Preventing Mental Fatigue – Good Study Habits

drgarywood_blog_subscribe copyAny one who has ever studied hard knows how tiring it can be. Many consider studying to be a boring but “necessary evil”. However, boredom don’t have to come with the territory. The old adage that  “variety is the spice of life” definitely applies to study life. Furthermore, reducing the boredom can also reduce the mental fatigue.

We take in information through out five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell), but mainly through sight, hearing and touch. If we think of each of these senses as having separate energy sources to run them, it helps to explain why we suffer mental fatigue. These energy sources are rechargeable but we can drain them faster if we over use one of them. So boredom, is really a warning signal that we need to do something different. The best way to avoid mental fatigue is to switch activities regularly so that the focus is not on just one sense for long periods of time. So read through your notes, condense notes, use mind maps or spider diagrams, asking and answering questions and so on.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodThe same principle applies to the business world and everyday life. Creating variety in tasks and making sure you involve more of your senses will help prevent mental fatigue. Finally, never underestimate the power of a glass of water. Keeping hydrated can help maintain optimal cognitive functioning and boost confidence.

If you found this post useful you may also like: Mental Fatigue, Well Being and Confidence. For other study related posts see the following links and please do consider using the buttons below to like this post and share with others.

Links:

Advertisements

A Letter to New Students – How to Study (for Success)

Dear New Student,

You are about to embark on an exciting journey so I thought I’d offer a few pointers that have served me very well in my learning journey so far. Returning to education as a mature student, I took an evening class in psychology. I quickly realised that psychology had to have insights about the most effective ways that humans learned. So the first thing I did was to scour the psychology books. I figured I would get psychology working for me right from the start. Working with our human abilities and capacities is a way of working smarter but not necessarily harder. Recently, I overheard two new students discussing future plans on the bus recently including how they intended to approach studying, particularly lectures. Both were very keen on getting digital recorders with voice recognition software. Both confessed to be “not very good at taking notes”. So, that is their first mistake.

How to Approach Lectures
It’s a common misconception that the purpose of lectures is to communicate lots of information that you “capture” in someway and regurgitate in essays and exams. Not so. The lecture is not supposed to replace your independent study, it is supposed to set the scene for it. Lectures are merely springboards to learning not an end in themselves. Until our heads have USB sockets, somethings are best done the old-fashioned, but psychologically informed way.

Learning is not just about recognition and recall, it is about understanding and application. Once you understand something and can apply it you won’t struggle to remember it. We process information at different levels. Some information stays at the surface and is quickly forgotten. The stuff that we encode and process at a deeper level is more permanent. So if you make an effort to learn how to make notes more effectively in lectures, you become more actively engaged in the lecture. If you switch on your digital recorder, then you can sit back and daydream and let the machine do the work. The problem is that when you come to listen back to it, most of the visual cues are gone. There’s also a tendency not to bother to transcribe the recording because you “can do that at anytime”. There’s also an ethical point. You do not have the right to record other people without their express permission. So what is the most effective way to get the information into your head?

Make notes in lectures. Don’t aim to take down every word. The aim of the lecture is just to get a feel for the topic and to become familiar with concepts and terminology. The purpose of the lecture is to set the scene for your own reading. Once you realise this, the pressure is off to capture every word. If the lecture raises a question in your mind, jot the question down too. If you get chance, ask the lecturer the question at the end of the class. Get used to asking lectures in front of the whole class. Someone else probably wants to ask the same question too. People may even approach you afterwards and you may start your own study groups. Never underestimate the importance of explaining stuff to other people. It’s not giving your knowledge away. As you find different ways to explain things, it deepens and implants the knowledge even more deeply for you. I used this approach at University and did much better than people who tried to keep all their knowledge to themselves. So be a sociable learner.

Aim to review your lecture notes as soon after the class as possible, and always within 48 hours. Add everything else you can remember and any thoughts or questions that occur to you. Underline things you don’t fully understand. Then go to the library and find the relevant books, find a space to sit down and add to your basic notes. Clarify things you don’t understand and answer any questions you have written. Rushing to be the first to get the books and having them gather dust for weeks is not learning! 

Now this sounds like a lot of work. And, yes it probably is more work that switching on a digital recorder. However, which method will give you the best foundation. The active approach I have outlined is like learning how to swim. The passive, lazy-ass, technological approach may only just prevent you from drowning. Don’t rely on the life-jacket when you can learn how to swim. Yes the active approach to learning is more time consuming, but as you begin making more connections in the information, you develop more memory hooks to hang new material on. Once you’ve learned one stroke in swimming, different strokes don’t require the same degree of effort. Sometimes it seems as if facts, figures and dates seem to remember themselves because you have provided a foundation.

Your Own Imaginary Lectures
So what to do with your expensive digital recorder? Well, use that in your own private study time to record your own voice. Now this seems crazy, but practice giving imaginary lectures on key topics. Imagine you have an audience and talk to them on your chosen topic for 20 minutes. Try to do this without notes or just glance at your notes but do not read from them. The aim is to keep going for 20 minutes. If you can’t do it, then take this as a sign that you need to add to your notes and read around the subject a little more. Repeat this process until you can deliver the 20 minute lecture. You could then try it out in your study groups. What this technique does is create a little stress. This increased arousal helps improve performance. It also forces to use your own words and make connections. After you’ve recorded the lecture, play it back and make notes of the new thoughts, insights and words you used. 

Finally, a note on notes. When you revise for your exams, do not just read from your notes over and over gain. This just aids recognition not recall. Yes, you could probably recognise your notes if some on read them out to you, but you would be able to spontaneously tell anyone their contents. Always take an active approach to learning, such as drawing diagrams and mind maps, coming up with memory hooks, progressively condensing notes and saying them out loud at the same time, as well as giving the imaginary lectures. All of these require more than one cognitive process an so the information is encoded more deeply. Besides that, just reading through your notes, passively, is very, very boring. If you find studying a bore then it’s up to you to get creative and make it interesting.

I hope this advice helps you as much as it helped me. I’ve included a few links below with more study skills tips that I use with students in academic coaching. I’ve also included a link to my book which contains lots of techniques for elite performance, including a section on learning styles. 

I wish you well in your academic career. 

Yours lifelong learnedly,

Gary Wood

PS. More links for study skills below, and if none of these answer your question, please submit suggestions for future study skills posts in the comments box.

Links:

Become Your Own Time ‘Lord’

Become a time 'lord'

Becoming your own time 'lord'

Where did the year go?

If you’ve found yourself uttering this, you’ve recognised that time speeds up as you get older. The main reason is that as we age, each new year becomes  an ever diminishing proportion of our total time on the planet. Between the age of one and two that year represents living half of your life again. Whereas by the age of ten, another year means living a tenth of your life. And on it goes, the incredibly shrinking year. When you were a child and you were told ‘we’re going out in a hour’, you’d think ‘No! Do I have to wait a whole hour?’ Now if someone says you’ll be going out in an hour you’d complain ‘An hour? I’ll never be ready in time’.

So the question is, can we do anything about it? Can we slow time?

Slowing It Down, Spicy Style
In Making Time,  Steve Taylor sets out the psychological laws of time and how we can change our perception of time. One law follows the theme of ‘variety is the spice of life’ or ‘a change is as good as a rest’.  So to slow down time you need to seek out new experiences and new environments. Do you have any secret goes or ambitions that you forego for a few hours in front of the television? Just breaking up your routine can help. Have you ever noticed that the first time you go somewhere no, the journey seems longer than the next time? That’s because the second time you go your brain has mapped out the journey and it’s already started to become familiar and for some of the decision you react automatically. So mix things up a little. Take different routes on familiar journeys, try a new food every week, go shopping at different places, read a type of book or newspaper different to your normal choices, try out some classes and so on. Try some personal experiments doing different things to see if you can slow time. Also, write down some short-term, medium term and long term goals and act on them.

Speeding It Up (but being happier)
Another psychological law of time is something of a paradox. When we are absorbed in something we love doing then time seems to go more quickly. However to balance this, time spent in these states of total absorption is one definition of happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high) calls this state of absorption being in ‘flow’. At the heart of his philosophy is also goal-setting. I remember a conversation with my granddad when I was about 14 years old. I asked him if he had any regrets. He had two: getting a tattoo and not planning for his retirement. I never understood the significance of ‘planning for retirement’ until I read Flow. We can set goals for just about anything, they are promises to ourselves – something to get out of bed, or off the couch  for.

The Alternative
Now there is an alternative ways to slow down time. Just sit there and do nothing just staring blankly into space. Paradoxically, each day will drag interminably but years will seem to fly by.

It’s Your Life So Take It Personally
As a teacher and a coach I subscribe to the philosophy  ‘It’s your life so take it personally‘. So don’t ‘kill time’ and don’t complain about having too much time on your hands or not enough time to do the things you like. Many of us waste time by choosing to do nothing else instead. You don’t have to look back over another year and ask ‘where the hell did the year go and what have I done with it?’ Okay, so you may not become a time ‘lord’ in the sense that you can travel across the universe but by using the psychological laws of time you can take charge of your destiny. So take a deep breath and get started. Time flies – seize the day.

Links:

Self-Help Videos

Going for Your Goals or Going with the Flow

We often talk about ‘going with the flow’ as an indication that we are flexible and relaxed individuals who make the best of what comes our way. And it’s true, ‘going with the flow’ can sometimes be a good thing. ‘Digging our heels in’ and resisting change can be stressful, especially when the change is inevitable.However, taken to its extreme ‘going with the flow’ could mean that rather than ‘taking the plunge’ we let ‘life wash over us’.

‘Flow’ is a concept discussed by Positive Psychology by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced ‘Chick-sent-me-high’). For him, to be ‘in flow’ is a definition of happiness. Flow is that state when we ‘lose ourselves’ in the moment with some activity. We lose sense of time and hours pass and seem like minutes. We are totally captivated by the experience. When we set goals to increase the amount of time we are ‘in flow’, we also increase our personal happiness.

Increasing ‘flow’ and therefore happiness is one of the main themes running through my self-help book Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet. In keeping with the aquatic theme of the book, I offer the GO-FLOW model of goal-setting, which is a development of the GROW model.

  • Goal – clearly and specifically stated (with a time frame)
  • Observation – observing opportunities, reality and choices
  • Feelings – checking your feelings, perceptions, emotions and attitudes to the goal.
  • Limitations or Let-downs – considering the personal and situational limitations for this goal, how you can counter them or work around them, and how you will deal with the let-downs.
  • Options – considering all possible options of achieving the same outcome
  • Will – that is, I will do it.

Bear in mind that goals shouldn’t be too easy as we’ll become bored and lose motivation. Without being totally out of our reach, goals should stretch us without overwhelming us, that way we are more likely to be ‘in flow’. So on to the pitfalls.

Two of the most common stumbling blocks when goal-setting are:

  1. Carrying on regardless when the approach is unlikely to succeed with adjustments
  2. Giving up prematurely.

The key to overcoming both of these is how we use feedback. If we don’t succeed the first time or with only limited success it’s most likely that the goal needs a tweak. With the new information that ‘what you’re doing isn’t working’, review the GO-FLOW process to see if you can diagnose the problem or make an amendment.Think of it as going back and checking for leaks. It sometimes takes a few attempts before we get a watertight action plan.

Links:

Music to Study By

There has been some research into the effects of background music on learning, in particular the Mozart Effect with young children. Essentially babies focus on novelty when learning and the complexity of classical music provides plenty of novelty for their young ears. It boosts mental arousal which means, in theory, they are more attentive generally.

From the research on human performance we learn that faster tempo music helps to boost mental arousal levels when tackling boring tasks, so you could try this with the dull stuff. It doesn’t have to be classical musical, although it should be instrumental as words tend to get in the way. You want to focus on the learning material not the chorus to your favourite rock anthem (such as Alice Cooper’s School’s Out). You could also try putting on your favourite music with the dull stuff. It should help a little with motivation and a little of the music’s magic may even rub off on the dull material. After all, we do tend to learn more effectively when we are in a positive state.

For the more complex material requiring a greater degree of concentration, music with a slower tempo would be more useful, for two main reasons. Firstly, it will help to focus attention and blank out background distractions. Secondly, when trying to get to grips with tougher material to study, which can be stressful, slower music can help to relax us and focus our attention.

There are CD collections of slower classical pieces, such as largos and adagio. Music stores also often have a ‘Meditation’ rack in their classical section which are ideal. My recommendations are confined to European classical music but any type of instrumental music is fine. There’s also a wealth of  new-age type meditation and relaxation music that you could use, if that’s your thing.

Overall, it’s important to remember that music tastes are very personal. So, when choosing music for studying, go for something you like or at least feel neutral about. It’s really all about helping you to focus and improving the leady environment and experience. Forcing yourself to listen to music that irritates you is going prove more of a hindrance than a help. Ideally make yourself short collections that last around 30 minutes and study intensely for this time, then take a short break. See also my study skills tips for further details on this technique of short study periods followed by short breaks.

Recommendations:
Try pieces like: Vivaldi’s Largo from ‘Winter’ from The Four Seasons; Bach’s Air on a G String (no jokes please); Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for Strings, or  Pachelbel’s Canon in D. You could also try ambient music such as Brian Eno’s Music for Airports.

PS: After reviewing the evidence on subliminal learning tapes for Evidence of Things Not Seen, we concluded that there was no evidence to support the bold assertions made. Any effect, if any, is most likely down to the placebo effect and you’d be better off just making your own compilation tape of favourite stuff, as outlined above. Being in a positive mental attitude is far more beneficial for learning.

Links:

 

Positive Worrying & Future Desired Outcomes

We usually assume that no good can come of worrying but it doesn’t stop us doing it. We run our mental ‘home movies’ of future events as if they had already turned out badly. We re-run old conversations and worry that we should have said this or wished we hadn’t said that. So can any good come of worrying?

Worrying is usually thought of as a bad thing because it focuses on the negative. However, it is possible to use the same set of skills with a positive focus. You may be surprised to hear me speaking of worrying as a skill, but it’s something we practise and we get good at it. That’s a skill.

Worrying actually involves two key psychological skills:

  • the ability to form vivid mental images,
  • the ability to create  inner  dialogue (self-talk).

Both are usually stuck on the ‘deflate’ setting. Once we switch the emphasis to ‘inspire’ we can create and rehearse positive mental pictures and words instead.  This is what I call, positive worrying. Using these skills helps us to support our goals, taking exams, on a date, taking a driving test, giving a presentation, and so on. If you’ve got a desired end result in mind, the you can use positive worrying to build yourself up instead of keeping yourself down.

Positive worrying involves creating a mental image of the end result, or the finished line, not how you got there. Focusing on the end result creates a sense that you’ve already succeeded and helps to build motivation. It’s a technique that top athletes use to support elite performance.

Here’s a short video explaining more about ‘positive worrying’ followed by links for an inner dialogue (self-talk) exercise and a basic relaxation technique. Use them all to help create a positive change in the way your view yourself, your skills and your goals.

Links:

Self-Talk: Water Wings & Concrete Galoshes.

Two-Minute Stress Buster.

Book: Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It.

17 Top Study Skills Tips From a Psychologist and Lecturer

Applying principles from psychology, learning theory and teaching practice will take the guess work out of studying for exams. Here are some top tips that have worked well for me as a student, a psychology lecturer and for my students. You can also adapt these for driving test or preparing for presentations. Some of these tips are also useful for confidence building.

Study Skills Top Tips:

  1. Information sinks in better if we start with a positive attitude, so don’t be resentful, recognise the privilege of studying and actually ‘enjoy’ the experience.
  2. Begin each study session with some deep breathing exercises. Use the Two Minute Stress Buster throughout the day in your short breaks.
  3. Drink water throughout the day as dehydration can lead to a reduction in your cognitive functions. However, don’t force yourself to drink too much – just enough so you don’t feel thirsty.
  4. Avoid junk food and eat those all important fresh fruits and vegetables.
  5. After the first day, the first 30 mins of study should be a brief review of the material you covered the previous day. This is easy,  it gets you ‘in the mood’ and it helps with retention.
  6. Try to study in the same place as a routine. Context is very important in memory recall. Memories of where you study are automatically linked with the facts.  In exams, don’t panic, instead of trying to force the information out, begin by closing your eyes, taking some deep breaths and imagining your study space. This will help to release the study material associated with your study space.
  7. If you have to listen to music while studying, just choose something instrumental that just helps focus your mind and block out distractions. Lyrics just get in the way.
  8. Create variety in your study routine so that you don’t get bored. Try mind-mapping, condensing notes, asking yourself test questions etc.
  9. Try  giving  non-stop 20 minute presentations (to an imaginary audience on a topic) with only a handful of cue cards. Even if you falter you have to keep going and deliver the whole presentation. The act of keeping on going helps to build and strengthen associations between different facts and makes it more likely that you are using your own words.  At the end of each presentation, review where you got stuck, and try it again.
  10. Revise in shorter sessions (30 mins) with small breaks in between to prevent mental fatigue.
  11. Try this study routine: Morning: 30 mins study, 5 min break, 30 mins; 5 min break; 30 mins, 5 min break; 30 mins; 15 minute break – for which you should get away from your study space. Repeat again, but this time you can have lunch after 40×30 min sessions. Repeat for afternoon up until dinner time.
  12. Five sit-ups or press-ups in the short breaks will also help limit mental fatigue, and you may end up with a toned-stomach at the end of it.
  13. Create a study timetable where sandwich the subjects you don’t like between the ones you do.
  14. Practice relaxation exercises (eyes closed and take long slow deep breaths) – see my Two Minute Stress Buster post.
  15. Get out in the fresh air, in daylight everyday, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
  16. Get exercise – build this into to your weekly study timetable.
  17. Don’t study right up until bed time, this can ruin your sleep. Instead, spend the last hour relaxing before you go to bed.

Wishing you happier and more productive studying.

If you enjoyed this post check out other teaching, learning and study skills blog posts by Gary Wood. Also consider using the buttons below to like the post or share it with others.

Links: