Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Every time I eat dinner, I get about three-quarters of the way through, and a thought pops into my head…

What’s for dessert?

That’s because I’ve eaten a lot of delicious dessert in my time, and it’s always come after dinner. In other words, it’s a habit.

How can habits make the school year easier?

Habits are basically responding in the same way each time you come across a physical cue. In my case, the cue is almost being finished with dinner and the response is thinking about dessert. Repeat this a bunch of times and throw a reward into the mix (which is the dessert itself) and you’ve got the perfect recipe for habit formation.

Good study habits are pretty key to succeeding at school. The school year is long, and the motivation we feel at the beginning of Term 1 to Be! Really! Organised! this year usually fades halfway through Term 2. So we need habits to help us kick NCEA’s ass.

Habits help when the going gets tough.

Habits are our default response when we’re unmotivated, distracted or stressed out. Most of us find exams pretty stressful, so developing good study and exam habits makes sure we succeed – even in less than ideal situations.

If you’ve developed a rock-solid habit of writing out the formulas at the beginning of each physics question, this is what will kick in when you’re freaking out in your exam.

If you’ve written out a quick plan before every English essay, this will be your first move when you open your exam booklet.

But if you’ve stared at the paper aimlessly, sworn silently in your head and looked around at what others are doing before giving up every time you’ve tried to study… unfortunately, this is probably what you’ll start doing in the exam, too. It’s pretty clear then, that good study habits are our friends.

So how can we form useful habits?

Like I mentioned above, they’re based on three things:

1. Repetition

As you can probably guess, this is basically doing things often. Studying for two hours that one time does not translate into a habit.

Because you need to repeat your new study habit often, it’s far better to start very small. This makes it easier to repeat, and so you’re more likely to succeed in making it a habit.

Think of it like playing a videogame – you wouldn’t start at Level 35, would you? Yet that’s exactly what we do when we swear that we’re going to study for an hour every night.

Focus on consistency, rather than performance. That might mean studying for 10 minutes every day for a week, and then 15 minutes every day the next week, and then 20 minutes every day the week after that…

By the way, starting this plan next week would bring you up to doing 1 hour and 15 minutes of study each day when we hit exams this year. It would also mean you’d done just under 70 hours of study overall. Not bad. Not bad at all. And yes, I am a total maths nerd #YoureWelcome

2. Physical cues

Habits are often “set off” by something in our physical environments. That might be an almost empty plate reminding me of dessert. It might be opening a web browser and automatically opening Facebook. (Who hasn’t done this?)

We can use this to our advantage. Try to find physical cues that you can put in place to trigger you to study.

Location is a really good one – maybe you go to the library or stick around after school for a little while and study there. Or you could use your parents office at home.

Free periods or other times when you’re stuck somewhere are also good cues. I know that these feel like golden moments that should be used to go and eat hot chips with your friends. I’m not totally against that, but if you have to stay at school because you’ve got another class later on, you may as well make use of this time.

Physical cues like these make it easier to make study automatic, rather than trying to force yourself to get into the zone in an environment that you’re used to relaxing in.

3. Reward

Rewarding yourself for meeting your goals can help reinforce a habit. You might like to give yourself a reward at the end of every week that you meet your study goals.

As stupid as it sounds, ticking off items on a to-do list or crossing each day you study off a calendar can be really satisfying, too. Or maybe that’s just the nerd in me coming out.

Habits can be tricky to form, and they take a while. Finding a way to make study more automatic is really important, though. It makes it easier to get through now, and it means you’ve got something solid to fall back on if you get overwhelmed by stress in the exam.

Slow and steady is better than crashing and burning. Start building small habits through repetition, using physical cues and rewarding yourself when you do well.