Take breaks while studying

Zac Cogley

With final exams and papers approaching, I’d like to offer some advice on dealing with the work that lies just ahead. All of the suggestions below have pretty strong empirical support — that is, they’ve been validated by experimental and/or observational research.

And they’re all bits of advice I use all the time in my own work. So they’ll hopefully be useful not just now, while you’re getting through the end of the term but also in later terms and after graduation.

1) Work hard in small blocks of time and take regular breaks. Studying for an exam, writing a paper or even just thinking hard takes focused attention.

Research suggests that this “willpower” gets depleted with use, much as muscles get tired after sustained exercise. To combat this, intersperse regular breaks into your studying or writing. One common method (called the Pomodoro method) suggests setting a timer for 25 minutes, working until the timer rings and then taking a five-minute break. On your break, walk around or stretch — don’t look at your computer or phone.

Give your eyes a break, too. Focusing only on objects very close to you can tire eye muscles that help you focus on your work. During your break, look up from your work, preferably at something far away. Sit by a window or in a large space to help make looking at objects of varying distances easier.

2) Plan where and when you’re going to work. It’s easier to complete two hours of logic homework if you decide you’ll do that homework in the library right after class. Even better: write down your plan to help hold yourself to the commitment.

3) While working, avoid the internet. When my writing gets hard, it’s really easy for me to find myself browsing the Facebook pages of people I scarcely remember friending instead of writing the next paragraph. To combat this, I turn off my internet connection or use an internet-blocking program like Freedom to keep me from getting online.

4) While you’re working hard, you also want to take care of yourself. One of the most important things is to try to get enough sleep.

We often think that we can perform as well on a partial night’s sleep as a full eight hours, but research shows we’re mistaken. For example, people who are short of sleep can be as dangerous while driving as someone who is drunk.

Try to get as close to a good night’s sleep as you can, and don’t be afraid of a nap here and there. Short ones are best — 20 to 25 minutes — leaving you rejuvenated but not groggy.

Another way to take care of yourself is to take a little time for exercise. If you feel like you don’t have time for whatever regular exercise you do, try to at least get a short walk in now and then. Be sure to eat as well as you can.

When we’re under stress and/or short of sleep we’re particularly prone to improving our mood by eating foods that aren’t great for us, especially things with lots of sugar or carbs. Try to steer clear of the fries, chips, sugary coffee drinks and candy to keep an even level of energy throughout the day and while you’re working.

But by all means don’t radically change what you’re eating in the middle of finals week! Stick to what you know works for you.

5) Finally, keep yourself engaged and on task by creating incentives for yourself. Maybe you “earn” $5 for each hour you study, make plans with friends to have dinner together after you complete a specific task or buy a comedy special to watch when you’ve completed a paper draft. Whatever reward you choose, make it something actually rewarding (“I get to start my next paper after I finish this exam” doesn’t cut it) that you can keep in mind when you’re getting tired of working.

Best of luck!

Editor’s Note: Dr. Zac Cogley is an assistant professor of philosophy at NMU.