It’s a time-honored practice of students everywhere: Preparing for exams and classes by parking in front of the computer and cramming in as much as possible immediately before.
But just because it’s a time-honored approach doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Research shows that intense study without a break has a negative effect on academic performance – never mind the potential side effects of anxiety, insomnia and depression.
A 2011 University of Illinois study had four groups working on one repetitive computer task for 50 minutes. The control group had no diversions or breaks. A “switch” group and a “no-switch” group memorized four numbers before starting, and was told to respond if they appeared on their screens. A fourth group was told to ignore the numbers. Of the switch and no-switch groups, only one (the switch group) saw the numbers two times during the experiment, and it ultimately was the group that stayed sharp and on task for the entire 50 minutes, thanks to the brief diversions of reporting the numbers they saw.
So what makes for an effective study break? What works is scheduled downtime to reinvigorate your brain. During that time, you can:
- Eat. Sit down and enjoy something healthy.
- Exercise. Do a few reps of squats and stretches. Or take a leisurely or brisk (your choice) walk around the block. You’ll help your body and stimulate your brain for a more effective study session.
- Read. Pick up a book or a magazine, and do some light reading on a subject unrelated to your study material.
- Organize. Do some light decluttering and tidying of your space. This shouldn’t be an avoidance activity, but one that helps clear your mind. And it can make your study environment more pleasant at the same time.
- Talk. Reach out and call someone. Don’t text. Actually converse out loud with a friend. You’ll feel more human and ready to rock those studies afterward.
- Clean up. Refresh your mind and body at the same time with a quick shower. You’ll feel better for it.
It’s just as helpful to know what’s not productive. Here are some sure-fire ways to kill your ability to stay focused and concentrate:
- Nodding off. This will actually going to slow you down if it doesn’t make you more tired. If you simply can’t stay awake, a 20-minute catnap is the maximum you should allow yourself.
- Surfing the Internet. Facebook, blogs and online games and other sorts of web surfing activities are unhelpful distractions.
- Drinking too much caffeine. Coffee (or soda) breaks may give you quick, caffeine-driven spurts of energy, but they won’t help with your longer-term focus. In fact, the caffeine could lead to a hard crash.
- Overeating. Big meals won’t help you if you want to return to your studies after you eat. They tend to leave you tired and lethargic. Lighter, periodic meals and snacks are a better option.