William Wadsworth

by William Wadsworth

The Cambridge-educated memory psychologist & study coach on a mission to help YOU ace your exams. Helping half a million students in 175+ countries every year to study smarter, not harder. Supercharge your studies today with our time-saving, grade-boosting “genius” study tips sheet.

It’s the study productivity dream:

How to get MORE done but spend LESS time doing it!

It’s a dream sold by armies of productivity gurus, especially to business-people, because in business, time really is money. So doing more work in less time equals more money. That means there’s a veritable flood of advice out there. You can get so deep in reading about this or that latest fancy-pants productivity system that you end up drowning in good intentions, and getting less work done than you would have managed if you’d been left to your own devices!

But fear not: we’ve done the hard work for you, sifting the real gems from the silt. We’ve put together 14 of the highest-impact productivity tips for students we know of, that together will give your study productivity a serious boost.

This is the final part of our “study mindset” series. In previous articles, we banished the “Apathy Bear” by finding the motivation to study, and said goodbye to the “Panic Bear” by soothing study stress and anxiety. Now it’s time to welcome the “Go Get It Bear”, and get some serious work done.

Ready? Let’s do this.

Fitting it all in

1.     Have a “no willpower needed” study system

If a day’s studying means you need to make a decision every 5 minutes to keep working rather than go on a break, and a choice every hour about what to focus on next, you’re in for a tiring day.

You want to have made all those decisions in advance: plan when you want to work, and for how long, and what you’ll focus on when, so that all you need to do when you sit down to study is follow your plan. No questions asked.

There are fundamentally two ways to make all your study decisions in advance of your study sessions, you can use either, or a mixture of the two together:

  • Get into a fixed routine that you follow every day / week without hesitation, such that it would feel weird not following your routine!
  • Write out your study timetable for the day ahead, or the next few days, then stick to it.

The first is good where life is predictable (I’ll do 10 minutes vocab learning every morning just after breakfast), the second is good when things are a bit more variable.

2.     Managing your “mental energy units”

We all know there are a limited number of working hours in the day (about 8-10, for most of us).

But not all ways of using those hours are equal: you may find yourself spent for the day after working for fewer hours, if you’re doing something particularly demanding. The book The Power of Full Engagement coins the term “mental energy units” to give us a way to talk about this.

Say you have 8 of these units to use across an 8-hour day.

Some tasks use up 1 unit per hour: say, studying at steady pace.

Others may use up units faster: a heated debate with colleagues may use up 2 or even 3 units even though it only lasted an hour.

Others still – like going for a good walk, or a good chat with a friend – may create units.

It’s a pretty neat way to think about managing your energy as well as your time – pay attention to how fast different study tasks “use up” your energy, and plan your days accordingly.

3.     Batch-process tasks where you can

Any expert in how to run an efficient process for manufacturing things – from the most high-tech factory plant to the humblest craftsman’s workshop – will tell you that a fundamental principle for increasing output is “batch processing” jobs.

Say you’re making shoes. You can either have each member of your workshop crew complete whole shoes on their own, or you can “batch” the job up: have one person cut the leather, another punch and stitch, another lace them. That way, each gets into a steady rhythm on their part of the shoe-making process, and gets faster at the job. If they were having to constantly switch between the different parts of the process, they’d need to be constantly changing the job they’re doing, putting down one set of tools and picking up another. That’s slower.

You can apply this to your own life too, to help free up more time for studying. Batch-cook and freeze meals to last a couple of days. Buy stationery in bulk, to last a term, rather than each week. Do your emails once a day, all at once, rather than checking several times a day. You get the idea.

4.     Choose (or make) a productive environment

I’d urge you to study outside of the room you sleep in if you possibly can. Both halves of your life will be improved: you’ll be able to relax and sleep more easily, and you’ll be able to concentrate and focus better. Find a study room or library. You’re looking for somewhere with a studious ambience, the right lighting, and a decent worksurface you can sit comfortably at.

The right atmosphere might depend on what you’re trying to do: for hardcore learning, you might want library-like silence, for creative writing, maybe the buzz of a coffee shop is what you need to get your mind going. Experiment with different locations, and go for what works well for you.

Student studying productively in a large library
A Go Get It Bear in action: studying productively in the library

5.     Clear roadblocks from your path

Gather everything you need for your planned study stint before you begin, so you don’t have any unwanted interruptions once you get into the groove. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to stop writing when your laptop battery dies, just as creativity is striking!

Textbooks and stationery: check. Laptop and charger: check. Water and snacks: check.

You’re good to go. Wagons roll.

6.     Make it a pleasure

Work doesn’t have to be a chore. Indulge in some comforts while you’re studying: listen to good music, and drink good coffee. (Though enjoy your comforts responsibly – make sure the music isn’t distracting and the coffee isn’t close to bedtime and therefore going to keep you awake later.)

And treat yourself to decent stationery, if you can: it’s a much nicer experience to write with a quality pen on nice paper that’s thick enough to stop ink soaking straight through to the back.

7.     Study breaks increase productivity

You can’t work at high intensity forever: you’ll need to take a break to refresh and recharge. The principle of the “Pomodoro” system is that you work to a ticking clock: set a timer for a length of time, work solidly for the duration of that timer, and stop work when the timer goes off. Personally, I find the discipline of working to a ticking clock super-helpful in keeping my mind on my work, and use a nice little free app called Forest to time my Pomodoro sessions.

How long should your timer be? I’m not sure there’s a one-size-fits-all answer: I’ve heard it said that students can’t concentrate for more than 10-15 minutes (though that seems to be a myth – see here and here); the original author of the “Pomodoro” system swears by 25-minute chunks of work followed by a 3-5 minute break, and personally, I do 50 minutes at a time with 10-minute break.

Always get up from your desk on your breaks: a change of scenery and chance to stretch your limbs, if only for a couple of minutes, is vital to help you reset.

The art of full focus

The next five ideas are probably my favourite of all study productivity tips for students, for the simple reason that we’re often so bad at following them!

But when we do, the results can be impressive.

8.     Your mind is a temple

Too often, I see students desecrating the space between their ears with all sorts of distractions, worries, and multitasking.

You perform much better when you give something your full attention: that means choosing one thing to do, and giving it your undivided concentration. Every time you switch your attention from one unfinished task to another, it’s thought you carry over an “attention residue” from the first task, which consumes at least some of your mental resources and means you cannot focus on the second task as well.

Here’s a simple example, and something you can fix right away.

How often do you check email, only to see something you’ll deal with later? Every time you do that, that thought of that email you need to reply to will rattle round in your mind as you try and concentrate on your work.

So don’t do it.

Check email only 1-2 times a day, and never right before you’re about to sit down for a good bout of studying, and let your mind enjoy the “fresh air” of being able to fully focus for once!

9.     Don’t undo the hard work on your breaks

The same goes for what you do on your breaks. We agreed you do need short breaks regularly to maintain intensity of focus, but be careful that what you’re doing on your breaks isn’t going to have a lasting “distraction” effect when you try to get back to work.

It’s not just checking messages: reading the news, watching TV, playing games can all create thoughts that play on your mind when you try to get back to your study desk, distracting you from your work.

For your short 5-10 minute breaks, try and stick to information-free activities, like making a cup of tea, having a quick wander outside, doing a few press-ups. A quick chat with a friend or study buddy is also OK – provided you stick to pleasantries and don’t get into anything too deep!

10.  Please put the phone down

If I’m telling you to keep your study-breaks free from distraction, it won’t surprise you to hear that when you’re actually supposed to be studying, I don’t want to see that phone anywhere near you! (Or “off”, at the very least…)

Everyone’s telling you to put your phone away when it’s time to study: your college, your tutors; scientists, motivational speakers, productivity gurus. Perhaps we’re all on to something 😉

So what’s the big deal with phones anyway? Well, one study found students are distracted for an average of 8 whole minutes for every “solid” hour they think they’re spending on their homework – Snapchat, Instgram, WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook, Twitter, notifications from games apps, it all adds up to way more than you’d think.

If you’re studying for 3 hours study a day, that adds up to nearly 3 hours worth of distractions every single week! Just think what you could do with that time…

And it seems that all those distractions can add up to significantly weaker exam performance.

So do yourself (and your grades) a favour: turn that phone off, and give yourself space to think.

11.  Only one thing at a time

By now, you should be familiar with the idea that batch processing is more efficient (tip #3) and finishing a task before you start a new one helps you focus better (tip #8).

But this isn’t just about the things you do (or particularly, don’t do!) around your studies; it can also be about your studies themselves, particularly when you’re essay-writing.

Most professional writers find it much easier to split up the writing job into different parts:

  • First tackling all the background reading and research,
  • Then structuring and planning the shape of the essay,
  • Then writing a rough draft,
  • Then doing copy-editing of the language for style and accuracy,
  • And finally checking all your references / citations and the bibliography are OK.

There will be a little darting between the steps from time to time, as you realise you’ve missed a crucial point in your argument when you’re doing the copy-editing, say – but for the most part, you’ll find it a lot easier to focus on the job in hand if you build the essay up, layer by layer, than if you try and do all of these jobs for each paragraph as you get to it.

12.  Get your to-do list out of your head

Don’t waste mental space worrying about other things you need to do. Keep a list to hand so that if thoughts pop into your head – texting your friend back; checking the mailroom for your Amazon delivery; ordering a takeout for tonight – don’t let it sit there, just add it to your list, and get it out of your head.

Your study plan (tip #1) should be your guide, so that when one task is done, you know what the next priority is. Have all your prioritisation done in advance, so you’re not left worrying whether this thing or that should be done first. Figure it all out before you begin, then all you need to do is stick to the plan. Easy.

Group of students enjoying joke together
End of a good day’s studying

And when the work stops…

13.  If you must “procrastinate”, at least make it productive!

We’re not machines: there will come a time when your mind wanders off more than usual, or you just can’t bring yourself to get back to your desk after a break. Perhaps you’ve used up all your “mental energy units” (tip #2) for the day!

When this happens, have a back-up plan for low-effort “procrastination activities” you can do instead, that still need doing. Maybe it’s a good time to get the laundry done. Or go shopping for supplies. Or call Grandma. It may not be Plan A, but it’s still productive. (Just be alert for this sort of thing happening too often – or too close to a deadline!)

14.  Celebrate your success

Always pat yourself on the back after a good day’s study. Part of the art of productivity is knowing when enough is enough, when it’s time to stop. You’ve done good work today: time to call it a day and relax.

As always, my friend, wishing you every success in your studies!


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William Wadsworth
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