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How to Study Smarter Not Harder and Retain More in Less Time

“No thief, however skillful, can rob one of knowledge, and that is why knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire.” ―L. Frank Baum

Studying becomes valuable when you can remember what you’ve learned so you can apply it where you most likely need it. We’ve been trained on rote learning where we repeat the material over-and-over until we remember it so we can correctly answer upcoming exams.

A lot of us probably stood out during those tests but if you try to answer those questions again, you most likely forgot about them.

The reason:

Your brain failed to create necessary connections in order to remember information.

The brain is comparable to a bookshelf. Imagine walking into a library filled with thousands of books. You are about to borrow a book and the genres are all mixed up together. There are no labels and catalogs to indicate where they are. I bet you would be wasting time looking and end up being frustrated that would prompt you to … “abort the mission.”

That’s how equally frustrating when you want to remember something you’ve studied yet you could not pull it in times of use.

If you have an efficient system to learn information, you’ll likely to remember them more. You can store this information properly and put them to use when needed.

To create an efficient system, it is important that you know how the brain works. When you know how to tap its potential, you’ll produce quality work. And the quality work will translate into another aspect of your life.

The Essentials of a Great Study System

Rote learning is not a very effective way to remember information for later use because it fails to tap what the brain favors. We’ve all been victims of rote learning. We have been conditioned that we are performing at our best when we can memorize all information. It’s no wonder that our study system focuses on memorizing factual information.

But studying and learning are much more than committing facts into memory. Many of us fail to remember important concepts because we don’t tap the brain’s natural way to preserve information. In my post How to Learn Anything Faster, I detailed some ways on how you can actually learn a material efficiently.

In this article, I will share five things to consider when creating your system so you can study smarter and remember essential information.

Speak the Language of the Brain

The brain likes to talk in images. It is highly visual and retains more when presented with vivid and clear pictures. In fact, the more exaggerated or illogical the images are, the better it performs.

Memory Grandmaster Kevin Horsley has said:

“The more skilled you become in using your imagination the more you can know, comprehend and create. In this way, you become the director of your mind.”

If you can associate a vivid image with what you are studying, the more they will stick in your memory. This is why it is easy to remember My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nachos instead of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Okay, planets are easy to memorize. But try remembering the countries of Central America: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama. You can probably memorize them easily but would you be able to remember them easily tomorrow?

Since the brain is highly visual, you can use strategies like mnemonics. Mnemonics speak the language of the brain. It can create silly, colorful and fun pictures which the brain favors. When you know how to associate names to a particular picture, you increase your chances of remembering them.

So the next time you want to remember the countries of Central America, do not forget My Big Green Elephant Has Nice Clean Pajamas. Now, see for yourself if it works.

Create On-going Performances in Your Brain

Your brain is like a mini theatre. It favors information that shows actions. Since it is highly visual, it engages more when there are movements that connect the things you are learning.

I don’t know about you but when I imagine My Big Green Elephant Has Nice Clean Pajamas, I see a huge green elephant dancing in front me. It’s crazy but my brain likes it.

The brain likes these actions and you retain more when the information is alive and moving. It is why we remember stories that we’ve imagined vividly or we see as moving pictures. The power of imagination is undoubtedly strong.

In the words of Albert Einstein:

“Imagination is more important that knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.“

If You Can Connect It, You Can Remember It

Any memory master would tell you that the key to a great memory is being able to associate new information with what you already know. It’s like letting your neurons find their buddies and once they meet, they instantly click and you just remember them easily.

Look at the concept you are studying and think of another object you can associate with it.

What shape, fruit, thing, person or anything that you can connect to recall it later?

What other concepts or material can you relate with it?

Studying is important not only in school but when you want to learn something new. If you don’t use the right strategies to remember them, your efforts will go wasted.

As American neurologist Richard Restak has said:

“Learning new information isn’t helpful unless it can be recalled later. Anything that increases one’s memory power increases access to everything learned.”

A Simple System to Help You Study Smarter and Remember More

Here are some ways to help you remember more:

Start With Smart Reading Plan

When you are studying, most likely you are going to read something. If you fail to create a good system for reading, it’s going to be twice as difficult it is to remember.

Identify What Exactly You Want to Learn

Before reading, make sure that it is clear what you are exactly looking for. Your brain tends to be more alert when it has something to focus on. It’s not like going into a room and asking yourself, “Wait, why am I here?”

When you know your purpose for reading, you can develop a strategy that best fits that purpose.

For example, my reading strategy varies depending on my objective. I do speed reading when I want to get general information or I feel like the book overlaps with another material I’ve already read. I read at my regular pace when reading my devotional materials, important stuff that requires deep processing or anything that I want to simply savor and enjoy.

Ask yourself:

  • Why did I choose this book or material?
  • What am I trying to learn and remember from here?
  • What do I want to get out of this?
  • What is the best strategy that will match this material?

When you have a clear target, you’ll have a clear roadmap on how to get there. If you are studying without clear targets, you are like a boat without a rudder — directionless and unmoored. Like what Bill Copeland said, “The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.”

Interact With Your Material and Your Buddies

The brain has a tendency to get bored. Have you ever experienced reading something and you’ve managed to reach the last paragraph but you just don’t know what you’ve read?

Your mind wanders somewhere because it got bored. One way to prevent this is to have an on-going interaction with the material while you are studying. You’re probably doing this already but improving it will make your system better.

Highlight important information you get but not over-highlighting that it leaves no room for the most important information to stand out. Writing marginalized section on the material also helps. Write notes on the side of your material related to anything that you are learning.

One of the most effective ways is taking notes and giving your own spin on it. Rephrase the material on your own without losing the main essence of what you’ve studied. Honestly, this is the best thing that works for me. Immediately after reading a chapter, I extract all the main points that stood out to me and write them on my own. I write in a separate notebook then I try to remember other things I can relate to it.

That’s been serving me well since high school. When I go home, I would revisit the things discussed and explain on my own. During exams, my classmates would ask me why am I not doing last minute review. I don’t pressure my brain through procrastination. I find that it’s more helpful for me to study in advance and share what I know.

My friends discovered my system and it became a routine for us to set up review sessions several days before a major exam. We reserve a room in a library where we discuss the materials, write things on board and act like teachers. All benefit from each other because each of us has strengths in different subjects. At the end of the exam, most of us say “I’m glad we covered this. There’s no way I would remember this if we did not go over it.”

It’s helpful if you can find someone to study the material with you. When you get to share information, you’ll likely to remember them. The more you teach something, the better learner you become. The more involved you are, the better the learning will be.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin:

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

Fully Unplug When You’re In the Zone

Identify a time of the day for your study time. Most people don’t allot time for it and do last minute cramming. The number one enemy of the brain’s productivity is procrastination. Your neurons get messed up because of different physiological reactions that trigger it.

Cal Newport suggests that you engage in “deep work” when you truly want to learn something. Undivided focus is your number one ally in studying.

Science journalist Daniel Goleman said:

“We learn best with focused attention. As we focus on what we are learning, the brain maps that information on what we already know, making new neural connections.”

Assign a study time, stick to it and when you’re in the zone, be actually there. Minimize clutter around you and remove any distraction that will keep you from focusing. Continual switching saps your attention from your concentrated engagement. It hurts your process which in turn hurts your progress.

Get Your Prefrontal Cortex Excited

The ventral striatum of the brain processes the sense of reward.Your prefrontal cortex works well when it is highly engaged with the ventral striatum.

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson suggests training your brain to expect a reward from yourself so that you will be motivated to learn. When you decide to reward yourself, make sure to really do it. If not, your brain will be conditioned that you are simply tricking it, therefore, decreasing your motivation to learn.

The key here is to identify the vital behavior you want to reward and make sure that they match. Misuse of reward can also hurt your process. For example, you tell yourself, “Once I remember this page, I will get some cookies after each session.” In your desire to get a cookie, you cram information without using efficient brain strategy. In that case, the reward becomes a distractor.

When creating a reward, look at how you can match it with the behavior you want to target. Don’t let the reward become a source of distraction. Instead, it should inspire you to make your process efficient and the process will take care of the results.

When you are studying, you want to develop a laser-like focus because it helps you learn more. But it is also helpful to give yourself reward like a needed break.

Cal Newport suggests taking breaks from focus after some periods of undivided focus. He said, “If you spend just one day a week resisting distraction, you’re unlikely to diminish your brains craving for this stimuli, as most of your time is still spent giving into it. You should instead schedule an occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.”

Make Sugar Work For You

Brain regions require more glucose when it is acquiring a new skill. Your brain uses a lot of glucose when it’s learning something new. Glucose is the main source of energy for every cell.

Without enough glucose, the chemical messengers in your brain are not produced. This leads to failure of communication between the neurons. Too much of it is not good either. You cannot drown in soda or donuts to force your neurons to work. In fact, high glucose levels can slowly kill nerve cells.
Michael Green of Aston University in England suggests having more frequent but smaller meals. He said that:

“The brain works best with about 25 grams of glucose circulating in the bloodstream — about the amount found in a banana.”

To have a constant supply of glucose, eat healthy sugar like those obtained from fruits, vegetables, and grains.

Build Cognitive Reserves Through Consistent Deposits

Exposure to large volumes of information freezes your brainpower. The brain adheres to the principles of recency and exercise. You easily remember the most recent information and those you often repeat. To fully utilize this, you don’t need to wait for last minute studying to remember information.

Brain trainer Roger Seip suggests the use of chunking where you divide information into bite-sized pieces. This would be more effective when you create a study time where you chunk materials on different days. Instead of waiting before the exam to study, learn the material in chunks every day.

When you overwhelm your brain with so much information in a day, the brain gets bogged down. Cognitive scientist Sandra Chapman compared the brain to a bank. In her words:

“Your brain is like a bank. If you want to build your cognitive reserves, you have to make deposits first. The more cognitive reserves you have built up, the more protection you have for the possible decline.”

If you want to increase your cognitive reserves, perform consistent deposits every day. These deposits will eventually compound over time. As you begin to systematically encode them in your brain, the same brain regions show less activation because it does not have to work so hard to carry out the same heavy mental load.

Create An Assembly Line In Your Brain

Just like any other task, it would be extremely challenging in the beginning.
Once you develop a system that works for you, it’ll be easier to study and retain valuable information. It’s literally like you have an assembly line performing in your brain.

Each information has its own file ready to be handed to you when you need it.

When your system becomes smooth and efficiently running, you’ll see an increased quality in every output you produce. You don’t get bogged down by overwhelming information. You use your knowledge to advance innovation across domains.

Want to Fuel Your Performance?

I’ve created a checklist to help you find out if you are operating based on your inner drives. If you are driven inside, your performance and life become better.

Here’s the cheat sheet for you!

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 319,931+ people.

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