesting was the aftermath.
For the next forty years, Mischel followed his participants’ lives. He and other researchers found that the kids who passed the Marshmallow Experiment and could delay gratification had higher SAT scores, better health, and happier relationships.
It turns out that the ability to delay gratification is a key part of living a good life. Those who will do something hard in order to experience rewards not now, but in the future, succeed in their endeavors.
The issue here is that you’re not a four-year-old child who has to wait five minutes for two marshmallows. (Although to be fair, when you’re four years old, five minutes is a lifetime.)
Navigating life when you’re a student or working means constant pressure from conflicting obligations. You’ll have to make myriad decisions throughout each day. You’ll be resisting temptations, juggling priorities, and managing your energy.
Each time you put off something easy in order to do something hard, you’re using your willpower. It turns out that willpower is a limited resource and gets exhausted the more you use it.
That’s why if you try to do study daily on an ad hoc basis, it’s much more likely to not get done. Then you end up like everyone else: only studying when a test is looming closer, under the tyranny of an impending deadline.
Cramming is an ineffective way to study, which is why (as you’ll find out soon) distraction is an enemy you will need to vanquish to build strong study habits.
2. Strong study habit tips to defeat your enemies
As you may have figured out by now, the phrase "strong study habits" is basically synonymous with "developing the willpower to do a little bit of work every day because the alternative -- cramming -- is less effective and even more time-consuming in the long run."
The importance of this realization cannot be underestimated. You can even think of habit formation in terms of this popular mathematical equation:
In other words, doing just a little bit of extra effort every day (no exceptions!) for an entire year will exponentially increase your performance, while slacking off every day will erode your performance or knowledge toward nearly zero, such that you have to start again from scratch (e.g. "cramming") at the last minute.
The good news is that you can fundamentally hack your brain to develop these consistent daily study habits to the point that they become almost effortless.
Below is our list of various forms of mental jiu-jitsu that can help you turn study foes’ weapons against them.
Tip 1. Anchor new habits to old ones
As we mentioned above, our brains don’t like to expend lots of energy on hard mental work. But when something becomes a habit, it doesn’t take energy or willpower; you do the thing on autopilot.
The easiest way to make a new habit is to tie it into an existing habit that is already established (otherwise known as an anchor habit.)
For example, if you study better in the morning, then bring out your notes and do your study session while you have your first coffee of the day. The first coffee is your anchor habit, and study is the new habit you’re attaching to it. Quite quickly, you’ll see that studying also becomes automatic.
If evenings are your chosen study time, then build your habit on something you do every evening. For example, you could spend an hour studying every night after dinner, or you could work through your notes before you go to bed each night. Or you could use the Feynman Technique while you’re out walking, exercising, or commuting.
When you tie your new habit with an existing habit, you’re taking advantage of neural pathways that have been already laid down. With consistent practice, your new study habit should start to feel effortless in a couple of weeks.
Tip 2. Start one micro-habit at a time
One of the best ways to guarantee that your new habit won't stick is to take on too big of a challenge at once. So let's nip that one in the bud before we continue.
If your goal is to study every day instead of waiting until the last minute, don't start by promising yourself that you'll study for two hours a day or re-read 5 textbook chapters at a time. That can feel so daunting that you'll end up quitting the first time a major wave of inertia hits you.
Instead, maybe just commit to studying one 10-flashcard round in Brainscape every day, or to making digital flashcards for just one small textbook lesson every day. As long as you have broken up your studying into bite-sized milestones, it will be much easier to develop these habits and stay motivated to study.
Admittedly, tiny daily study sessions might not initially be enough to totally prevent your needing to cram more at the last minute. But at least you're establishing real habits, and you can always add to your goals once your small starter goals have begun to stick.
Tip 3. Keep the chain going
Another hack for building strong study habits comes from comedian Jerry Seinfeld. For years, Seinfeld would write a joke every day, no matter what was going on in his life. After many days, this chain of daily practice became its own incentive.
The threat of breaking the chain contributed to his motivation: Seinfeld didn’t want to break the chain, so he continued writing a joke every day. The habit stuck.
Tip 4. Bribe yourself to study
You now know there are deep and powerful parts of your brain that crave instant gratification. They are not moved by distant lofty goals. They want something yummy now.
So, use this to your advantage. The idea is to train your brain like it’s one of Pavlov’s dogs.
In his foundational experiment, Pavlov was able to connect two stimuli in a dog’s brain: the ringing of a bell, and a bowl of delicious dog food.
By the end of Pavlov’s experiment, the connection between the sound of the bell and a meal was so strong, his dogs would start to salivate when they heard the bell.
You need to make a connection between sitting down to study, and something your brain really likes.
It’s time to train your brain with gratification.
Every time you sit down do study, give yourself a treat. Whatever floats your particular boat: whether it’s chocolate, gummy bears, or your favorite TV show. Naked and Afraid anyone? Once you've studied at least 10-15 minutes (of Brainscape flashcards :), give yourself the treat.
Pretty soon, your brain will start to look forward to your study sessions, because you’ll have connected the positive experience (the treat) with studying.
Congratulations! You have created a neural connection in your brain to tie studying together with gummy bears. Science has been achieved.
Tip 5. Discover your best time to study
To build strong habits, it’s very important to study at the same time each day whenever possible. We’re cyclical creatures, and keeping your study schedule regular will cement the habit much more strongly than shifting it around each day.
So when should you study? Are you a morning bird or a night owl?
Do you feel sharp at 11 am or 7 pm? Do you fade after lunch? Perk up after dinner? Maybe you’re one of those rare birds who wake up at 6 am bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, ready to go...
Everyone has a circadian cycle of sleep and wakefulness. Paying attention to this cycle means you can go to study at times when your energy is optimal.
To discover your cycle, spend a week observing yourself. Look for the times of day or night when you are at your best and able to tackle difficult mental tasks.
Take note of how the time you go to bed affects how you feel in the morning. This is important. Your circadian rhythm means you can get the same eight hours of sleep, but how rested you feel depends a lot on when during the night you took your rest.
Some people can go to bed at midnight and feel great the next day. Others need to go to bed before 10 pm to get a really good night’s sleep.
Once you’ve worked out when you function best, note down those times. Use this knowledge to decide when is the best time for you to study.
Tip 6. Use peer pressure to study better
Peer pressure is a powerful force. It makes people do strange things, like wear clothes with brand logos on them or buy $30 drinks at bars.
A variant of this force is one of Professor Robert Cialdini’s six powerful elements of human persuasion. It’s called consistency, and you can use it to persuade yourself into good habits.
Here’s how consistency works. As human beings, we like to appear to be consistent to our fellow humans. So if we tell everyone “I’m a party animal, and the only time I ever study is on the night before a test,” a precedent has been set.
To appear consistent with your peers, you can’t be found going over your lecture notes on a mid-term Wednesday evening.
However, if you tell all your friends about the wonders of studying every day, then you have a different kind of reputation to uphold.
Most people will expend far more effort to avoid embarrassment than they will to achieve a distant goal. So use this knowledge to create social pressure in support of the habits that will make you succeed in life.
Embrace your inner nerd, and ‘own’ the fact that you geek out at a set time each day. Anyone who makes fun of you will find the tables turned during finals week, when they’re frantically trying to cram, and you’re relaxed and confident with plenty of time for leisure.
After a few months of daily studying, you’ll find your habits become a part of your identity. Once you see yourself as someone who studies every day, you’ve truly won the battle and created strong study habits.
Tip 7. Combat the forces of FOMO
Always turn your phone and social media notifications OFF when you start your study time. Apps like Freedom and StayFocusd can do this for you on a laptop. Ignorance is the best cure for FOMO—if you don’t know about the other things you could be doing, you can’t be distracted by them.
Tip 8. Be unapologetic about studying
Another way to avoid social pressure is to be unapologetic about how you spend your time. Don’t give an explanation, and people won’t press you.
For example, if someone asks you to hang out during your study time, just say "Nope, I have to study." They don't have to know that your test isn't for another 6 weeks.
Tip 9. Give yourself consequences
Last, if you have someone who wants to join your daily study regime, use the power of aversion to cement your study habit.
This is because while rewards are good, bad consequences are an even more powerful way to create habits. Studies show people will go further to avoid pain than gain pleasure.
With your study partner, create awful consequences if you don’t follow through on your daily study. Keep each other accountable, and be ready to enforce the payout if they don’t keep up their side of the bargain. (And be ready to suffer the consequences if you don’t.)
Using a service like Stickk, people have been forced to donate money to their least favorite charity when they don’t complete their goals. Other sites will publish photos of the person naked if they don’t stick to their weight loss goals (whatever gets the job done, right?). You’d better believe that with stakes like that in the game, participants stick to their goals, and so will you.
Tip 10. Sort out your study environment
The last key to creating a rock-solid study habit is controlling your environment. Set reminders for you to start your daily study session. Create a special area dedicated to study, with all the things you’ll need to do the work close at hand.
Put up a calendar so you can see how each day brings you closer to your exam. Use this same calendar to keep track of your chain of daily study sessions.
Make it "convenient" to study often. Keep your books and notes in a place where you can easily and frequently access them. Have your flashcard app on your phone's home screen and in your web browser's "Favorites" bar, so you don’t have to think about what to do first in your study session.
Building a strong study habit is very similar to getting fit. As your brain gets into the habit of working each day at a set time, it gets fitter, and study sessions become more enjoyable.
Tip 11. The hidden benefits of daily study habits
When you defy the enemies of study and build your strong study habit, you’re also doing something else. Something very important. You’re building character.
'Character' has been defined as the ability to complete a task long after the mood in which the decision to do it has left you.
When you keep your promises to yourself, you’re sending yourself an important message about who you are, and what you’re capable of. In doing this, you’re laying the foundation for future success and happiness.
3. Build your study system
We’ve now gone through the two parts of building a strong study habit: defense and offense. It’s time to put it all together.
Here are the habits that go into building a study system that will work for you.
- Choose an existing activity you habitually do at these times and tie it to your new study habit.
- Keep the chain going—maintain a record of your daily sessions, and create an unbroken chain of them.
- Decide on your study treat and bribe yourself with it at the start and end of your session.
- Note the times of day when your brain is sharpest. Choose these as your designated study times.
- Start celebrating your inner nerd. Spread the gospel of daily study to your friends to create a consistent character you have to live up to.
- Push back against FOMO by turning off your phone and staying ignorant of what your friends are doing.
- Be unapologetic when ducking out of social events in order to keep your study habit.
- Choose your accountability partner, and decide on some (very unpleasant) consequences if you don’t follow through on your study plan.
- Set up a special study space with everything you need.
- Prep your study materials and Brainscape flashcards so the first few minutes of study can be done on autopilot
- Study daily to build character
Building strong study habits is ultimately about respecting your long term goals.
Remind yourself that studying is actually a way of honoring yourself and keeping your promises. Every time you keep your commitments, you’re building your willpower muscle, and this will help you throughout your entire life.
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