- Discipline and focus are skills that can develop over time with incremental practice.
- Avoid multitasking whenever possible. People tend to think they're better at multitasking than they are.
- Getting creative with memory devices can enhance recall and productivity.
Whether you’re a retiree learning for fun, adapting to meet challenges at a job, or boning up as part of a career switch, study habits can come in handy.
Here are 14 ways to improve how you learn. They may be especially helpful if you have ADHD or a low mood that limits your energy.
1. Take a little time to get into the right frame of mind.
Take a little time, not so much that you’ve used up all of your available time. For example, dance to an upbeat song for 10 minutes. If you’re distracted by chores that need doing, list them, then put the list away for later. If you’re completely obsessed with a distraction, be honest with yourself. But don’t just procrastinate. Decide exactly when you’ll do your studying and commit to being in the right frame of mind.
Be positive. Instead of thinking, “I don’t have enough time,” think, “I’m starting now.” Remember that discipline and focus are skills that you can build over time in small steps.
2. Find a quiet spot without distractions and return to it next time.
Think, “Where did I do well?” Look for the ideal situation, not just “good enough.” It might be as simple as choosing to sit up on a living room chair rather than lie down on the sofa to read. The bed probably isn’t the best place.
3. Bring what you need, but only what you need.
If you need a book, don’t forget it. But if you can leave your smartphone well out of reach, do so. Do you truly learn best while listening to music? If so, have your music and earphones, but otherwise, don’t have them handy.
4. Don’t multitask.
You may think you’re an expert at watching a video with the information you need and scrolling through Instagram. However, evidence suggests that common sense applies: You have only so much working memory, and you’re taking some of it up on Instagram. Your multitasking means you won’t absorb and retain as much of the video.
5. Outline your notes. Make lists and fill them in.
Make outlines that work for you, even if they might be confusing to someone else. Use words that make sense to you, translating the words in material you may be reading. “Chunk” together the groups of words or facts or ideas that you feel belong in a group. The goal is to produce an outline that will help you—not someone else—remember the material.
Writing may work better than keyboarding into a laptop. There’s some evidence that that helps us think. Read aloud an important sentence if you’re alone or mouth the words if you’re in a library. You may think it’s babyish to mouth or read aloud. Actually, poetry was the first way that human beings remembered stories, and we haven’t changed that much.
6. If you like memory devices, use them and get creative.
Make up a catchy rhyme to associate ideas and repeat it out loud. Make up a sentence. For example, “Never Ever Seem Worried,” is a way to remember “North, East, South, West.” “Every Good Boy Deserves Fun” helps music students remember the five notes of the treble clef, “E, G, B, D, F.”
If you don’t know if you like memory devices, try one out and see if it sticks. Then the next time you’re studying, you can try another one.
If you tend to be visual, take your time looking at the illustrations or photos in the book you’re reading to associate them with the information.
If you’re taking a class and will be writing the answer to a surprise question on a test, make up a likely question and do the exercise of writing an answer with a timer on. Do it again.
Actually try to solve the sample problems in the materials you’re using; don’t just read the answers. Make up similar problems, try to solve them, and later on, at the end of a study period, find sources that can tell you whether your answers were correct. If you’re learning a new language, you might write out some questions and answers and show them to a native speaker at your next opportunity. Research suggests that an activity in which you generate a product or test yourself is more powerful than time spent consuming information—for example, reviewing notes.
8. Find buddies.
Some people like to work with a group of four or five other people who are at about their level. Quiz each other. Try to do as well as the person you most admire. Turn envy into a source of motivation rather than resentment.
9. Make a schedule you can stick to.
If you have any flexibility, notice the times of day when you’re sharpest and dedicate them to learning. If you’re studying at home on a weekend or work at home, take a warm morning shower to gear up for analytical work, advises biologist and body-clock expert Steve Kay. Get your studying or work done before lunch, especially if you’re an early riser. You’re likely to be most distractible from noon to 4 p.m.
Sticking to a schedule may seem like a burden, but you’ll appreciate the investment if you can avoid last-minute cramming. How many minutes you spend each time is less important than regularity.
9. Space it out.
Most work goes better if you divide it into realistic chunks. Try not to cram for an exam in one burst. The evidence against cramming is mixed, but the common-sense advice to plan ahead and proceed in a consistent way, spacing out your study time, does seem to be right.
10. Take breaks.
If you’re falling asleep while reading, you may have picked the wrong time of day to study. Consider a nap if you’re sleep-deprived and then get back to work.
If you’re losing focus, but not short of sleep, move. It’ll help you more than extra coffee and stoking yourself with sugar is a mistake. Stretch and walk to the other end of the library at least once an hour. Even better, go for a short jog.
Bouts of movement—typically 15 to 20 minutes at moderate intensity—can measurably boost your mood and cognitive performance. Even 10 minutes can make a difference. Take time to look out the window, especially if you have a view of trees or other greenery. Nature is a good stress-reliever, even if you can’t climb the Himalayas today. If you succeed at a significant goal—maybe reading an entire chapter—treat yourself by a break flying over the Himalayas on Google’s satellite map.
10. Reward yourself.
It’s healthy to set goals and then reward yourself in ways you decide in advance—not French fries, but something you won’t regret later. Facebook is an OK break if you haven’t let it become a substitute for what you meant to do.
11. Students need to learn about finding balance.
This means getting enough sleep, eating regularly and well, exercising, and not becoming too distracted or obsessed by personal problems. As adults, we, too, need to keep that kind of balance.
12. Don’t depend on drugs to make you more focused and productive.
Also don’t indulge in partying in ways that will interfere with the next day.
13. If you’re taking a course, talk to the instructor early on, or an assistant, to know what to expect.
You may be aiming high, so plan on working harder or be realistic about your grade. Suss out what’s most important to the instructor. Establish a connection so you can talk to the instructor if you find yourself falling behind or do badly on a project. Pay attention in class.
14. Recall your original goals and motivations.
Sometimes we lose track of our original impetus once we're midway through an endeavor. Why did you want to master this material? If you're resenting the time, money, or difficulty, talk to someone you trust to reorient yourself.