You need to know how to stay awake to study.

We’ve all been in that situation. We know it’s time to study. It’s marked on our calendar, we KNOW that the test is coming up and we’re not prepared. But when that hour actually rolls around, the thought of doing anything that requires brainpower, or even anything that requires being vertical instead of napping peacefully on the couch, seems impossible.

So we put it off to tomorrow when we’ll have “more energy.” But then we binge a few too many episodes of our favorite show before bed, or we go a little harder than usual at the gym that morning. Before you know it, you’re sitting there staring at a closed textbook, somehow MORE tired than the day before, if that’s possible.

Luckily, there are ways to escape this Groundhog-Day style time loop of being unproductive. Some are basic things you can change, others can take a little willpower. But you can motivate and energize yourself to get things DONE even when you’re not in tip-top physical condition. If Michael Jordan can score 38 points with the flu, after all, what’s stopping you from reviewing Chapter 3 even though you didn’t sleep great?

BEFORE we get into these tips, however, we need a disclaimer: We’re not doctors, and these tips are intended to help you motivate yourself through fatigue. You shouldn’t be working on 3 hours of sleep a night, or if you’re constantly tired despite sleeping 12 hours, those are problems for a medical professional, not an online blog! Productivity is a goal, but health should always be your number one priority.

That said, here's how to stay awake to study. Let’s get into it, sleepyheads.

1. Trick yourself into studying actively

Hand hovering below the drawing of a brain; How to stay awake to study

There’s a reason why you find yourself too tired to study often, while it’s much rarer that you’ll be “too tired” to boot up your PS4 or watch a movie. This is because studying is often considered to be what behavioral scientists call “boring.” We’ll be the first to admit most textbooks aren’t exactly page-turners, but the WAY you’re studying can also be affecting how compelling and interesting it feels to you.

So try this hack: When you actually do have some energy, spend time preparing your study materials into an easier format for the later times when you won't have as much energy. That way, even if you are tired later, studying won't feel like such a schlep (and you can maybe even commit the mortal sin of studying while watching TV).

One great way to do this is to find or make flashcards using Brainscape or another flashcard app (if you must). This way, you are chopping your content into bite-sized chunks that you can mentally retrieve using active recall.

Digital flashcards will:

  1. Keep you more engaged by "gamifying" your studies.
  2. Enable shorter study sessions (e.g. on the bus, on the porcelain throne, or during a commercial break).
  3. Double your learning effectiveness versus the typical process of just re-reading chapters and notes (which is actually one of the biggest study mistakes you can make).

Think of it as a simple way to turn studying into something with constant mental reward and dopamine hits, instead of a constant slog with no real end in sight.

Implementing useful and interesting study methods can serve to make it more engaging, and dare we say, even fun? Imagine one of those small basketball hoops you can buy for a trashcan, but instead of tossing balled up papers into a waste bin, you’re tucking away nuggets of needed information into your brain with every 3 from downtown.

2. Exercise your body to jumpstart your brain

How to stay awake to study with weightlifting

Now, this may sound a little counterintuitive. Working out when you’re already tired is going to give you MORE energy? Don’t worry, we’re not reading a chart upside down over here. We also aren’t telling you to go try to break your bench press record or finally break a 7-minute mile. Studies do show that brief, light physical activity can help you wake up and increase alertness.

Why? Well, for one thing, when you push your body with exercise, it sends oxygen and nutrients to your heart and lungs, improving the efficiency of your cardiovascular system. Most of us don’t wake up raring to pop out of bed and get things done but instead are locked in first gear. Even just some light calisthenics or yoga poses can help you shift your body into gear and start operating at peak performance.

In fact, a 2019 study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that even quick morning exercise made noticeable differences in the attention span, visual learning, and decision making of the subjects involved. Knowing that, why should you handicap yourself by operating at a lower gear than you could be?

This extends beyond just jumping jacks. There are lots of things you can do to take care of your body that will benefit your mind. That’s where your brain lives, after all. Make sure it’s a nice place. Here are some other quick tips to boost your energy naturally:

  1. Practice good posture and high-power poses. Good posture won’t only save you back and shoulder pain, but research has found that posture can actually affect hormone levels inside your body, specifically the production of testosterone versus cortisol (a.k.a. the stress hormone.) As for high-power poses, though it may sound like something from a Dragon Ball Z episode, these poses are a real thing that again, have been shown to encourage more confident and dominant behavior subconsciously. For a deep dive into how posture can affect your brain, check out this fantastic TED talk by Amy Cuddy.
  2. On the topic of posture, some people find that using a standing desk, whether it’s purpose-made or simply an impromptu set-up, can similarly help them stay active and focused, instead of slipping closer to nap time in that cushy office chair.
  3. Make sure you’re drinking enough water! It can be easy to forget to drink enough water, but the symptoms of even mild dehydration include things like the inability to focus on tasks, tiredness, and lethargy… which is a pretty devastating trio to try to study through. You’ve heard it a lot, and it’s not for no reason: try to drink 6-8 cups of water throughout the day. Chugging a full Nalgene at 7 pm because you forgot to drink water earlier in the day isn’t what we mean, either.  There are even helpful phone apps to track your water intake!
  4. On the subject of diet, also try to avoid sugar as well. Sure, sugar might be known to boost energy, as anyone who’s interacted with a toddler can attest, but also remember when that same toddler crashes for a nap in the middle of the floor an hour later. Trying to control and boost your energy with sugar is just begging to go on a mental roller-coaster ride with peaks of activity, but also deep valleys of fatigue. Better to save the sugar for a reward when you’re done, and stick with things like coffee and water. Though coffee can include its own dangers, which leads me to the final tip:

[Looking to boost motivation to study? Check out our guide to how to get motivated and stop procrastinating.]

3. Drink coffee the right way

A spilled cup filled with coffee beans

You’re probably drinking coffee wrong.

If you’re reading an article on how to stop being tired, odds are you’ve got a mug of coffee, a frappuccino, or a Red Bull beside you right now. Maybe you even go the hardcore long-haul trucker route with caffeine pills.

And none of this is surprising. America, especially, is a coffee culture. Tell someone from Boston you hate Dunkin’ Donuts if you need any more proof. However, this has developed and dovetailed with another tenet of American culture: bigger is better. The result is that it’s not uncommon to see someone who starts every day with a 24 oz cold brew … and ends it with another.

Caffeine is often treated as a panacea to any and all tired feelings, but like any other chemical, it has upsides, downsides, and specific use cases. So before you slam another iced latte, here are a couple of things you may not know about caffeine, and how it ideally SHOULD be consumed.

This one may surprise you: the best time to drink coffee is NOT first thing in the morning. This is because your body is naturally making cortisol as part of its boot-up process each morning, and stacking the cortisol that caffeine can cause your body to produce can just make you crash harder when you run out. Save your first dose of the day for after you’ve been up for a half-hour to an hour when your cortisol is starting to drop anyways.

Coffee canister and mug

This interaction between caffeine and cortisol levels is the basis of much of where you can go wrong with caffeine. Cortisol is referred to as the “stress hormone,” but this occurs when you have TOO MUCH of it. Ideally, you want to keep your cortisol levels consistent and controlled, to make sure you have energy without rocketing yourself into anxiety attack levels. Also know that caffeine sticks around much longer than you’d think! For some people, caffeine can stay in their system for 6-12 hours.

You can see where this strategy butts heads with the common practice of a massive coffee in the morning. In fact, the best way to drink coffee, backed up by a 2004 study published in Sleep, the best way to keep yourself alert is small, frequent doses of caffeine: around 25 mg every hour. Which, for reference, is about a quarter of a standard cup of coffee. As for those Starbucks Ventis? They clock in at 415mg of caffeine, a dose that’s less likely to help you focus than to give you heart palpitations.

Caffeine reaches its peak levels in the bloodstream in 30 to 60 minutes and can stick around for 3-5 hours before you start feeling the crash. So use this knowledge to plan out your caffeine consumption to be a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll be better off with a couple of small cups as you go about your day instead of a caffeinated monolith at sunrise that you spend the next 18 hours coming down from. If you simply must be knocking back hot liquids all day to feel productive, you could also consider working something like Earl Grey tea (at half the caffeine of coffee) for those afternoon lulls.

So get to it!

Man working at a desk; How to stay awake to study

Now you should not only have a better general knowledge of HOW your body handles fatigue, and WHY you feel tired but also HOW to stay awake to study and be better able to effectively combat that fatigue feeling. Next time your eyelids start to droop, ask yourself these quick questions and swat those Z’s out of the air before they ever appear:

  1. Am I stimulating my brain or just going through the motions? What can I do that might be more interesting while achieving the same study goals?
  2. Have I done any physical activity today? If not, maybe it’s time to get the blood flowing with a quick light exercise break.
  3. Do I feel dehydrated? When did I last drink water?
  4. Am I relying on sugar for quick unreliable energy boosts? Am I crashing because of that Milky Way from 60 minutes ago?
  5. If I’m drinking caffeine, am I drinking it in a way to maximize its upsides and minimize its downsides? Or am I chugging it like it’s some sort of magic wake-up potion?

Hopefully, once you’ve made it down that checklist, you might be able to isolate just WHY you feel so tired at the moment, and what you can do to reset your energy levels.

Of course, in the long term, it’s always going to be beneficial to make sure you’re getting enough sleep (check out our guide on how to fight insomnia without drugs), improving your study habits, and boosting your willpower to avoid procrastination. So feel free to check those articles out, along with the rest of our extensive library of study and lifestyle tips. Just make sure you’re reading them with good posture and a cool, refreshing glass of water next to you :)

Sources

Flory, J. D., & Holmes, D. S. (1991). Effects of an acute bout of aerobic exercise on cardiovascular and subjective responses during subsequent cognitive work. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 35(2-3), 225-230. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-3999(91)90076-Z

LeDuc, P. A., Caldwell Jr, J. A., & Ruyak, P. S. (2000). The effects of exercise as a countermeasure for fatigue in sleep-deprived aviators. Military Psychology, 12(4), 249-266. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327876MP1204_02

Riebl, S. K. & Davy, B. M. (2013). The hydration equation: Update on water balance and cognitive performance. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal, 17(6), 21. https://dx.doi.org/10.1249%2FFIT.0b013e3182a9570f

Wheeler, M. J., Green, D. J., Ellis, K. A., Cerin, E., Heinonen, I., Naylor, L. H., ... & Eikelis, N. (2020). Distinct effects of acute exercise and breaks in sitting on working memory and executive function in older adults: A three-arm, randomised cross-over trial to evaluate the effects of exercise with and without breaks in sitting on cognition. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 54(13), 776-781. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2018-100168

Wyatt, J. K., Cajochen, C., Cecco, A. R. D., Czeisler, C. A., & Dijk, D. J. (2004). Low-dose repeated caffeine administration for circadian-phase-dependent performance degradation during extended wakefulness. Sleep, 27(3), 374-381. https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/27.3.374