Formula of Five: Study Tips

September 1, 2015

by Peter Amsterdam

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“Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gains understanding.”1

Two years ago I enrolled in a theology course, which has been a great help to me when preparing the various series that I’ve written for Directors’ Corner, such as the Heart of It All, The Stories Jesus Told, and Jesus—His Life and Message.

As a result, I’ve had to spend a considerable amount of time studying, which hasn’t come easy to me as I’m not a natural student or a fast reader. I didn’t do exceptionally well in school, mainly because I had an aversion to studying, and even now it takes effort and discipline for me to study. But one thing which I’m very happy about is that over time, studying has become easier for me. This isn’t a big surprise, or shouldn’t be, because of course we get better at most things as we invest more time in them, and that is also true of study.

Besides the natural and inevitable improvement that comes through doing something repeatedly over a period of time, I have also learned and applied a few study tips that have been helpful. I want to share some of those tips with you now.

I’d venture to say that many of you are studying in some way—either in university or for some specific certification, or possibly you’re studying to gain knowledge in a particular field that is of interest to you, such as health and nutrition, how to raise happier and more well-adjusted children, or practical skills such as public speaking, web design, audio or video editing, music, or another subject.

Because my primary work involves writing for TFI, I study theology, and I know that there are a number of you who minister spiritually to others, and therefore you feel called to study this as well, as it helps in your ministry. Others of you feel called to study topics which are meaningful and valuable in the path the Lord has called you to. If you’ve entered a new field of work or a new job or ministry, or if you’re trying to learn something which will benefit your life, then you too will be in a position from time to time where you’ll need to study.

In fact, when you think about it, we’ll be learning and studying and progressing our whole lives, even if not formally. As our founder David said, “Learning, learning, learning, it never ends. I love it!” Life would be so boring if we didn’t keep learning and discovering new things.

When we apply ourselves and improve through study, exploring new topics and expanding our skill set, we increase our base of knowledge and skills, which can make us feel more alive and more confident. If you’re not involved in a clear path of study right now, you perhaps will be at some time in the future, because in this day and age there are so many ways we can study and increase our expertise in our areas of interest.

Okay, on to some ideas for effective study habits. If we’re going to invest time studying, it behooves us to give it our best shot and try to make the most of it. Now, these aren’t the “be all and end all” tips on studying. There are many good articles online about this subject, but these are a few tips that have helped me. I’ll keep these brief, but if some topic piques your interest, I suggest you do further research on it.

Number 1. Have a clear “why” for your studies, a specific purpose and goal.

To successfully complete a major task or to master a certain field, we need a clear why. A clear purpose and goal brings motivation, which makes it easier to apply ourselves and exercise the discipline needed to get through a tough project, especially an ongoing project such as a study program. I suggest you take time to clearly formulate why you’re studying, what your ultimate goal is. What’s the reason for your actions? It’s helpful to write down the goal with some detail, and to have a timeframe for when you plan to reach your goal. Review this “why” often, even daily. Visualize yourself going through the necessary action steps and reaching your goal.

On this subject, author Tom Hopkins advised: “Dwell on how much that knowledge is going to help you; visualize the benefits you’re going to get from possessing it. Form a clear and vivid picture in your mind as to why you’re learning that material. Then, each time you start to study it, take just a second or two to recall that vivid picture of the benefits you’re seeking.”2

If you do this, when you feel like quitting or your studies get boring, you’ll have that extra “oomph” to keep going, because you’ll be reminded of why you’re making those sacrifices, and why it’s important that you stay the course.

Number 2. Avoid distractions.

Even if we have great motivation and a clear vision, we all battle with distractions, and they come with a hefty price. We have to vigilantly fight distractions. This isn’t news to us, but it’s a daily battle, especially in this age of mobile devices that so easily divert our attention. Here are a few tips to consider for minimizing distractions.

  • Turn off your Internet connection. That way you can avoid checking Twitter or Facebook or your email, and wasting a few minutes here and there that add up. This loss of time might not be such a big deal in itself, but every time you switch away from your study, it takes time to get back into it again.
  • Find a quiet place. Close the door to your room or your office.
  • Find out what distracts you and remove it from your study area.
  • Don’t interrupt your study time with other little to-dos such as putting in a load of laundry, answering chats or texts or phone calls, or doing a little household chore.
  • When it’s time to study, just start; don’t procrastinate. Here’s an example from David Schwartz on how NOT to study, which unfortunately many of us can probably relate to:

With fine intentions, Joe College sets aside a whole evening for some concentrated study. Here is a general pattern of how, too often, the evening is spent.

Joe’s ready to begin studying at 7 P.M., but his dinner seems just a bit heavy, so he decides to get into a little TV. A little turns out to be an hour’s worth. At 8 P.M. he sits down at his desk, but gets right back up because he just remembered he promised to call his girl. This shoots another 40 minutes (he hadn’t talked to her all day). An incoming call takes another 20 minutes. On his way back to his desk Joe is drawn into a ping-pong game. Another hour gone. The ping-pong makes him feel sweaty, so he takes a shower. Next he needs a snack. …

And so the evening planned with good intentions drifts away. Finally at 1 A.M. he opens the book, but he’s too sleepy to absorb the subject. Finally he surrenders completely. Next morning he tells the professor, “I hope you give me a break. I studied till 2 A.M. for this exam.”

Joe College didn’t get into action because he spent too much time getting ready to get into action. And Joe College isn’t alone in being a victim of “over-preparedness.” Joe Executive, Joe Professional Worker, Josephine Housewife—they all often try to get ready with office chats, coffee breaks, sharpening pencils, reading, personal business, getting the desk cleared off, TV, and dozens of other little escape devices.

But there’s a way to break this habit. Tell yourself, “I’m in condition right now to begin. I can’t gain a thing by putting it off. I’ll get going instead.”

And when you do start, focus. Make your study time productive. Don’t just stare at the page while your mind is elsewhere, or fritter away your time just to say you spent that time “studying.”3

Number 3. Implement practical points for effective study.

There are some practical dos and don’ts that can help our times of study to go better, such as the following:

  • Schedule blocks of time for study; usually 45 or 50 minutes is enough time for one block. But for particularly difficult subjects, you might need shorter blocks, say 30 or 35 minutes.
  • Study in short blocks and take regular breaks. If you're really focusing, it’s not easy to concentrate for more than about 45 minutes at a time. After that, it’s helpful to take a break to let your brain recharge. Then go back to your studies. The best approach is to pace yourself. Study, then take a break, and repeat that process steadily over days and weeks. From articles I’ve read, that rhythm of focusing intently and then relaxing lends itself to quality study and retention.
  • Prioritize your studies. Begin with the most difficult subject or task. You'll be fresh and will have more energy when you are at your best.
  • If you have to memorize something, it's often helpful to write it out. The more times you do this, the more likely it is to stick. To ensure that you're not just getting information into your short-term memory, try writing it out at different times during the day, without looking it up beforehand.
  • Take a test—either an official practice test on the subject, if that’s available, or have a friend or family member test you verbally on the material.
  • Eat regularly. Your attention levels drop when your blood sugar is low, so eat when you’re hungry, but not too much.
  • Try to change your study environment from time to time. Moving to a different location (even a different room in your house) for study will create new associations in your brain and make it easier to recall information later.
  • Talk about what you’re learning. Or if you don’t have someone to talk with, read out loud.
  • Take downtime. This means you should structure downtime into your daily schedule. This helps the brain process the information and leads to greater understanding and insight. Professor and author Barbara Oakley writes: “[When] you’re not thinking directly about what you’re trying to learn, or figure out, or write about—that downtime is a time of subconscious processing that allows you [to learn] better.”4
  • Study only one subject in a particular study session. Taking short breaks in between resets your brain for the next subject. Your brain consolidates during breaks. Space study out over several study periods; don’t cram. There are limits to your attention; lack of concentration brings lack of retention.
  • Review. To store information in your long-term memory you need to review once each day. The brain learns through frequent repetition and review. The first 24 hours after learning something are critical. Daily 20-minute reviews make learning much easier than trying to cram with large amounts of new material at once. Reviewing your studies—especially if some time has passed since you originally learned the material—helps your brain understand that the information is important and needs to be remembered, by “forcing” your brain to retrieve the information from your memory.
  • Join a study group, if available. This is especially helpful if you’re an auditory person and you learn best through discussion and listening to others.
  • Identify resources to help you, such as tutors, friends who are more experienced in the subject, a keyword search on the Internet to get in-depth explanations, specialists in the library, or related professional organizations. Using outside resources can save you time and energy, and help you to solve problems.
  • Find your best rhythm. It’s helpful to figure out your most productive times of the day for study. Pay attention to how you feel throughout the day so that you can eventually recognize the time periods when you have the most energy, focus, and clarity. Then maximize those time slots for study, if possible. If you study best in the morning, plan to study your most difficult subjects first. If you have trouble concentrating after lunch, avoid studying at that time.

Number 4. Don’t cut corners on sleep.

It’s quite possible that if you’ve embarked on the journey of study, you’re doing so in addition to your normal workload. That is, you study as an add-on. That means you study at night, early in the morning, and on the weekends. That extra load adds stress and can mean you’re often “burning the midnight oil.” While that’s unavoidable sometimes, we can’t sustain that schedule on the long term. Having an extremely busy schedule and getting little sleep is not a proverbial badge of honor. It’s much healthier and more productive to get the rest and sleep we need, and practically speaking, it is crucial to success in our studies.

When you’re sleepy, it’s almost impossible to study effectively, and a lack of sleep makes the task burdensome. Not only is it miserable, but not getting enough sleep causes our brains to be unable to process the information. Tara Parker-Pope, a reporter for the New York Times, wrote:

Sleep is an important part of good studying. The first half of the sleep cycle helps with retaining facts; the second half is important for math skills. So a student with a foreign language test should go to bed early to get the most retention from sleep and then review in the morning. For math students, the second half of the sleep cycle is most important—better to review before going to bed and then sleep in to let the brain process the information.

“Sleep is the finisher on learning [according to Benedict Carey, a science reporter for the New York Times]. The brain is ready to process and categorize and solidify what you’ve been studying. Once you get tired, your brain is saying it’s had enough.”5

So if you’re having a hard time making progress in your studies, or you’re not getting the results you desire, take a look at your schedule. You might need to fit in more time for simple, rejuvenating, glorious sleep!

Number 5. Believe you can learn anything; have a growth mindset.

The last point of this formula of five has to do with the limits we put on ourselves when it comes to learning. Often we tell ourselves and others, “I’m not a math person.” Or, “I’m just not good at learning foreign languages.” Or, “I have never gotten the hang of cooking …” or computers or working out or whatever. Many of us believe we have what is referred to as “a fixed skill set”; that is, we have been gifted since birth with certain proclivities, and conversely we are handicapped in all other areas, and there’s nothing we can do to change that. It is what it is. But that’s not so.

Carol Dweck, a professor and researcher at Stanford University, is well known for her work on fixed mindset versus a growth mindset. She wrote:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it. …6

More and more research in psychology and neuroscience supports the growth mindset. We are discovering that the brain has more plasticity over time than we ever imagined; that fundamental aspects of intelligence can be enhanced through learning; and that dedication and persistence in the face of obstacles are key ingredients in outstanding achievement.7

If we can embrace a growth mindset, we’ll be miles ahead. We’ll be more apt to take on challenges, to try new things, and expect that we’ll do well. We’ll reach for our personal best by just taking consistent steps, focusing on the process, sticking to our schedule, and reaching our goal of not quitting. Let’s not put limits on what we can do.

James Clear, a young athlete, writer, and entrepreneur, put it this way:

Here’s the truth: it’s your daily actions that will change what you believe about yourself and the person you become. It’s about setting a schedule, showing up, and sticking to it. It’s about focusing on building the right identity rather than worrying about getting the right result.

In my experience, identity-based habits tie in directly with the research from Dweck and her contemporaries. When you let the results define you—your talent, your test scores, your weight, your job, your performance, your appearance—you become the victim of a fixed mindset. But when you dedicate yourself to showing up each day and focusing on the habits that form a better identity, that’s when you learn and develop. That’s what a growth mindset looks like in the real world.

…Skill is something you can cultivate, not merely something you’re born with. You can become more creative, more intelligent, more athletic, more artistic, and more successful by focusing on the process, not the outcome.8

If we set our sights on our daily actions, rather than being results-driven, we will eventually reap the rewards of the results we’re looking for. But to do that, we need to establish a routine of productive daily habits and follow a process that helps to keep us moving ahead without quitting when we don’t feel inspired, or are tired or bored or distracted. Developing a growth mindset will serve us well, and in time we’ll learn and grow as individuals and reach our goals.

So let’s review the formula-of-five points for study:

  1. Have a clear “why” for your studies, a specific purpose and goal.
  2. Avoid distractions.
  3. Implement practical points for effective study.
  4. Don’t cut corners on sleep.
  5. Believe you can learn anything; have a growth mindset.

Let’s reach for the stars! Let’s hold on to the promises of God and know that “I can do it! There’s a way! God will help me.” This is a good approach for not only our study goals, but for every important aspect of our lives.

1 Proverbs 3:13 NKJ.

2 How to Master the Art of Selling (New York: Warner Books, 2005).

3 The Magic of Thinking Big (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1959).

4 Barbara Oakley, engineering professor at Oakland University, is the author of A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) (New York: Tarcher, 2014).

5 Tara Parker-Pope, “Better Ways to Learn,” New York Times, October 6, 2014.

7 Carol S. Dweck, “The Perils and Promises of Praise,” Educational Leadership 65.2 (2007): 34–39. Accessed March 12, 2015.

8 Clear, “How Your Beliefs,” blog post. Emphasis added.