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How to organize your study time better

Updated on April 29, 2016

Before we begin

I know, sounds odd, huh? But before you even crack those books there are some simple steps you can take which will dramatically increase the efficiency of your study time and decrease the number of hours you have to put in. As strange as it seems, the psychological factors are just as important as the physical ones in determining our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. When you approach your work in a well prepared space mentally, you'll be more receptive to information, pay better attention and remember more than approaching the task haphazardly. What you need is to work smarter, not harder.

Most of these techniques are not secret and are generally pretty simple, so what's the catch? People don't do 'em & they don't work if you don't do 'em. Often, with complex topics or advanced material people feel that there needs to be a more difficult way, but really the basic techniques are the same and can be tailored and adapted to just about any subject or learning style.

So that's the good news, the bad news - you really have to do all these things, I don't mean religiously, but consistently. The research has shown that periods of spaced, massed practice, or in English, lots of little learning episodes to be a better technique for learning and retaining information. So, much like with physical fitness training, a few minutes everyday will pretty soon build your stamina, an once you get going, learning is actually usually pretty enjoyable for people - mostly because as adults there are less likely to be required subjects we can't stand, so ther's usually at least a passing interest in the material. As with going to the gym, you have to keep at it, but it eventually becomes self reinforcing and the sense of mastering a topic/aspect of some material is what keeps legions of academics slaving away.

Getting started

So, you've decided to go back to school? - or you've never left, either way you need a way to maximize your study and minimize the drama.Here are some tips which should help you make the most of your time.

1. Make the space

So, first things first - the space. Whether you're a full time student or just taking a couple of classes, the first thing you need is a quiet, comfortable space with minimal distractions - if you don't have a separate room, use a corner of your bedroom, or the kitchen. I wrote most of my dissertation at a kitchen table because that's where it was most comfortable to work (and believe me, there wasn't a whole lot of cooking coming out of the kitchen at that time). Your workspace is more than a place to study, you need to make sure that when you enter that space, you know exactly what comes next - work, and only work. Don't use the space to catch up on your bills or phone calls unless you have no other alternative. That way it prepares your brain to expect and focus on only one task.

2. Make the time

Switch off your phone, block the time off in your day planner, call your best friend to tell them that from 3-5p you will be studying today - you need to train other people as well as yourself (and the act of telling someone you plan to do something also increases the chances you'll follow through & let's face it, sometime we need all the help we can get). This is your time to do this task, if you're trying to write a paper and it's just not flowing, take a 5 minute break, take a walk, stretch, eat something, but go back and sit there until your time is up for that day.

3. Have everything you need

There is no better excuse to short circuit a study session than a broken pencil - make sure there is no good reason for you to leave your space. You need plenty of paper, pens, pencils and whatever other stationary you'll need. If you don't have a desk, put your stuff together in one of those tote boxes and give it a specific place to live. That way it's always there when you need it.

4. Keep organized

One of the most difficult aspects of a self study program is pacing. Use whatever works best for you - a planner, desktop, pda - anything that you always have on you and look at regularly. Write down assignment due dates, break down projects into sections and plot out what you need to do each day, make task lists and tick them off, but keep on top of stuff. When you are stressed your brain is in survival mode, not writing a term paper mode and you just don't think as clearly. Anticipate deadlines, approach projects in small chucks - and don't forget to reward yourself for a job well done!

5. Determine your learning style

How do you learn best - by hearing information? by reading information? Most of use have one of these as a dominant style, find which one suits you better, or combine them. Some people are primarily tactile (they learn by feeling the shape, texture, weight of the object) or kinesthetic (these people need to move around when studying so using tapes while you're at the gym may be a good strategy for this learning style. While you should focus on your dominant learning style,the best way to encode information and make sure it stays there is to use a combination of strategies. Read the keywords/phrases out loud to yourself, consider taping lectures so you can just listen & ask questions in class, later make notes from your tapes..

6. Keep it interesting

Do whatever it takes, if you like colors, color code, if you're crafty, make yourself a desk organizer, get a cool notebook or binder - or get a pen you really love to write with. Being in a space which is organized and attractive is likely to make you want to stay there longer - and the more effort you put into something the more you are likely to get out, so put some time into creating your space, your organization system and your mind set so you only have to do it once. Much of our times wasting comes from interruptions, procrastination, misplaced objects and not having the correct tools at hand. Get these out of the way at the beginning and you'll find that you maximize your productivity and minimize your study time - and that's good, 'cos it means more me time.

Got the place, got the space - now what?

There are 3 basic elements to a successful study plan:- organization, planning/time management and effective study techniques. So, what exactly are good study techniques? We often assume, especially if people are beyond high school, that people have learned good study techniques or they wouldn't have got this far, but the fact is that many people, even those with advanced degrees don't really know how to study.

To be effective you need to know yourself - are you a night owl? great study at night; an early bird, perhaps 5am is your time. Be aware of the times you feel most and least energetic and try to schedule study time during these hours. Some people like to study in bath - and if the laundromat at 6am works for you, you'll have clean laundry too. You are going to be the most valuable tuning and tweaking tool. Just make that space work for you.

What is intimidating for many people about studying is that they don't know how to approach it and are put off by high volume. When approached systematically, there is virtually no material that cannot be broken down and learned over a period of time. Remember too, this is a process of conditioning your brain and strengthening associational links between neurons - yup, you actually lay down a physical trace when you learn something, you physically alter the brain - and the more you repeat the learning, the bigger the path gets and the easier it it to find and negotiate, but Rome was not built in a day - you have to put in the time, but frequent, regular practice makes almost anything conquerable - remember how hard it was to learn to drive a stick shift?

The nuts and bolts

  • Break your study time into ½ hour blocks, study for 25 minutes, rest for 5 minutes, increase the break time by 5 minutes for each additional 25 minutes, so at the end of the next 25 minutes, take a 10 minute break, after the next 25 minutes take 15 minutes. You probably shouldn’t have to spend more than 1 ½ to 2 hours a day on homework/studying, 3-4 at the graduate level. If you feel that you are doing more than this talk with your teacher or re-examine and tweak your learning plan - it's not set in stone, it's an organic, flexible guiding system..

  • When studying, highlight the key points in a different color

  • Keep an organizer – one organizer where you write all your school assignments, notes, appointments etc.

  • Decide on your filing system. Carry one binder, or notebook with different sections. Get one that has pockets in between the sections so you can put papers you haven’t filed yet in there. Carry your organizer in one of the pockets and you will have everything in one place.

  • Color code things for different priorities e.g.: red for all tasks you need to do today, green for things you need to do this week and blue for things due in more than a week.

Mind maps

So, how do you approach the intimidating 300 page textbook? just how do you break the information down? The best place to start is usually your index or table of contents as this provides you with the initial skeletal structure for your material. It may help to use a large piece of paper so that you can connect different sections. This not only gives you an overview (literally), which helps in tying information together and structures your thinking, but as you develop your topic, you'll begin to see links between aspects you didn't notice before.

Another benefit of this method- it's called associational or deep learning, is that the brain encodes the information better. Just like the paths we talked about earlier, the more connections and meaningful associations (and it can be meaningful only to you) you make to the material, the better it is encoded, retained and retrieved. Mind maps are a technique described below that uses this method.

  • Begin in the center with your topic

  • Write down everything you know about that topic branching off from the center

  • Review your notes

  • In a different color add in facts you missed

  • Try to link each fact with another one e.g.: Renaissance means rebirth, so what was it a rebirth from? The dark ages, what happened? The industrial revolution and the invention of the printing press significantly changes social, economic and political factors. How did they do this? Information was translated into the vernacular or common language so all people could understand. Previously it was all in Latin and generally only priests or the very wealthy could read, this limited the exchange of ideas and information (one of the reasons that the period before this was known as the dark ages), with more access to information, people began questioning what they had been told by the church (as they could now read the bible themselves), this led to a shift in social structure from the feudal land system. This also influenced politics as the church lost much power as people began to realize that ’buying forgiveness’ was not necessary, despite what they had been told by the church. Two of the best illustrations of the Renaissance spirit of inquiry and search for knowledge are Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo (from here go on and fill in what you know about each of them).

  • Each branch should contain a central fact, key word or short sentence, which links to the next one and the next one. That way, each piece of information will trigger other pieces of information. This makes it much easier to learn large chunks of information.

  • Try to use different colors for different themes or topics

  • Put the mind maps on pieces of cardstock which you can tack up on the wall so that you can see them, that way you will constantly reinforce your learning.

  • You can also write the summary words on 3x5 index cards, so that you can carry them with you and review them when you need to.

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This is another technique which helps you remember large chucks of information. Both mind maps and mnemonics are often useful for subjects like History or Social Science where you often have to learn large amounts of information. For example, if you were trying to learn the information above, you could try something like this:

Renaissance means rebirth

Renaissance followed ‘the dark ages’

Industrial revolution & printing press

Vernacular increased availability of knowledge

Increased focus on science and technology

Clashes with corrupt church

Change from feudal land system

Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo

Take the first letter of a key word or phrase and try to make it into a word. The stranger the word the more likely you are to remember. So, for the above information you could make the word CCLIVRR (clever)

Clashes with a corrupt church

Changes in the feudal land system

Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo

Increased focus on science and technology

Vernacular, or common language used leading to increase of knowledge

Renaissance means rebirth

Renaissance followed the ‘dark ages’

  • Using this method, like with mind maps you only have to remember a small piece of information, and then each piece of information helps you link to another piece.

  • Using either of these techniques will also help you to see the overall picture of a subject. People who pay a lot of attention to detail, often miss the overall sense of a situation, so using these study methods should help you in that area too.

  • These techniques should also help you with planning and organization as there is a specific method to follow. You can break down almost any block of information this way.

  • You can also use the mind map in reverse where you use it to create something – like the plot for a movie. Just follow the same steps, putting everything you think of down, even if you don’t think you will use it. This method often helps people be more creative as it works much more similarly to the way our brain works.

  • If have a project, you can use this system to help organize your thoughts and prevent getting overwhelmed by information.

  • Put your topic in the center

  • Break down the sections of your paper – if it’s a scientific paper you probably need a section for hypothesis, observation, discussion, conclusion etc, for social science you might break it up into an introduction, description of the event or people, what happened, what was the impact, how did this change things etc.

  • Put down the key words you associate with each section and then branch off from these. Link similar concepts with color so that your paper flows well.

  • Other activities that can help to build your attention, concentration and memory are crosswords, word searches, memory games or Suduko etc. Even doing one of these things a day consistently will improve your memory and attention.


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    • profile image

      sadika nazz 

      8 years ago

      I found it really useful n this is definitely going to work for students like me who get messed up to tackle multiple subject..Thanks a lot:)

    • profile image

      Luwis Zaii 

      8 years ago

      it is very useful.Thank you so much.

    • profile image

      Kena Bladel 

      8 years ago

      Glod bless you! Didn't read the entire Hub because i'm going to have supplementary lessons now. Stepping by! Great HUB! :D

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      wow this is really helpful! Thankyou

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      wow, thank you! It really helps.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Great thanks!! Im sending it to all my friends!

    • profile image


      9 years ago


    • Pete Michner profile image

      Pete Michner 

      9 years ago from Virginia

      Very good and very useful, thanks!

    • Mister Veritis profile image

      Mister Veritis 

      9 years ago from Alabama

      This is an excellent overview. I have been mind-mapping for many years. I have one tool I prefer to use along with some new tools I am exploring. Perhaps I shall write a companion hub on mind mapping tools.

      Thank you.

    • Nan Mynatt profile image

      Nan Mynatt 

      9 years ago from Illinois

      Good outline on being successful in your study habits. I think that a lot of people need to have structure to be successful. Don't forget the libraries to study in, they also have research books to use.

    • Vickie Bovender profile image

      Vickie Bovender 

      9 years ago from Southeastern US

      Terrific Hub - thank you so much. I'm bookmarking it so that I can study IT more carefully.

    • mathan42 profile image


      9 years ago

      mnemonics and mind mapping...great information...give your views on my hub on study techniques at

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Great information! I took a day and cleaned off my bills/excess paperwork from my desk and only have my computer on (online class) and any reference material I need on my desk. Thanks for the boost!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Thanks a million, my scattered brain needed this guidance.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      this is very good information, thanks

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      thanks u for this terrific website i found this very useful and hope this certainly tweak some perspective of my life .great going..

    • profile image

      corine sandra 

      10 years ago

      Ihaveless time to read please with stuff note

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Thank you so much..

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Very useful! Thanks!

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Great stuff!


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