This week’s question comes from a student that seems to be the common opinion on studying.
Sometimes when I’m studying it just starts to feel right. I don’t want to stop. I feel like I’d get farther just continuing now while it all seems to be flowing. Instead of the limited time, I always feel better using a variable timeframe based on the way everything goes. What do you think about that method?
I don’t think that strategy sounds deadly but I think it’s risky.
It’s definitely an effective strategy for highly motivated students in subjects they care about. When you want to learn something, it’s easy to sit down for a long study session to learn it. That being said, it still has to compete with your other interests. If you change your study time based on how good you’re feeling about the process you may end up studying when you need it but you may also end up stopping studying because something less important has more of your interest. The reality is that this complicates the situation by adding a variable.
I happen to be a lover of experimentation. When it comes to studying I like to think in terms of experimentation.
A steady time limit is useful because it doesn’t let your own opinion play too much of a role. Sure… once in awhile you could break the time limit (or not reach it) but you explicitly know you’re doing that when you do it. When you do it based on a flow state, you might go weeks without a quality study session.
Here is one of the more important points against variable study times.
Having a good day usually means you’re in some kind of a flow state. Flow states are not ideal for studying. Sure… you feel good but the better you feel during the process, the less you can expect that information to be sticking. If you study for a half an hour then you may be able to focus hard the whole time. If you study for two hours then, even if you think you’ve been studying hard, odds are, you just hit a flow state where you weren’t actually learning anything. It just felt good.
Studying isn’t meant to feel good. It’s unnaturally shoving information into your brain. Skills aren’t developed by using mindless practice. They’re developed by using a deliberate practice. If studying is going too well, odds are, you’re getting less out of it.
You can’t control whether you’re in a flow state when the test comes. (Well… you may be able to have some control but it’s finicky.) It’s better to keep yourself trained to remember when you’re not in the ideal position to remember it. Trying to remember what you studied in the line at the grocery store helps dramatically more than adding that extra time to the end of a long study session. It turns your compartmentalized knowledge into something you use outside of the textbook.
For more ideas on how to improve your ability to remember you might want to read this article.
Studying doesn’t have to feel right. It just has to produce the results you’re looking for. It doesn’t necessarily have to feel like a miserable process but it should feel a little like you’ve just finished a good workout. You’re tired but you’re not dragging yourself around.
Time limits have too many advantages to not take advantage of. They improve focus. They make studying more test like. They permit better consistency. They make sure you’re using efficient strategies instead of big time wasters.
I recommend you try a time limit out for a while. See if it produces better results.
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