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Let me help you study and learn better

Having to work late because of a deadline is sometimes unavoidable, but I try to limit those moments as much as possible.

Today was the end of a busy week at Hunter college: The workload is piling up, projects are coming due, and the first round of exams is upon us. This week, I want to focus on science-based ways to improve learning. After all, time feels like a scarce commodity and needs to be used wisely right now.

Before getting into the tools I’ve put together, I want to mention a quick note about sleep. (Check out my blog from last week for more). Skipping sleep to study more is a highly ineffective way of learning and retaining information. It also isn’t sustainable. I definitely am guilty of this from time to time when I have to hit deadlines (like for these blog posts!) but I try to avoid it. The rewiring of neural circuits ( learning) occurs during sleep, so try to keep a healthy sleep routine even in busy times.

In order to study effectively, one must be both alert and focused. There are several ways to be more alert. Caffeine is one way, but exercise and taking a walk in the sun 30-60 minutes after waking are very effective ways too. For focus, a period of meditation will give your study session a significant boost. But I get it, you’re probably not going to do that on a tight schedule (though if you do, go for it!). A good alternative is focusing on a specific point in your room, or on your wall, and staring at it for 60 seconds before turning your attention to your current task. Turning your phone off and blocking all notifications will also help.

Now that you are alert and focused, your body is in an appropriate state to begin studying. But is there a particular method of breaking up your study time to optimize learning capabilities? According to research, there is! It consists in setting up two to three 90 minute learning sessions throughout the day. During these sessions, you would ideally have minimal distractions (no phone, eating, shopping, physiological urges etc.) . The research indicates that we can maintain focus and learn for up to 90 minutes, and most people are unable to do more than 270 minutes of intense learning a day. I suggest doing two intense 90 minute sessions and a little more “casual learning” throughout the rest of the day. I think you’ll be surprised at how much you accomplish in a 90-minute intensive block.

Finally, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and foundation throughout periods of stress has proven to enhance my learning and standard of living during tough weeks. In the past, I often abandoned all existing routines when stressful assignments came my way. I’d obsess over the given assignment and stopp going to the gym, meditating, reading, and sleeping well. I wasn’t going to go work out when I had an exam to study for! That obsession, though, did not translate into productive learning, and I would often spend most of my time anxious and in a terrible state of mind. I was far from feeling 100%. This is why I recommend keeping a healthy baseline even–and especially–in the most stressful times. Good luck to everyone this week. Peace.

- Emile Beniflah


Huberman Lab with Andrew Huberman, Ph.D.

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