Originally published on Course Hero (Dec. 2017)
If you’re looking for a reason to blow off some study time during finals season, consider this unfortunate death notice from 1900.
Yesterday afternoon William Thornton Parker, Jr., a third-year student in the Harvard Law School, died at the Cambridge Hospital, where he had been sick but a few days. Parker’s death was caused by an abscess on the brain, a result of overstudy.
—Boston Journal, June 8, 1900
Studying too much won’t really break your brain (notwithstanding Mr. Parker’s untimely demise) … but it may cut into efforts to do your best work.
Roman Gelperin, author of Addiction, Procrastination, and Laziness, explains that you can study to the point that you no longer retain information. “The human mind can only sustain an intense level of intellectual activity for a short amount of time, [maybe two or three hours],” he says. Beyond this window, you get tired and your thinking slows down.
Experts believe that to get the most out of your time, the goal is to study “smarter, not harder.” Here’s how to do that.
Take a break to consolidate
If you’re the kind of person who studies for hours on end without taking a break, neuroscience research says you may be doing yourself a disservice. We create memories and retain information by neurons firing in the brain. These neurons need to be left alone (during a break, a nap, a walk, even a Netflix binge) in order for the memories to become embedded.
According to a 2010 New York University study, rest, even while you’re awake, contributes to long-term memory retention and may be pivotal in facilitating memory consolidation. “The brain is trying to weave ideas together even when you don’t think you’re thinking of anything,” says Dr. Barry Gordon, a memory expert and professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
“Studying for long hours on end is actually inefficient, because it’s not the best way to make sure that you retain the material,” says Erica Forrette of Cram Fighter (cramfighter.com), a company that helps individuals create personalized study plans.
That’s especially true when it comes to fill-in-the-blank, short answer, and essay tests, which depend on “a … memory function called recall,” says Gelperin. Meaning you have to retrieve the correct information — i.e., the answer — from your conscious memory, your own knowledge. “Extraneous information can really interfere with this process.”
Gelperin says that too much studying the night before these kinds of exams can “clutter your mind with a tangle of unnecessary associations.”
Timing is everything
There are different opinions among time management experts as to exactly how long to hit the books before taking a break. But they agree on one thing: You’ll retain more info if you study more frequently, for shorter periods of time. Forrette recommends studying in 20- or 30-minute spurts.
Another commonly used strategy: Hunker down for up to 60 minutes, and then take a 5- to 10-minute break. One research study claims that the perfect mix is 52 minutes of work followed by a 17-minute break.
Then there’s the Pomodoro Technique, a method of time management invented in the early ’90s by a developer/entrepreneur named Francesco Cirillo. The technique uses a timer to break down work into 25-minute intervals (called pomodoros), followed by a 5-minute break. After every four pomodoros, take a longer break.
Probably the smartest choice is to experiment. Figure out how long you can stay focused before losing your concentration (or your mind), and then take a breather.
“To prevent overstudying, I highly recommend planning out each study session in terms of both length and goal,” says Danielle Johnson, founder of Test Obsessed, a company that helps students prepare for the TOEFL. A healthy balance and an organized approach to your studies are incredibly important. If you study every day, it’s vital that you also take time to relax.
Refresh and recharge
Equally important as taking breaks is making the most of them. Do something for yourself: Chat with friends, call home, hit the gym, or go for a run or a walk, depending on how much time you have. Connecting with others, exercising, and spending time outside all trigger the release of those feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins.
Or, take a nap. Getting enough rest is essential for processing what we learn. Easier said that done, of course, but our brain needs time to file new information, which happens during our sleep cycle.
Any of these suggestions are better than checking your Instagram and other social media, by the way. Studies have shown that constantly checking in on a device increases stress and can make you feel bad about yourself.
Recognize the signs
Memo to students looking for an excuse to slack off: This isn’t it!
Though you can definitely overload your brain by trying to cram in too much info at once, let’s be real: Most of us could probably study more, not less. “I think the notion of overstudying is an oxymoron!” says Dr. Tim Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa. “It sounds to me like a … license [to] not work as hard as you could.”
However, for all the super-studious types out there, he offers some clues to help you know when you’re pushing a little too hard:
You can’t concentrate. You keep reading the same page over and over, but the material isn’t sinking in. In that case, you’re probably wasting your time, says Pychyl. “But if you’re integrating new knowledge with what you know, elaborating on key concepts and applying them, then you can never get enough of [that].”
You make silly mistakes in basic calculations or spelling. For example, 7 x 7 will never be 94. Or you spell the word from as “form.” Mistakes like that are signs that your brain is maxed out and it’s time for a break.
You’re tired even after a full night’s sleep. When you’re at risk of burning out, even eight hours of sleep won’t restore you.
You can’t sleep because you’ve got a busy mind. Even though you’re exhausted when your head hits the pillow, your brain is firing on all cylinders. You keep thinking and thinking about a million things. You can’t find the off switch. That’s a sure sign you need to slow your roll.
Of course, the best way to prepare for exams is to have studied regularly throughout the semester. But we all know how busy college life can be, and most of us need to do a little cramming at the last minute. Be honest with yourself about how much work you need to put in, and then be kind to yourself about how much your mind can actually handle. Mixing your hard work with rest and breaks to recharge your brain can make all the difference.