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Smart Study Habits to Set You Up for Success (All Year Long!)

College student celebrating success throwing papers in air

How to ensure those new-academic-year good intentions stick

There’s an old Japanese proverb that says: beginning is easy, continuing is hard

Anyone who has ever studied something is sure to resonate with that! The new academic year brings a rush of enthusiasm as we stock up on new books, stationery, and highlighter pens. Even as I write now from uncomfortably tropical conditions, my mind is still pulled back to Septembers past where the buzz of back-to-school excitement was accompanied by cooling temperatures, longer evenings, and limitless possibilities. For me, wherever I am in the world, September always brings me back to the first page of a new diary and represents the potential for a new start – even more so than the new calendar year.

Depending on where you grew up, and where you live now, your September will look and feel different from mine – your September might even be January If you live in the Southern hemisphere!  But more than a month, it’s a feeling – that it’s time to say farewell to the carefree days of summer and get a little more serious, set some goals, and knuckle down. 

It’s pretty easy to feel motivated when you have a brand new set of colored markers and a blank diary. But, a few weeks in, when your diary starts to fill up with assignments and deadlines, how can you ensure those good intentions stay with you all year long?

Start as you mean to go on – and actually go on

Whether you’re returning to school after the summer break, starting college for the first time, or taking up evening classes, getting off to a good start is crucial. It’s also easier to motivate yourself at times of transition thanks to a phenomenon that has been dubbed “the fresh start effect”.

Researchers have found that we are more likely to achieve goals that we set at the beginning of a new time period. In other words, it is easier to begin building good habits by using a new week, month, year, or some other marker to put past behavior behind us and focus on being better.

It makes sense. By closing one chapter to begin a new one, we can forget about past failures or let go of old ideas about ourselves that were holding us back. The trick is getting that motivation to stick, as it is often the case that as soon as we are challenged we fall back into old ways and bad habits. So, if you really want to set yourself up for a successful academic year, it is a great idea to use that early burst of motivation to lock in those habits that will stand you in good stead for the rest of the year.

By closing one chapter to begin a new one, we can forget about past failures or let go of old ideas about ourselves that were holding us back.

Become a planning pro

To paraphrase Spike Lee, you don’t need a dream if you have a plan. This doesn’t mean you should give up on your dreams, of course – quite the opposite, in fact. It does mean that having a plan is crucial to achieving your dreams, which is something auteurs like Lee know well. Even Picasso, for all his creative genius, knew that there is no other route to success than a well-thought-out plan.

And no matter the size of your dreams, when it comes to planning, think small. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you start thinking about what you’ll be doing 3 months or 3 years from now, but 3 weeks from now? That’s a plan that will keep you on track without causing you to overthink the future. Obviously, if you already know the dates of assessments and exams for the entire academic year, put them in your diary. But then focus on the more immediate goals. For most people, a weekly agenda works well, although you may find you also like to take a little time each evening to plan for the following day.

In order to effectively plan, you need to understand your goals. Your teachers and tutors should help with this, so feel free to clarify with them if you don’t understand what your learning outcomes and weekly workload should consist of. Make sure you are putting enough time aside for self-study, especially if you are entering higher education, where independent study makes up a large part of the work. Do you have weekly reading to complete? Plan reading time into your week, at a time when you know you will be able to focus. If you aren’t confident with, or are new to planning and scheduling your own time, make use of resources available to you. Many school libraries run study skills support sessions, and be sure to make an appointment with your study advisor.

You also might want to get together with classmates and plan together. It can be helpful to see how others are organizing their time, and you can even coordinate so that you do your reading on the same evenings – that way you won’t suffer from FOMO when you hear your peers are heading out to the movies while you’ve planned to stay in and work!

And while we’re on the subject of your social life, make sure you plan for that too! Recreational activities are important to your health, wellbeing, and productivity (more on that later!) so be sure to schedule slots for physical activity, rest, and fun!

female student reviewing study notes

Dive into deep work

It might sound scary, but deep work is a concept that can save you both time and energy, and improve your academic performance! Quite simply, it means that you schedule periods of time where you can focus intensely on just one task at a time, and it works incredibly well for those dreaded tasks that you might be prone to putting off in favor of other lighter ones.

Many students particularly like the Pomodoro Technique, which was originally developed by Francesco Cirillo when he himself was struggling to keep up with his studies at university. After deciding to commit to just 10 minutes of focused study time each day, and using a classic tomato kitchen timer to help, he was not only able to focus on his studies but also went on to patent the method and build a career on it!

These days there is a multitude of Pomodoro apps and tools to help you focus on your studies, but no matter how flashy the technology you use, it is absolutely essential that you eliminate all distractions, which is why we recommend using a tool like Freedom to block apps and sites that can sidetrack you from your studies. While it might sound extreme, taking this hard-line approach against distraction will actually save you lots of time, tears, and stress in the long run. With the Freedom app, you can customize a personalized list of what to block across all your devices, while the free Focus extension will keep you from visiting non-educational websites in your browser.

Give yourself a break

It might sound obvious when we say take breaks, but it’s easy to get so caught up in scheduling and planning your days that you actually forget to give yourself some downtime. Even if you’ve scheduled in time for social engagements, sports, and hobbies, you still need time to just do nothing – even if it’s just ten minutes between classes to enjoy a cup of tea and stare off into space.

Taking breaks at more or less the same time every day is a good way to ensure they become a part of your routine. You may think you’re putting your studies first by telling yourself you’ll take a break when you can, but the likelihood is you won’t end up taking that break, and you’ll either run out of steam before the end of the day or, if you keep it up, end up burned out by the end of term.

It’s ok to occasionally skip a scheduled break if you feel like you’re in a good rhythm and don’t want to break the flow, but generally, it’s better that you take those breaks, even if you feel like you don’t need them. It’s especially important if you’re trying to build new good habits, as by repeating those behaviors every day they will eventually become like second nature. Pretty soon your body will know when it’s time to hit the pause button before you do!

As a rule of thumb, take a short break of five to fifteen minutes every hour or so, and a longer break of at least 30 minutes every three to four hours. If you need more convincing about the benefits of taking a rest, check out our complete guide on how to take better breaks for increased productivity and wellbeing.

The human brain is amazing and capable of retaining a huge amount of information, but, like any other powerful machine, it requires a bit of know-how if you really want to maximize its potential.

Be kind, rewind

Be good to your future self by regularly reviewing your studies. While you might feel on top of the world after completing a productive study session or come out of class feeling super inspired, the chances are that you won’t remember what you just learned in a couple of weeks. The human brain is amazing and capable of retaining a huge amount of information, but, like any other powerful machine, it requires a bit of know-how if you really want to maximize its potential. If you want to retain information, the trick is to transfer that knowledge from the short-term memory to the long-term memory, and the way to do that is through repetition. There are two easy ways to build it into your study routine.

First of all, at the end of each study session make it a habit to take a couple of minutes to review what you just learned by reading through your notes. Then, schedule regular reviews into your calendar as part of your overall study routine. 30 minutes to an hour once a week works well, and you may want to add in a longer review session at the end of each month, or when you complete a study unit.

Once you make regularly reviewing your work a habit it will start to come naturally, and you will be amazed at what you can recall with seemingly little effort. You’ll also be so relieved when you see your peers stressing out as they desperately try to re-learn a semester’s worth of notes in a single reading week!

woman studying outside in nature

A healthy lifestyle

If you want to succeed academically, the most important habits of all are those which take care of your mind and body. You can try every productivity “hack” in the book, but without sufficient sleep, a balanced diet, and regular exercise, your body simply can not function at its peak. That’s why in addition to the study-specific habits outlined above, it is super important to take care of your general lifestyle habits. If you’re living away from your family for the first time, it can get some getting used to – and there are plenty of social activities that will keep you awake past your optimal bedtime. But if you can get into a consistent morning and bedtime routine that you stick to 80% of the time, eat regular, healthy meals, and take some exercise every day, you really are giving yourself the best chance at succeeding academically, too!

In addition to looking after your physical body, it’s also important to take care of your mental wellbeing. High school and college can bring many extra challenges, so don’t be afraid to seek support if you are feeling overwhelmed. A daily mindfulness practice can help you deal with everyday pressures, and there are some great apps like Calm, Headspace, and Stoic that can help you to be more mindful and keep track of how your habits affect your moods.

The beginning of a new academic year is also a good time to reassess your relationship with social media and make sure you are using it in a positive, healthy way. Apps can be a great way to make new friends and find other people who share your interests, but scrolling can quickly get addictive, and it’s easy to start comparing yourself to the unrealistic standards that you see online. Setting yourself a daily time limit on apps like Instagram and TikTok is a good way to ensure you don’t get sucked into the internet abyss for too long! You can also use Freedom’s recurring schedules to block apps at bedtime so you don’t get tempted by late-night doomscrolling!

By putting in the groundwork now, you’re setting yourself up for all-year academic success, and laying the foundations for healthy and productive habits in your future.

Be flexible (sometimes!)

When it comes to building or changing a habit, we all know that consistency is key. On paper, it’s simple. Once you know what you want to do, you just need to keep doing it. We all know that, but it doesn’t make it any easier!

What can make it easier though, is being kind to yourself and cutting yourself a little slack when you don’t stick to your plan 100%. Because you definitely won’t always be able to do exactly what you planned. And that’s normal, we are humans – not robots – after all! On those days when you do go off track, just remind yourself that it’s a one-off that doesn’t have to become a habit, and do your best to get back on track tomorrow. Eventually, your habits will become so… habitual, that you won’t have to give them too much thought.

And the bonus is that by putting in the groundwork now, you’re setting yourself up not just for all-year academic success, but you’re also laying the foundations for healthy and productive habits in your future career, whatever that may be!