Studying doesn't come naturally to all of us, and it can be hard to get into the right routine.
But with the right approach, anyone can set themselves up with an unbreakable study routine. In this special guest post, William Kennedy from New to Code shares his best advice for building a perfect study routine, from creating a plan all the way through to achieving your goals.
Take it away, William!
Do you struggle with finding time to learn? Did you start studying with high energy but then found yourself starting to fizzle out after a week? You’re not alone.
Many people face challenges when it comes to developing a consistent study routine. That’s why I’ve created this simple three-step process to help you create the habit and stick with it.
Between you and me, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. I was never good at school. I wasn't at the bottom of the class, but never at the top either. I just floated around in the middle, fluctuating between the bottom half and the top half.
It wasn't that I was lazy; it was just that I was inconsistent and never learned how to study. All I did on a consistent basis was to joke around with my friends and play sports. This continued well into my early twenties.
I have a friend, Cleo, who never drifted in the middle amongst the masses. She was always the best at everything she tried. She was just one of those people. One day, when we were chatting over a beer, I asked her one simple question that had been at the back of my mind for years. How do you get the highest academic results in the country, play music, and captain the hockey team? She nodded and said one word.
It’s obvious that more you practice, the better you get at it, but no one ever tells you how to be consistent.
They just say that word as if it opens magical doors for you.
My friend doesn't know why she is so consistent because it is innate to her. It is part of who she is. It is her habit. Her routine. Yet she has the same 24 hours as the rest of us; she just uses them more efficiently. This innate talent of hers always bugged me, and I wondered if I could learn it too.
In November 2013, I set a 5-year goal to become a software developer by teaching myself to code. The initial challenge was not the choice of technology, what class to take, or what websites to read. It was getting myself to sit down and learn. Eager to solve my study routine problem, I started consuming books and courses to aid me. I started to teach myself how to be consistent, just like my friend Cleo. Now I am hoping to pass on what I learned to you.
Step 1: Create a Plan and Put it on A Calendar
By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail, as the old adage goes.
Preparation is the key to successful studying. When you plan what you are going to do, studying becomes much easier. The software is easier to develop when you create a plan of what you are building. Books are easier to write when you spend the time doing the layout first along with the points you are going to make. The same principle applies to learning.
One of the impactful changes I made in my life is utilizing Google Calendar. In the beginning, I worried about the constraints of a calendar. Yet I persisted in using it to plan small events at first. Then, I started to plan when I would work out. Then it was for reminding me to go to meetings with people.
Now it has come full circle, to the point where I actually feel liberated by the sheer amount of planning I do. When someone asks me if I am free this weekend, I can check my calendar and know for sure. The mental capacity that it has freed up has been staggering.
When I click on any item in Google Calendar, I can see what to do. Let's say I want to study a book. I put in the exact details of what I am going to study and what my goal for doing it is.
When it comes to what to learn, I keep a list of resources (books, tutorials, Lynda.com) on Evernote. I go through this list one by one. I am always doing this when I am surfing the web. If I come across an interesting article or post, I add it to my Evernote for later study. Then when I complete the tutorial, I mark it off.
Planning your day on a calendar is the first step to creating a study routine. This may sound easy enough, but there are still some important tips for beginners I recommend:
- Don't allocate too much time for study. Rome wasn't built in a day. Only study for a realistic amount of time and allow fun.
- Try and share your calendar with other important people in your life so they can see what times are good to contact you. This prevents needless interruptions.
- Don't forget that studying is long term, so plan well into the future.
- Don’t start planning your whole life straight away. Start by planning one event a week and scale up from there.
Step 2: Create a Positive Reinforcement Loop
The human body is an impressive computer running many processes at once. One reason why the body is so efficient is its ability to try and conserve energy through habits. Our bodies love to use habits whenever possible. For instance, let's take driving a car.
Driving a car is an advanced skill that most of us do every single day. In the time it takes for someone to reverse out of a driveway, they have done several small tasks. They have navigated their gaze between the side mirrors, back window, and middle mirror. Their feet have alternated between the pedals. Their hands have directed the steering wheel, and if they are driving a manual car, they have pushed the clutch down to change gear.
There are so many steps involved in driving a car, it is actually a miracle we manage it at all. The curious fact about driving is that we do it on autopilot. Habits guide millions of people across the world to work and back home every day.
Habits like this are so useful, but did you know you can use a similar concept to set up “autopilot mode” in other areas of your life? To do that, we need to take a step back and break down exactly how to create a habit.
Each habit has 3 parts:
- A cue – the moment that triggers the action
- A routine – the action/routine that you want to perform
- A reward – a positive outcome at the end that motivates you to continue
Smoking is an easy example of these three steps. A smoker will often get a craving as soon as they switch on the TV and sit down. The TV is the cue. The routine is lighting and inhaling the cigarette. The reward is the lightheaded feeling one gets upon inhaling and exhaling the smoke.
The smoking habit loop is present in millions of people around the world. Let's use the same principle to develop a good study routine.
I have already talked about planning when you are going to study and what you are going to learn. Now we are going to trick our brains into using the habit loop to get into that routine.
The first step is to create a cue that initializes the study action (or routine). I use my phone to notify me that I have to study. As soon as I hear the beep, I know that it is time to study.
Next, I use the Pomodoro technique (which I described in a previous post) to focus on the task at hand.
Once I completed my 25-minute Pomodoro, I reward myself with a tiny bit of chocolate.
This starts to train your body to expect a reward. You can actually apply the same principle to exercising. After I go to the gym, I usually reward myself with a tiny bit of chocolate. This habit cycle has allowed me to go to the gym 3/4 days a week for over two years and I rarely miss a day.
It may seem counterintuitive to eat chocolate after you exercise or study. However, the body recognizes reward and eventually associates it with the action it must take to receive that reward. Now you can break free from the shackles of trying to motivate yourself daily. Planning and understanding habits have laid the foundation for me catching my friend Cleo.
If you’re interested in learning more about this process, I suggest the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. This book is a fascinating insight into subconscious behavior.
Step 3: Ruthlessly Cut Distraction and Embrace Deep Work
Nowadays, the world is hyper-connected. Media has now become 24 hours with every site trying their best to hog your attention. What you pay attention to decides where you are going in life.
With so many distractions, we need to become better at separating ourselves from them. My solution for this is simple. Embrace what has now become known as the low-information diet.
This involves cultivating and embracing ignorance around information that is not useful to you. For example, news media rarely has something to say that I find useful to my own life. So I made the decision to not keep up on the news and current affairs (including sports). Within five days of doing so, I found myself getting less anxious and enjoying more free time. If you think that you are suffering from information overload, then I suggest giving the a five-day detox a try.
When we learn to drop needless distraction, we have to cultivate a new skill for our freed-up attention. That skill is deep focus. This involves the following:
- Choosing a high-value task where breakthroughs will only happen through long study periods e.g learning to code, writing a book
- Turning off the Internet (unless needed)
- Planning in advance what you need to complete the task
- Focusing on the task without distraction
This took me some time to figure out, but I recommend starting small. Only start with maybe one hour of deep work for the first few weeks and then build from there.
Establishing a great study routine is not just good for students; it is also the perfect way for working adults to rev up their careers.
In 2013, I set a goal of teaching myself to code and getting a coding job. I have no doubt that learning the skills involved with studying is what helped me succeed.
When creating a study plan, we must first start planning when we are going to study. A plan forces us to recognize and respect our time.
Next, create a study habit through rewards that teach our bodies to look forward to studying.
Whatever subject you’re determined to learn, I hope this article helps you develop a good study routine. If you want to learn more about getting your first job as a software developer, feel free to sign up for my newsletter, where I share more tips on getting that first programming job.
About the Author
William is a self-taught software developer who went from a job he hates to a job he now loves. As well as writing about himself in the 3rd person, he breaks down exactly what you need to do if you want to get your first job as a software developer on his blog and newsletter.