How can you make it easier to study consistently?
What’s the best way to create good study habits?
How can you get yourself to start studying when you don’t feel like it?
The answer to all of these questions is decidedly not to use brute-force willpower. Instead, the answer is to use a powerful strategy called “behavioral change M.A.P.s.”
Behavioral Change M.A.P.s
Stanford University has a Behavior Design Lab, founded by B. J. Fogg. It’s one of the world’s leading research institutes on habit formation and the science of behavioural change. Fogg’s excellent book, Tiny Habits, lays out a surprisingly simple formula for modifying our behaviours:
Behaviour = Motivation + Ability + Prompt
This means that you’ll engage in any behavior where you have an effective “M.A.P.”
- Motivation – sufficient desire to do it
- Ability – the skills and tools needed to perform the action
- Prompt – a cue that reminds you to begin1
Let’s put this into action by looking at the two sides of behavioral change: getting yourself to do things and getting yourself to stop doing things. Specifically, let’s focus on the following:
- Building a consistent study habit
- Quitting the unhelpful habits that take time away from your studies
1. Trying to get yourself to start studying?
Let’s M.A.P. it out!
M: Increase your motivation by getting clear on all the reasons why you want to study
What are your big, long-term goals? How is this study habit going to help you achieve those goals? What’s your why?
Write those reasons down. Review them often.
For example, if you’re studying for a college-entrance exam or a grad-school entrance exam, write down all the reasons you want to attend the schools you’re applying to. What excites you about the future you’ll make for yourself there? How does it align with your mission in life?
With those motivations in mind, studying for the exam will transform from a tedious chore into an important opportunity.
A: Increase your ability to study.
One way to do this is by applying The 20-Second Rule. Make it easy to begin by aligning your environment with your goal. Anything you do to make the behaviour more convenient will increase your likelihood of doing it.2
For example, you can maintain a dedicated study space that is tidy, organized, and stocked with all the resources and supplies you might need in a study session. That way, when you consider starting a study session, all you have to do is sit down at the desk.
A messy desk where your resources are who-knows-where is an obstacle that makes starting harder. Getting started is the key to overcoming procrastination, so anything you can do to make starting easier will help.
Another way to increase your ability is to improve your actual study skills by learning the study techniques that actually work.
Luckily, Exam Study Expert is the perfect place to do that with tailored academic coaching and loads of free resources to be found in the podcast and blog. When you’re confident that the time you’re putting into studying is actually effective, you’ll feel more motivated to do it.
Lastly, it’s possible that you’re having a hard time getting yourself to study consistently because you’ve fallen behind in a class or you’re lacking key foundational knowledge.
This often happens in math courses.
If you’ve fallen behind, the math will be extremely confusing, so you’ll find it very difficult to engage. This leads to more avoidance and falling even further behind – a downward spiral of avoidance. To overcome this, you need to back way up, return to whatever level of math you find easy, and gradually increase your skills from there. Your math practice sessions need to feel reasonably challenging; you need to feel that you have the ability to do them.
P: Create a prompt that cues you to study
Don’t rely on consistently remembering to study; rely on reminders. It doesn’t matter if the reminder is a planner entry, a message on a whiteboard, an alarm on your phone, or a sticky note. As long as it prompts you to do the behaviour, it’s functional. In fact, you might want to employ a variety of reminders and refresh them regularly to make sure that they still grab your attention.
My favourite tool for this “effort tracking.” For a singular studying habit, I recommend using a calendar chain. Just print out a calendar for the month (or a few months), write down your daily minimum goal for studying (say, 10 minutes), and write down why you’re studying. (Remember your why from earlier?) Then, if you hit your minimum, put an X in the box for that day.
Alternatively, if you have several different study tasks (like the various sections of an exam or the different classes you’re taking), I recommend using an effort-tracking spreadsheet. This allows you to keep track of your effort on each of the tasks individually. Either way, the effort tracker should be on paper and visible so it reminds you to study.
Let’s also circle back to the goal of practising math. You can create a reminder to do this by setting up your web browser so Khan Academy and Kuta Software (a source of free worksheets) are staring at you from your favourites bar, prompting you to begin. (Note, this also increases your ability because math practice is just one click away.)
2. Trying to stop doing the thing that gets in the way of your studies?
Let’s M.A.P. it out!
M. Decrease your motivation to do the thing
Remind yourself of all the reasons why you don’t want to do it. Write them down. Review them often.
For example, if you’re trying to spend less time playing video games on your computer, get clear on why you want to do that.
Perhaps they’re getting in the way of tasks that are more important to you, such as studying, going outside, doing art, or spending time with friends.
Perhaps they’re keeping you up late at night, hurting your sleep (and your learning and mental health along with it).
A. Decrease your ability to do the thing
Make it less convenient. Put obstacles between you and the behavior.
If the video games are accessed through a website or app that requires a log-in, go into the settings and don’t allow it to save your log-in. Change your password to something long and difficult to memorize. Make accessing the games as difficult as possible.
You can do the same for distracting websites. You can even use website-blocking software, such as BlockSite.
P. Remove all prompts to doing the behavior
Apply the old principle, out of sight, out of mind.
Just as we added educational websites to your favorites bar, we should remove temptations from it. The websites that tend to distract you should not be there, calling for your attention. You can also remove them from your new tab screen. (Click the little white dots in the upper right of the icon and choose “Remove.”)
The video games you like to play on your computer should not have desktop shortcuts and should not appear on the taskbar at the bottom of the screen. Make them invisible.
The apps on your phone that distract you from studying should either A) not be on your phone or B) not be on the homescreen.
Strategy vs. Brute Force
Notice how the M.A.P. program doesn’t ask you to change your behaviour through self-discipline alone. It’s all about using willpower strategically in order to make change as easy as possible.
Learning how to study consistently doesn’t require massive amounts of self-discipline. The students who study consistently might appear to have superhuman willpower, but they actually just have good study habits that they cultivated strategically.
Think about what’s been getting in your way. What’s making it hard for you to do the things you need to do in order to reach your goals? How can you make it easier? Grab a piece of paper and M.A.P. out a plan.
Navigating behavioural change is difficult, but with a good M.A.P., you can do it.
1 Fogg, B.J., Ph.D. Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.
2 Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life. Crown Business, 2010.