How to (actually) study – what I wish I knew in school

On my final day in the Netherlands before moving to America I took my beloved bike and rode around the town. For the first time in two years I crossed the Rhine and explored the other side of the village, I rode through a magical forest discovering many new villages and paths.

This experience was horrifying.

Here I was, living in the Netherlands for 18 months surrounded by beautiful nature and wildlife and only now, on my last day, had I made the time to explore. One of the reasons I moved to the Netherlands to study a Masters in Medical Biotechnology was to explore Europe, did I do that?

No. I barley explored the surrounding towns.

The reason?

I spent almost every weekend either in the library or the lab starting down at a book studying. Whilst I completed my degree with high marks that I was pleased with, I began to wonder how much my marks would have suffered if I spend my weekends out in nature.

The answer, not much.

Since then I have been on a mission to completely revaluate and over hall my studying and work routines to find ways to make my work more efficient and productive so I can spend more time adventuring and less time in a book.

In this post I will share my 4 greatest learnings and what I wish I knew when starting high shcool or university.

#1 – You don’t have to work or study all the time

Whilst in high school and university I had a misconception that I needed to spend every free moment working or studying. That I could never have a free weekend or a free evening to work on a side hustle or just relax. I can’t even begin to count how many sunny days I have spent in my bedroom studying. I believed this because this is what I had always done and it was what a lot of my friends always did. The common phrase in my friend group was “I can’t tomorrow, I need to study”. Well the reality is that you don’t have to be glued to the books 24/7 if you study effectively.

In fact, I have found that limiting the time I am allowed to work on a project or study can make me more efficient. Have you ever found that you will procrastinate an essay until the day before when suddenly you become a productivity god? Writing on steroids and ultra focused like a F1 driver?

I believe that studying and working less can make us more efficient and productive because we are forced to focus on the task at hand and not distractions. So try to block out time in your calendar for study and for non-study and see how much more productive you become.

#2 – Passive study is a waste of time

When I was at school I was taught how to study, we had a seminar from a very serious looking man who told us and our parents how we should be studying. Whilst I appreciate the opportunity, I look back and see that lots of what we were taught is… well… not true. For example, one of the most popular methods of studying is reading notes, taking summaries, and reading summaries. I used to spend days making beautiful summaries of content and believed I couldn’t start studying until the summaries were completed – and a colourful study timetable as well.

I have since learnt that this type of passive studying is not effective. In order to learn a new skill or content you need to work hard, your brain is a muscle and you need to work it out just as you need to work out any other muscle. You can’t get bigger biceps by visualising, you need to go to the gym and lift weights. The same in studying is questions – also called active recall.

The best way to achieve this is through developing a long list of questions rather than a summary. Then when it comes time to study you simply need to answer al the questions which is active learning and thus more likely to stick.

#3 – Use free time to study

The beauty of developing a list of questions on your content as outlined in #2 is that you can study on the go. If you have these questions on your phone through an app like Notion or Anki. Whenever you find a spare moment – waiting in line for a coffee, waiting for a friend, waiting for a bus or train, or even on the toilet – open your questions and run through them.

Even if you get through 3 questions that is better than 0 and it will slowly build up over time. We spend so much accidental time on our phone during the day on Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit (guilty) that if you can repurpose that time into studying it is amazing how much you can learn.

The idea that you have to be sitting at your desk with a cup of coffee and classical music to get into studying mode is wrong. You can study anywhere and at anytime.

#4 – Figure out what is actually important

This tip relates to the 80/20 rule which states that 80% of the output results from 20% of the work and 20% of the output results from 80% of the work. When studying or working you always want to understand what the 20% of work you need to do in order to get 80% of the output.

For example, when writing an essay or a report or blog post there are 2 ways to do it.

Number 1 – write like crazy until it is complete ignoring spelling and grammatical issues, just get words onto the page.

Number 2 – write each sentence in detail and only move onto the next sentence when the first is perfect.

I used to operate like number 2, couldn’t move on until each sentence was correct but now I follow strategy number 1. I will word vomit onto the page until the essay or report is complete and not worry about the spelling or grammar. 80% of the essay comes from the content, examples, and overall argument. 20% of the essay comes from the polishing. So once I have written that 80% and am happy with the argument and examples only then do I move onto fixing the spelling and grammar which doesn’t take very long. The other reason I like this method is because I usually have not settled on an argument or thesis until I have started writing as I have too many thoughts in my head, so just starting can counteract that.

How can we apply this to studying? Figure out what is the core 20% of a subject that you must know to understand the other 80%

For example, in organic chemistry. The core 20% is the nomenclature, structures, isomers and basics principles of each reaction (e.g – electronegativity). You can not understand organic chemistry unless you know that. So focus 80% of your time on those areas and from that you should be able to answer the questions. Spending time committing complex reactions like Dies Alders to memory is a waste of time when you can deduce them from the core 20%. Yes you may drop a point here and there but you will save time which allows you to do other things.

The big take away

All your energy and focus should be on getting the most results from the least amount of work which means studying effectively not for long hours. If you want to learn more about smart studying then I highly recommend Ali Abdaal’s videos here.

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