I’m going to take a wild stab in the dark and assume everyone reading this has suffered study burnout (also known as study fatigue) at one stage. Fatigue and tiredness are a fact of life when you’re studying but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about it – and ignoring it might be setting you further back than you think.
This won’t be news to anyone here – but studying is about being efficient with your time, not about the time you spend at the desk.
Staring blankly at your books or a screen is really just wasting your time and going to lead to worse results. You might feel guilty for not studying but you’re just setting yourself up to fail if you continue to let the burnout grow.
So, let’s look at some real actionable advice you can use to deal with study burnout. Whether you’re trying to deal with it after the fact or getting ahead of the problem before it slows you down.
The signs of mental fatigue are pretty easy to spot.
- Physical fatigue. Your body feels tired and you’d rather curl up on the lawn chair with a margarita than head for a run at the end of the day, even though you spent most of your day sitting at a desk.
- Impatience and Irritability. You become snappish with others and may be more quickly triggered to anger or upset.
- Inability to concentrate or focus. It becomes harder to finish your work or tasks. You may find it more difficult to make decisions, find the right word, or focus on one job at a time.
First the obvious stuff:
Sleep vs Coffee
Surprise folks. The biggest contributor to hitting your breaking point is lack of sleep. If you’re one of these night owls who likes to study at night then make sure you’re making up for it with sleeping in late (like you need much convincing on that one).
Everyone varies a little but the common advice is getting 8 hours a night.
On a consistent basis, you need to be getting enough sleep, not just trying to make up for it on the weekends.
When it comes to coffee I’ll admit to being a hypocrite on this one. I understand for real productivity we should actually be drinking matcha tea or at the very least black coffee (to really get the benefit of the caffeine without the milk or sugar crash slowing us down).
But when it comes to coffee vs a nap there is no competition. You might feel more productive immediately after draining your mug but, in the long run, even a short half hour nap will keep you going for longer.
Please don’t take this as advice to just take a nap whenever. But after an hour or two if I’m feeling drowsy and I know I’ve more to do I’ll always opt for a nap rather than trying to keep going. Your retention rate will thank you for it.
I’m also not completely against coffee. God no. But don’t use it as a band-aid for not sleeping.
Experiment With Timing
Everybody studies differently.
If I try to be one of those people who study 15+ hours a day I’m less effective than studying the way which suits me. I’ll hit burnout within a few days trying it their way. So experimenting with how you study is going to help you get better results – and avoid burnout at the same time.
I’m not a fan of ‘studying until you get tired’ preferring proper planning (which we’ll get to in a moment) and you should absolutely be testing the Pomodoro technique. The idea is simple. Set a task and work in 25-minute blocks.
Every 25 minutes – you take a 5-minute break. Get a coffee or stretch. Ideally getting away from your screen. After the 5 minute break, return to your task for another 25-minute block. After 4 blocks of 25 minutes working, you take a good 20-30 minute break.
Try it and see how you do. Remember there is no hard set rule here. Personally, I find 25 minutes is too short when I’m able to hold my focus for longer so I take 35-40 minutes, split between 5-minute breaks and then take at least an hour off before going again.
Proper Planning (Including Breaks)
From years of experience, I can tell you my biggest contributor to burnout has always been not knowing what I was doing. The daunting task of figuring that out would always stress me out – just increasing my chances of burnout.
We’ve already looked at studying schedules in more detail so I won’t bore you with that again, but keeping on top of both your long and short term goals is key to making your study sessions easier.
It’ll save you time, make you more effective and you’ll also have a clear stopping point in your sessions making it easier to take a break without feeling guilty or ineffective.
This isn’t going to be groundbreaking news to anyone – taking breaks while studying is important.
No doi, right?
But how you take them – and what you do in that time – matters.
Both your short and long term plans should include breaks. Plan when you’ll take a weekend off in the long term and when you’re going to take your breaks in the short term. Ideally, have at least a rough idea for what you’re going to do in that time – which brings us to the next obvious one.
This isn’t news either, right?
Time and time again studies have shown us that physical activity comes with a whole bunch of mental benefits. If you maintain a sport outside of your studies – great. Some of the most successful people in the world exercise in the morning before getting to their desk.
You don’t need to start running marathons today. Even a short jog around the block in the mornings or between study sessions can make a markable difference to your results and drastically reduce burnout.
I’ve worked with a study group who would set 10 minutes aside every 90 minutes to do a quick yoga routine. It doesn’t have to be anything too difficult and there are loads of examples on YouTube you could try.
Just take a shower before meeting your study group.
Causes for Burnout
Dealing with a burnout after it happens is one thing. But getting a better understanding of it can help you prevent it in the future.
Burning your eyes out staring at screens can make you feel more tired than you might otherwise. This is one of the reasons I suggest avoiding your phone on breaks and doing something away from screens entirely. It also helps to swap to pen and paper every so often to give your eyes a break.
Or can be much, much larger. On the macro level if you feel like you have no direction or you’re not sure what you’re studying for.
Say Keng Lee has some great advice on Quora:
To me, study burnout is often caused by these few major factors:
- lack of life priorities;
- lack of time management skills;
- lack of study tools to maximise productivity;
- lack of stress management strategies;
However, in order to deal with them, first and foremost, I think you need to take a close look at the larger scheme of things in your life.
There are a few important things you need to do immediately, and for the longer term to help you to stay energised, inspired, motivated, and focused on your desired outcomes or cherished dreams.
First things first.
At least at the macro-cosmic level, establish compelling, inspiring and overarching long range goals and objectives, broken down into short-term, medium-term, and long-term perspectives, and covering all the major life dimensions, with academic pursuit as your top priority, followed by a systematic game plan, in your life to drive you.
With a game plan in place, you can then factor in your learning agenda, or study plan, or even side-gig project plan, if any.
But more importantly, with the end in mind, goals, priorities and a plan, set your direction and keep you focused on the things that matter to you the most.
Using a military analogy, goals, priorities and a plan, are like precise commands preset into the flight plan of a Tomahawk cruise missile, homing on to a predefined, long-distance target.
Secondly, at the micro-cosmic level, learn, acquire and practise proven efficient and effective study and productivity tools to help you navigate you academic journey with ease, expediency, and ace.
Remember, whether you’re dealing with burnout or not:
What you get done is far more important than how long you study for. If you’re efficient with your studying techniques you can get more done in 2 hours than in 20. So before anything else take an hour or two to improve your studying ability and you’ll avoid wasting a lot of time. Better studying results in less work? Too good to pass up.
One of the easiest ways to do this is brushing up on your memory and improving your ability to learn faster. Do you know who’s a master at this kind of thing? Chess players. I’m not suggesting you go and learn chess at the level of a grandmaster (unless you have a spare decade) but, luckily, a grandmaster has an audiobook ‘Unlimited Memory’ — which you can download for free with Amazon’s Audible.
It’s about 2.5 hours long but, since it’s an audiobook, you can listen when you go to bed or something. I guarantee it’ll change the way you study and even if you cancel Amazon lets you keep the entire audiobook for free. You can download it here.