Everyone wants that small edge, which can put her/ him ahead of others. One such area is to squeeze in more effective hours into your study schedule.
What if you can stretch your effective daily study hours from eight to ten? It’s hard, no doubt, but achievable. In this post, I’ll cover seven steps which will help you fight lethargy (plus additional steps you can take to fight sleepiness in the evening) when studying and hence increase your daily output.
But before I come to the first step, I want to make three quick points:
- When it comes to mastering academics or any field for that matter, number of hours in itself doesn’t mean much. What matters is the quality of study you put in?
To give an analogy, have you got up in the morning feeling groggy even after an eight-hour sleep? I have. If your sleep is interrupted for some reasons during the night, you too will wake up tired and groggy despite eight hours of sleep. And without the interruption, you’re much more likely to have a sound sleep despite sleeping for six hours.
You get the point: quality trumps quantity. Same holds for studying.
- If despite being well rested you feel lethargic and challenging to start, then the problem may lie elsewhere. You may be procrastinating or, worse, you may be lacking in motivation. We all procrastinate and it can be overcome with effort, but lack of motivation may require intervention at a deeper, bigger level.
- Don’t stretch yourself at the cost of sleep and exercise. Such routine will compromise your health and hence won’t be sustainable.
Having said that here are seven steps you can take to study long hours without getting overly tired or drowsy:
1. Prioritize your schedule: take up difficult topics early in the day
Take up the difficult material in the forenoon when you’re at your best, energy wise. (For most people this is the time when they’re most productive. If somehow you’re an exception to this, feel free to take up the difficult material at a time that works for you.)
Such scheduling matches your energy with the difficulty of the task at hand. As a result, you face less challenging topics in the evening, by when you’ve dissipated loads of your physical and mental energy and when tendency to slack is highest.
On the contrary, if you pick easy stuff early in the day to get a false sense of progress – which many procrastinators do – you’re more likely to succumb to procrastination and give up later in the day when your energy and resolve would hate being tested.
For the same reason, to the extent possible, schedule your low-effort, non-academic activities such as socializing, making calls, and daily chores later in the day.
As far as academics are concerned, physical exercise boosts learning ability and long-term memory, and controls anxiety and depression. But the benefits of exercise go beyond: it also improves concentration, alertness, and motivation.
To quote John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-author of book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (the book delves into how exercise affects brain):
… It [exercise] optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention, and motivation.
And the effects of exercise are visible almost immediately. In a review of several published scientific articles, this research brief by University of Texas, Austin says:
Physical activity can have both immediate and long-term benefits on academic performance. Almost immediately after engaging in physical activity, children are better able to concentrate on classroom tasks, which can enhance learning.
With these benefits, you can not only get more out of your study, but also last longer.
However, not all exercises are made equal as far as their effectiveness in improving your concentration and alertness in concerned. Most studies find 30-odd minutes of vigorous, sweat-inducing cardiovascular exercises to be the most effective.
(Please note that not all exercises are suitable for everyone. Before attempting a new exercise take into account factors such as flexibility, strength, and overall health to determine whether or not a particular exercise is appropriate for you. You may consult your professional healthcare provider in this regard.)
3. Steal a nap
To quote John Medina, a leading authority on brain study and founding director of two brain research institutes, from his book Brain Rules:
People vary in how much sleep they need and when they prefer to get it, but the biological drive for an afternoon nap is universal…. If you embrace the need to nap rather than pushing through, as LBJ [Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th president of the United States and a prolific napper] found, your brain will work better afterward.
In a study by NASA, the pilots who took a 26-minute nap reduced their lapses in awareness by 34 percent compared to those who didn’t nap. Moreover, those who napped showed an improvement of 16 percent in their reaction times. Importantly, their performance stayed consistent through the day and didn’t slack at the end of a flight or at night.
The most important aspect of nap, as observed in the case of NASA pilots, is that performance slacks much less than when you don’t nap, which means you can study at a high intensity even late in the evening if you have had a nap in the afternoon.
So, steal a nap in the afternoon, and you’ll be in a better position to handle your next session. The little nap can add hours to your schedule in the evening, quality as well as quantity wise. Here, are few quick tips for effective naps:
- Limit it to 30-40 minutes to avoid going into deep sleep and feeling groggy after awakening. Besides, a longer nap can also keep you awake late in the night.
- Try napping at the same time every day as it helps stabilize circadian rhythm. Most people nap immediately after lunch. Schedule yours.
4. Eat to maintain energy levels
Although your brain constitutes just 2 percent of your body weight, it guzzles 20 percent of your daily energy intake. Studies have shown that non-pleasurable mentally exhausting tasks – academic learning will fall into this category for most – drain our energy fast.
Therefore, it’s important to eat in a way that sustains your energy level when performing mentally exhausting tasks.
Eat higher proportion of low Glycemic Index (GI) foods (examples: oats, porridge, low-sugar museli, granola bars, yogurt with seeds/ nuts, low-fat dairy, soups, salads, anything wholegrain, and most fruits), which release glucose slowly into bloodstream, thereby maintaining energy level for a longer period. High-GI foods (examples: pizza, white bread, burger, cake, chocolate, cookie, potato chips, sugary beverages, and ice cream) have an opposite effect: your energy levels rise fast and crash equally fast, resulting in fatigue and drowsiness.
Here is an illustrative representation of how your energy level changes with low-GI and high-GI foods.
Second, if you notice in the above graph, your energy levels go down in 2-3 hours irrespective of what GI food you eat, which implies that you need to replenish your glucose level every three hours, if not two, in order to maintain your energy. So, eat small portions every 2-3 hours.
5. Conserve your mental energy
Because your brain is energy guzzler (2 percent vs. 20 percent), it’s important not to dissipate your energy by letting your mind wander into debilitating, irrelevant thoughts. Thoughts that linger on:
“Why did he behave with me so rudely?”
“What if I fail in the exam?”
And so on…
An effective way to squash such thoughts is to recognize them the moment they cross your mind, count up to three, and divert your mind elsewhere. (Yes, such thoughts creep in so automatically that we don’t realize that they’re gnawing you mentally, unless of course you practice breaking the train of thoughts. And counting, or anything else you may try, does precisely that.)
I know it’s not easy to control such wandering thoughts, but if you can…then you conserve some precious energy.
6. Take regular breaks
You should take breaks for two reasons. It not only relaxes you, but it also restores your waning concentration.
Your concentration starts dropping after 50 minutes or so, and if you keep powering your way through, you’ll be studying with lesser concentration, which is akin to wasting time. Therefore, take a 5-10 minute break every 50-odd minutes to restore your focus. (Note that this period may vary for individuals. So, test what works for you.) During the break, do anything but study: walk around, eat something, get some quick exercise, gaze outside, and so on. Idea is to take a break from what you have been doing.
7. If possible, study/ work in daylight
Research has shown that studying/ working in daylight makes you less drowsy, more alert in the afternoon, thereby increasing your productivity or adding more hours to your schedule.
In a study, Mirjam Muench and his team exposed two groups of people to six hours of either artificial light or daylight for two days and found that:
Compared to the afternoon, people who had DL (Daylight) were significantly more alert at the beginning of the evening, and subjects who were exposed to AL (Artificial light) were significantly sleepier at the end of the evening.
DL group was also found to perform better on cognitive functions – functions such as reasoning, memory, and attention you need when doing an intense mental work – on the second day.
So pull your table and chair to the corner of the room which receives sunlight. This, however, doesn’t mean studying directly under sunlight. If the room where you study receives sunlight, it’s good enough.
How to study long hours without feeling sleepy in the night?
Now if you’re one of those who get time to study only in the evening because either you’re too busy attending other things in the day or because you work part-time, it may be even more challenging to not feel tired and drowsy in the evening. The only time you’ve is in the evening, and you’re certainly not at the peak of your energy after the day’s work.
If that’s you, you may take few additional steps (the ones covered till now will all be helpful in this case too) to squeeze in more productive hours:
1. Exercise for 10 minutes in the evening
At Naperville Central High School, Illinois, known for its physical exercise program, students report that exercise, besides other benefits, also helps them preempt dozing off in the class.
(When you exercise, neurotransmitters are released in the brain keeping you awake and alert. There is an evolutionary reason for this. In African savannahs, whenever prehistoric humans sensed danger – and there were many – from predators, they used to get alert and run for their lives. This evolution has hardwired alertness with physical activity in us. So, when you’re exercising, the brain gets the signal to be alert, awake.)
Whenever I’ve to work late in the evening, I exercise – mainly jumping jacks and kickboxing done indoors – for 10 minutes, usually between 6 and 7 PM, and it works well for me. It gets me rejuvenated, and can keep me going at a decent level till around 11 PM. If you noticed, the exercise is only for 10 minutes. It’s not strenuous. Otherwise, it’ll tire you and make you sleepy post-dinner.
You may take to any aerobic exercise (few examples: running, skipping, jumping jacks, and stair climbing) that ups your heart rate. But, as I mentioned earlier in the post, take into account factors such as flexibility, strength, and overall health to determine whether or not a particular exercise is appropriate for you.
2. Keep low-intensity tasks for the night
As mentioned earlier in the post, you should ideally keep easier, interesting stuff for the night. Since you’re running low on energy and resolve, you’ll feel frustrated on encountering challenging stuff in the night. And if stuck, you know what you’re likely to do… hit the sack.
3. Make your room sleep-repellent
Study in bright light
Studying with only a table lamp lit makes the environment cozy, which can makes you feel sleepy. The same holds for a dimly lit room. So, brighten your study room.
Avoid comfortable setting
Prefer table & chair over sprawling on the bed or slumping on a couch to… you know it by now.
4. Trade night hours with morning hours
If you go to bed at 11 in the night and get up at 6 in the morning to leave your place at 8, try advancing your sleep and wakeup time by, say, an hour (that is, sleep at 10 and get up at 5) and put that extra morning hour to study. Because you’re well rested in the morning, that hour will be more productive than that in the night.
5. Experiment and see what works for you
I encourage you to experiment with other methods not mentioned here (examples: a stroll in the open, music, splashing water on the face, and study loudly). You never know what else may work for you.
I haven’t mentioned caffeine as a way to fight drowsiness in the evening for the reason that it may interfere with your sleep. It may be fine when you’re pulling off those occasional all-nighters, but not when you’ve to take it regularly.