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Good Study Routines and Habits

Welcome back to The Curiosity Concept! And hello if you’re a new reader 🙂 

In my last post, 5 Productivity Myths To Avoid, we debunked some myths that students often believe will increase their productivity but may actually have the opposite effect. This week is a follow up to that, discussing routines and habits that you can use to become more productive.

I’ve made an effort to discuss general habits and routines that can be applied and made effective in different types of student situations, so regardless of what you’re studying, these tips should be useful. After reading this post, you may find it useful to assess your typical day and then decide which of these points to prioritise, according to the possibility of actually implementing them in your schedule and the impact this would have on your productivity. 

A book I highly recommend on the topic of habit-building is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. You can read my review of it here.


Review your notes after class

Lectures are an interesting creature. In some, the lecturer will go through their material and you’ll follow along, understanding most of what they’re saying and generally feeling comfortable with the topic. But then if someone asks you what you learned an hour after the lecture….Nothing. Your answer to that question is virtually non-existent.

On the other hand, there are some lectures where 15 minutes into the session you know you don’t understand anything the lecturer is talking about and the realisation that you might not ever understand begins to sink in. Best case scenario following this is that you take notes of whatever you think is important because the lecturer said it was important but you don’t know why. Worst case scenario is that it’s no longer your lecture slides on your laptop screen  – it’s Facebook and you’ve already watched three ‘X Factor Audition Fails’ videos.

Hopefully (and ideally), you can relate more to the first anecdote than the second and fortunately, there is a method to overcome the challenge posed in both, which is to review your notes as soon as you can after class.

It’s good practice to go back over what you have been taught throughout the time you’re studying the subject or taking the class – this is an essential part of revising – but you don’t have to leave your review to a couple of weeks before the exam/assessment. The benefits of reviewing your notes soon after the class are that this is a good way of reinforcing what you learned and for identifying gaps in your knowledge, or things you’re struggling to get a grasp of, then and there. It can be very stressful to realise too late that you don’t know as much as you thought did. It’s much better to make yourself aware of this and address it from the beginning and an after-class review helps with this. 

One of the aspects of reviewing my notes I found I enjoy is that I have the opportunity to add more of my ideas to the lecture/class material without the pressure of needing to do it quickly because the teacher has already moved on to the next point. It’s the chance to synthesise the ideas and pursue points I find interesting at my own pace.

But of course, reviewing your notes after class assumes that you took notes in the first place, so make an effort to make some form of notes, either before or during the class, so you have a starting point.

Read to answer questions 

You may have come across the term ‘active reading‘ before. It’s a phrase that often comes up in discussions of how to effectively learn and remember information from textbooks and other reading materials because it encourages you to engage with the text rather than passively register the words on the page.

If you are familiar with active reading, you may already know some ways for reading actively, such as highlighting the text and colour coding different types of information. You may also annotate the reading with your own thoughts as you go along, or write down all of the key points after reading without looking at the text to gauge how much you have learnt.

An important and incredibly useful point I’ve learned at university is to note down all of the questions that I want or need to be answered and then read the text to draw out the information that will answer my questions. This helps productivity because it means that your reading is guided. Questions can act as objectives that align with an aim. If your aim is to understand the topic, you can achieve this by answering each of the questions you have noted. They give you something to work towards and thus bring a sense of purpose to your reading.

For example, a question in my International Law seminar may be “What is the nature of international law?”. When doing the reading, this question will be written in my notes and may have sub-questions that fall under it, such as “What are the theories for why international law is binding?”. My focus will be on reading to answer these questions rather than just generally reading because I have to. 

PRO TIP: Tick off questions as you answer them and promise yourself a reward for each answered question or treat yourself after answering a batch of questions – rewards are important for cementing a routine and reinforcing a habit.

Work in uninterrupted chunks of time

The psychological concept of ‘flow’ is one that when I came across it, I had finally found the word to describe a hunch I had come to believe and I was so happy that it was confirmed by science. 

Have you ever experienced the feeling of being super into something you’re doing and time seems to fly by, or not exist at all, because you’re so caught up in the activity and that in itself brings you a sense of happiness?

This phenomenon is described as the state of flow. Flow is a concept popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1990s, and in his TED talk, he described flow as:

this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.

As Mihaly points out, being in flow doesn’t mean that you don’t find the work challenging, it means that you are immersed in the challenge and you find it meaningful/purposeful to be in this state. Mihaly actually suggests that humans are at their happiest when in a flow state. So, the argument is that because flow = happiness, you should make use of your time for studying to allow you to get into a state of flow, hence the point of working in uninterrupted chunks of time. 

‘Uninterrupted’ has two meanings in this sense:

  1. Uninterrupted in terms of time: this kind of speaks for itself – give yourself enough time to engage with your work. You can use the Pomodoro technique, whereby you set a countdown timer for an amount of time, you focus solely on the task before you and then have a short break. I tend to work in 90-minute bursts using the Forest app because it takes me a while to get into the flow but an hour and a half is enough time to get actual work done. Setting a time is especially useful for when I find the task I’m doing particularly unenjoyable because it means I have a designated ‘STOP’ time. 
  2. Uninterrupted with regard to distractions: If you read some of my other posts, you’ll see that this point appears as a recurring theme or motif on The Curiosity Concept. Focus and distractions cannot co-exist, and as Cal Newport explains well in Deep Work, focused work is incredibly important in today’s world because it enables you to learn more, master complicated things and produce more work of value. Here are some ideas for eliminating distractions:
  • Use site-blockers, such as StayFocusd or Freedom, to literally block your access to sites that you find distracting if you find that you can’t stop yourself. 
  • Remove your phone from the vicinity you are working in. You could give it to a friend to hold and they won’t give it back to you until your study time is complete.
  • Delete distracting apps from your phone, such as social media apps. Or better yet, with Newport as an exampledon’t use social media at all. High-key, this is why I deleted my Twitter and Snapchat accounts.
  • If you have to work in a space where other people, e.g. friends or family, could come up to you and try to initiate conversation, place a sign near where you’re working informing those around you that you wish to not be disturbed. This could be a literal ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign or an item that you tell your friends/family means ‘I love you but stay away from me’.

Build a habit of getting into your flow state – it might just make you a happier person 🙂 🙂 

Forest App – set a timer and watch your plant grow in the time! Leaving the app to use your phone will cause the plant to die.

An important thing to note is that there will always be more tips and more you could be doing because being ‘more productive’ is a process of better learning. Don’t let this idea intimidate you or discourage you! I personally believe that the point of taking productivity advice is to implement behaviours that genuinely help and become part of my everyday life and I don’t think anything can become part of my daily system if I’m trying to implement a million things at the same time (I made a similar point in 5 Productivity Myths To Avoid). 

The point of this post, and others like it, is to raise awareness of beneficial behaviours and activities, which at some point you won’t have to make a daily decision as to whether or not to do them because you will have crafted them into a routine. But, before deciding to commit yourself to build a particular habit, you may need to assess whether your typical workday allows you to incorporate that habit in the first place. In his blog post ‘Habits vs. Workflows‘, Cal Newport makes the point that considering your workflow is the first step to take before considering new habits. For instance, if you have a day where there are little to no breaks in between lectures/classes and you have no control over this scheduling, maybe the habit of reviewing your notes soon after class isn’t something you can build into that day. But you can dedicate a block of time on another day of the week to reviewing your notes and make this into a routine. So, applying the lesson from The Power of Habit:

  • your cue would be the specified day of the week
  • your routine would be a review of your notes
  • your reward would be an episode of your fave TV show, a treat from a nice cafe, or whatever else you choose!

Repeat this loop, believing that you can turn this into a habit, and you’ll have built yourself a good study habit. 

Onwards and upwards,

Anoshamisa 🙂 

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