Getting into the swing of studying is a bit like pushing an apple cart along a road. The hardest part is getting it going. You have to heave against its inertia, and then gradually you get some forward momentum. A bit more pushing, and finally, you’re rumbling happily along the road.
It’s right there in Newton’s laws: “every object in a state of uniform motion will remain in that state of motion unless an external force acts on it.”
It’s the same with studying. The hardest part is getting going. You gather some motivation to study, power through the first couple of minutes of resistance, and once you have momentum, things get easier.
But then …
After forty minutes, or an hour, you find your attention flagging. You want to take a break but this can be dangerous. At Brainscape, we know there are two types of study breaks. You can either:
- Take the right kind of break, and get back to studying with more energy and a sharper brain, or,
- Get sidetracked, realizing four hours later that it’s 11:30 pm, and you’ve wasted most of your study time Googling cat memes.
Here’s the important bit: there are good ways to take study breaks. And there are not-so-good ways (see option B above.) Check out Brainscape's complete guide on how to study efficiently to learn the good ways to study, and also the bad ways (so you can avoid them Or recommend them to your class rivals, though that’s morally questionable.)
How to take study breaks—the right way
Tip 1. Set your boundaries
Like tequila, all-you-can-eat buffets, and Vegas, the most important thing to understand about study breaks isn’t when to start, but when to stop. So before you start your break, decide how long it will be, and set a timer.
The length of your break should depend on how long you’ve been working, and therefore how long you need to recharge. If you’re using the Pomodoro method, take a 5-minute break every 25 minutes. However, if you’ve just spent the last two hours working through difficult math theorems, then a 20-30 minute break is fine.
Set an alarm on your phone or watch to go off when your time’s up. And as soon as you hear the alarm, don’t mess about: get back to studying. This is important. The willpower needed to get you back into the study groove is considerable, so keeping to a very exact time will prevent a 10-minute study break turning into an hour of procrastination.
It can also be helpful to decide how long you’re going to study before you take a break. This will help you stay focused while studying, and give your willpower that boost to save making an origami chimpanzee for your study break.
Tip 2. Exercise
Exercise is perhaps the most effective way to restore mind and body, with the added advantage of improving concentration. (Pink leg warmers and leotards optional.) Even a short exercise session of 5 to 10 minutes (a quick walk or set of push-ups) will get your blood flowing and oxygenate your brain. In addition to the physical benefits, exercise aids your memory.
Tip 3. Have something to eat
The best foods to eat during your study break are healthy, like fruit, nuts, lean proteins, and slow-release carbohydrates, which are shown to enhance brainpower. Unfortunately, sugary drinks, chips, and highly processed junk foods just aren’t on this list.
Sugar may spike your energy at first but it’s pretty soon followed by a crash in energy levels, thanks to increased production of insulin. This has the effect of making your head feel as heavy as a cannonball, compelling you to rest it on your books and nap the next hour away.
If fighting off sleep is something you often face, here are some other tips to stop being tired when you need to study.
The other danger of snacking on MSG-laced junk food is it’s hard to stop. Even if you get back to study, you may find yourself snacking on it for the rest of your study time. Mixing study with continual snacking isn’t a good option, as you’re diverting energy from your brain to your digestive system. And you’ll end up with MSG poisoning from eating far too many Cheetos.
Tip 4. Read something
This may not seem like a proper break at first if you’ve been reading as part of your study. But the key is to read something fun, and wholly unrelated to what you’ve been working on.
It could be an interesting magazine article, a graphic novel, or a fiction book. Non-fiction is all right, but fiction or humor will give your brain a chance to change gears from analytical to creative mode. Just remember that if your book’s a real page-turner, set your timer to “obnoxiously loud” to shatter your reverie and signal the end of your study break.
Tip 5. Have a nap
Napping can be a great way to recharge, provided you keep to certain guidelines. Famous nappers include Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Napoleon, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison. They certainly got a few things done in between their naps.
As with some of the other options, successful napping comes down to knowing yourself. Some people are world-class nappers. They can close their eyes, fall asleep, and wake up five minutes later feeling thoroughly refreshed.
Other people try to have a nap and come out of it feeling groggy and awful. If that’s you, then this type of study break may not be your cup of tea.
When planning your nap, it’s important to set a timer so you don’t nap longer than twenty minutes. This should give you enough time to fall into the shallow stages of sleep, but not into the deeper stages, from which you can awaken feeling like you’ve been run over by an 18-wheeler truck. A short nap also shouldn’t interfere with your sleep at night, while a long nap can.
Tip 6. Make a quick phone call
This one can be a great way to catch up with friends and put your mind into a completely different state so it can recharge. Just don’t call that friend whose life is an endless series of dramas and likes to tell you about them in exhausting detail.
In other words, if you’re the kind of person who can’t interrupt and say ‘Thanks, that’s really interesting, but I have to go now,” then this tactic isn’t for you.
Otherwise, calling a friend is a nice way to break things up. And you can complain about having to study as well.
Tip 7. Check your text messages
This would be a great place to have a rant about how modern human beings need validation from mobile devices instead of you just loving your own true beautiful self ... but meh. If you really must make sure the world outside still exists, go ahead and check your text messages.
Texting falls into the "handle with caution, and we’d rather you didn’t" category. So there are a few caveats. Only check text messages if:
- You’re planning something time sensitive (like a surprise birthday party or bank robbery)
- You solemnly swear not to stray outside text-world into other apps. This is important.
Thus far, we’ve covered the good ways to take study breaks in order to recharge your brain, study efficiently, and ace your exams.
It’s now time to cross over to the dark side …
How to take study breaks—the wrong way
Below is a list of the "that’s-a-bad-idea" study break options. They’re in order of truly terrible to merely bad. Time to let the procrastination monkeys out of their cage ...
Tip 8. Avoid social media
Yes, the rumors are true: Mark Zuckerberg has engaged hordes of MIT engineers to ensure that Facebook will derail your study break. Well ... not quite. But it’s not far off either.
Social media of every description—Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Pinterest, et al.—are incredibly distracting and attention-hungry platforms. The infinitely extendable scroll bar means you never get to the end of that colorful feed. It’s a bottomless ocean of attention-grabbing, socially-reinforced content designed to draw you in, waste your time, and prevent you from achieving your goals. And the worst thing is, we do it to ourselves.
That’s not to say all social media is bad. What’s not to like about Nicholas Cage memes? It’s just that if learning is a flame, social media is a bag of wet sand.
Tip 9. Avoid TV and streaming services
Netflix is not a good study buddy. Like social media, good movies and TV series are designed to grab and hold your attention. Midway through a murder mystery, with the killer stalking through the single mom’s house, are you really going to hit pause to get back to accounting 101?
Didn’t think so. (To be fair, we wouldn’t either.)
As Oscar Wilde said: “I can resist anything except temptation.” So, don’t tempt yourself.
Tip 10. Avoid long naps
As we mentioned before, a nap longer than 20-minutes is counter productive. If you’re constantly tired while studying, you’re better off taking a good look at your daily schedule and developing good sleep habits.
A healthy amount of restorative sleep is vital for your brain to work properly. While caffeine can get you going again after an all-nighter, it’s no substitute for a good night’s sleep.
Tip 11. Avoid junk food
We talked before about the sugar-high / energy-low phenomenon. Even though cookie dough may seem a good idea at the time, you’re far better off going with an apple. There’s even some science behind why a nice fresh apple can give you a boost similar to coffee.
If you want to make things easy for yourself (and we recommend you do) the best way to avoid junk food snacks is to control your environment. Make sure you don’t have this type of food handy when you sit down for a study session.
It’s highly unlikely your willpower will triumph if you’re three steps away from a pack of salted caramel cronuts—especially if you’re already tired from studying all afternoon. You can go out and get some as a reward once you’re finished.
The inverse strategy for taking study breaks
The last way to think about study breaks is to switch everything on its head. Sometimes, doing the opposite of what you’d normally do is the best way to get things done in half the time it usually takes you, and that’s where Brainscape comes in.
Brainscape is an online flashcard study tool that breaks complex, knowledge-intensive subjects down into bite-sized pieces of information. Students using it can halve the time it takes them to learn difficult information, due to Brainscape’s adaptive spaced repetition algorithm.
Here’s how it works. Instead of studying and taking study breaks, think of life as one big study session, and you’re taking ‘life breaks’ to go study. This means breaking your study into many small bite-sized portions you can scatter throughout your day.
When you use a study app like Brainscape, it’s easy to do this in short 5-10 minute rounds. With the mobile app, you can use those in-between times to learn what you need to in order to pass your tests.
You can study:
- On public transportation.
- While drinking your morning cup of joe.
- On the treadmill (yes, it is possible to study while exercising (NNL)).
- Waiting for your girlfriend/boyfriend to finish doing his/her makeup/piano lesson/kung fu session.
You get the picture. The most successful people are good at managing their work-life balance. When you have big goals, it doesn’t always have to be a tradeoff between Study Now vs. Live Later. Especially if you have the right tools to study productively, anywhere, at any time.
Taking good study breaks: the summary
If you’re studying for any decent length of time, you’ll need to take breaks to recharge and refocus. But like all things in life (including SNL skits and NYC taxis) not all study breaks are created equal.
Knowing how to take study breaks so that you summon study motivation and crank up concentration—and not get distracted—is critical. Some will return you on time to your study schedule, refreshed and ready to go. And others will lead you down a dark alley, knock you over the head, and steal your sneakers.
Now you know what these two kinds of study breaks look like, the choice, as always, is yours.
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Dhand, R. & Sohal, H. (2006). Good sleep, bad sleep! The role of daytime naps in healthy adults. Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine, 12(6), 379-382. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.mcp.0000245703.92311.d0
Mantantzis, K., Schlaghecken, F., Sünram-Lea, S. I., & Maylor, E. A. (2019). Sugar rush or sugar crash? A meta-analysis of carbohydrate effects on mood. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 101, 45-67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.03.016