Scott H Young

The Three-Step Strategy to Study Hard Without Burning Out


Most of the time I talk about learning better, I try to focus on long-term habits. Build good habits over months and years, and they’ll serve you for the rest of your life. Even if you fall off the wagon, it’s easier to rebuild old habits than construct fresh ones.

Sometimes, however, you won’t have that luxury. You’ll have a big test or deadline which you need to learn a lot, fast.

In this article, I’m going to share the strategy I used both when tackling the roughly four-fold pace of the MIT Challenge and currently, learning to speak Chinese over three months. What makes this strategy powerful is that it is the opposite of how most people approach tough learning deadlines, and why they eventually succumb to procrastination or burnout.

Burnout and Procrastination, Symptoms of a Poor Strategy

The typical student’s approach to a looming deadline is something like this: force yourself to spend all your time in the library, eliminate all social activities and fun, beat yourself up for wasting time or getting distracted.

It’s a common pattern because its a reinforcing cycle. You start getting distracted, so you force yourself to buckle down and spend more time studying. This drains you more, making it easier to get distracted, which guilts you into spending even more time in isolation. This generally continues until you’re either operating at very low levels of your peak efficiency, or you’re burned out and have given up.

What’s hard for these students to realize is that they can learn more, by spending less time studying. (Or, more accurately, less time guilting themselves into studying since in the unfocused haze of semi-work, very little studying is actually occurring.)

How to Study Hard Without Burning Out

The key of the method is simple: constrain your studying hours, but make them higher quality.

Here are the three steps, which I’ll explain in detail:

  1. Set concrete studying hours that leave room for rest time.
  2. Switch passive learning tasks to active ones.
  3. Build a comfortable, but distraction-free working environment.

Step One: Concrete Studying Hours with Ample Rest Time

The first mistake is believing you can study non-stop. This is a dangerous temptation, and the bigger the exam or deadline looms, the easier it is to fall into this trap.

I’m not going to tell you that the optimal amount of hours of studying should be leisurely. If you want to study hard, you’re going to have to work hard. But think of it like running a race, there’s a hard pace you can stick to and a pace that goes too fast and you run out of air. Separating the two is a fine line.

The easiest way to separate that line is to set concrete hours that allow you enough time to rest. I personally find working 5 days per week 8am-6pm plus an additional half day (with breaks, of course), to be about the best I can do for more than several weeks at a time. I used this schedule throughout the MIT Challenge, and I’m using it now while learning Chinese.

Notice that this schedule means every evening is free as is one whole weekend day (and half of another). This means that going out to meet friends, exercising or anything else you do for fun doesn’t need to be sacrificed.

If you’re currently studying hard, feeling burned out, and are trying to switch strategies, your transition workload needs to be even less than this. I might do only half as much for a few days or a week until I build back up to this schedule. If you’re winded when running, you need to go back to a slower pace for awhile before you return to your sustainable pace.

Step Two: Switch Passive Learning Tasks to Active Ones

I’ve used the running metaphor to explain why setting concrete hours is essential. However, the running analogy fails because mental and physical tasks are fundamentally different. If you’re in a race and start feeling you’re running too fast, you have to slow down. If you’re in a mental race and start feeling you’re pushing too much, your body can compensate by wrecking your focus.

When your focus is damaged, your learning speed is curtailed significantly, but you’re still putting in a lot of effort. This means you may be putting in the same effort as someone who stuck with a concrete schedule, but you’re learning far less.

The next step to combating this problem is to switch your tasks from passive to active ones. These will strain you more, so if you’re transitioning from a burnout schedule to a fixed one, you’ll need to set even more minimal hours for the first few days. However, the benefit of active tasks is that they force you in a higher efficiency direction with your studying.

Activeness is a spectrum so there aren’t two categories of studying tasks that are labelled either passive or active. Rather, some tasks are higher-focus, higher-efficiency than others.

Self-testing is an active task. Re-reading notes is a passive one. The Feynman Technique is an active task. Skimming is a passive one. A good rule of thumb is that if there’s no point in your studying routine where you have the possibility of finding out you’re incorrect, it isn’t an active task. I would make some limited exceptions to that list (some mnemonic techniques have no feedback, but are mentally demanding and fairly efficient) but it’s a small one.

Step Three: Build a Comfortable, Yet Distraction-Free, Work Environment

This step is obvious: if you work where you have distractions, you’ll get distracted. I do my non-conversational studying of Chinese at a cafe where I don’t have internet access. If you need to use the internet for part of your work, use an app like SelfControl to selectively block all websites that aren’t work-related. If you can go without internet altogether, even better.

Put your phone on silent, or don’t even bring it while you’re studying. Go somewhere your friends aren’t (although I picked my studying location in Chinese so that it can occasionally facilitate random Chinese conversations, it’s the exception which proves the rule).

Even though you don’t want to be distracted, don’t worry about taking breaks. The ideal should be to create an environment where breaks are boring (but still relaxing) so you don’t get tempted into giving up studying. Choosing break activities that fit that criteria in advance can help you sustain your focus over an entire day.

During the MIT Challenge, I’d often go for short walks or just sit quietly for fifteen or twenty minutes. These are good breaks because they allow you to give your mind a short breather, but they are boring enough that returning to your original task doesn’t require willpower. Surfing the internet, chatting with friends or playing phone games aren’t good break activities.

My frequency of breaks depends a lot on the type of activity I’m doing. I took frequent breaks during the MIT Challenge because the hard math problems and long reading assignments were difficult to sustain focus for more than an hour or so. During this language challenge I rarely take long breaks because the mental task of grammar exercises or vocabulary building is less taxing.

How to Transition from a Burnout Schedule to an Effective One

Despite knowing these lessons deeply, I even recently succumbed to the temptation to work too much. I built my language-learning routine around immersion, which meant nearly constant engagement with the language. That worked with Spanish, where studying time itself was rather minimal in comparison to simply interacting, but it broke down when applying it to Chinese.

My problem wasn’t the No-English rule, but rather, trying to fill each day with too many activities that were mentally demanding. Always listening to ChinesePod instead of music, only watching Chinese television and media, studying every day instead of taking a day off each week. By the time I noticed I was about to hit a wall, I had a Chinese-language presentation looming in the following few days I couldn’t get out of, and it burned me. I probably lost a few days of good studying time and possibly more in lowered efficiency due to my mistake.

But mistakes happen, and once I realized I had fallen into that trap, I redesigned a new studying schedule which followed the above rules and eased into it over a few days. Now I’m back on track and I’m getting at least as much studying done as I had been before, but I’m not exhausting myself to do it.

Sometimes you can fall into a burnout schedule but not recognize it for what it is. This can happen when you aren’t making enough progress towards your goal (or are procrastinating so much) that you feel you should be working more, not less. In these cases, it can sometimes be hard to recognize that your inability to stay focused is a symptom of unconstrained work hours, not laziness.


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38 Responses to “The Three-Step Strategy to Study Hard Without Burning Out”

  1. moejoe says:

    Thanks! Great article!

    “A good rule of thumb is that if there’s no point in your studying routine where you have the possibility of finding out your incorrect, it isn’t a passive task.”

    I think you mean: it IS a passive task.

  2. Eric-Wubbo says:

    Hi Scott,

    nice post! I remember that when I studied for my high school exams (which turned out to be fairly effective, as I had the best score in my school in 7 out of my 8 subjects), I definitelty had a schedule and took breaks; though I will admit that the study time was just four or five weeks; start at 8:00 am, basically study in 20-minute (or 25 minute intervals), have half an hour for coffee and tea break, take 1.5 hour for lunch break, having leisurely lunch and watching cartoons, of course having break for dinner later in the day, and stop studying at 21:00 to do some reading or other things for fun).

    Of course, it may have helped that I liked studying; if I would do it over I might want to include a bit more aerobic sports in the schedule. And of course I was fortunate enough not to have a mobile phone or internet then.

    If you look at the research of Anders Ericsson et al, I’d say that you can only intensively study something for 4 hours a day (perhaps the limit on how long you can steer your attention to things that are mentally demanding or don’t interest you). You can study for longer, but that should be mental low-intensity work, like repetitions. The scientist J.S. Haldane studied both maths and biology, and spent about 4 hours a day on math, then switched to biology, since his feeling was that if he spent more than 4 hours a day on maths, he’d go crazy.

    I should say though that I think that for most students the true problem is not so much that they can’t work with a relaxed schedule, but that they either don’t plan their studying well or have resistance to the learning task, or that they don’t really realize that while it is seductive to put as many ‘fun’ activities in one’s week as is possible, studying is in reality a full-time job or almost full-time job if you want to do it well and one’s weekly schedule should reflect this. Either way, they postpone starting it, thereby ‘necessitating’ the sprint and burnout. But perhaps you have a post on that somewhere as well…

  3. TiansHUo says:

    友情帮忙翻译为中文:

    学习让你疲惫不堪?改变你的学习方法吧!
    高效学习的关键点:控制学习时间,提升学习效率。

    高效学习的三要素:

    学习时间:设定雷打不动的学习时间,留出足够多的休息娱乐时间
    学习方法:转被动学习为主动学习(比如做笔记,做题)
    学习环境:找一个舒适,避免打扰的地方(记得不要用各种电子设备)

  4. Carey says:

    I’m not sure I understand this statement, Scott –

    “…if there’s no point in your studying routine where you have the possibility of finding out your(sp) incorrect, it isn’t a passive task.”

    Would you care to elaborate?

  5. Todd Foster says:

    Scott,
    Excellent article. My situation is that I’m working to transition from a long working life much of which was impersonal and boring. The big challenge was to cheerfully deliver work product. Now that I ‘m free to pursue writing and photography I need a solo work technology very like your study techniques. I’ve been habituated to part time, catch as catch can, when I feel like it. I now have a full time personal work schedule and carefully set up work places. Most helpful is your scenario of short work stints interspersed with mental rest, avoiding diversions into special interests. I’m struggling to avoid the arbitrary overload you mention and the aversion it causes me. My form of your actve tasks are specific projects In my 2 Interest areas. I’m trying to retain the Idea that weeks of lighter but regular, productive work
    can be built out to near capacity level longer term. It’s not easy working for yourself without the performance sticks of an employer holding a paycheck. I definitely need a system to do so. I’ve reviewed some time management systems for ideas but I find your study and
    learning methods more helpful for where I am now. Best, Todd F.

  6. Amita says:

    Hi, you certainly don’t need to publish this comment, but I think there’s one sentence that says the opposite of what you meant:

    “A good rule of thumb is that if there’s no point in your studying routine where you have the possibility of finding out your incorrect, it isn’t a passive task.”

    I think you meant it IS a passive task, no? (Also *your should be *you’re).

  7. SUDHIR says:

    sir ,
    the same phase through which I have passed on . I still couldn’t discover the hindrance in my success instead of a lot of efforts .
    I really inspire from ur article but I can’t understand difference between active ans passive learners , plzz eleborate it more

  8. Ranga says:

    Hey Scott,

    I am juggling between two courses and a job, and though I had roughly worked out something along the lines of this article, I hadn’t got the idea as well as you did. The analogy of running as well as the limitations of the analogy with respect to mental work were good. Nice read. Good luck.

    Ranga.

  9. Wayne says:

    Hi Scott,

    Good post and I have you as required reading while I learn French and sit my CFA exams this year.

    In the last paragraph of point 2 do you mean if you can test yourself it is active learning, while if you can’t (ie reading in a library or watching youtube) it isn’t? I agree with you and it’s how I learn but the sentence has an incorrect negative at the start, or I am reading it incorrectly.

    Good luck with the Chinese and always fascinated by what your next challenge will be.

  10. Hung-Su says:

    Great post Scott! Saw this almost immediately after commenting to a friend that I was burning out while studying. He made the same suggestion to limit studying hours, but didn’t mention switching from passive to active tasks as you describe, which is an excellent action.

    I have one question regarding this sentence – “A good rule of thumb is that if there’s no point in your studying routine where you have the possibility of finding out your incorrect, it isn’t a passive task.”

    Did you mean “it’s a passive task.”? I feel like you may have confused yourself by writing a double negative. I had to write this in my notes as “If there’s no chance of discovering I’m wrong, I’m being passive.”

  11. Kevin says:

    “A good rule of thumb is that if there’s no point in your studying routine where you have the possibility of finding out your incorrect, it isn’t a passive task.”

    Shouldnt this be passive if you have no point to find out if you’re incorrect?

  12. lynne says:

    Hi Scott, this one is a good article for my son who is in College right now, he studies hard and sometimes so exhausted after reading so many books required for his thesis. I will share your article with him and his friends too. Thanks.

  13. Wan says:

    Nice post, Scott.

    I rarely burn out when it comes to studying but while doing some work non-related to studying, I can be burnt out easily.

    It’s easy to think that more time can be an efficient way of study but it’s not. This is because it’s unsustainable and that can hinder consistent studying.

  14. Wayne says:

    Kevin, I agree with you and made the same comment earlier but my post was deleted for some reason.

  15. […] Three-Step Strategy To Study Hard Without Burning Out By a guy who knows what he’s talking about: […]

  16. Sidney says:

    Excellent advice. Something that I use to track my studying and break into chunks is the Pomodoro technique. All it requires is a piece of scratch paper and a timer. Basically, study in 25 minute blocks. Take a 5 minute rest. Do 4 of these 30 minute blocks then take a longer 20 minute rest.

    Lots of computer and phone apps are out there that make it even easier to implement this technique. Books have been written about this delving into some of the psychology behind this.

  17. Kevin says:

    Hi Scott,

    Great article, but I spotted a potentially confusing typo. You write

    “A good rule of thumb is that if there’s no point in your studying routine where you have the possibility of finding out your incorrect, it isn’t a passive task.”

    I think you mean something like

    “A good rule of thumb is that if there’s no point in your studying routine where you have the possibility of finding out you’re incorrect, it is a passive task.”

  18. Kevin says:

    Ah, I see another Kevin beat me to it.

  19. lindaabebe says:

    April 3,2014

    Great examples, Scott.

    Thank you for your post, I really appreciate your recommendations for studying for exam in short pried of time. The idea of over burning studying schedules were travel experience I had last week .I studied like crease without having fun or sleep enough, but I just missed the point and fail my exam.Thank you for strategies you have pointed. I hope it will be helpful for my future studying.

  20. Pauline S says:

    Hi Scott,
    Thanks for this interesting article….terrific advice… I guess that studying in this organised way would lead to greater retention of information than for someone who “crams” at exam time. That would be an added bonus for the student.
    Cheers.

  21. Josh says:

    What about people who work and study? they are partially burnt out by work. any suggestions?

  22. Scott Young says:

    Well it looks like I officially topped my previous record for most confusingly worded sentence. Hopefully the corrections above made sense, thanks for the pointers everyone.

    Josh,

    I think the same rules apply, you’re just working with less time. Schedule hours, go active instead of passive and be distraction-free. You just might not have the whole day to work with.

    TiansHUo,

    谢谢您的翻译!

    -Scott

  23. […] The Three-Step Strategy to Study Hard Without Burning Out: Good tips for intense study. Concrete study hours with rest time, active vs passive, comfortable and distraction-free environment. […]

  24. Spaceman says:

    Eric-Wubbo above mentioned Ericsson’s research, probably citing “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.”

    He commented on how this researcher had observed that expert performers were able to manage a maximum of 4 hours of deliberate practice (ie, the most intense, active study) per day, and that more led to eventual severe burnout. Inexperienced learners didn’t have the stamina for even that amount either, sometimes having to start with 30 minutes a day. Ericsson also speculated that any hours spent in addition to this may be counterproductive or unhelpful.

    (Importantly, the students in the study did participate in many more hours than this in “domain-related” activities each day)

    In my own experience, I’ve also found that studying for more than 3 hours a day dramatically reduces my ability to focus and learn (though 3 hours a day is sure not enough to keep up with my Engineering program).

    My Question:

    Can you recommend any study activities that are still worth doing after my initial 3-4 hours of high-quality focus are spent for the day? I burnt out severely last year and it has reduced my study stamina a lot, I’m not sure how to keep away the burnout while focusing so intensely for more than that 3 hours or so.

  25. zakariae says:

    I’m a fan of you, I wish one day you can write an article about Learning dificult lessons like mathematics or computer algorithms,because I find it difficult to learn

  26. Felix says:

    I just bumped into your website via my girlfriend who’s willing to help me out. I’m studying chemical engineering a lot different from yours. Anyway, I’m trying hard to make balances among social circles, relationship, studying, religion and so on. However, the thing is I feel really lethargic no matter how long I have slept last night and feel like something is stuck in a vein connected to my brain to fuel some energy. I guess I have no choice but to follow your advice this time. from my point of view, your ways are pretty good. Thanks!

  27. Spaceman says:

    Tom and Bob are identical in every way. Bob who studies for 12 h/day 6 days a week; Tom studies for 6h/day 6 days a week.

    Who would get the better grades over a 2 year time period?

  28. […] H Young, author of Learn More Study Less, takes this idea a step further. On his blog, Young discusses his “Three-Step Strategy to Study Hard without Burning Out” that he […]

  29. Sarah Burgin says:

    Excellent advice Scott! I wished I’d know this a few years ago when I actually really needed it, too bad I need so much trial and error in order to grasp the right way to go about things.
    Thanks for sharing anyway, I really like reading your blog!

  30. Cindy says:

    Every time I read your article, I can get motivation. These days I can’t complete my study goals, and it is hard for me to concentrate. I often make my To Do List full and while I can’t finish them, I feel frustrated. As a matter of fact, a lot of time has been wasted because I find it hard to close the website. So I think it is time for me to change my schedule.
    In a word, thank you.

  31. Scott Young says:

    Spaceman,

    Assuming Bob actually studies all those hours, doesn’t get burned out, doesn’t get distracted and maintains the same quality of time–of course he’ll get better grades.

    My point is that those assumptions don’t typically hold. Very few people can maintain 12-hour per day studying routines for longer than a few weeks, after which they’re usually burned out or operating at very low levels of mental engagement and efficiency.

    Time spent * Intensity = Results

    If you assume a normal person, who commits to high-intensity 6-hour/day studying schedules I give him the lead over Bob by a mile.

    -Scott

  32. […] Recent research shows that how you study makes a big difference especially when your study time is limited. Scott H. Young’s blog “Get More from Life” lays out a three-step strategy for studying hard without burning out. Check it out at http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2014/04/01/study-hard-no-burnout/. […]

  33. Eric-Wubbo says:

    Spaceman,

    not being Scott, but Eric-Wubbo, my best wager would be to spend your ‘relaxing hours’ in domain-related activities that naturally draw your attention and interest, and don’t require extra effort to correct errors or such. It’s the forcing of attention that consumes the energy and can produce burnouts, natural attention is likely harmless (after all, you always pay attention to ‘something’, whether you like it or not). That people like Newton or Archimedes could have 10-12 hour or more ‘thinking marathons’ would in my view also suggest that it is not attention per se, but forced attention that is energy-draining.

    So if you can find those activities, you’re set! Well, I guess that’s easier said than done. Personally, I have a sort of natural liking for almost all study activities, but in learning Chinese, for example, I used to get exhausted if I had to translate for more than 45 minutes [so indeed, a beginner may have something less than 4 hour capacity, though most people would also take breaks] – Anki-ing vocabulary is however relaxing for me, so I may be able to do that for more than six hours a day (not that I have the time for that…).

  34. Sherill says:

    Great article that will surely help those who are in the midst of studying and working and being overwhelmed with all the task they have to accomplish. Very helpful article.

  35. […] this month, we began our dissection of Scott H Young’s three-step study strategy by looking into the importance of setting aside discrete times to study and relax. Today, […]

  36. […] It is important now more than ever to make sure you are efficiently using your time to study for your finals. One tip not many people know is that taking notes by hand can help you remember information for a longer period of time. In a study from Princeton and UCLA they found that processing information is improved when taking notes because you have to actively summarize information. Also remember that if you are trying to learn new information try to find a quiet environment and put down the headphones because it may impair your information retention abilities. And beware of burn out by spacing out your study hours ahead of time to make sure you have enough time to study without cramming at the last minute. Active learning, such as self-testing, is monumentally better than passively re-reading notes. If you would like to learn more about studying better without burning out check this link. […]

  37. JOSE says:

    One rule of thumb to know when to stop a day study session, assuming you are studying hard for months: stop while you still feel not tired, still enjoying the process and still having focus. In ohter words: stop when you still are eager for next day session.

    A several month routine of studying force you to deal to some sort of cumulative fatigue that is quite invisible for a while, but when sets in is hard to deal with. This tiredness has nothing to do to the usual tiredness we deal from one day to next, and it seems common for people to be caught by surprise with this cumulative fatigue because it manifests itself more rarely in our life.

    The above tactic, I believe, help to keep this invisble monster aspleep.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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