Sunday night rolls around, and it’s time for your weekly batch of heavily procrastinated studying. But no matter what you do, you can’t seem to focus. Words seem to slip through your fingers; you may be reading them, but you’re not understanding them.
Why? It’s simple: because no one ever taught you how. You’ve been told the importance of learning facts — names, dates, pathways, and systems — but nobody has ever told you the importance of learning how to learn itself.
I spent five years studying the ins and outs of behavioral neuroscience for this very reason. I wanted a way to learn faster and qualitatively better — and I found it.
In this article, I’ll show you 4 effective tips that teach you how to concentrate on studying, so you can get more out of school and life.
Create A Short Outline
Outlines multiply productivity. The bulk of a poor study-er’s time is spent flipping aimlessly back and forth through dense books, not sure of where to start or what to read next. A simple outline eliminates that and allows you to learn twice as much in half the time.
Here’s one way to do it. Let’s say you have 4 hours (240 minutes) to study for your biology test. Your professor gave you a short list of topics that will be on the exam — pharmacology, anatomy, physiology, and microbiology. Each topic has a corresponding chapter in your textbook.
To create your outline, count the number of pages for each chapter, add them all up, then divide the total by the number of pages for each topic to get a percentage breakdown. For example:
Total number of pages: Pharmacology (15) + Anatomy (20) + Physiology (25) + Microbiology (30) = 90.
Pharmacology Breakdown: 15/90 = 16.6%,
Anatomy Breakdown: 20/90 = 22.2%,
Physiology Breakdown: 27.7%,
Microbiology Breakdown: 33.3%,
Then, multiply the percentages by the amount of time you have to study to create your outline:
Pharmacology: 16.6% * 240 minutes = 40 minutes,
Anatomy: 22.2% * 240 minutes = 53 minutes.
And so on. Now you have a simple measure of how long to study each topic.
Of course, this isn’t perfect — if there’s a particularly tough concept in pharmacology but not in microbiology, you’ll need to spend a little longer on the former. But it does make it significantly easier to budget your time when studying for an upcoming test or exam, and ensures you’ll never again have that problem of wondering if you’ve studied enough for a given subject.
Minimize Distractor Stimuli
A distractor is something in your surroundings that competes for your attention on another task. For example, if you do homework in front of the television, the ambient noise lighting from the TV are both distractor stimuli that compete with your ability to finish your homework.
Most people have studied with music in the background their entire life. Most people also get poor grades. Wonder why? Because music is one of the most powerful distractors on the planet — and for some reason, students love playing it in the background while trying to learn. You may think it helps, but in the vast majority of cases, it’s hurting you. Cut it out.
Same thing applies if you study in a group, or in a crowded/noisy office or coffee shop. Think of your attention like a swimmer in a big, wide ocean. Adding any distractors is like adding ankle weights; the more ankle weights you have on, the harder it will be to swim a given distance. Put yourself in a quiet space, or if that’s not possible, get noise cancelling headphones or play white noise to drown out any irrelevant distractions. You’ll swim farther and complete your work faster.
Use Triple Encoding
Triple encoding is a fancy term for a very simple strategy that yields amazing results. It works like this: when trying to memorize something, don’t just read it on a piece of paper. Read it, write it, and say it out loud at the same time.
The reason this helps so much is because memory is really a game of chance. All memories are represented as patterns in neuronal firing in the brain, but these neuronal patterns don’t always get created when you try to learn something. That’s why you often need to repeat a concept over and over again — you’re increasing the likelihood that it “sticks” and consolidates into long-term storage.
Triple encoding is like tripling the likelihood of any individual memory sticking. By saying it out loud, reading it, and writing it, you encode it through your ears, your eyes, and the muscle memory in your hands. This means, on average, you get to study less for the same end-result.
It also increases the power of any individual memory. Sometimes the neuronal patterns I mentioned earlier are very faint — for that reason, it can be highly difficult to retrieve a memory when you need it (like the Tip Of Your Tongue phenomenon). Triple encoding increases the likelihood of a strong memory, helping you access it when you need it.
Rest For Success
Like in physical exercise, the bulk of your progress doesn’t actually occur while you’re studying — it occurs immediately afterwards during rest and consolidation.
To maximize this effect, focus on being well-rested the day prior to your studying session, and resting well the night after. Aim for between eight and nine quality hours of sleep.
Additionally, punctuate your studying with regular rest periods. If you batch 4 hours on a Sunday night, cut it up into chunks of 45 minutes on and 15 minutes off. Like an engine, your brain needs periodic “cooling” if you want to achieve maximum efficiency.
Most people play life on hard mode. They work unproductively, they study unproductively… and at the end of the day, they wonder why they can’t consistently achieve their goals.
Take off the ankle weights! Swim farther and float free-er by using what you already know about the brain and then putting it on overdrive.
I’ve written more articles in the last month than I have in the last five years, and it was all because of the four game-changing techniques I shared with you above. Don’t overcomplicate your life, either. Sometimes, three or four simple tweaks is all you need to produce an order of magnitude difference in productivity.
Your mind is a machine — optimize that machine for performance. I think you’ll surprise yourself with what you’re capable of.