Why I’m able to Study 70+ Hours a Week and Not Burn Out (how to stay efficient)8 min read
I don’t pull all-nighters. I don’t miss the gym for any reason, even if the most important final of my life is tomorrow. I study at the same exact seat, on my one table, every day.
In this post, I’ll give you four evidence-based tips on how to get the most out of your studying.
So, studying the right way is important, but what about what we do before we start studying? After we are finished studying? How can we maximize the mental gains from the hard work we have put in?
Just like we can maximize our benefits from the gym by eating healthier and getting a good night’s sleep, we can maximize our learning after studying by implementing certain tactics.
In an interesting experiment, participants are asked to complete the Tower of Hanoi task. A complicated task if you’ve ever tried it. Subjects get to try it once and then were retested. Amazingly, when they were retested one week later they had a 40% improvement in performance. However, if you let them try the next day, but mess with their REM sleep the night before, no such improvement are seen.2
Sounds like sleep is important for learning right? I’ll do you one better.
In another experiment, subjects were taught a complicated algorithm for solving a math problem. Secretly, however, there was a much easier way to solve that problem, which none of the subjects discovered during that training. What happens if you retest them 12 hours later, before sleep? Well, some get it, some don’t. But, what if you test them after a night’s sleep at that same interval (12 hours), the rate of discovery of this “easier” way more than doubles.4
This is super cool to me. Not only is our brain, overnight, locking down our memories so they are more easily accessible. But, according to the last study, it seems our brains are also adapting, coming up with new solutions and connections while we are floating in dreamland.
One of the biggest handicaps you can put on yourself, before a test, is missing a night’s sleep.
Sleep is a huge topic and one that is really interesting to me, if you want to get more into I suggest you check out Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, Ph.D. In it, he says many things, but he found converging evidence that once you start to go under 7 hours of sleep your performance, and health, drop, no matter your age. Quality is also important, quickly he suggests:
- Increase bright light exposure during the day
- Reduce blue light exposure in the evening (my Mac is ALWAYS on the night shift, maximum redness)
- Avoid caffeine in the evening.
- Try and sleep and wake at consistent times
- Avoid alcohol before bed
- Keep your bedroom as dark as you can and colder than you think (~65 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal for most people).
- Personally, I have found showering/bathing before bed also helps.
Bottom Line: Aim for ~8 hours of quality sleep.
Exercising seems to play a role in how well our memory works. In one study two bouts of 3 minutes of intense treadmill running before doing vocabulary tasks increased peripheral concentrations of catecholamines indicated in memory such as dopamine and epinephrine and accelerated the rate of learning by 20%.9
One meta-analysis looked at 21 studies and the effect of acute and long-term cardiovascular intervention on human memory8:
Acute exercise improves memory in a time-dependent fashion by priming the molecular process involved in the encoding and consolidation of newly acquired information.Roig et al., 2013
Increased exercise also is associated with decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression. Sounds pretty good! I, personally, know if you are too stressed out it is difficult to study.
So how do we take advantage of this information? We exercise! Do whatever exercise you like, but try and do it before you go studying, or use it as a break in between studying. The exercise will help prime the brain for the incoming information.
The evidence is less emphatic on exercising after studying, but there still seems to be a benefit.
Bottom Line: Exercise before or in-between studying.
Take advantage of classical conditioning here! Every time I sit at a certain seat at my desk, I know it’s work time. No matter what, when I sit in that seat, I am working.
When I am playing around or not studying I sit in a different location.
- Don’t study in bed
- Don’t mix study and chill locations, even if that just means a different seat at your table.
- If a location isn’t working, and you have the option to, move; go to a library, a coffee shop (preferably quiet), as a distracting environment will harm your performance and retention.
Clean your workspace.
In my high school psychology class, over 10 years ago, I conducted an experiment. I had students attempt to memorize as many terms as they could on a sheet of paper under three conditions: one with silence, one with music blaring, and one with distracting images on a screen (very attractive man or woman). The results? The students, on average, were able to remember 25% more information when there were no distractions. Now, of course, we shouldn’t trust 16-year-old Zach’s experiments, but I think we can trust peer-reviewed journals that reiterate my groundbreaking research.7
Finally, I just want to give a shout out to an amazing book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, maybe a bit dramatic of a quote for simply tidying up or desk, but a good one nonetheless.
It is not our memories but the person we have become of those past experiences we should treasure. This is the lesson these keepsakes teach us when we sort them. The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.Marie Kondo
Bottom Line: Set a consistent place for studying that is free from distractions, clean, and yours.
Simply shift your mindset from “I have to study,” to “I get to study.” That’s it. This change in mindset has improved my motivation and happiness when I study.
Side Note: This can also be applied to other things that you “have to” do.
I’m in medical school! I get to learn these amazing things about the human body and how to help people, isn’t that cool? Remember (this is me talking to myself) when I was struggling and stressing for over a year to get into medical school. I am here now! I get to learn about these things, I get to study.
The other major shift that has helped me is to live in “Day-Tight” compartments. I learned this from How to Stop Worry and Start Living by Dale Carnegie, it involves focusing on only the task at hand. Only what’s immediately ahead of you. Don’t worry about the things you have to do later that week, or even later that day, what are you doing right now? What are you studying right now? Just focus on that.
If you want to avoid worry, do what Sir William Osler did: live in “day-tight compartments.” Don’t stew about the future. Just live each day until bed-time.Dale Carnegie
Finally, know specifically what you are going to be studying. Instead of “study biology,” as your plan for the day, it should be, “read ch 3, 4 of a biology textbook, do 20 practice questions, and finish 100 flashcards,” or something like that. I personally make my exam study strategy 9 days out and plan every regular studying week on Friday.
Bottom Line: Change your mindset from “have to” to “get to” and only focus on the task at hand, live in “day-tight compartments,” and know specifically what you will be studying before you get started.
That’s it, so, you’re prepared, let’s get to work!
- Ribeiro, S., Goyal, V., Mello, C. V. & Pavlides, C. Brain gene expression during REM sleep depends on prior waking experience. Learn. Mem. 6, 500–508 (1999).
- Stickgold, R. Sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Nature 437, 1272–1278 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04286
- Wagner, U., Gais, S., Haider, H., Verleger, R. & Born, J. Sleep inspires insight. Nature 427, 352–355 (2004).
- Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
- Irit Wolach, Hillel Pratt. The mode of short-term memory encoding as indicated by event-related potentials in a memory scanning task with distractions. Clinical Neurophysiology 112, 186-197 (2001)
- How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie
- Roig M, Nordbrandt S, Geertsen SS, Nielsen JB. The effects of cardiovascular exercise on human memory: a review with meta-analysis. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2013 Sep;37(8):1645-66. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.06.012. Epub 2013 Jun 24. PMID: 23806438.
- Winter B, Breitenstein C, Mooren FC, Voelker K, Fobker M, Lechtermann A, Krueger K, Fromme A, Korsukewitz C, Floel A, Knecht S. High impact running improves learning. Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2007 May;87(4):597-609. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2006.11.003. Epub 2006 Dec 20. PMID: 17185007.