“Some people live more in 20 years than others do in 80. It's not the time that counts, it's the person” ― The Doctor

Willpower

“I can’t be bothered right now.” It’s a familiar phrase we throw around quite frequently when we don’t have the heart to commit to something. Each day we have a set amount of willpower and as the day drags on, that capacity of will drains away, leaving us tired, frustrated, and unmotivated.

Think of willpower as the fuel of productivity. Since willpower is the biggest underlying influence on all our productive tasks, how can we get the most out of it when it comes to studying and revising? Let’s go through some ways you can optimise your willpower to be more productive.

Time Management & Organisation

Making efficient and effective use of our time becomes ever more important as we transition from school into the workforce. We’re all given 24 hours a day and managing that precious time effectively will determine how well we do in life. So when it comes to studying or tasks in general, you should follow these three steps in a cycle to achieve effective time management: planning, committing, evolving.

Planning & Goal-setting

Life is a journey with many destinations. Some are unexpected, but most are goals we establish; “destinations” we strive to reach. They can range from the most mundane laundry chores to buying a house and raising a family.

While goals give guidance to our lives, plans are the means to achieve a goal, a path towards the destination. Without a solid plan, you’re just grasping at straws. This means that a key part of effective study is to think about the goals you’ve set out to accomplish and form an outline of what you wish to accomplish in a week, a term, or a year. Whether it be a daily schedule, weekly agenda or a yearly outlook, doing so will give you a clear picture of things to commit to. Planning all these important things out ahead of time also saves you the willpower later on. Planning your week out on a Sunday will save you the pain of deciding what to work on every day.

But sometimes, we get lost. The last thing we want is to wander about life listlessly. If you’re struggling, ask yourself if the path you’re on is the right one. Is this what you want? Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your goals and find a different path.

Highlights
Another thing you can consider doing is setting a daily highlight. A highlight is any activity you wish to complete that day and will be the bare minimum you do. Whether it be finishing that report, doing the laundry, or going out to watch a movie, it can work towards your productivity. Accomplishment is great motivation.

But make sure to balance your work with your life. Don’t neglect leisure and social activities. These are important aspects of your wellbeing. You can assign the times you want to relax or play some games first before laying out your study sessions. Adjust your study routine around your life.

Commitment

Now that you’ve got a plan, it’s time to commit to it. But it’s easier said than done. At times, it’s hard to stay on course and continue down that route.

Staying up to date
It might sound trivial but attending your classes throughout the term and staying up to date with your course content is crucial to your education.

You’ll sometimes want to skip class for avoidable reasons, but try to resist the temptation. Here’s an extremely general rule: The second week in a row you skip a class is when you’re never coming back. This means that consistency and forming the proper habits is the best way to stay on track. And of course, if you do skip a class, it’s important to prioritise catching up before your work starts piling up. If you consistently can’t attend class live, try to figure out a consistent schedule for catching up that works for you (e.g. “I will watch this lecture on Tuesday afternoons” or “I will watch my tutorial recordings no later than 3 days after they were posted”).

Procrastination
Procrastination is when we delay tasks and actions whether intentionally or not. This can have damaging effects on your productivity, especially when it comes to studying. But why do we procrastinate? And how can we overcome the factors causing it?

  • Willpower. Say you’ve been putting off doing the laundry for some time because you’re tired from the gym every morning. Rescheduling the laundry to the next day at the exact same time won’t give you that willpower you need. Instead, try to do it earlier so that you’ve more will to do it.
  • Fear. When it comes to harder tasks, especially assignments, we may find ourselves delaying it because we’re uneasy, afraid, or lack the confidence in ourselves to complete the task properly. It’s also easier for us to avoid it as we have more time later on. But there’s a limited number of “tomorrows” you can push it to, and end up in a worse place, panicking right before the deadline.

    To overcome this barrier, the only thing you can do is to just do it. Make a start and start early. If you know you’re going to struggle, starting early gives you more time to develop ideas. Whether it be the first paragraph or a single line of code, making a start is the spark to that fuse of productivity. It’s something to think about, something to develop. Ask friends and teachers for guidance.
  • Laziness & Habits. Procrastination can manifest in tasks simply because it’s easier to start on one thing than beginning another. Take for instance, reading a book and playing games on your Switch. Reading is tedious. You have to walk to your shelf, pull out the book, flip to the correct page and find the point on the page to start reading. Playing games is as simple as a few presses on your console. Sometimes, it’s the bothersome nature of tasks that prompt us to procrastinate and prioritise a different action over one we should be doing.

    The 20 second rule is a cool trick you can use to overcome this. By making the easier task harder and the harder task easier by 20 seconds, you’re more inclined to do the required task as it’s now less bothersome. In the previous example, you might place your Switch in a case and put the case in a drawer, and then put the bookmarked book on your desk or bedside.
  • Vague or large tasks. Compare the tasks “Complete COMP2511 Assignment” and “Implement Abstract Factory Pattern on entity initialisation”. The latter is far more specific, giving you something to focus on. So when planning your next task avoid being too abstract and work towards a discrete goal. Breaking down a large task into smaller subtasks is often a great way to make something challenging more manageable and less scary.

However, procrastination sometimes is an indication of stress. In an age where there’s always something to do, we don’t get much time to daydream and let the mind wander. Procrastination is our subconscious signalling that we need to take a break. Maybe you’re studying for too long in one sitting or constantly worrying over your studies. Perhaps it’s time to consider changing how you study.

Spaced Out Study Sessions
There are a variety of ways to study. Some students can sit down and study away for hours on end. Others work best in short bursts. To maximise your productivity, find the method that suits you the best.

For those with short attention spans, the Pomodoro technique is a great way to get a lot of work done without feeling depleted. It involves studying/working in short intervals of 25 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break. After every 4th interval, you take a longer break of 15 to 20 minutes before repeating. Taking these breaks allows us to restore willpower and gives you something to work hard towards. And, short, regular intervals make studying seem more achievable.

Evolve

Trialling various time management methods and constantly adapting or tweaking how you organise your study efforts is key. Don’t be put off by a study technique not working for you. Instead, keep searching for something that fits or perhaps create your own hybrid system.

There are tonnes of study resources and videos out there. Click on a few and see how you can improve your studying.

Maybe the Pomodoro technique is too strict or too short for you to feel productive. Perhaps you prefer longer studying intervals and breaks. Then by all means, switch to a different method or tweak your current one to fit your needs better.

If you want to study for longer and have rewarding breaks, check out the animedoro technique developed by Josh Chen:

Better together :)

Depending on who you choose, studying with friends is either a place of productivity, mutual assistance and a good time, or a straight path to chaos. Nevertheless, some of the most fun and motivating study sessions I’ve had have been late nights at the library or on call – here’s some steps to actually getting any study in:

  • Find friends. Most people are pretty open to study sessions especially around exam time, so don’t be afraid to ask people you’ve met in class or in revision workshops to join you.
  • Bring snacks. This sounds like a joke, but in my personal experience one of the biggest ways study sessions get derailed is when people get hungry and then need to take a lengthy round trip to buy food. Either grab food beforehand, or take the food to the session in advance.
  • Decide on a goal. As mentioned above, having a realistic and concrete goal (‘finish this week’s lab’, ‘work on five practice problems together’, ‘revise content from the first 3 lectures') will make it much easier to focus, and will give you a good way to decide when the study session is finished – or you might end up finishing early out of boredom!
  • Stay on track! Try using some of the tips above (like the Pomodoro method) to divide your time into study time and chat time. Again, having a concrete time set aside to have fun means you have a little reward to motivate you throughout the day.

If you’re looking for more course-specific advice, try joining a course group chat! CSESoc and other constitutional societies often host group chats related to their courses on their Discords, or check the UNSW discussion group for people creating Messenger chats near the beginning of term. These are good places to ask questions and get answers, though many chats (Messenger chats in particular) are full of strangers so always double check the advice you receive there.

And of course, your courses are here to help you. Never be afraid of asking questions, even if they seem like bad questions. Most courses have forums and help sessions where you can look for help, and you can always interrogate your tutor or lab assistant during class time if you need them.

Extracurricular Study

The unique thing about coding is that unlike a lot of other uni subjects, coding is a skill, which means you get better through practice. The more exposure to different tools and situations you have, the more likely you are to know how to respond (or at least know how to search StackOverflow effectively) when something tricky comes up in an exam later. Additionally, the more comfortable you are with coding, the less you need to think about how to practically implement your solutions, and the more you can focus on the actual challenge of problem-solving.

The easiest and most basic way to get some practice in is to do any past exams, labs or assignments for a course that you are provided. But look beyond the curriculum - other common strategies are doing lots of practice LeetCode/HackerRank problems (especially useful for programming interviews and courses like 2521), working through other coding tutorials, attending workshops, and working on personal projects. The last of these – personal projects – are especially important, both to employers and your own skills, and we recommend you take them as experiments and as learning opportunities, as well as a path to a finished product.

Of course, the biggest barrier to all of this is finding the motivation keep going, especially if you’re trying to make it into a habit. We’ve touched on some motivational tips above, and it applies even more to personal project work. I don’t know your personal motivation for coding, but you should be aiming to improve your skills -- not just to get a HD in your exam that one term, but to achieve your longer-term goals, whether it’s to get employed, improve yourself or just to flex your hacker vibes. Uni is just one step of your life of learning, and the skills of learning how to self-study and find knowledge are a lot more important than your mark in a course or two.

Study Environment

The environment we study and work in has a significant role in our productivity. A quiet and calm setting like a library will garner more focus than a bustling, chaotic cafe. Here are a few points to keep in mind when selecting a place to study:

  • Lighting. Choose a bright, well-lit area so as to not strain your eyes and keep you awake.
  • Quiet and calm. These environments boost focus and attention without the distraction of noise.
  • Ventilation. Study in a well ventilated setting. Scientific evidence has found that poor ventilation is attributed to impaired cognitive function, decreasing our focus and thinking.
  • Study vs leisure locations. Mental association to a setting has a powerful effect on our behaviour. If you often play games in your room, at your desk, then you will begin to associate that setting with leisure activities. Studying in the same setting may distract you from the task. If you use a laptop, simply moving it to another part of your desk can prove more productive.
  • Ambience. Use the ambience of the environment to your advantage. A library is a great place to study given that it’s quiet. Libraries with a study corner with people silently working away forces you to conform. It nags at you saying, “everyone else is working, why aren’t you?”
  • Organise digitally. If you’re working on a device, make sure your digital environment is also well-organised. Close any tabs and applications you aren’t using at the moment, or open a new window specifically for study. And set your device to do-not-disturb so that you aren’t distracted by notifications

Health

As students, we tend to sacrifice our health for the sake of good marks, staying up late, pulling all-nighters, or staying cooped up at home. And once this becomes a habit it can have concerning effects on one's health and wellbeing. After all, if your health is in bad shape, how can you possibly focus on studying?

Exercise

As humanity develops and moves away from hard labour to jobs that are service-oriented, we exert our minds more than our bodies. This sedentary lifestyle is a prevalent cause of heart and chronic diseases. As students, the majority of us are young and spry, able to withstand the negative effects of such an unhealthy lifestyle. But sitting all day and working away can do more damage than to just our physical wellbeing. Paired with the stresses of school, a sedentary lifestyle could mean we’re bottling stress without an outlet. Who knows what will happen when it’s too much to handle.

Exercising regularly is an excellent habit to develop. We’ve all heard teachers preach time and time again how beneficial exercise is. It improves and maintains our muscles, cardiovascular system and keeps our weight in check. But aside from these physical benefits, exercise also aids our mental wellbeing.

When we exercise, we secrete endorphins, hormones that act as a natural painkiller. This is why after a run or gym workout, we may feel more positive and bubbly than before exercising. This improves our mood, alleviates stress, and replenishes our willpower. The key point being, exercise goes beyond keeping us physically fit, it also maintains a healthy mental state, an often neglected part of our wellbeing.

Posture, Stretching & Hydration

A sedentary lifestyle also contributes to bad posture, bad circulation and dehydration. When we sit, a lot of pressure is mounted on our lower back and when coupled with questionable sitting postures, may cause damage and pain in our back, neck, shoulders and even lungs. As we’re not moving about, our bodies remain in a resting mode, and our metabolism doesn’t burn through calories as usual, causing more fat to be synthesised and stored. This can be a factor of numerous diseases such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. We’re also less inclined to notice our thirst as we sweat less and are more focused on a task, leading to dehydration.

To counteract these effects, make sure to:

  • Be mindful of posture. Don’t slouch. Sitting in a hunched position for a long time reduces lung capacity and puts tremendous strain on your neck.
  • Regularly stand and stretch. Straighten the back, raise the arms and relax the shoulders. Stretch your legs to get blood flowing through them. Go for a walk every now and then.
  • Drink plenty of water. Hydration keeps the body and mind working as it should. Plus, drinking regularly means you get up more to go to the bathroom, giving you another way to stretch and move about.

Sleep

Our bodies have something called the circadian rhythm. It regulates our sleep, tying our sleeping and waking moments to the day-night cycle. We've all heard we should get at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep each day. This amount of time ensures the body undergoes the necessary repairs, synthesis of information and maintains a healthy mental wellbeing.

Our bodies secrete a hormone called melatonin and when enough is built up, we feel tired and drowsy. Our circadian rhythm monitors melatonin secretion, a process which is heavily impacted by light. Bright light suppresses the secretion of melatonin. That's why as day becomes night, we feel sleepy.

But studies have found that 70% of American high schoolers aren’t getting the required amount of sleep, a trend that is reflected much around the developed world. As students, teenagers and young adults, the time at which we should sleep is pushed later as we age. We generally don't feel tired until past midnight. But, because school and university demand we start early in the morning, we find it hard to balance getting enough sleep, staying up late, and making it to school on time.

Sleep Cycles
When we sleep, we undergo a series of stages that make up a sleep cycle. Each cycle is about 90 minutes, from which we begin with a light sleep, falling into a deep sleep where the body repairs itself, before finally resurfacing to a light dreaming state.

When we sleep without an alarm, we tend to wake at the end of the 5th or 6th cycle, when our sleep is the lightest. Being pulled out of sleep be an alarm, especially during a deep sleep stage will make you feel extremely groggy and tired. So to ensure you wake up refreshed, try to sleep for either 5 cycles (7.5 hours) or 6 cycles (9 hours), and set your alarm so that it goes off when you're in a light stage of sleep. This https://sleepcalculator.com/ site can help you determine when you should sleep if you want to wake up at a certain time and feel refreshed.

Bedtime Routine
Having a routine to follow before bed is a splendid way to relax, unwind and be ready for sleep. Here are some pointers to have a great sleep:

  • Avoid bright lights. Try to keep yourself in an ambient and softly lit environment an hour before bed.
  • No food or exercise. To get good sleep, you want your body relaxed. Eating snacks will activate your digestive system whilst exercise will get your heart rate up and your blood pumping.
  • Avoid devices. Similar to bright lights, “blue light” is a phrase commonly thrown around. It’s the light emitted by devices and substantial evidence suggests it disrupts our circadian rhythm by tricking the body into thinking it’s still day. Using a blue light filter or app on your device to display warmer colours may work to encourage drowsiness.
  • Keep it dark and quiet. Invest in some comfortable ear muffs (no ear plugs) or eye masks if you need absolute silence and darkness.

Stick to a Sleep Schedule
As the name implies, the circadian rhythm is a cycle. Disrupting it won’t be pleasant. Jet lag for instance is a side effect of a disrupted circadian rhythm which causes tiredness during the day and an inability to focus properly.

Similarly, having an erratic sleep schedule where you sleep at various times each night will trigger the same effects. Instead, sticking to a schedule, sleeping and waking at the same times each day will make your day more energised and productive.

It's tempting to sleep later on weekends or cram late into the night right before a test, but it's important to maintain this sleep schedule as even a small disruption will have consequences.

Final Words

And there you have it. We hope these tips and tricks can help you improve your study habits. But as always things may not go as planned. So keep trying, changing and adapting your schedules and actions in order to optimise your study life.

Bibliogaphy and sources.