How Much Time Should You Spend Studying?

 

As a bright-eyed new student arriving at the London School of Economics a few years ago, I was blown away by the calibre of people I was meeting. In fact, I was a little intimidated.

I moved into a college dormitory and my new housemate, in particular, was someone who most people were awed by.

She spent 12 hours a day studying, seven days a week. If we were lucky, we might see her in the morning at 8 am making coffee before she absconded to the library. Or we might catch a glimpse of her at 10 pm after returning home from the library.

How could I compete with that? How could anyone compete with that?

Despite putting in these hard hours, my housemate was extremely stressed, somewhat manic and seemed close to burning out.

But this seemed to work. She performed incredibly well.

However, this pattern of work seemed to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once you stumble upon a method of studying that appears to work, we’re hardwired to believe that this is the only way that can work.

But don’t freak out. I’m here to assure you that this is not how most successful students study.

Let’s look at the following equation [1]:

time spent studying  X  efficient study techniques = good grades

If we represent this equation graphically (let’s face it, I’m an econometrics student and I do love graphs – this must be why I’m so popular…), we’d get something like:

Clearly, we don’t want to be operating in the third quadrant where you don’t spend much time studying and you haven’t learned any efficient study techniques.

However, even if you do know some efficient study techniques (e.g. using flash cards and spaced repetition) you need to spend enough time implementing them. The question is, what’s the appropriate amount of time?

My housemate, for instance, was probably around here on the matrix:

This is where you spend a lot of time studying, but you don’t utilise the best study techniques. She was resorting a lot to rote learning, re-reading, and highlighting – techniques which we know are not efficient.

The optimal place on the graph would be around here:

Now, you’re probably wondering why the optimal place isn’t here:

 

This is because you get diminishing marginal returns from studying too much.

You need to give your brain a rest and time to refresh. Otherwise, you become fatigued; it becomes harder to concentrate and harder to remember the things you’ve learned. [2]

What this looks like in practice?

I’ve taken cues from the likes of Cal Newport and have structured my study from 9am – 6.30pm, Monday to Friday [3]. Before you think this looks like a lot of time, this includes time spent going to class (two-three hours a day) and it includes a lunch break of 1-1.5 hours.

The catch is, I prioritise study during this period. I avoid having lunch or grabbing coffee with friends during this time because this can spiral out of control and descend into afternoon beers at the university bar (which despite being incredibly fun, doesn’t help you get much work done and results in a hangover and a less productive morning the next day).

Speaking to many students at the Australian National University who have achieved high marks, they all adopt similar approaches to their day.

Once 6.30pm arrives, I completely switch off and enjoy my night without worrying about work.

Takeaway

So don’t get freaked out by people who spend a ridiculous amount of time studying. Either they haven’t developed efficient study techniques, or they’re actually spending their time on Instagram (or both).

Studying efficiently requires balance and an important part of that is making sure the time you spend studying is incredibly productive, but that you give yourself ample time to switch off and recharge your mental batteries.

 

 

Endnotes:

 

[1] Adapted from Cal Newport’s ‘work accomplished’ formula (http://calnewport.com/blog/2014/04/08/work-accomplished-time-spent-x-intensity)

[2] Oakley, B. (2014). A Mind for Numbers. Penguin: New York.

[3] Newport, C. (2005). How to Win at College. Three Rivers: New York.

 

 

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