Studying and Sleep

You’re probably familiar with the oft-referenced distinction between “studying hard” and “studying smart.” The advice to study smart draws attention to the fact that it’s not just how much you study that matters but how effectively you use that time.

Most discussions of studying smart are based around techniques to enhance attention and learning. Often overlooked, though, is the critical role that sleep plays in effective studying.

This certainly applies to people in school, but it’s not just students who study. And studying isn’t just reading textbooks. Any time that we need to learn tasks, comprehend new information, boost our memory, or enhance our creativity and critical thinking, we’re studying.

Before a big presentation, test, competition, or job interview, it’s common to encourage someone to get a good night’s sleep. We instinctively know that people are more likely to be at their best when well-rested. At the same time, sleep problems are pervasive in America. More than 45% of adults polled by the National Sleep Foundation said that a lack of sleep had affected their daily activities within the last week. Chronic insomnia, in which sleeping problems persist over an extended period of time, is believed to afflict up to 35% of people.

So what gives?

It seems that while we try to get enough sleep before a big challenge or event, we’re regularly short-changing ourselves the rest of the time. This can come back to haunt us because of how we study and prepare day-in and day-out affects whether we can reach our full potential when we want to perform at our highest level.

In this guide, we focus on how to truly study smart and to incorporate sleep into more effective learning and thinking. We explain why sleep is so important for studying, how to get better sleep, and how to study more effectively even if you’re short on time so that you never again feel like you have to sacrifice sleep to study.

Why is Sleep Important for Studying?

Studying is a process of trying to acquire new knowledge and skills that can be properly used at a later point. In virtually any endeavor, it’s necessary to study as a way to understand and remember vital information.

Research has found that sleep deprivation hurts cognition, meaning that your brain does not function at as high of a level when you’re short on sleep. This can happen as a result of reduced total hours of sleep, fragmented sleep, and inconsistent sleep. The impacts of sleep loss can be felt after just one night, and they are also cumulative, creating compounding problems for people with chronic insomnia.

While the exact inner-workings of the brain during sleep are not fully understood, sleep has been found to play an important role in memory. Sleep helps us acquire new information, consolidate it in our minds, and later recall it when necessary. Studies have found that sleep also improves memory organization, effectively helping us not just store information but to process it, too.

It’s not just learning factual information that is affected by sleep. Sleep plays a role in the memory of procedural and hands-on tasks, such as playing a song on the guitar. A lack of sleep has been found to take a toll on creativity as well.

Because of the way that sleep improves our cognition -- not to mention its ability to improve our emotions and mood -- it plays a part in virtually all types of studying. Studying allows us to build skills and a base of knowledge to succeed in bigger challenges such as tests, projects, and presentations. The proof is in the pudding as lack of sleep has been found to be associated with reduced academic achievement in college students and worse productivity in the workplace.

How Can You Utilize Sleep to Study Smarter?

Knowing that sleep is critical for effective learning, it’s natural to want to determine the optimal way to coordinate sleep and studying. This section explores key questions about sleep and how it can best serve your learning and memory.

How Many Hours of Sleep Do You Need?

The amount of sleep that you need depends on your age. Teenagers need 8.5 to 9.5 hours a night. College students and adults should shoot for around eight hours per night.

It is important for this sleep to be consistent. Big swings in nightly sleep can wreak havoc on your circadian rhythm and have a direct effect on mental performance.

When is the Best Time to Study?

The research about the ideal time to study is still preliminary, but there are indications that studying within three hours of going to bed improves memory consolidation.

This doesn’t mean that all of your studying must happen in that time window, which would be impractical in many cases. However, it may be useful to review key points in the lead-up to bed to help with the retention of information. Many people also find it beneficial to do the same review when they wake up.

How Can You Get Better Sleep?

You can take a number of different steps to get better sleep. Talking with your doctor is important if you have persistent sleep problems because those problems may be related to an underlying health condition that can be treated.

Another way to get better sleep is to improve your sleep hygiene. This includes trying to make your bedroom more conducive to sleep. It also involves cultivating routines and habits that facilitate falling asleep quickly and staying asleep through the night.

For studying, some important components of sleep hygiene including avoiding things that can interfere with a healthy progression through the stages of sleep, including deep sleep and REM sleep. Moving smoothly through these stages is believed to be essential to memory and learning.

Stimulants, including caffeine and other drugs, can disturb your sleep cycle. Alcohol, even though it may make you sleepy, actually throws off your normal sleep cycle. Using electronic devices, like cell phones or laptops, in the time before bed both overstimulates the mind and interrupts the production of hormones, specifically melatonin, that your body produces to sleep normally.

For college students who want to improve their sleep while adjusting to a new living situation, practical advice can be found in our guide to Tips to Sleeping in College Dorms.

Tips to Improve Studying Without Sacrificing Sleep

Many people want to get a full night’s sleep every night, but the demands of school or work can become an obstacle. When confronted with an overbooked schedule, it’s often sleep that comes out on the short end of the stick.

We’ve already covered why it’s self-defeating to cut back on sleep to spend more time studying; doing so is no way to study smart. A better approach is to protect your time for sleep and make better use of your time for studying. This section covers techniques that you can employ to improve your studying even if you’re cramped for time.

1. Set Goals

Some people run into problems because they don’t know when to stop studying. Without clear goals, studying can be a never-ending task fueled by an anxious desire to keep reviewing “just a little bit longer.”

Instead, use effective goal-setting to your advantage. Goals don’t just have to be for the big picture; you can set goals for individual study sessions. One system, called SMART, helps to create goals that are measurable, achievable, and time-bound. These types of goals can help make sure your studying is effective and doesn’t bleed into your sleep time.

2. Use Memory Tricks

If you’re getting good sleep, then you’re in a great position to commit ideas to memory. A number of techniques can strengthen how quickly and effectively you remember information.

For example, repetition helps, so cumulative efforts at remembering are useful. Keywords, acronyms, or other mnemonic devices can simplify concepts and provide an anchor for storing them in your memory.

Creating your own tools or summaries is generally more useful than just highlighting or reading text. For example, you can design a visual aid or record yourself explaining a concept in your own words. Self-tests or quizzes can be beneficial and may fit well with goal-setting for study sessions.

3. Organize Your Tasks

Having a plan can make you more effective and prevent feeling stressed out or overwhelmed. Making lists can help, and often lists are more valuable if they are well-organized. This can include sorting your tasks, for example by priority, deadline, and topic. You can also organize by the type of work required, such as creative work versus reading or research, so that you can gauge your mood and take on the tasks that you’re best able to accomplish in that moment.

4. Organize Your Time

Having a routine can keep you on task and ensure that you’ll have adequate time devoted to your important objectives. Creating blocks in your schedule for studying and for sleep can make sure you get enough of both.

You can try out time-based study strategies like the Pomodoro method. This involves spending 25 minutes focused on a particular task with no distractions -- even putting your phone in airplane mode and closing your email -- and then taking a five-minute break. You can repeat this 30-minute cycle multiple times in a row to help concentrate and accomplish your study goals.

5. Limit Distractions

Most people think that they can effectively multitask, but the fact is that it almost always reduces our productivity. We’re more efficient at learning information and completing tasks when we actually focus on them. As a result, one of the best ways to optimize your study time is by closing down social media, email, and other distractions. Some apps, like Forest, can be used to help maintain your focus.

6. Take Breaks

When you’re pressed for time, it may be tempting to skip breaks and keep studying, but this can lead to mental fatigue and burnout. Your breaks don’t need to be long, but you should make sure to give yourself an opportunity to stretch, meditate, go for a walk, or doing something else to de-stress and break up long study sessions.

7. Get Support

Positive social influences can provide encouragement and keep you focused. If you find classmates or coworkers who also want to maximize their productivity and study time, you can work together and offer each other mutual support.

There is a risk that working in groups can lead to distractions. For this reason, you want to make sure that you have clear goals and ground rules that are accepted by all the people who are working together.

You may also be able to get support from your college or from your employer. Many colleges and universities have academic support centers that provide tips and tools to improve your studying. Professors, who have spent plenty of time studying themselves, may be able to offer suggestions specific to the subject matter of their class that can make your learning more time-efficient.

In the workplace, the human resources department may have programs for employee growth and development. In some cases, these include online or in-person training to build new skills and work more efficiently.

8. Utilize Down Time

There are points in the day when you may be able to wrangle extra time to do a quick review and help consolidate information in your memory. For example, if you have a daily commute, you can create a study tool, such as a recording of yourself explaining a topic that makes it easy to review while on-the-go.

The goal of this isn’t to make down time replace your primary study sessions. Instead, it’s to build in time for a few extra repetitions to boost knowledge retention when doing something else like commuting, taking a shower, or doing cardio at the gym.

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