5 tips on how to get through college…less bummed

This blogpost was originally written and published on February 12, 2016 and has been gramatically edited for this republished version. 


College can be grueling and far from what Van Wilder and the legion of American college movies have deceived us into believing college is like. There are no fraternity keg parties, nor any wild drunken belly flops into campus swimming pools, and no one has yet to rip me off of a potential billion dollar social network idea. Instead, college, to many Hong Kong students, is a torrent of deadlines on top of household responsibilities and part-time jobs, an emotional roller coaster and a collection of solitary conversations convincing oneself that thy sanity has yet to be lost. Friday is no longer a day you thank God for.

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Photo extracted from Kappit.com

Social circles fade to the background of what your friends call a “no life” life, and saddest of all, you grow to become strangers with your best friend — your bed. They say it’s impossible to have good grades, a social life, and sufficient sleep altogether. But damn us if we aren’t the generation that’ll do it all. Here are 5 tips on how to concentrate on studying efficiently so you won’t have to sacrifice anymore YOLO moments with your delinquent-but-nice bunch of adrenaline driven buddies. 

The average college lecture lasts for two hours. Three hours for some unfortunate students. Professors are advised to allow a ten to fifteen minutes break between each hour (take note that breaks are “advised” and not mandatory). Similarly, we learn to apply the same mindset of “long hours of textbook drilling equals to effective learning” to independent studying. Ironically, according to a psychology professor at Pierce College, Marty Lobdell, the average person’s ability to concentrate lasts for only about twenty -five to thirty minutes. Of course, there are always the exceptions of medical and chemistry students who have trained their brain juice to exceed the typical human limitation of mental overdrive. In hindsight, it seems that colleges are setting us up for failure. So how do we stick it to the man, without becoming a brick in the wall? In other words, how do we thrive in learning what we need in college without losing our sanity?

1. TAKE A BREAK

Now, don’t give up on this tip just yet. It may not sound ground-breaking or as insightful as it actually is, but according to a research by psychology professor of University of Illinois, Alejandro Lleras, extended duration of the same task can cause one to experience “vigilance decrement” a mental state in which your attention declines. And eventually, you find yourself reading the same line for the fourth time and still not registering what the paragraph is about. In the research, Lleras had concluded that taking short spans of breaks while doing tasks over a stretch of time helps improve your performance for the rest of your study time. Take it as a kind of reboot to cool your brain down when its overheating. With those sweet fifteen minutes lulls, you can actually process more information every thirty minutes than you would going on overdrive for four hours of studying. Thus, it’s not the quantity of the time you put into your studying, its the quality that matters. 

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Illustration by

But some of you may say, “I don’t want to take a break! I love to study and hand-write my notes on a single line paper, front and back”, of course , those of you who do say this aren’t college students, you’re probably not even human at all. But in case you’re wondering what is worth doing in fifteen minutes that won’t distract you too much from studying  or be a total waste of time, try tip number 2.

2. DO WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY

You’ve probably learned by now to slave over your lecture notes in order to obtain good grades, and any time you spend not being productive just feels like a waste of time; OR if you’re anything like me, you’ve told yourself too many times than you can count that you’ll take a five minutes break and catch yourself on the season finale of Game of Thrones. So, “taking a break” becomes a dangerous call for procrastination. But how is doing anything that makes you happy a waste of time? This tip is not so much the permission to slack off for fifteen minutes or to convince yourself you can fit a forty-five-minute episode of Supernaturals within the fifteen minutes break you have allowed yourself to take (or is it just me?). Rather, it is to offer yourself a reward for working hard. 

Behavioral psychologist use a learning principle called, “Operant Conditioning, in which a person’s behavior can be influenced into change by environmental stimuli that either encourages or discourages certain behaviors from recurring.

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To put simply, if you wanted your dog to stop peeing on your backpack, you either GIVE it a loud angry lecture (that you can pretend it understands) or TAKE AWAY its playtime by sending it to its naughty corner — which psychologist would refer to as positive and negative punishment. While GIVING it a treat or REMOVING its leash for behaving well is called positive and negative reinforcement. Similarly as students (insert subtle snickering here), if you wanted to encourage the repetition of your study routine or even just its recurrence throughout the day, offer yourself the positive reinforcement of a reward, or a break (Preferably 15 minutes per hour). Get on the internet and search up of cats attacking dogs on Youtube, scroll through your Tumblr feed and remind yourself that the world isn’t that grim, or try calling up your best pal to have him or her remind you that it’s okay to not have a social life as long as he or she will always be there for you, nerd and all. You’d be surprised how fifteen minutes of genuine smiling, not the kind you force on yourself after your fourth cup of caffeine, will get you through the rest of your three to six hours Study-A-Thon. Looking forward to a reward helps make the process of hours spent memorizing two-hundred-fifty prefixed scientific terminologies that your upcoming test might quiz you on a little more bearable. And after a cycle of hard work and rewards, you might just hate studying a little less.

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Photo extracted from memegenerator.net

Besides, it’s impossible to really keep our focus on one task for 4 hours straight anyway. Okay, not impossible, but it sure does feel like it. So if we’re going get distracted while sitting in place just gawking at the pile of recommended readings laying on your desk anyway, we might as well allow yourselves to hit that play button on that vine your classmate posted on your wall and just get it out of the way. Better yet, why don’t you take a break right now, and have a look at it. You know you want to.

In spite of taking your well-deserved breaks, you seem to still have trouble staying focused. Why is that? Take a look around. What do you see around you? Your bed? The fridge? Obviously your computer screen. Are there any browser tabs irrelevant to what you’re trying to study? This post is most probably an excuse to distract yourself from studying in the first place (Not that i’m complaining).  But you might want to consider tip number 3.

3. DESIGNATE A STUDY AREA

Have you ever tried concentrating so hard that you realize you’re putting more focus on trying to concentrate without really concentrating on anything else but your own voice telling you to “CONCENTRATE!”. Redundant? So, are your routines.

According to the Advising & Learning Assistance Centre, the comfort of your own bedroom might just be the most distracting area for you to concentrate on studying. The bedroom is composed of countless of environmental cues that will distract your attention. Such as your bed and the computer. Similarly, when you are studying in the living room, you may be tempted to catch the latest episode of How to Get Away with Murder on Netflix. But, maybe some of you do prefer the noisier environments, and with everything being digital now, college work without a computer is just unheard of. In this case here’s a bonus tip:

Stay Focused on Chrome is a plugin that allows you to block particular websites, like Facebook, 9gag or Pinterest, while still being able to access your online notes. So if ever you feel tempted to wander off into the more blissful sectors of the virtual world, you’d thank yourself for thinking ahead and cutting yourself off before you catch yourself before bedtime still giggling through the feed of memes on your screen.

Though, for some of us, time can be so scant that you have to fit in whatever you can whenever you can because you’re going to school from nine to five, and working from six until midnight. Speaking from my own experience, time,  more often than not, never feels enough. Making sacrifices seems to be difficult, yet procrastination comes too easily. We can’t always prioritize one responsibility over another especially when they all seem important. So, how do we manage the timeline of our responsibilities when we have so little time to check off every single item on our to-do list?

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Illustration by Cassandra Kier

4. LEARN TO SAY NAY

Rory Vaden, a self-discipline strategist, talks about emotionally assessing your to-do list at a TEDx talk based on the urgency, the importance and significance of each task and giving yourself the “emotional permission” to say No to one or a few things that will enable you to say Yes to many others. Assessing the urgency, importance and significance of a task in this case is evaluating, for example, how soon will you need to finish your three thousand word essay, how much do you need that extra 4 hours at work, and how long will grilling the list of recommended readings will matter by the end of the semester. 

He deduces his idea with a diagram called the “Focus Funnel” in which he illustrates how to make the decision of “giving yourself the emotional permission to spend time on things today that will give you more time tomorrow”.  The decision-making process includes 3 steps, eliminate, automate and delegate. Quoting one of his interviewees for his research,

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Photo extracted from Rory Vaden’s official website

“It’s futile to go through life trying to never say ‘No’. What you have to realize is that you are always saying No to something, because anything you are saying ‘Yes’ to one thing, you are simultaneously saying ‘No’ to an infinite number of others.”

Thus, eliminating a task by saying “No” to make time for other tasks that need to be done. Automating and Delegating means just the way it sounds, enabling a task to be automated therefore not having to always go back to it and delegating your workload onto other capable hands. By the end of the funnel, you are left with two choices, “Now” and “Later”. You will realize whether your task is really that urgent, important, and significant to do NOW or if it can be done at a later time.

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Photo extracted from diylol.com

Basically, if bae wants you to spend your day off with him/her when you have a test the next day, it would hurt less to have him/her giving you the silent treatment for the week than having to repeat your course for an entire year. And if you desperately need that one hour of just chugging down a cold pint of beer after work even if you have a group project due next week, delegate the workload of your project to your group members (obviously without having to seem like you’re riding along freely). And for the sake of time conservation, automate your alarm clock on a routine schedule so you don’t waste those five minutes on setting the ten alarms it takes to wake you up.

Which brings me to the final tip:

5. GET SOME SLEEP

Needless to say, tip number 5 is pretty much self- explanatory. You need to get some sleep. The list of health impairment from sleep deprivation is a long one, and most of them are quite commonly known. And if you are familiar with how sleep deprivation keeps you from acing you mid-terms, let me just provide a friendly reminder of what could happen when you deprived yourself of sleep or mess up body clock.

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Photo extracted from iwastesomuchtime.com

According to physiologist, Jan Born’s research on the connection between sleep and memory, sleep deprivation and sleep disruption can cause serious cognitive and emotional issues. It also affects our sensory of environmental factors, which impairs our attention and responsiveness. This, in relation to memory, means that students who are sleep deprived or experience frequent irregular sleep routines will experience a significant drop in their concentration and mental processes of information.

Furthermore, according to a study published by the Journal of American College Health on the ‘Sleep Patterns and Problems of University Business Students in Hong Hong, the prevailing causes of sleep deprivation of the students were spending free time on studying or working, on top of the long hours they spend in school. It was also mentioned that the common lifestyle of university students has led to irregular sleep which they spend weekends compensating for sleep loss on school days. 

So before you prepare to go for that all-nighter, keep in mind the cons of sacrificing that 6 hours of sleep (let’s not milk it) that no amount of red bulls can compensate for. In retrospect, if you allow yourself that fifteen minutes break to rejuvenate yourself and manage your priorities well enough, you wouldn’t have to pull another all-nighter of staring at a cluster of theories that doesn’t seem to be registering in your head. Re-evaluate your routine and try to apply these 5 tips on how to pass college and see if you get less bummed about having to get out of your pajamas and go to class.

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