Let’s dive into my “all-time most-asked questions” list and tackle the thorny issue of how many hours you should be studying for each day.
Today’s question is one I get all the time from young students and their parents, as well as older learners and professionals taking exams.
So, join me: as I break down the question “how many hours should I study for per day?” by considering …
- The 5 key components that will help you make the right call for YOU
- The main guiding principle for deciding a sensible, sustainable goal for your study hours
- When to take a break and how to manage study session lengths
- And my perspective on different specific targets (yes, we’re looking at specific numbers here!)
- Including the circumstances under which I would consider each study time-period a sensible goal
Let’s started – and right down to my recommendations on how many hours a day you should study.
Prefer to listen? You can find this article in podcast form right here, perfect for absorbing on the go:
- The relationship between results, study hours and studying smarter
- The research on study hours
- The 5 key things how long YOU should study for depends on
- Taking breaks: how long should you study at a time?
- Different targets for different students: the breakdown on how many hours YOU should study a day
- In summary: How many hours to study a day?
- The Science Of Studying Smart
So, how long should you study? The short answer is …
… 4 hours, 33 minutes and 16 seconds a day.
Study for precisely that amount of time – no more, no less – and you’re guaranteed top grades.
I’m joking of course. There is no single right answer.
In fact, more accurately, I’d say the short answer is “it depends”.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to duck the question.
I will answer it to the best of my ability, experience and research – and that includes some 17th-century wisdom as well as recent academic studies!
And as promised, I will be giving you the actual, specific periods of time I think you can and should study for under different circumstances (without which I could justifiably be accused of giving you clickbait title for this article).
But before I get to that, there’s some important context I need to mention first:
The relationship between results, study hours and studying smarter
Most people assume that the more hours you study, the better.
That’s not the case.
Let’s look at a (very simplified) graph to help picture the relationship between the hours you study for and the results you get:
As you can see, we’ve got hours studied on the x-axis and your results on the y-axis … and the relationship between them actually traces out an upside-down-U-shaped curve:
- To start with, as you go from no studying to a little bit of studying, your results go up sharply
- Adding more and more study time keeps the results going up, but only to a point
- Beyond that point, adding more study time causes you to get increasingly burned out, and your productivity and grades actually start to drop
So how do you manage to hit the sweet spot of the curve – and maximise your results in the smallest amount of time?
I often talk about helping you study smarter, not harder. And that’s crucial here to the question of study hours:
Studying smarter means using good study strategies like spaced retrieval practice and working with focus and intensity. That means you get more done in less time: in other words, allowing you to not work so hard.
Importantly, studying smarter also leaves time in the day to rest and recharge, and time at night to get some quality sleep and wake up refreshed for more studying.
Studying smarter is the key to a positive spiral. By working smarter and not working so many hours, you give yourself the energy it takes to study smart the next day … and so on. It’s a win-win for your whole work-life balance.
Equally, it’s impossible to use good study strategies like spaced retrieval practice, or work with focus and intensity, if you’re exhausted and burned out. Instead, you’ll fall back on less efficient learning strategies like note-making or simply re-reading and end up having to work more and more hours to get the same or less results. That’s the opposite, negative spiral: you’re more and more exhausted, and learning increasing ineffectively.
The research on study hours
As I’ve explored the question of “how many hours should you study for in a day”, I have found that research on the subject generally supports the graph above.
Let’s be clear: there is no definitive, scientifically proven number of hours you should study for.
But none of the studies on the topic found that more study time increased your grades indefinitely.
The Revision Census
I’ve done my own research on this. Over the past four years, between 2020 and 2023, I ran the Revision Census here in the UK, and surveyed nearly 40,000 school-age students on their study habits and beliefs.
Two of the questions asked: a. how much you study currently, and b. what grades you’ve achieved in past exams.
N.B. It’s a fairly rough and ready relationship because your work ethic might change over time. But the data gives at least some idea of how your study time and work ethic might be related to your achievement.
The Revision Census found a definite increase in the proportion of students getting top grades as their work ethic went up … up to a certain point. After that point, adding more study hours didn’t lead to further increases in students getting top grades, but actually led to a slight decrease.
But don’t take my word for it …
The academic data:
Academic research also supports the conclusions from the Revision Census:
One study of college students (Nonis & Hudson, 2006) found no relationship between the amount of time spent studying and resulting grades.
A more recent study (Lui, 2022) found that students’ grades no longer showed significant improvement after study hours reached a certain point – that’s the peak of our graph. Plus, instead of worrying about studying for the maximum time possible, the paper recommended focusing on the quality of your learning (that’s studying smarter!).
Another paper (Krohn and O’Connor, 2005) found that more study hours slightly decreased your grades – capturing the downward sloping half of the curve in the graph above.
So, there’s a balance.
Clearly, some studying is good.
But working too much can drag your performance down as you start to burn out and start to get less and less done per hour you put into your work.
Please note, I’m deliberately not telling you what the tipping points in any of these studies were. Because there’s a danger casual listeners would internalise those figures for hours of study and interpret them as the magic number.
There are no magic numbers. It’s different for everyone.
The 5 key things how long YOU should study for depends on
It is notable however, that the research and studies do agree that there are plenty of other variables involved in the balance of study hours, study quality, and getting the grades you want, such as:
- Your motivation to study
- The effort you put in
- Your study habits
- Your learning abilities
- The difficulty of your topic(s)
- Your overall goals
- And the amount of time you also spend on other pursuits
So let’s turn to the five key variables that I believe affect how many hours YOU (yes, specifically you) should be studying for. These are the five main questions to answer when figuring out an ideal, sustainable study schedule!
1. Your age and stage:
Are you 14, 24 or 40?
Are you well-practiced at studying or brand new to it?
Generally, as you get into your older teens or into your twenties, your capacity to study will go up as you mature and as you become more used to managing your time and effort through the day.
2. Your other commitments:
Are you a school or college student fitting studying around a 9-5 set of classes? Or do you have a very light class load?
Maybe you’re on study leave or vacation so have the whole day to yourself?
Are you a professional trying to fit studying around a demanding day job, like many of my coaching clients?
Balancing commitments is always a challenge – and doubly so if you also have a family to look after.
Clearly, you’re going to be able to fit in way more studying if you’re college student with the entire day at your disposal. In comparison, if you’re a finance or medical professional with a family, maybe you can only study at the bookends of the day, like before 7am or after 8pm.
So keep that in mind when deciding how many hours a day you should be studying for!
3. How close are your exams?
If your exams are two weeks away, your study routine might look a little different to if they’re 9 months away.
My own exam-term study routine is a classic example of this – it wasn’t designed to be sustainable in the long-run.
I believe the earlier you start, the better, and the data from the Revision Census survey supports this:
- 42% of students that started studying 3 or more months before their all-important UK GCSE exams secured a top grade
- Versus only 29% who said they left it to a few days before the exam
So bear in mind that how many hours you study for should be flexible depending on where you are in the academic year.
4. What kind of exams are you facing?
Will there be lots of long-answer essays?
Do you need to remember and apply complex formulae?
Are most of your exams multiple-choice?
The kind of memory work you need to be doing as you revise will have a big effect on how many hours you can concentrate for – and the type of studying that will be most effective for you!
For example: if you’re revising for something that involves masses of brainpower in the exam itself, like solving a load of complex maths problems … you won’t be able to study your subject for as many hours per day as someone who’s facing an exam that’s more a test of brute-force memory. And that’s OK!
Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can’t adapt your answer to suit your brain.
You absolutely can.
For example: if you have issues concentrating, ADHD for instance, you may be well-served by trying to focus for shorter periods of time. Go for quality over quantity of work, rather than trying to chain yourself to your desk for long and frustratingly unproductive stretches.
Deciding how long to study for: the main guiding principle
What you’re aiming to do, I think, is something akin to the words of King Louis XIV’s First Minister of State, Jean Baptiste-Colbert. He’s perhaps best remembered via his quip on taxation, which reads:
“The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to procure the largest quantity of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing”
The point he was making was that to run an efficient tax system, you set the tax levels as high as you can get away with without causing unhappiness, rioting, revolutions and other such things.
So when it comes deciding how many hours you should study per day, an important step in the decision will be working out what block of time you can “get away with” in your life right now.
N.B. That’s not the same as deciding you HAVE to study for this maximum block of hours every day – it’s just the absolute outside margin available to you.
Make sure you think about the space available in your life, and how much time you can allocate to studying once all the other things are taken care of, which should include:
- Work and family commitments
- Basic self-care like sleeping well and making time to eat and exercise
- Some additional rest and relaxation on a regular basis to avoid burnout
Taking breaks: how long should you study at a time?
On that subject, let’s take a quick detour into the question of taking breaks. Specifically, how long should you study for before taking a break?
Once again (and I’m sorry if this answer disappoints you), I’m going to say “that depends”.
As with the question of study hours, when to take a break also depends on the five variables above. You need to determine when your concentration and focus begins to wane, andyou’re no longer studying effectively.
For example, as I mentioned above, a neurodiverse college student might find it easier to concentrate for short bursts, taking regular short breaks. In contrast, a professional fitting their studies around their family life might find they can concentrate for the whole two-hour period they have available, taking a longer break to unwind afterwards.
However – I will say that taking regular breaks is REALLY important as part of studying smarter, not harder.
I do have a lots of opinions on the subject of taking effective breaks and the types of activities you should be doing to properly unwind before the next study session. You can learn more about my thoughts on the 4 levels of taking breaks in this podcast episode.
I’m also a big fan of the Pomodoro Method, which stresses the importance of short (and longer) breaks between sets of short, intense study sessions. In fact, my own exam-term study routine at university employed a similar system of alternating study and breaks to make sure I was properly recharged between topics.
So please do remember to make time and space for regular breaks as you plan out the hours of your study schedule!
Different targets for different students: the breakdown on how many hours YOU should study a day
Well, all this is very well – but I don’t want to be accused of totally ducking the question.
So let’s get down to the bit you’ve all been waiting for: I’m going to actually give you some numbers!
To preface this section, please, please see these numbers in the context of everything I’ve said about it being different for everyone. Remember those 5 points about how the question of “how long should I study” varies for different people in different circumstances. And don’t forget that research suggests more hours will not necessarily increase your grade, especially past a certain point.
So if you absolutely promise not to take any of these numbers as a target or the “right” amount to study …
Here is my perspective as an expert study coach on how long you should study for a day, including the circumstances under which I would consider each study time-period to be a sustainable goal for different people:
5-15 minutes a day:
…is actually a fantastic place to start, especially if you’re struggling to get into a routine either because you lead a seriously full life, or simply because you have difficulty getting down to work for other reasons.
Consistency is key, so if 5, 10 or 15 minutes a day is all you can consistently do, that’s a fantastic place to start.
You’ll likely be frustrated it’s so little and feel you should be doing more – hear that voice, acknowledge it, then politely disagree. It’s way more helpful to really DO 10 minutes every day than to aim to do an hour and never actually do it!
Besides, you can get a surprising amount done in 5 minutes a day if you’re studying smarter and applying spaced retrieval practice methods:
- 5 minutes lets you write maybe 5-10 flashcards and test yourself on the 5-10 flashcards you made yesterday
- At the end of the week, you can use your 5 minute slot to test yourself on all the flashcards you made that week – that might be a little sheaf of maybe 20-30 cards.
- Stack that week on week, and you’re really starting to get some progress under your belt!
An hour or two per day:
An hour or two per day is a really good output if you’re fitting your studies round other demanding commitments, such as a heavy class load, or challenging day job.
Or if you’ve got most of the day at your disposal, and hour or two is a really excellent start to your study habit if you’re not particularly used to studying.
If you’re using good study techniques based on cued recall and free recall, you can get loads done in an hour or two per day – it starts to stack up really quickly across a week. In fact, that’s 7-14 hours a week, the equivalent of 1-2 full work days.
In my Revision Census survey of nearly 40,000 high schoolers, I asked how many hours you study on a typical weeknight:
- The most common response by far was in the 1-2 hour range, with over half of students age 16 or 17 studying about this many hours a day – not necessarily in the context of an upcoming exam, just day-to-day schoolwork through the year
- 22% said they studied for 3 hours a day, another 22% said 4 or more hours – but remember, I saw improvements in past grades achieved start to fall off past a certain level of work ethic (as measured by current study hours per day), so more hours a night is definitely not necessarily better for you!
Three or four hours per day:
This is pretty much the top end of what I see people doing if they’re fitting work around other full-time school or work commitments.
Any more than that, and you’re almost certainly burning midnight oil to get the hours in. The problem is that studying that hard might work in the short term, but is not sustainable over the long run.
So make sure you’ve upgraded your study techniques and are working efficiently – working smarter, not harder. That may help you to reduce your daily study hours and keep them at a sustainable level for the long-term.
N.B. If you’re working more or less full-time for independent study, three or four hours is a really good showing. For example: if you’re a middle or high school student preparing for exams, or a university or college student with a less demanding course, or if you’re feeling relatively new to a daily study plan.
Five to eight hours per day:
This is the zone inhabited by the most committed of high-schoolers, and many university or college students on demanding courses.
This amount of study absolutely only works if you’ve got virtually the whole day to dedicate to it. Don’t try and take in this much if you’ve got significant other learning, work, or family commitments.
This many hours of studying a day is an impressive showing, and you should be really proud if you’re consistently falling in this range. Most adults work roughly 7-8 hours a day in a full-time job (plus take plenty of breaks) – and they will probably not consistently be working at full attention.
So remember, although it’s tempting to focus how many hours you should be studying a day: I’m far more interested in the quality of your study techniques. If five to eight hours a day is too much of a stretch, I would be super happy to see you doing less, perhaps way less, provided you are using good study strategies.
I’ll say it again: good study strategies take more focus and energy, so you may find you’re not able to spend as long studying each day. That’s especially true if you’re used to working long hours using low-value techniques like re-reading or note-making.
So consider prioritising the quality of your time over the quantity of your time. Study smarter, not harder: for better grades, better work-life balance, more free time and better stress levels.
Nine or ten hours per day:
I’ve only very briefly achieved this kind of study routine, for a handful of weeks leading up to major year-end exams at university. You can see an example of how fully-packed my day was in this exploration of my exam-term routine.
This represents top gear in my view, the absolute maximum I’d be comfortable seeing the most dedicated and capable of students doing. And only for a short, intense pre-exam period.
For most people, this isn’t an appropriate target – it’s too much. It’s not sensible or sustainable. But what I’d certainly say is, don’t do any more than this.
Nine or ten hours per day is working your engine as close to the line as it can go. If you’re careful, you can still have just enough time to care for yourself and eat well, have a good night’s sleep and have a short amount of down time for exercise or a walk or some recreation.
But there’s only just enough time for those things. And you still need to take time off every few days, I was having the equivalent of a full day off every single week on this schedule, which is very important.
So what is the maximum hours one can study in a day?
Anyone telling me they’re consistently going more than nine or ten hours per day is pretty much inevitably on the road to burnout. Or perhaps fooling themselves about how much effective studying they’re actually doing.
So let’s be honest: the maximum hours you can study in a day is the amount of hours you can fit around everything else important in your life (commitments, self-care and breaks) AND sustain in the long-term.
Should you be studying that much?
You should be studying smart and focusing on the most effective learning methods, for the amount of hours you can focus for. It’s about quality, not quantity.
A cautionary tale:
Here’s an painful anecdote to hopefully bring home how futile the pursuit of “maximum study hours” can be:
The only time in all my coaching career, across hundreds of students, that I feel I’ve failed a student was when I coached a guy going for really brutal general surgery exams in Australia. I simply could not persuade him that working 12 or 14 hours per day wasn’t a good idea. The guy had a few weeks’ full-time study, and he was working till midnight, working through his lunch breaks, even working through the breaks in his routine that we’d agreed. He thought he had to put in that amount of time to get through everything.
He simply could not see that by pushing himself that hard he was getting more and more exhausted, and was gradually grinding to a halt, becoming less and less productive during the day so having to work even more hours to catch up.
Normally, I can get the message of balance across to even the most die-hard and committed student, in this case I didn’t manage it; I feel I failed him, and he in turn failed his exam.
So let this be a cautionary tale: listen to my experience, look at the research studies I noted above, internalise the logic and common sense behind what I’m saying.
And DO NOT work harder than your capacity. No good will come of it, my friends.
In summary: How many hours to study a day?
I’ve imparted a lot of important information today, so let’s recap.
First up, remember that research suggests that after a certain point more study hours = decreased results. Your priority should be studying effectively, not focusing on ticking off the hours.
As for the juicy numbers: my answer every time a client asks me “how many hours should I study per day?” is always “that depends on YOU” …
So when deciding how many hours a day to fit into your study schedule, remember to take into account:
- Your age and learning skills
- Your other commitments
- How close your exams are
- What kind of exams you’ll be taking
- Whether you have a neurodiverse brain
You can then use that information to find a sustainable schedule of daily study hours that depends on your needs.
Here’s a rough idea of who different study schedules might work for, and what tasks I think they are best suited to:
Remember: this is just my recommendation. Please take this table as an inspiration rather than a definitive guide!
And finally, thanks for reading. It’s been a pleasure to have your company and remember: study smarter, not harder. Wishing you every success in your studies!
Need more helping deciding how long YOU should be studying?
If you want more help figuring out what’s right for you, and designing the optimum study routine for you and your circumstances, do consider hiring me as your personal study strategy coach.
Crafting the perfect study schedule for YOU is one of the most common things we’ll do as part of a first coaching session together, and people often find having a clear plan vetted by an experienced set of eyes – that’s me – an invaluable asset to getting consistent in their studies. I can even help hold you accountable to your plan if that’s something you feel you’d benefit from.
Here at Exam Study Expert we coach high-school age students, university or college level students and professionals taking exams as part of their career. In particular: doctors, surgeons and other medical professionals, or finance or accounting pros taking exams like their CFA CMA or CPAs.
If you’re interested, find out more about coaching, or simply drop me an email on email@example.com and I’ll get right back to you. It would be my pleasure to support you getting the results you want in your exams.