Work smarter, not harder, is a favourite mantra of mine. Although this article focuses on studying, it can be applied to every aspect of life.
The inspiration for this topic came to me a few months ago, as I sorted through a box of old paperwork in my room. I came across a sheet of paper from my A-levels, listing the hours of revision I had done each day. I stared down the columns of 5s, 6s, and 7s, and was struck by the vivid recollection of just how bad my revision had been.
Most of that time was spent blankly staring at text books, or copying out vast passages without taking in any information. Part of the reason I recorded the hours I’d spent revising was to convince myself that I had done worthwhile revision; it's easy to tell yourself you’ve done a lot of work if you’ve spent 7 hours with a pen in hand.
My A-level results were not pretty.
I got into university through luck and a good personal statement, and I saw exactly the same thing mirrored there; come exam season, people would flock to the library and then complain about how long they’ve spent in there – “You were in there all day? Well, I was in there all night as well.”
Not only have I seen this, I’ve done the same.
It’s very easy to feel pressured into doing the same; if everyone else is doing so much work on their dissertations, you don’t want to be the only person who’s done badly.
But spending this long in the library is exactly the same as me writing down my hours of revision; it’s a trick, an illusion. Most people who spend ten hours in the library do not do so working. The human attention span is not infinite. I’d say that of a 10 hour session in a library, half of that is wasted, at a minimum. We look at our phones and check social media, we spend ages changing songs on Spotify. We go off on tangents on the internet and start looking up whatever random question pops into our head. We stare blankly at the ceiling. We watch other people (I am still incredibly bad for people watching).
10 hours of revision is too long. 8 hours is too long. People who work full time jobs have a lunch break and a coffee break – most of them work a 7 hour day. And, and this is the important thing, they are doing jobs that they already know how to do. They are not learning new things. The human attention span isn’t infinite, and neither is our capacity for new information. Even if you had superhuman willpower and concentration and were able to revise for 10 hours without wasting a minute, it still wouldn’t be an effective way of learning because your brain wouldn’t be able to retain all that information. We learn best in small, manageable chunks, with breaks in between. We learn even better if we learn one thing at a time; study a topic, take a break, and return to recap what we’ve just learnt. Repetition and reevaluation is what locks knowledge in our minds.
This brings me to the core of the article; work smarter, not harder. The great writer, Agatha Christie, is quoted as saying “I don't think necessity is the mother of invention. Invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness - to save oneself trouble.” Whilst laziness isn’t something you should aim for, in studying or in life, adopting a mindset of trying to save oneself trouble can be quite effective – wanting to achieve your objective [in this case, studying] in the easiest and most efficient manner. Spending 10 hours at the library is neither easy nor effective.
You might well have been told at school that you were one of a range of different types of learner. I was. Over the last few years doctrine seems to be moving away from this. I am not going to comment on this, as it appears the data can be interpreted in a whole range of ways. For me, it has always been less about how people learn – people can learn anyway; being a “visual” learner doesn’t mean you won't learn if someone tells you something. It’s about being interested. We remember things that have strong emotional impacts for us, which is evolutionarily quite sensible. Boredom is not a strong emotion, and something you learn whilst bored isn’t going to stick in your mind.
For example, I enjoy reading, and I retain information very well from books; I can read something once, remember it, and often remember the page it was on. As soon as it’s a book I don’t enjoy, this ability disappears.
Now you will invariably have to learn something that you’re not interested in, or that you find hard; this happens to all of us. You could even tie this in with the article on Cognitive Reframing from August – instead of being something to be dreaded, a topic you find boring or hard should be the perfect opportunity to figure out an engaging way to study it; the better you study, the quicker you’re done with it. The very act of changing how you view it from a problem to a challenge will make your brain more engaged.
I’m a firm believer that topics aren’t inherently interesting or boring – it all comes down to how they’re taught, and how you learn them. Get creative with finding a way to get engaged; it’s going to make your life easier.
Don’t force studying, either. If your mind keeps on wandering, take a break. If a topic isn’t going in. Leave it. Come back to it on a different day. Forcing a lock only ends up breaking the key, and the harder you try to do something, the worse you invariably end up doing. The Chinese Taoists teach that the way to do well at something is to stop trying to do well at something.
To wrap it up, you can’t learn if you aren’t engaged with what you’re trying to learn, and don’t get pressured into counting hours and attempting to keep up with other people – they’re often revising harder, not smarter.
Guy Reynolds is a graduate of Cardiff University with a BA in Ancient History and an MA in Ancient and Medieval Warfare. Guy’s plan is to gain his doctorate and spend his life studying increasingly niche areas of history. Guy has lots of experience working with wild animals, from Falconry Centres to Wetherspoons, and he loves anything to do with books.
This section will not be visible in live published website. Below are your current settings:
Current Number Of Columns are = 1
Expand Posts Area =
Gap/Space Between Posts = 15px
Blog Post Style = card
Use of custom card colors instead of default colors =
Blog Post Card Background Color = current color
Blog Post Card Shadow Color = current color
Blog Post Card Border Color = current color
Publish the website and visit your blog page to see the results
We're always interested to hear from talented young writers, so if you'd like to feature as a guest author then hit us up for more details.