How to Study Efficiently So You Don’t Fail at Life (You Won’t Fail at Life Anyway, Chill)

By: Ali Sakr

So it’s finally that time of year again. Exam season is upon us, and it’s about to ever so gracefully smack us in the head if we’re not ready for it. While you could possibly get away with studying right before exams and not completely suck at them, that’s not exactly what I’d recommend. Whatever comes next, though, will cover both long-term planning and last minute saving yourself from failing, so you’ll probably find something that suits you regardless.

First off, we’ll set two ground rules. The first more obvious one is that you need to find out what works best for you. This’ll vary to all sorts of extremes, so always make sure you’re experimenting with everything until you find that one method that just clicks – don’t rely on “facts” that tell you we’re all universally the same when it comes to our studying preferences. The second is to never try changing more than one thing at once. Decide to adopt 5 new productive habits this week and you’ll end up demotivated and doing none of the things you planned to do by the end of your second day trying. Take one at a time, and you’ll do great.

Know Your Weakness

Procrastinating on social media. Daydreaming. Distracted by noises. Hell, untidy workplace makes you uneasy. Whatever it is you’ve noticed is the largest hindrance to your performance, find a way to eliminate it. There are plenty of means to help you do so, the first of which is quite simple and honestly not that much of a breakthrough; keep your phone in a different room. If you absolutely have to keep it with you in case of an emergency, then at least keep it out of reach. Wifi off is also a no brainer – if it really is a life or death situation, you’ll get a regular call.

If you’re thinking “I’d rather have my phone beside me and resist the temptation to check it,” then you’re either lying to yourself or just incredibly unaware of how untrustworthy future you is. Always leave as little choice as physically possible to your future self. You are going slip up, or rather, convince yourself that you deserve a little break when you in fact, do not. Present you, while a master at overestimating your future abilities, is also as responsible as you’ll ever be, so let it take most of the decisions – it’ll eliminate any room for error.

Another common issue we all probably face is sleep deprivation, and this can be an absolute killer when it comes to productivity. As willing as we always are to burn away at precious hours of sleep in order to get things done, we never really consider how detrimental it is both to our health, and our concentration. Yes, coffee will get you through the day, but tolerance builds up and you’ll eventually start needing more than just one. If you notice that you’re constantly making dumb mistakes that could easily be avoided had you been just slightly more focused, then sleep is probably a good place to start.

Plan Plan Plan

Remember how we just mentioned you should leave as little decisions to future you as possible? Here’s why – decision fatigue. The more consecutive decisions you take, the more their quality worsens. You start becoming irrational and lose sight of your main objectives. Besides, there’s just a certain comfort in knowing you don’t have to sit down, review all your options, then choose what you want to begin with. Instead, that choice will have already been made for you, allowing you to delegate more brainpower to the task at hand.

Now I personally go a bit overboard with this whole planning thing, but here are some of the things I’ve noticed actually work – and some of the mistakes I’m constantly working. First up, you need a to-do list. Physical, online or whatever makes you most comfortable. I used to use sticky notes which I’d have at my desk at some point, but there’s sadly a very limited number of those you can fit in one place before it starts getting too messy. After getting a to-do list of your preferred type, a calendar will probably help too. Google calendar is the most common and gets the job done perfectly. Here, you want to mark down exam dates, important events, and pretty much anything you don’t want to surprise you in the middle of some random week in the near future. (I have my to-do list and calendar synced so I can see tasks on the calendar – overboard wasn’t an exaggeration.)

As for the mistakes, there’s only one which I’ve found to be the most problematic. Overplanning. As I’ve mentioned a while ago, you always overestimate your future self’s abilities. The biggest issue with this is that you end up falling into a psychological pit, believing you’re a failure when you’re actually doing way more than you should be every day. Not only will this legit just make you sad, but you’ll also end up experiencing burn-outs much more frequently, so it’s pretty much a lose-lose.

Take Breaks

We’ve heard it before. Our brains aren’t machines, we need time to rest – you get it. Now let’s cut to the important part. How you’re going to take breaks. Here’s one famous technique which is actually pretty effective if used correctly – The Pomodoro Technique. You basically take 25-minute intervals of focused work on one task, followed by 5-minute breaks. You repeat this cycle for 4 times, then get a “long” 15-minute break. This can really ease out long periods of studying and can allow your brain to get enough time to soak in whatever you’ve been studying or practicing. And of course, if you find that things are going smoothly and that you don’t need a break,  then definitely don’t break your focus.

When it comes to what to do in breaks, this again depends on the individual, but what you mainly want to follow is to avoid taking in more information. Go for a walk, listen to some music, or just take a power nap. Give your head a chance to breathe, without constantly overflowing it with unnecessary facts you’ll never use in the future. Laughing Is also a great way to relax in what little time you may have.

Make a Cheat Sheet

The goal is to make this and not actually take it into the exam, but instead make use of it beforehand. You’ll be forced to summarize all the main points of a syllabus, taking into consideration your personal weaknesses, all in just one sheet of paper. This’ll help you pinpoint what you need to work on, and you can always use it as a last-minute tool to revise right before being handed the exam paper, which once received, will immediately be greeted by all the information you’ve just stuffed and proceeded to regurgitate from your short-term memory.

Change Up The Scenery

Turn your room upside down. Study in the dining room. Go to a coffee shop or a study room. Make sure you’re not always starting at the same desk/table, with the same background which you can now paint entirely from memory. A new place will help you get out of that subconscious feeling of being stuck, and will generally make you feel much more welcome to getting things done.

Find a Study Group

While this is most fun when the people you study with are close friends, that doesn’t always work well with everyone. If you’re the type to talk a lot and can’t really contain yourself, then maybe go for the school/university equivalent of “work friends.” If you can work with your friends, though, (but like for real), then by all means,  go for it. Just make sure you’re either discussing, asking and explaining to/with your study group to benefit from different viewpoints, or at least motivating each other. PS. They don’t have to actually say anything to motivate you; it’s just their presence that can often get you going.

Listen to Something

The reason I didn’t say music or specify a certain type of it is that there’s so much contradiction in the research about this, that it’s honestly not really worth looking into that much. This would be the perfect time to try it all out. Music, music without words, classical pieces, silence, or even white noise and sounds from different weathers/atmospheres (try out noisli for that).  Make sure to also know when not to be listening to anything, like solving a graded practice exam for example.


So, that’s about it. I’ve just realized I’ve written about 1400 words by now, but that’s fine – if you’ve reached all the way here, you’re going to read the last part anyway, and that’s what I don’t want you to miss. I’ll be quoting a cartoon character I hope you’re all familiar with, because if this is not motivational I don’t even know what is.

 Morty: Well then, get your shit together. Get it all together. And put it in a backpack. All your shit. So it’s together.

[exits room]

[pokes head back into room]

 Morty: And if you gotta take it somewhere, take it somewhere, you know, take it to the shit store and sell it… Or put it in a shit museum, I don’t care what you do, you just gotta get it together.

[exits room]

[pokes head back into room]

 Morty: Get your shit together!                                       

~Morty, Rick and Morty,

I’d recommend you also look that up and watch it. Once a week. It helps.

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