How do you change when change is hard? How can students like you or me improve their study habits, and actually make the new habits STICK?
The secret is knowing WHAT you want to change and HOW to change it.
Prefer to listen? This article also available as a podcast episode:
If you’re reading this, you might already have some ideas about WHAT you want to improve about your study habits:
- Maybe you want to work harder.
- Adopt some productivity hacks to get more done in less time.
- Get your assignments completed well ahead of time.
- Or switch to smarter ways of learning information.
Perhaps it’s all of the above, and more!
(Still looking for ideas on WHAT to improve about your study habits? Then check out my previous article on the 7 habits of highly effective students for a great overview.)
But honestly, deciding what you want to change is the easy bit.
This article focuses on what happens next.
How to make the changes stick.
I think we all know that it’s one thing to set good intentions. It’s quite another to actually see them through consistently for the long term.
So let’s find out how to improve your study habits – for good.
Let’s make this your best year yet!
Part 1: Meeting your inner caveman, and why s/he can make it so hard to act on your motivations
I’m going to start by answering a very simple question:
Why is it that you do certain things and don’t do certain other things?
What drives your behaviour?
Why do you find yourself doing so many things you know aren’t in your best long-term interests? Things like helping yourself to an extra slice of cake, or procrastinating on TikTok rather than getting on with your essay?
The psychology of human behaviour is very complex. But it’s very important to understand, because only once we understand why we behave in the way we do, can we truly become masters of our behaviour.
I’m going to cut through the complexity for you today, and boil it all down to 3 very simple factors. Together, these underpin just about anything you decide to do. The 3 factors can work together, but often, they are in conflict, pulling you in different directions.
The 3 factors that drive your actions each day are:
Factor 1: your automatic habits
Think of all the things you do on autopilot every day.
You might have checking habits when you leave the house (“phone, wallet, keys…”), or hygiene habits (you brush your teeth, right?).
It’s entirely possible to train new habits. For example, in the past 5 years, I’ve trained myself to wipe down the screen afterwards with a squeegee thing after every shower. I do it every day. If I’m showering when travelling and there’s no squeegee, I feel a fleeting moment of discomfort when I can’t perform my post-shower ritual.
When you train an animal, what you’re really doing is building a habit. You’re training a dog to respond to the word “sit” by sitting down.
Habits are very primal, very raw things.
Their impact can be pretty powerful, but they’re usually slow to build and change.
Factor 2: your motivations
What exactly is it that you want to do?
How do you think you should be allocating your time?
What tasks will produce results that are in alignment with your goals and values?
This is anything from your long-term destination in life, right down to your plan for any given day. If you want to be an A-grade student and graduate at the top of your class, that motivation might spur you on to put in some extra work over the holidays or vacation. (Even if no-one is asking you for that work!)
You can of course choose your motivations. The trouble is, what you intend to do doesn’t always translate to what you actually do.
Why? Time to meet Factor 3:
Factor 3: the instincts of your inner caveman
As we all well know, your motivations don’t always translate into your actions.
You’ve been meaning to finish an assignment before the night of the deadline for once… but it’s never quite worked out.
You’ve been meaning to get out for some exercise every day… but somehow life has got in way.
So what’s the problem?
Why is it so hard to actually see through on good intentions to improve your study habits?
It mainly comes down to a set of instincts which are constantly guiding your actions and behaviours. It’s possible to trace most of these instincts traced back to explanations from evolutionary history. They are the patterns of thought that evolved to keep you safe in a very different world to the one you face today.
I collectively refer to this set of instincts as your “inner caveman”.
There are 3 really important instincts to know about:
A. Your inner caveman is lazy…
…S/he likes you to conserve energy.
To take the low-effort path rather than doing something that’s harder work.
For your hunter-gatherer ancestors, the supply of food (energy) was limited, so it made sense to conserve calories whenever possible. If there was a choice between taking an energetic action or not, your inner caveman will tend to prefer not.
B. Your inner caveman hates taking risks…
… S/he wants to keep you safe from harm.
In 10,000BC the dangers were very real and very physical. Your ancestors didn’t want to get eaten by a predator, or trampled by the animal they were trying to catch for lunch!
In the modern day, the dangers are much more theoretical. Now, we’re afraid of failing a harder course, or of putting in extra effort on a project only to be rewarded with an average mark.
This also ties into social risks: your inner caveman loves to be accepted, to stick with the tribe, because life as a lone caveman is a darn sight harder than if you can share the burden of surviving. It’s good to have other tribe members around who can watch over you through the night. So the possibility of any form of social embarrassment is often a particularly painful risk to contemplate.
C. Your inner caveman loves quick thrills
Your brain evolved a reward system that responds very strongly to certain desirable things in the environment.
The rush you get from eating sugar is a great example – it’s a fast hit of energy to fuel a burst of activity, like a hunt. Sugar used to be hard to come by, so our ancestor’s craving was only rarely indulged. Modern humans find it only too easy to indulge that craving, of course!
Many modern-day pleasures take advantage of our love of a quick thrill.
That ranges from the sugary foods we most crave, through to the addictive video games on your console or smartphone.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking these pleasures in moderation. But if you allow your inner caveman to get too obsessed with them, you end up with rotten teeth, and getting nothing done all day because you’re too busy gaming.
Taming the beast
Your inner caveman is starting to sound like a bit of a wild beast, no?
But the good news is that, like any wild beast, your inner caveman can be tamed.
You just need to learn how to turn their strengths to your advantage, like a judo master.
I’m going to walk you through a set of 15 strategies to help you master your inner caveman.
As you’ll discover, many of these strategies work beautifully together to create a complete system to bring about the improvements in your study habits that you want to make.
Ready? Let’s do this!
Your inner caveman is lazy: here’s how to persuade him/her to get up and GO!
I’m going to start with strategies designed to counteract your inner caveman’s laziness.
1. Be clear on exactly what new study habits you’re adopting
Your inner caveman is looking for any excuse for an easy life.
If there’s a change you’ve decided to make in your study habits, don’t give him / her any reasons not to get with the plan.
That starts with being absolutely clear on what plan is. Be really specific about what actions to take, and exactly how are you’re going to go about them. Go beyond the obvious here.
Let’s say your new habit is to go running every morning: what do you need to do to make that happen?
- What will you be wearing?
- What time are you going to set the alarm?
- And what route are you going to follow?
If you expect to just wake up on Day 1 and figure all that out on the fly, you’re setting yourself up for failure. So set yourself up for success, by planning it all out in advance.
It’s exactly the same with adopting new habits in your studies. Think through all you’ll need in order to make your improved study routine happen. When will you do the work, what materials will you need, and so forth.
And by the way, if you need some advice on the specifics of what good study technique looks like, I would highly encourage you to download my exam success cheat sheet:
If you’re doing flashcards, which is one of the recommendations in my study cheat sheet (see above), you’ll need some sort of cards to work with. You might also want to dig out your exam syllabus, and have a copy printed out for you by your desk.
Do you have a way to stay hydrated – if you’re working in a library for example, do you have a water bottle you can take in?
If you’re not in a library, are there any textbooks you’ll need to go and borrow or buy before you start work?
You get the idea.
Anything you need to make your plan work, get it all ready in advance.
By the way, this process of gathering your stuff is a great way to ease yourself into starting a new study routine. None of this takes a huge amount of effort, so it’s a nice way to feel you’ve taken the first step, without really having to summon up too much willpower.
2. Make it easy, make it obvious
Next, I want you to remove any friction to following through on your plan for improved study habits.
Try leaving out all your study stuff neat and ready to go the night before.
Put your books out on the desk, open to the right page.
You’d be shocked at how that little action helps you slip straight into work-mode. I have a friend who wants to spend more time learning the guitar. The guitar is out of its case, propped on a stand by the sofa – making it super-easy to just pick it up and start playing instantly.
On the other hand, hide away anything that might distract you.
I’ve talked before about turning your phone off and putting it out of sight when you’re working. Same if you have a games console in the house – you don’t need to throw it out, but unplug it and put it away in a cupboard. Distractions become substantially less tempting when they’re out of sight, and when there’s just a little extra effort needed to find them.
Put chocolate out on a table in my house, and it will disappear very quickly. But put it away in a cupboard, and it lasts substantially longer. Out of sight really is out of mind when it comes to things you don’t want to be distracted by.
So put the distractions out of sight, keep your study stuff in sight.
Though a small caveat that you might not necessarily want your study materials out and at the top of your mind 24/7. You might need to compartmentalize, and have some times of the day or week when you’re not engaged in your studies, so you can allow your mind chance to rest.
3. Start small: the “just five minutes” trick
If you’re still feeling resistance to starting your new improved study habits, try starting small.
There’s two variants of this: the “just 5 minutes” trick, and the Virginia Valian approach.
Try the “just 5 minutes” trick to overcome light to moderate resistance, and bouts of laziness or low willpower.
It’s simple: set a timer for 5 minutes of work, and give yourself permission to stop when the timer goes off.
Chances are, you won’t feel like stopping once the 5 minutes is up! Once you’ve started, it’s much easier to carry on, and you might get a whole study session in after all. Often the idea of doing an hour of studying is far more off-putting to your lazy inner caveman than the reality once you get started.
So get started, then watch as the resistance melts away.
Same with starting on a run. If don’t want to do a whole run, then try running for just 5 minutes. Or even getting changed into your exercise clothes and standing outside. Once you’re there, you’re much more likely to want to go ahead and do some more.
4. The Virginia Valian Approach
Now, if you’ve got a much more deep-seated aversion to working, you may need something more drastic. That’s the Virginia Valian approach, which I’ve named after the famous academic who inspired this approach.
Virginia was a very high-ability student, but had, in her words, a pretty serious work problem. You can read her full story here.
In summary, Virginia had got literally no work done for weeks on her assignment. She was in a bad way: she knew she needed to start making progress, but was facing titanic resistance to the idea of working.
So she asked herself: what daily target would I feel comfortable about setting?
For her, even just a couple of hours a day seemed completely daunting and off-putting. No way.
What about half an hour?
Better, but still feeling a lot of resistance to that idea.
OK – so what about 15 minutes?
That feels OK. Let’s try that.
And she did. For weeks on end – just 15 minutes per day. It may not sound like much, but it’s amazing what you can accomplish with a quality 15-minute session day after day after day.
Eventually, she felt her stamina improving, and was able to stretch that 15 minutes to 20 minutes. To half an hour. And eventually, to several hours every day.
So if you’re stuck in a complete rut with improving your study habits, start by asking yourself the question:
What small amount of action every day could I set myself that feels comfortable and completely do-able?
Start with that, and build from there.
Your inner caveman hates taking risks: take back control and improve your study habits
With the help of these first strategies, you should already be starting to overcome the laziness of your inner caveman.
The next set of strategies will help you get around your inner caveman’s preference for avoiding risks.
5. Set process goals, and focus your energy on those
Your inner caveman hates the idea of setting yourself up for a goal that you’ll probably fail. No-one likes to feel a failure (even if the only person that knows about it is you!).
I recommend setting an overall goal for your studies – the outcome you want from your course – and writing it down. Have it as a North star to make sure you’re always steering in the right direction. But day-in-day-out, there’s no need to be constantly looking up at the star. You’ve got more immediate concerns.
I’d much prefer you to focus your daily energies on a clear process goal: a target for what actions you’re going to take on a regular basis.
To explain the difference between a process goal and an outcome goal:
A process goal would be to work for 2 hours, or run for 30 minutes.
An outcome goal is to finish Chapter 2, or write 5000 words, or run a personal best on the race track.
In other words, a process goal is about the journey, the process, the outcome goal is about the destination.
And the nice thing about a process goal is they’re completely predictable, and completely within your control.
The outcome goal involves aiming for something that’s only partially in your control. Sometimes you can finish a chapter in 2 hours, sometimes it might take more or less time depending on how challenging the material is, and how familiar you are with it.
On the other hand, if your goal is about the process rather than the outcome, it’s entirely in your control. Every single day becomes a day in which you can succeed against your target, and feel great about yourself.
6. Make sure your goals are realistic
Process goals are great, but the target you choose needs to be realistic, otherwise, you’ll have a hard time improving your study habits.
I recommend being conservative in what you think you’ll be able to achieve at first, and scaling up over time as you’re able to. It doesn’t get much more conservative than the Virginia Valian approach – 15 minutes a day! – so don’t be afraid to set very modest goals to start with.
I’d far rather you set a small daily goal and achieved it every single day this week than tried to stretch yourself too far, only to fail, feel demoralised and demotivated.
Be realistic in your target-setting. Put all your energies into focusing on what you can control – trusting the process – and trust that the outcome will follow from that.
7. Change your environment: work on fitting in
Your inner caveman is a deeply social creature.
S/he craves being accepted by the tribe, and hates the idea of being cast out and isolated. Any kind of social embarrassment is an abhorrence.
(We’re all a little different in this respect of course. Some crave social acceptance more than others – but it’s true to some extent for most people.)
So instead of fighting this fact of life, let’s work with it to improve your study habits.
If you want to boost your motivation to study hard, find yourself a tribe that works hard.
Look for an environment where “fitting in” means getting your head down and getting some studying done.
An easy place to find such a tribe is at a library, or perhaps a silent study room if your school or college has one. You’re basically looking for a room that’s got other people working studiously in it. You don’t even need to know the other people for your herd instincts to kick in.
Once you find such an environment, you’ll likely perceive some peer pressure to look as if you’re working.
Your inner caveman will WANT to work in order to fit in, and avoid social embarrassment. Perfect!
8. Find an accountability partner: improve your study habits together
Working among a herd isn’t right for everyone – for some, the pressure will be too great, tipping over into anxiety.
A slight variant on this strategy is to see if you can find a friend who’s on the same journey as you.
Hold each other accountable.
Agree to debrief every day, or every week, on how you’re doing with those new habits.
Your need to impress will kick into overdrive. You’ll want to have positive news to report, and will want to avoid embarrassment by admitting to your friend that you’re failing.
This principle is a very powerful one, and underlies the huge effectiveness of many group classes to change behaviours. Just think of effectiveness as support groups to help people quit smoking or lose weight.
9. Look out for limiting beliefs
I’ve come across many inner cavemen in my 1:1 work with students as a school and exam success coach.
One of the peskiest things about these cavemen is that they’re great story-tellers. Often their stories are neither accurate nor helpful. As modern humans, we’re subjected to a constant babble from our inner caveman of stories about what we can and can’t do.
What we are and are not capable of.
To achieve success, we need to get past these limiting beliefs.
Let’s take one of the most common limiting beliefs: that we’re not good enough to achieve something. In order words, that our level of talent in a given area is fixed, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
“I’m not good at math(s).”
Or “I’m not smart enough to get good grades.”
Here’s the truth: your levels of ability in a given field are not fixed forever.
You can improve.
There’s a growing body of evidence that your brain can literally grow and change at a neurological level as you learn. The very wiring in your brain levels up as you practice and gain skill in an area.
So, train yourself to relish the feeling of finding things challenging, of feeling your ability stretched. Because that feeling is the feeling of your brain growing bigger and stronger and fitter! Exactly the same way that finding a workout challenging is the feeling of your body growing stronger and fitter.
As I tell my coaching students, “feel the burn when you learn”!
If you want to find out more about how 1:1 exam success coaching with me could save you time and get you bigger results this year, hit the button below:
10. Build on the bright spots
You might not have heard of Dr Timothy Wilson, but he’s one of the world’s leading authorities on behaviour change.
His book Redirect is one of my all-time top recommendations. In it, Tim talks about how the stories you tell yourself have a powerful impact on your behaviour, and how to go about changing those stories.
We’ve already met some examples of those “stories” when we talked about limiting beliefs just now. (I’m bad at math(s), I’m not smart enough, etc.)
I particularly like his “bright spots” technique.
This means looking for examples of places or circumstances where you’re not quite as bad as normal!
If you struggle in math(s), say, is there a particular topic you actually did OK with?
Was there a teacher you started to flourish with?
Was there a time when you showed a little more promise?
Starting by nurturing these bright spots as proof that better things are possible, that you are capable of more. Take courage and confidence from the very existence of these bright spots.
Then go a step further.
Ask yourself what it was about these examples that made them different and better. If there were particular things you did that time that helped, could you do more of that in future?
See if you can spread the light from the bright spots wider and wider through your work.
Your inner caveman loves a quick thrill: here’s how to use that to your advantage to improve your study habits
So, let’s take stock.
By now, we’ve got over your inner caveman’s laziness, we’ve convinced him or her that change isn’t so risky after all.
Now all we need to do is solve the problem of your caveman wanting its quick thrills.
My final strategies allow you to do just that.
11. Improve your study habits by promising your inner caveman a reward
Can you “manufacture” a quick thrill to reward your inner caveman for good behaviour?
Much as you might toss your pooch a doggy treat when it’s obeyed a command to “sit” in training, you give your inner caveman a tangible reward to say “good job” when you follow through on your intentions.
Food is an easy example. My high school Biology teacher used to polish off a whole packet of chocolate digestive biscuits on the one night of the year he blitz-marked all of the practice exam scripts.
(Don’t try this at home!)
For you, it might be rewarding yourself for a good day’s studying with a episode of your favourite show on Netflix.
12. Threaten your caveman with a “punishment”
The flip side of craving quick thrills is a strong aversion to suffering punishments. That’s just psychologists’ term for any outcome which is unpleasant in some way, such as losing money.
How can we use “punishments” to keep that inner caveman in line and improve study habits?
There are plenty of apps that will help: Beeminder is one good example. The app is totally free to use as long as you’re on track, and it’ll send you nice “well done” messages along the way. But if you go off the rails… you pay!
I’ve even known a PhD candidate set up a contract with a friend. For every month he fails to stick to his word count target, he’ll owe $200. Ouch.
You could even combine this strategy with your inner caveman’s fear of social embarrassment. Make the “punishment” a social embarrassment if you fail to hit your goals, for example, announcing to your friends on your social media account of choice if you miss your writing target one day. Hopefully, that will have a bit of a positive feedback loop, as your, hopefully, supportive friendship group encourages you to get back on track the next day.
A word of caution on rewards and punishments
Whether you’re promising a good outcome or threating a bad one, beware making the incentive too strong.
If you do, there’s a risk that you start to erode any intrinsic interest you have in your new study habit. Your brain thinks that the only reason you’re studying is to get the reward or avoid the punishment, and so you actually become less interested over time in your studies.
So if you’re going to use punishments and rewards, try to use the lightest possible prize or threat that still gets you to take the action you want.
My advice would be to use punishments and rewards as a kick to get you started, but switch to something else to stay the course over the long term.
13. Temptation bundling to improve your study habits
You could also try “temptation bundling”. This is where you bundle something you don’t especially want to do together with something you really, really want to do.
Don’t want to go to the gym? Addicted to that new show on Netflix? Perfect: from now on, the only place you’re allowed to watch that show is when you’re in the gym.
Resisting adopting a new study habit? Wild about that new shake shack that just opened? Perfect: from now on, the only time you’re allowed a milkshake is as you’re sitting down to work with your new study technique.
Combine the thing you’re resisting with the thing you really want to do.
You might need the gym idea if you have too many of those milkshakes!
But you get the idea 🙂
14. Making long-term goals into short-term actions
If you heard my recent podcast episode Eating The Frog with productivity legend Brian Tracy, you’ll have heard him talk about the buzz you get from completing a task.
As Brian explained, it’s easy to feel daunted by the idea of working on our biggest tasks – that giant project or assignment or dissertation. We know a day’s work on it isn’t going to make much progress on it, so we delay starting in earnest until the last minute. Then it all ends in panic, and having to finish it in a big hairy time-pressured ball of stress.
The strategy to counter that is to break the big task up into lots of little sub-tasks. You won’t get the whole dissertation written today, but you can tick off some of the papers you need to read. You can still get a sense of accomplishment from ticking off the “sub-tasks”.
Anything that gives you a feeling of progress is going to motivate you to keep working every day on the project.
And for projects where the daily tasks are very repetitive, consider tracking your actions on a wall-chart.
Try putting a simple tick on each day of the calendar when you fulfil the habit you set out to achieve each day: whether that’s going for a run, or spending 10 minutes reading ahead for your classes the next day.
It’s surprisingly satisfying to see that streak of days building up. Visual proof that you’ve now accomplished the action you intended to take for 3 days running, or 10 days running, or for 30 days running!
And you’d better do it again tomorrow – you don’t want to break that streak!
And speaking of “tomorrow”, that brings us nicely to our fifteenth and final strategy:
15. Connecting to your future self
Fascinating research suggests it’s possible to re-programme your brain to value your future self more than it does currently. (At least temporarily – and that might be all it takes to improve your study habits and get into a new way of working for good).
So make the future feel closer: connect to your “future self”.
To do this in practice:
- Hang out with your future self on AgingBooth: (iOS / Android) an app that transforms a picture of your face into what you’ll look like decades in the future. I’ve even known people to get their AgingBooth photo framed and hung on their wall, as a constant (if slightly weird?) reminder of your very distant future.
- Use FutureMe.org to send an email to your future self: write a letter to yourself to be delivered at a time of your choosing. “Dear Me, I hope you’re happy with the results I’m currently working so hard for you to enjoy…”. The act of writing the letter connects you with your future self, makes you think hard about what “future you” will want. Receiving the letter is a pretty wild moment too!
Both of these strategies will help bring your perceptions of the future a little closer, helping to motivate your inner caveman to make preparing for the future a priority in the present.
That helps reset the balance between your long-term motivations to work towards an important goal, and your inner caveman’s love of a quick thrill in the present.
As a quick aside, I see you’re listening to this from the future – what’s it like?!
Did you manage to figure out how to improve your study habits…?
An invitation: take the shortcut to exam success, with my help
Before I leave you, I want to end today with an invitation.
If you’re studying for exams at school, university, college, or in the workplace to further your career, I hope you’ve found this blog helpful. I put a lot of energy into creating it for you, and I know there are literally hundreds of thousands of students who use my free resources to get an advantage in their exams.
But if you’re looking for the ultimate shortcut to study smarter, upgrade your study habits, and get the exam outcomes you’re for with less work and less stress, I would like to warmly invite you to my exam success coaching programme.
You can work with me for as little as a single one-off session to rapidly fine-tune an aspect of your study habits or exam technique, or invest in maximising success while minimise your stress levels with a long-term coaching programme throughout exam season or even through your whole course.
Just hit the blue button below to find out more, and book a complimentary chat today:
I’m standing by and ready to help you study smarter, reduce stress, and ace your exams this year.