I was catching-up with a former lab mate, now art therapist, as she reminisced about her undergraduate years. She talked about the professors she’d had, the classes she’d loved, the times she’d spent at Jamba Juice, and her “nerd summer.”
Wait, what? Her what summer? I had no idea what she was talking about.
“You know, the summer I spent studying for the GRE.”
Ah, yes. Now I knew exactly what she was talking about. Those of us who have seriously studied for the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, SAT, comprehensive exams, or any other standardized test with serious life consequences can appreciate the agonizing, intense studying that goes along with it.
Most prep courses for these tests typically last 4-8 weeks, and for good reason. The idea is to dedicate a small chunk of your life to intensive test preparation, and then move on.
How can you make the most of this short time? One key is staying motivated.
How can you stay motivated? There are various motivational strategies that people consciously and subconsciously use, but these are not the focus of this article (if you are interested, references are provided).1,2 The focus of this article is a simple strategy used by experts and world-class performers in various domains to maximize motivation and perseverance during years of intensive practice: deliberate practice sessions coupled with a brief nap. In our case, we just need to optimize motivation for several weeks of intense test preparation. Still, this can be easier said than done on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis.
Experts are not only experts in their domain, but they are also experts in self-regulation and motivation. They know they need to practice daily and they do it, even when others are engaging in more leisurely and pleasurable pursuits. Becoming an expert requires about 10 years or 10,000 hours of “deliberate” practice, or practicing at your limits.3
Experts-in-training maintain a commitment to peak concentration and effort while practicing. They scrutinize their every move and push through their weaknesses so they can improve and move to a higher level.
If this sounds hard, that’s because it is. Deliberate practice is not enjoyable or inherently motivating. Yet, it produces results. Experts-in-training know deliberate practice improves performance, and this is their ultimate goal.
If you are studying for the GRE or any other standardized test, this is what your study sessions should look like. You should practice at peak concentration, put maximum effort in your study sessions, and focus on ways to improve your weaknesses.
If you are thinking, “That’s impossible to do for countless hours a day,” you are absolutely right. Because deliberate practice is so hard and effortful, people can only engage in this type of activity for a limited amount of time each day. Depending on the domain, the limits of full concentration and motivation are somewhere between 1 and 4 hours a day. Extending effort beyond this can lead to exhaustion and burnout.
Which leads us to a study strategy you may not have considered: taking a nap between intense study sessions. Sleep is the purest and least effortful form of rest, allowing for extensive recovery.5
Among other benefits, napping is associated with increased alertness, which can facilitate the effectiveness of practice sessions, while decreasing physical or mental fatigue. Elite runners, for example, take a nap between two daily workouts.4
This strategy gives experts-in-training the rest needed to engage in vigorous afternoon sessions and has been documented among top performers in multiple domains (e.g., music, chess, mathematics, etc.).
Interestingly, the beneficial effects of naps on experts and top performers are not the result of simply catching up on needed sleep. In a study of expert violinists at the world-renowned Music Academy in West Berlin, the best violinists took a nap in addition to getting an average of 8.6 hours of sleep each night.6 The best students took a mid-afternoon nap between 2:00 pm and 4:00 pm before engaging in more practice. These naps averaged 2.8 hours per week.
My advice to you or anyone else you know preparing for this type of exam would be to do as the experts do. After all, you are in some small way becoming an “expert” on whatever material is being tested. Get plenty of sleep, practice daily in a deliberate way, and nap between morning and afternoon study sessions to maximize motivation, perseverance, energy, and improvement. In most cases, performance is directly related to the hours of deliberate practice one engages in.
A few caveats:
- Naps should be short. Only naps shorter than 30 minutes positively affect daytime arousal levels and do not negatively affect nocturnal sleep.
- This strategy will not work if the practice is not intensive and deliberate. Plenty of people take naps simply to avoid doing work. Deliberate practice requires that you extend sufficient effort on the task and are motivated to improve.
- Although deliberate practice is limited to about 4 hours a day, experts spend several additional hours on domain-relevant activities that are not as effortful or demanding. Limiting total exposure time to 4 hours a day may not be sufficient.
1 Wolters, C. A. (1998). Self-regulated learning and college students' regulation of motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 224-235.
2 Heckhausen, J., Wrosch, C., & Schulz, R. (2010). A motivational theory of life-span development. Psychological Review, 117, 32-60.
3 Simon, H. A., & Chase, W G. (1973). Skill in chess. American Scientist, 61, 394-403.
4 Glover, B., & Scheder, P. (1998). The new competitive runner’s handbook. New York: Penguin Books.
5 Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.
6 Ericsson et. al. (1993).