Tips for College Success: How to Improve Study and Work Habits (or Any Habit, Really!)

Does it take 21 days to form a habit? Can you build or break a habit in 66 days? Are these popular notions of habit-building accurate? The short answer is…. It depends.

In an article published in European Journal of Social Psychology in 2009, Dr. Phillippa Lally discusses the time it takes for habits to form. Simply put, her team found that it takes between 66 days and 254 days for habits to form and the time take varied from person to person. I came across Lally’s work first in James Clear’s PHENOMENAL book on the subject titled Atomic Habits. He has an article about habit formation time that you can check out at his website. (PS. You will notice a lot of references to James Clear’s book in this post because, that book, is that good!) Click here for Dr. Lally’s research article; you will need library access to read this one.)

What all this really means? It takes CONSISTENT PRACTICE for any habit to form! (Duh, you kind of knew that, didn’t you!)

There are a few key habits that everyone who is in college ought to develop to succeed in their studies. In this post I share these habits as well as my top 5 tips to improve and build study and/or work habits that I have learned in the course of the many years I have spent in colleges getting degrees and teaching students.

Click here to go directly to my top 5 tips to improve and build habits.

Key Study/Work Habits to Succeed in College

  • Make lecture/reading/discussion notes. I cannot BEGIN to tell you how important this is. Good note-taking is an art. Note-taking if done well will reduce your exam time workload by half. I have noticed a lot of students these days don’t take notes and consistently, students who do take notes are always the easy A students in my classes. (If you want to know how to take notes, mention it in the comments below and I’ll write a post on it!)
  • Study everyday. Now this should not come as a surprise. As college students, especially at the undergrad level, each day is jam-packed with classes and so it may not be possible to get through all the subjects the same day that they have been taught. Here is where developing a schedule and the habit of studying in a smart way helps. Tips for everyday smart study habits are provided below.
  • Calculate ideal amount of study time. So this is the general measure of thumb for studying that a professor once told me. If you are registered for a three-credit course for which you are in class for three hours per week, then you are expected to read for three hours for this class before you go to class that week and you are expected to study/revise for three hours after class that week. Now this might be too ambitious for most students but try to get as close to this mark as possible if you want to be consistently successful in all your courses.
  • Become aware of how you study. Each of us comprehend information differently from one another and it is important to understand how our brains process information to be able to study effectively. One of the ways to figure out (if you don’t already have a good idea) is to find out what kind of learner you are. Do you learn visually–are you quick at grasping information from charts and maps and the like? Are you an auditory learner–do you like listening to your professor teach rather than reading or looking at slides for your information? There are four different base learner types–visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading and writing. You can check out more information about the 4 types of learners here. You could be a combination of two or more of these types. And you could change types. You can use this handy test to figure out what kind of learner you are. (Bear in mind the test is made for a younger school-aged student so some of the questions are a little whimsical. :)) The key is to be aware of your learning strengths. For me, I am mostly a visual and auditory learner. I like writing down things but it is a tool that I use to memorize words that are visually in front of me. I also retain information more easily when listening to lectures or books rather than when I read. (Gawd! How I wish I knew that when I was younger!!) [Quick edit after first publishing this post: this doesn’t mean that you are one type or the other. It could mean that, like me, you prefer certain types of learning techniques more than others or a combination of techniques for a particular subject. This does not mean that you can’t learn from reading a book if you prefer listening to a book. A well-wishing psych major has also asked to point out that the different kinds of learners is now not accepted in the psych world. So there you have it. Okay! Now on the the next one.]
  • Make use of your professor’s and teaching assistants’ office hours as study hour. From my experience, I can tell you that most professors are sitting in their offices swatting flies during their office hours because few if any students show up for one-on-one chats with the professor. This is valuable wasted study time for you, the student. Instead of going home and then spending an hour revising what was taught in class, you can save time by using your professor’s office hours wisely. When you make notes during lectures, identify key concepts and/or other ideas that you may not have understood, and take them to your professor/teaching assistants during office hours. Your revision can be done with the help of your instructors!
  • Do not do group study unless it is for a group project or you have designated it as a discussion hour. Group studies are useless. I am sorry but they are! Your brain requires focus and attention to digest the information you are providing it when you study. Having a friend or a study partner around is an added distraction. People, unlike, furniture that surrounds you, will shift, move, sigh, sneeze. Their phones will ring/vibrate in addition to yours. They will yawn making you feel a bit sleepy. Avoid the added distraction and study alone. If you like studying with a friend, do it in a quiet zone in your library with individual kiosks that will give you some amount of focused work space.

How to Improve and Build Good Study Habits

  1. Make time to study and study everyday. Input your classes, recurring meets, and other collegiate and personal activities on to a calendar. I use Google calendar as it is free and available on all computers and smartphones. After you enter all the time-sensitive information, look at your calendar for any given week, and find at block of time that are at least 1 hour long. Ideally, you should find a 2-3 hours time window each day. Block these 1-3 hours off in your calendar and mark it as ‘study time.’ Once you block that time off, then it is sacred. Do not do anything else in that time but study. (Psst… you don’t have to have three hours on your calendar marked off every single day. Just make sure to study for some time even if it is only 30 minutes so that you build that habit muscle.)
  2. Study even when you don’t feel like it. I know, I know, some days it is just really boring. Or you didn’t get enough sleep and studying is the last thing on your mind. I know it’s hard to motivate yourself on days like that but do what you have to do and get to your work space. Work for the first 15 minutes and see how it feels. Then work for another 15 mins. The reason it is important to study/work even when you don’t feel like it is because you are creating a habit. Consistency is key to creating any new habit. If you continue to feel tired/bored, sit at your desk and take a short nap. You might feel more inclined to work after that. But whatever you do, do not open your phone or laptop and browse social media or touch youtube/netflix. Those are beautiful time-swallowing rabbit holes that you will never get out of.
  3. Figure out your study/work time sweet spot. Just like we all take different amounts of time to build a habit, our brains can concentrate the best for a certain amount of time before they naturally lose focus. Find what your sweet spot is. Here’s an easy way to do it: use a stopwatch or something like a toggl app to time you when you sit down to work. Switch on the timer. Make sure that when you do this exercise you are NOT working on the hardest task on your list. Rather, choose a task that is of intermediate difficulty. Work until you naturally stop. Record that time on your timer–this is your ideal stretch of study time. (I found out that mine is around 36-38 minutes. My brain naturally stops paying attention to the task on hand around this time.) Use this time marker to schedule your breaks.
  4. To Pomodoro or not to pomodoro. The Pomodoro technique is a very popular study method. It basically asks you to study/work for 25 minutes at a stretch and then take a 5 minute break. After the fourth 25-minute study/work session, you can take a 15-20 minute break. Then the cycle repeats. I would suggest that you do the technique that I have mentioned in #3 above instead of following a rigid pomodoro. In my experience, pomodoro’s are sometimes too short to complete a task and often they interrupt your work and break your concentration. Instead, find your ideal work time sweet spot and build 5-10 minutes of break after working for the appropriate length of time.
  5. But what if you can’t even get yourself to the desk to study! Fear not, there are ways to build a study habit from scratch. The following two methods is what I have found most effective to build a new habit. Both of them are outlined in the book Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones and I would highly recommend that you read it.
    1. Habit-stacking (word invented by James Clear, I am merely repeating it): if you want to start any new habit, stack the habit that you want to develop on a habit that you already have. For example, you want to start studying but you don’t know how to build this habit. But you are a gym rat and you go everyday to the gym. What if you habit stack studying with gym–as in–you decide that you will study for an hour everyday right after you get back from the gym (or maybe after a bath). This way your perfected habit of going to the gym and returning home will become the CUE for the new habit (of studying) that you want to develop. The beauty of habit stacking is that you can literally take anything that you do almost without thinking and design it as a cue for a new habit.
    2. The second way to build a new habit is to consciously commit to the new habit. So not only would you say ‘I want to build X habit’ but you would write it down with details of how, when, and where you are going to do it. (Again, thank you James Clear for this fantastic idea!) There is a simple way you can do this. For each habit that you want to develop, you will write down the habit, time that it will take, where and when you will do it in this handy formula:

I will do X action for Y minutes at Z am/pm at U location.

For example, if you want to build your study habit, you would write: I will study for 2 hours at 1pm at the university library. Writing it down in this way gives your brain the sign that you are being intentional and makes it easier for you to stick to the plan.

So those are my recommendations on how to study for college and how to build successful study habits. Are there other tips and tricks to study successfully while in college? Drop me a line in the comments if you have other methods.

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