Study Smarter, Not Harder!

Boost Your Productivity with Tips You Can’t Afford to Miss


Learn how to make the most of your time

Want to spend less time studying while still scoring higher on your exams? Of course you do, be it reading, watching tv/movies, going out with friends, drinking, or watching hilarious cat videos on the internet there is always something you’d rather be doing than studying. But here we are, slaving over books or basking in the dim glow of a laptop for hours at a time.

The biggest mistake I see medical students make, and students in general make is that they generally suck at studying. How can you suck at something you spend 100s if not 1000s of hours doing every year? Simple – you aren’t actively trying to improve. Studying is a dynamic skill, repetition and practice are useful but so is feedback, change and self-improvement. The limited variable for every student is the same: Time; it’s also the most common excuse “If I only had more time”. Now I can’t help you slow time down (I’m working on light speed travel I swear..) but hopefully I can help you make more out of the time you have. I’ve asked countless students when the last time they’ve changed their study methods or worked on improving their habits and almost always face the same blank stare. Brute force is a great way to bust open a door (or so Hollywood has taught me), it remains a horrible way to study.

Without further ado here are proven ways to get more out of the limited study time you have so you can study smarter!

Productivity Tips from Successful Slackers

“Whenever there is a hard job to be done I assign it to a lazy man; he is sure to find an easy way of doing it.” – Walter Chrysler (I think? Often associated with many people)

You can’t be lazy in medical school – Shocking I know, but you can be efficient. To me that’s what being a Slacker is all about, it’s about doing what needs to be done, in as little time as possible and enjoying the rest of the hours you free up. To the untrained observer a Slacker is wasting time, rarely studying and yet scoring higher than most of their colleagues. They must have an innate ability for this, be it super genius or photographic memory right? Wrong, they’re simply studying smarter than you are. Let’s see how:

Active vs. Passive Studying

A favorite social experiment from my undergraduate days, walk into your local library how many of the students are on Facebook, Twitter, Google Chat etc. I’m willing to bet it’s a great deal of them, unfortunately many students bring these habits with them to medical school. I’m not saying you can’t take breaks and you shouldn’t socialize with your friends but if you’re “studying” you’ve committed this time to be productive don’t sabotage you’re own efforts. If you are “studying” while on Facebook, Skype or any other distraction guess what you’re studying passively. Unfortunately osmosis doesn’t work that way, it’ll take you 5 to 10 times longer to read the same pages, do the same questions as an active studying individual and you’ll likely still retain less than them. I know this sounds like it’s impossible to do, after all how can you study for 12 hours without talking to your friends? The answer is you probably can’t but you can study for concentrated 1-3 hour blocks and get more done in a lot less time. Let’s learn how to study actively.

Drown Out the Distractions

Got the willpower of a Buddhist monk on day 9 of a hunger strike? No? Well you’ll probably need some help then, luckily it isn’t that hard to find some.

Leechblock (Firefox) & Chrome Nanny (Chrome): Both these amazing add-ons are absolutely free and critical to drowning out distractions. You create a list of websites you shouldn’t be on while studying (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, Gmail etc.) and for certain hours each day these extensions will block those sites for you. Are there ways around them? Sure, but that isn’t the point, having an obstacle making it a bit more difficult to not study is the goal. They keep you productive because it maintains your studying inertia and creates a roadblock to stop you from not studying and generally wasting time. I recommend you schedule the hours to allow for a few minutes of breaks every few hours and you use it nearly 24/7 during exam time. These two extensions improved my productivity dramatically, and are two of the quickest and easiest ways of doing so. If you are using Safari a similar extension called Self-Control exists, if you are using something other than these 3 browsers I suggest you switch to them and uninstall your other browsers. You want to make it as difficult as possible to cheat (that includes not scheduling your breaks on different browsers at different times etc.) On a side note: Yes Gmail and other email is distracting and you don’t need to see it 24/7 you can check it every few hours without it being life or death, I’ve struggled with it tremendously but it’s time to learn to fight your email addiction. Also don’t put your phone/iPod on your desk with you as it’ll also serve as an endless distraction. Lastly if you are a social butterfly try studying in a secluded area so you don’t find your own distractions.

Find Your Zone

Ever had that perfect time where the words just came off the page and deposited themselves straight into your brain? Where you’ve accomplished more in a day than a week? We all have, the trick is to get more of those moments. The trick is finding your “zone”, the time of the day and of the week where you study harder and generally get more done than any other time. I know for me those hours often are very late at night, but I ensure I get my work started and finished during them. The trick is finding when you’re actually most productive, odds are you already have a good idea if you’re a ‘Morning Person’ or ‘Night Owl’. Enter Rescue Time, this little app tracks your productivity while at your computer. You need to spend some time configuring it, but once you do it’ll quickly show you when you are the most productive and when you aren’t. If you pay a few bucks a month it’ll track your offline time as well, to me that’s easily worth it, and you also get access to the blocking feature (similar to leechblock and chrome nanny). It allows you to assign positive or negative values to even individual programs running on your computer as well so you can track exactly how productive you are or aren’t being.

Aside from finding your zone, there is something to be said about knowing when  it’s best to review material. Just attended a lecture or reviewed a topic? it’s best to reinforce that material within 24-36 hours if possible. Review, review, review! Going over core concepts from even a day or two ago will ensure you have a much better chance of remembering the material even weeks later. A few minutes of studying and reviewing at the end of the day of at the end of the week will save you hours weeks later. Consider having a review time of the week on Friday night or Sunday afternoon for a few hours and going over your notes at this time, it’ll go a long way to consolidate your understanding of the topics.

A few minutes of review at the end of the day and end of the week will save you hours down the road.

Rescue Your Lost Time

How much time do you spend commuting to school? Standing in line? Waiting between lectures? Generally doing mundane tasks a day? Odds are it adds up to at least 30-50 minutes a day. It isn’t really downtime as you aren’t relaxing, and it isn’t productive because you aren’t doing anything with it. It’s lost minutes that make up part of your everyday, and it’s harnessing those extra minutes that’ll get you the grades you deserve. The best way to make use of these minutes while you commute, stand in line etc. is to either listen to audio lectures or review flashcards. Personally I am a big fan of flash cards but it depends on the topic. I often watched anatomy videos on my iPod while commuting to school on the train, reviewed microbiology flashcards while waiting in lines and listened to audio lectures at the gym while studying for my MCAT. You can sign up for our emails and review a concept a day while you check your emails. The goal is to be doing work, even when you aren’t really doing work. If it gets you an extra hour to relax, or a few more points on an exam it’s easily worth it. Don’t do this while out with friends for dinner, or predetermined relaxing times (big game, tv show etc.) as it’ll drive you nuts, and more than likely drive your friends nuts as well.

Focus, Focus, Focus

The reality is that more and more exams are becoming computer based, this doesn’t however mean you should be using your computer all the time. Before you attempt questions on any topic you study, you read, and you make notes – none of these require a laptop and it’s probably best to leave yours at home. Studies have actually shown that writing notes is a much more effective way to learn than typing notes, and in general is a much more active way to study. Write notes! Typing simply isn’t as effective, and unless you need your laptop it’ll end up being a distraction so leave it at home. When you do get to questions only use your computer if it’s a computer based test such as the USMLE, but otherwise try not to even bring it with you.

The next step to help you focus is ridiculously simple: Create a schedule and to-do list. If you have an assigned time for each task it forces a deadline onto you, it also creates achievable goals and it introduces an element of guilt if you fail to make assigned deadlines. If you really want to capitalize on this guilt share your schedule with others (easily done on google calendar). Having deadlines in writing even if you don’t always meet them ensures that you at the very least accomplish something everyday.

To conclude this post I’ll include a few of my favorite websites I use when studying. Simplynoise is an excellent sound machine to drown out other noise while your working and make it a bit easier to focus. Some students also like Rainymood which just provides a background of rain in the background to help you relax. While music does help some students focus it’s also a distraction to many, if you do want to listen to music I suggest you try songs without lyrics such as classical or electronic music (personal favorite is  anything by Ludovico Einuadi).

That’s it. Get Started!


Got a comment, idea or other tip you’d like to share be sure to leave it in the comments.