Mind Hacks to Make Studying Easier
May 19, 2018
What if you got a little buzz of guilty pleasure every time you thought about studying for your exam? What a difference that could make compared to a soul-numbing dread of having to do something you do not enjoy.
Our minds have systems to protect us and maximise our wellbeing. They do not always work, but overall, these mechanisms reinforce memories of good events and minimize negative ones. We can use these systems to make studying more enjoyable and effective.
By going out of our way to make studying pleasurable we begin to dread it less, then feel neutral about it, and eventually enjoy it. Things you enjoy are not chores, they are more like hobbies. But how the heck do you enjoy learning about earned value or resolving team conflict? To many people, these topics represent all the junk we deal with at work and what we try to escape in our personal time.
The key is to separate our emotions about the subject matter from the learning experience. Focus on making the studying enjoyable. Everyone likes different things, so chose what works for you. You could buy that indulgent chocolate that’s too expensive to justify and have a square when you start and every 15 minutes of study. You could get a fancy notebook for your preparation and a posh new pen. If you like working in social settings then find a great coffee shop and buy that mocha latte you know is overpriced, but oh-so-good.
Step it up a notch and form a study group that goes to a good restaurant after every meeting. Make the studying event good for you, don’t be afraid to indulge a little. The goal is to retrain your mind from “another 2 chapters, aarrg” to “great, seeing Alex again and trying that new Thai place”.
Obviously, some words of caution are necessary. If an excess of red wine or illicit activities are your indulgences then the subsequent hangover, memory loss, and guilt will have a net-negative impact. The treats must be defendable and morally acceptable. Things you are happy to discuss with family and co-workers. Beyond that, create a good environment for study, do what it takes to make it fun, use the very best materials and reward your hard work. This is a worthwhile investment in yourself and you should recognize it.
When we make a shift to positively associated emotions we remember and recall information much easier. Many people can recall vast amounts of information about their favourite sports teams, TV shows, or quirky hobby. They are not especially talented, instead, people remember and recall things they enjoy much easier than things learned under obligation - like perhaps details from the highway code for a driver’s test.
Being creative and doing what it takes to make studying enjoyable will not turn work topics into hobbies with effortless fact recall. It will, however, associate more positive thoughts to the overall experience and subject matter. This will help with making time for study, starting study sessions, and motivation to continue studying. These are important since most people give up on the process, not the material.
Another human nature trait we can use to our advantage is our brain’s association with locations and food. While we have evolved into complex creatures we still possess a primitive, reptilian brain stem. It is hardwired to remember where things can be found, sources of good food, and acts of sharing food. This deep but powerful association with food is why team building education often recommends bringing food. We are programmed to remember where we had it and build bonds with those we share food with.
Fine, but you may ask, how can I use these facts to help remember net present value calculations? We do so by making associations with locations and food memories. Memorization techniques based on location date back thousands of years and were written about by the Roman politician Cicero in 55BC.
Method of Loci (Loci is Latin for places) uses spatial memory to help us remember and recall information.
Using this approach, we take somewhere we are familiar with, maybe our house or local street and then associate items with distinct locations. So, imagine walking through your home in a logical sequence from your front door and then assign an item or concept to each location. Then, to recall the items or steps in a process in the correct order, we walk through our house again in our mind collecting items from each location.
There are many versions of Loci method. A popular one is called the Memory Journey and another is Roman Room - experiment and find one you are comfortable with. They all rely on our basic ability to recall locations and are often used by participants in memory competitions who compete at memorizing long lists of information. Personally, I like to imagine navigating a gourmet food store, associating things with the cheese, wine and chocolate collections which taps into our food and location aspects of our reptilian mind. However, unwanted weight gain might be a downside to this approach!
A 2017 study that used fMRI brain scans, found the spatial processing areas of memory champions were much more active than those in a control group of volunteers. The study went on to find that volunteers trained in the method of loci for six weeks saw similar brain function develop. The training-induced changes in brain connectivity matched the brain network organization that previously distinguished memory champions from controls. So, the good news is that in as little as 6 weeks of practice we can tap into these location-based recall techniques. Just don’t forget to start!
So, to help your studies make the process appealing. Make it social if you are a social person, make it silent and personal if you are a quiet person. Acknowledge and indulge your preferences to reward your study efforts. Next, don’t try to memorize things by just reading or highlighting, these have actually been found to be the least effective ways of studying. Instead, try location-based memory techniques that are proven to be effective and used by 90% of memory competitors.
[I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]