Working, taking care of family members, going to school: Any or all of the above can be mentally, physically, or emotionally draining. Even the most disciplined of us will have days where all we want to do is flop on the couch, reach for the remote, and…. When that happens, how do you get through those 50 pages of reading, write your paper or program, or study for your test the next day?
Here are some of our grad students’ favorite tips for finding the time and motivation to study:
Give yourself a break
Take a study break before you start studying? Yes, especially if your mind is still reeling from the day’s events, such as long meetings, heated discussions with colleagues, or an overflow of emails in your inbox (remember, this is why you’re going to grad school). Consider taking a half-hour or hour to clear your head, recalibrate, re-energize – work out at the gym, cook a nice dinner, take a walk, or unwind with family before diving into schoolwork.
Save low-energy, less-productive activities like scrolling through social media or turning on the TV for after you’re done studying.
Set goals and reward yourself
Set a time limit on reading, writing, or studying. For instance, if you’re sitting down to a school project, allow yourself a couple of hours to work on it – then stop and give yourself a treat. Choose whatever will motivate you: a glass of wine, a piece of chocolate, 10 minutes on Twitter (set the timer so it really is 10 minutes), a quick card game with the kids – whatever helps get you to the finish line.
If you’ve set aside a large chunk of time for studying, say on one of your days off, give yourself a break every couple of hours. Go do something else – walk the dog, knit a few rows, do some push-ups or sit-ups, go for a short run – before diving back in. Giving your brain a bit of rest can help you understand and retain the material better and prevent burnout.
To keep your momentum going during the semester, you can promise yourself a bigger treat after that A you receive on your midterm or final (budget allowing, perhaps a fun road trip, a ticket to a game or movie, a new book, a pair of shoes or earrings?).
Help yourself to a snack
This is the best part about going to grad school — guilt-free snacking, as long as it’s healthy! Sometimes it helps to have a bowl of something tasty nearby to comfort you through an 80-page reading assignment riddled with jargon. Try edamame, veggies with hummus, apples with almond or peanut butter, a handful of pumpkin seeds, whole-grain cereal with milk or yogurt, or a cup of hot coffee or tea (be aware, though, that fat, caffeine, and refined carbs can sabotage your studying by giving you a quick high followed by an energy crash).
Find your studying sweet spot
Determine what locations or situations best help you study. Can you work at your paper-littered desk (or kitchen table), or will it help to clear the clutter first? Can you read while your family is entertaining themselves, or will they keep bugging you? In that case, are you more productive if you study in the wee hours of the morning, while they’re sleeping?
Some things work better for some people. One of our grad students is most productive parked under blankets on her couch, with everything she needs close by – highlighters, Post-Its, pens, paper – and with the TV remote and game controllers juuuuuuust out of reach. (“My house is pretty quiet, though, so this may not work for everyone!”)
Silence your phone. Or, turn it off, if you know you won’t have any emergencies.
Remove yourself from distractions
That said, sometimes the biggest distractions are right in your own home. The comfort of the aforementioned couch, the allure of the TV, that book you’ve been dying to read, or your dog whimpering for attention could derail your attempt to do homework. If so, seek a quiet or motivating place elsewhere. Coffee shops and libraries are usually full of inspiring people diligently completing their assignments (try not to run into chatty friends).
Like Goldilocks, you might have to try out a few different spots until you find something that’s just right.
Remember: Studying is not punishment
Remind yourself to be kind to yourself, drink plenty of water, and get enough sleep (if possible). This will help with your energy levels and motivation to put in the hard work. It’s hard to focus on those looooooooong texts if you’re falling asleep.
Ask a classmate or family member to help quiz you, keep you accountable, and not let you watch the next episode of “Walking Dead” until you finish studying (your kids can be great for this, as the tables are turned, and now they’re the ones helping you with your homework. Just watch out for payback).
Try new-school or old-school technology
Use a focus/anti-procrastination app to more formally monitor your goals and block distractions. In a similar vein, listen to music that helps you focus: videogame tunes, Mozart, flamenco guitar, thrash metal? Whatever works for you!
Consider the carrot/stick approach
Think of something you dislike more than studying. Is there a chore that you can and would love to postpone, like organizing the garage or dusting your shelf of Tolkien action figures? Consider “rewarding” yourself by studying instead of doing the dreaded task. (Do this only with chores that are fairly harmless – don’t put off taking the dog for a walk in rainy weather, feeding the kids, or filing your income taxes, for example).