- Study difficult (or "boring") subjects first.
If your chemistry problems put you to sleep, get to them first, while you are fresh. We tend to study what we like first, yet the courses we find most difficult often require the most creative energy. Save the subjects you enjoy for later. If you find yourself avoiding a particular subject, get up an hour early to study it before breakfast. With that chore out of the way, the rest of the day can be a breeze.
- Be aware of your best time of day.
Many people learn best in daylight hours. If this is true for you, schedule study time for your most difficult subjects when the sun is up. Unless you grew up on a farm, the idea of being conscious at 4 a.m. might seem ridiculous. Yet many successful business people begin the day at 5 a.m. or earlier. Athletes and yogis use this time too. Some writers complete their best work before 9 a.m.
Some people experience the same benefits by staying up late. They flourish after midnight. If you aren't convinced, then experiment. When you're in a time crunch, get up early or stay up late.
- Use waiting time.
Five minutes waiting for a bus, 20 minutes waiting for the dentist, 10 minutes between classes - waiting time adds up fast. Have short study tasks ready to do during these times. For example, carry 3x5 cards with facts, formulas, or definitions and pull them out anywhere. A tape recorder can help you use commuting time to your advantage. Make a cassette tape of yourself reading your notes. Then play these tapes in a car stereo as you drive, or listen through your headphones as you ride the bus or exercise.
- Use a regular study area.
Your body and your mind know where you are. When you use the same place to study, day after day, they become trained. When you arrive at that particular place, you can focus your attention more quickly.
- Study where you'll be alert.
In bed, your body gets a signal. For most students, it's more likely to be "Time to sleep!" than "Time to study!" For that reason, don't study where you sleep. Just as you train your body to be alert at your desk, you also train it to slow down near your bed. Easy chairs and sofas are also dangerous places to study. Learning requires energy. Give your body a message that energy is needed. Put yourself into a situation that supports that message.
- Use a library.
Libraries are designed for learning. The lighting is perfect. The noise level is low. Materials are available. Entering a library is a signal to focus the mind and get to work. Most people can get more done in a shorter time at the library. Experiment for yourself.
- Pay attention to your attention.
Breaks in concentration are often caused by internal interruptions. Your own thoughts jump in to tell you another story about the world. When that happens, notice the thoughts and let them go. Perhaps the thought of getting something else done is distracting to you. One option is to handle that task now and study later. Or write yourself a note about it, or schedule a specific time to do it.
- Get off the computer.
The computer is the ultimate interrupter. People who wouldn't think of distracting you might email or Instant Message you at the worst times because they can't see that you are studying. You don't have to be an email victim.
- Learn to say no.
This is a timesaver and a valuable life skill for everyone. Many people feel it is rude to refuse a request. But saying no can be done effectively and courteously. Others want you to succeed as a student. When you tell them that you can't do what they ask because you are busy educating yourself, most people understand.
- Hang a "do not disturb" sign on your door.
Many hotels will give you one free, just for the advertising. Or you can make a creative one. They work. Using signs can relieve you of making a decision about cutting off each interruption - a timesaver in itself.
- Get ready the night before.
Completing a few simple tasks just before you go to bed can help you get in gear faster for the next day. If you plan to spend the afternoon writing a paper, get your materials together: dictionary, notes, outline, paper and pencil (or disks and computer).
- Avoid noise distractions.
To promote concentration, avoid studying in front of the television and turn off the music. Many students insist they study better with background noise, and that may be true. Some students report good results with carefully selected and controlled music. Many people find that silence is the best form of music for study.
At times noise may seem out of control. A neighbor or roommate decides to find out how far he can turn up his CD player before the walls crumble. Meanwhile, your concentration on the principles of sociology goes down the tubes. To get past this barrier, schedule study sessions for times when your living environment is usually quiet. If you live in a residence hall, ask if study rooms are available. Or go somewhere else where it's quiet such as the library. Some students have even found refuge in quiet restaurants, laundromats, and places of worship.
- Ask: Am I being too hard on myself?
If you are feeling frustrated with a reading assignment, noticing that your attention wanders repeatedly, or if you are falling behind on math problems due tomorrow, take a minute to listen to the messages you are giving yourself. Are you scolding yourself too harshly? Lighten up. Allow yourself to feel a little foolish and get on with it. Don't add to the problem by berating yourself.
- Ask: How did I just waste time?
Notice when time passes and you haven't accomplished what you planned. Take a minute to review your actions and note the specific ways you wasted time. We operate by habit and tend to waste time in the same ways over and over again. When you are aware of things you do that drain your time, you are most likely to catch yourself in the act next time. Observing one small quirk may save you hours. One reminder: Noting how you waste time is not the same as feeling guilty about it. The point is not to blame yourself but to increase your skill. That means getting specific information about how you use time.
- Ask: Could I find the time if I really wanted to?
Often the way people speak rules out the option of finding more time. An alternative is to speak about time with more possibility.
The next time you're tempted to say, "I just don't have time," pause for a minute. Question the truth of this statement. Could you find four more hours this week for studying? Suppose that someone offered to pay you $10,000 to find those four hours. Suppose, too, that you will get paid only if you don't lose sleep, call in sick for work, or sacrifice anything important to you. Could you find the time if vast sums of money were involved?
Remember that when it comes to school, vast sums of money are involved.
Adapted from Becoming a Master Student, Dave Ellis, 2003.