The Ultimate Ninja Guide to Study Methods

Study Methods Header

Study Hacks, Ninja Style.

Let’s get at ‘em.

How This Study Methods Guide Is Structured

Introduction: The Big Idea — Variation, Repetition and The Learning Cycle
Chapter 1: Staying Focused and Harnessing Your Attention
Chapter 2: Defeating Procrastination
Chapter 3: How Learning Happens in Your Brain
Chapter 4: How to Take Notes Like a Study Ninja
Chapter 5: Quizzing Yourself with High-Efficiency Tools
Chapter 6: How to Study from a Textbook
Chapter 7: How to Plan Your Semester like a Ninja
Chapter 8: A Formidable, Four-Part Organizational System
Chapter 9: How to Keep Your Files Organized
Summary: Being a Study Ninja is a Full-Time Job



Study Methods: A Ninja’s Key to Academic Success

Good evening, apprentice Study Ninja. Welcome to the guide.

We know the deal. It’s Sunday night, you feel like you’re a week behind in all your classes, homework is scattered in piles around the room, and group text chats are blowing up every 12 milliseconds. Or maybe you’ve been reading and re-reading your biology textbook, but just cannot stop mixing up “mitochondria” and “mycorrhizae.” You’re out of time, under-prepared, and will probably fall asleep on your textbook, praying for a miracle of knowledge osmosis. Yikes!

 
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Pause. How did we get here? How did you end up so far down this rabbit hole? You’ve really been working at keeping up, right? Are you just doomed to be a space cadet? Maybe it feels that way.

No way! You, just like anyone else, have the ability to get yourself organized, study like a champ, increase your efficiency, and save time and energy for the things you love to do. You’ve just never quite learned how (and school definitely doesn’t teach you).

In this guide, we’ll show you some of the most powerful tools out there to help you learn like a supercomputer, ace your academics, and keep your schedule healthy and balanced. Get ready for your tour of the most epic study methods we know. If you really put them to use, nothing can stop you – not nobody, not no-how!



The Big Idea: Variation, Repetition and The Learning Cycle

What School Forgot to Teach You (#1): Learn by Varying.

Looking for the secret key to unlimited knowledge?! At long last, it’s here!

Source: Gretchen Wegner

Source: Gretchen Wegner

The biggest mistake that students make when studying is to treat information like a one-way street: knowledge comes in, and you think your job is to be a huge mental warehouse for storage. The reality, though, is that your goal isn’t to store knowledge, but to use it. The shelves in a warehouse don’t use their merchandise; it just sits there, gathering dust. You, on the other hand, want to be opening up boxes, mixing items around, shipping out orders, receiving new packages, tagging and organizing everything… Rinsing, repeating, and most importantly, varying.


What School Forgot to Teach You (#2): The Learning Cycle

The learning process isn’t just about seeing something once and memorizing it. That’s what robots are for! (Though, today’s robots are getting better and better at adding new skills… Food for thought!)

Real learning means using your knowledge in new, interesting ways.

In order to grasp new concepts and put them to use, it’s helpful to remember the three-part Learning Cycle.

Source: Gretchen Wegner

Source: Gretchen Wegner


The Learning Cycle has three steps

  • Encode: store a new concept or fact in your memory

  • Access and check: retrieve the information from memory in order to speak it, write it, draw it, or connect it to other ideas

  • Encode in a new way: enrich your understanding of the concept or fact by making new connections from other perspectives

The most critical mistake that students make is to ignore the third phase – encoding in a new way. It might not be obvious, but re-encoding is the key step. Remember: your memory’s worst enemy is the number one. How are you so good at knowing how your mom, dad, sister, dog, etc. will react to something? It’s because you haven’t just spent one day with them, but hundreds! And you’ve probably heard that teaching something is the best way to learn it. That’s because, when you teach, you have to re-encode the information you’re teaching, and you do it through active communication. This is crucial.

Study Ninja strategy: if you really want to learn something, make sure that you’re re-encoding important information in as many ways as possible. Specifically, that means you should use as many study senses as possible.

The Enchanted Treehouse: A Thought Experiment

The Enchanted Treehouse of Knowledge

The Enchanted Treehouse of Knowledge

Imagine you’re sitting in the back corner of your math class, and just to your left you see a miniature, glowing, purple door appear in the wall. Are you asleep? Are you going off your rocker? Nobody else seems to notice. “Hmmmm,” you think. You decide to see where it leads. Pushing the purple portal open, you find yourself in the middle of tall, thick grass in a dense, humid jungle. Which direction should you go?! You have no idea what’s happening. You’re stumped.

In a flash, a garden gnome with golden boots appears. Ah!! He won’t stop giggling, which you find puzzling. “Come on, friend!” he yelps. Off he goes! Bewildered, you chase after him, beating your way through the grass and vines, trampling weeds, nearly stumbling every few feet. At the end of this strange sprint through the jungle, you arrive at an enchanted treehouse. (And seriously, he didn’t stop giggling for like 20 minutes.) It’s 200 feet tall, with moss and creepy old gas lanterns dangling from every branch and crevice. Zoinks!

You’re already here, so, what the heck. You walk through the gargantuan wooden door. Creeeaaaaakkk! You’re sure this is a dream. It has to be!

Inside the treehouse, inexplicably, you know everything you’ve ever wanted to know. All the things. You’re a freakin’ genius! Five steps in, and you’ve already found an error in the theory of general relativity. You know Beowulf by heart. You feel awesome.

After a moment, though, you hear the school bell ring from a distance – gotta get back to the real world! So you dive back through the brush, clearing the way a bit more as you return. It’s still tricky to cut through the grass and vines, but much easier than the first time. You’re just hoping you can find your way back!

Okay. Back in human world! Now…

Think of the treehouse as whatever it is that you’d like to learn. Biochemistry, Russian history, the lyrics of every Rihanna track ever recorded… you name it. Learning is a lot like running through the path you made. First off, to get to the knowledge you’re looking for, the first time is always the hardest. After that, it just gets easier. And, fundamentally, learning is about reinforcing patterns of activity in your brain. This requires repetition. In our analogy, learning means running up and down the same pathways from the classroom to the treehouse. The grass gets cleared away every time, making the pathway smoother and easier to travel.


Chapter 1: Staying Focused and Harnessing Your Attention

If your goal is to learn quicker and more efficiently, your first area to address is attention. Attention is the basic ingredient of learning—in some spiritual traditions, the basic difference between an enlightened person (like the Buddha) and most of us is simply a matter of how we pay attention. It’s that important.

Without attention, your brain has no signposts for what to remember and what to forget. It’s all just a jumble of information, with no way to keep it organized! Now, as you may know, your brain can really only pay attention to one task at a time. Maybe you’ve had a conversation where someone was nodding their head, but you could tell they weren’t really listening. Maybe you’ve been guilty of that, too—we all have! Hundreds of studies have shown that multitasking is ineffective and stress-inducing.

So, perhaps the most crucial study method of all—which will also help you socially, professionally, financially, emotionally… everywhere!—is learning to channel your attention.

Attention.jpg

Attention…

  • Is limited to one task at a time. (Seriously! If you need proof, check out Daniel Simons’ selective attention task.)

  • Strongly prefers new stimuli over familiar ones

  • Is sharpened by personal level of interest

  • Is affected by overall health (i.e. poor sleep habits really hinder it!)


Task-Switching: The Focus Killer

Ah, yes, task-switching. The attention vortex. The no-man’s land where so much good concentration—and good relaxation!—gets swallowed whole. The 21st-century Black Plague of happiness and flow. In short, fixing this habit is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. Your mind and body will thank you.

Task-Switching Experiment: over the next 2-3 days, try to notice how often you get pulled out of the task at hand. How many times per minute? Per hour? Per day? Once you begin to realize the impact it has, you can make commitment to reducing multi-tasking in your life. You can make a promise to yourself to notice when something is sapping your attention, and look for solutions.

One good solution to losing focus is a “daily distraction sheet.” This could be a post-it or a blank piece of paper. Just keep it handy when you’re working so that, if something pops into your mind, make a quick note and get to it once your study session is over.

Task-switching causes what’s known as the “cognitive switching penalty.” Basically, the act itself of switching from one activity to another is a drain on our mental energy. You probably do this hundreds of times per day! (We’ve all been there.) Think of all the energy and brainpower you’d have access to if you made it a habit to always put your life on full-screen mode.


Focused Reading: Be a Peregrine Falcon on the Internet

Nothing on earth is more challenging to your single-tasking goals than browsing the internet. Billion-dollar industries, YouTube celebrities, you name it—they exist because we are extremely distractible, and the internet knows that. So here’s a neat tool for single-tasking when you’re reading on the web: the Just Read extension for Google Chrome.

An article on the normal (super chaotic) internet.

An article on the normal (super chaotic) internet.

The same article, using Just Read.

The same article, using Just Read.

Say goodbye to sidebar ads, to Amazon dangling “related products” under your nose, and the endless “articles you might enjoy” about how Space-X is launching radioactive cats to Neptune. Just Read is your sanctuary for internet reading. Flip it on, and everything but the text and important photos will magically evaporate.

Also, it’s likely that, if you want to improve your attention, a huge change you could make is to address your physical health more carefully.

Healthy action steps for superhero focus:

  • Eat healthy foods 90% of the time

  • Exercise regularly (Hint: if you’re feeling frustrated or resentful towards exercise, look for something new. Dance, jump rope, play squash, bear crawl in a field, go wild on a punching bag, go for a swim… there are hundreds of ways to release physical energy. If you’re bored (think: treadmill zombies), it’s because you’re thinking of it as work, instead of play.)

  • Get more sleep! At least 6 hours per night, if we’re being realistic.

Chapter 2: Defeating Procrastination


The Keys to Motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

In his study of human motivation, Drive, Dan Pink boils our behavior down to three key components: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose (AMP, for short). To put it simply, if you’re feeling unmotivated to do something, it’s very likely that one of those elements is missing. Don’t believe us? Think of something you don’t want to do right now. Why not?! Could one of these factors be missing?

It’s normal to feel like, in school, all of these three elements are missing. You’re not allowed to design your own schedule (lack of autonomy), you’re told what’s important and how well to understand it (lack of mastery), and subjects are chosen for you, rather than being areas you’ve developed a real interest in (lack of purpose).

When you’re planning your education and extracurriculars, it’s worth your time to keep these in mind. Say it with us: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

Autonomy Mastery Purpose.jpg

Getting Stuff Done: Tools, Helpers and Habits

Of course, you can’t always choose what to study. In another life, perhaps! But for now, when inner motivation is lacking, here’s a handy motto for getting important things done: Tools, Helpers and Habits. This is the trio of productivity awesomeness.

Tools-2.jpg

Examples

  • Tools: Google Calendar, Reminders app, distraction sheet, Quizlet, Session Buddy

  • Helpers: Friends, family, roommates, tutors, classmates

    • How to use: Ask for help! “Hey, would you mind texting me at 7pm tonight to make sure I’m writing my Lit essay?”

  • Habits: Pomodoro method, the “Get-Set” routine

    • How to use: Make it a goal to implement these every day for 15 days, and they’ll start to become second nature.


PS: Another great website for learning to “put your life in full-screen mode” is Zen Habits: https://zenhabits.net



Chapter 3: How Learning Happens in Your Brain


The Human Mind: A Novelty-Seeking Machine

Ask the average high school or college student how they plan on studying for tomorrow’s test. A large percentage will say “Oh, yeah... Umm I’m going to re-read the textbook and make sure I understand everything.” Sound familiar?

The problem with “re-reading” or “going over notes” is that they don’t engage enough of your brain and body. It’s like training to be a professional basketball player by only doing bicep curls. What kind of success rate is that going to get you?

Here’s a good trick: your memory’s worst enemy is the number one. For example, having only one source on a topic, only reading an important passage once, studying a vocab word only one time, and so on. Your brain truly learns when it has repeated contact with the information to be remembered, in more than just one way.

Why would this be true? Why does the brain respond so much to variety? Can’t it just recognize when something is important to you?

In complex human societies where our survival depends on managing subtle social situations, your perception has to constantly be active. New social information is everywhere: a slight pupil dilation, a change in body position, a threatening hint in someone’s tone of voice. We’re masters at perceiving social cues, which involve thousands of diverse signals zipping around, all the time, from person to person. So, we’re wired to keep up with the news—our brain naturally wants to keep up with the ever-changing social dynamics in our environment. The reason this is important for learning how to study is because old information is never as important to our brain as new information.

That’s why, if you want to really learn something, repetition is only half the battle. The other half is variation—for instance, asking new questions: How was this idea discovered? What does it connect to that I already know? Who might disagree with it? How would I represent it in a 4-panel cartoon? What if its opposite were true?


Neurons That Fire Together, Wire Together

In the brain, “learning” means that a series of neurons—the brain cells involved in the task we’re learning—develop more efficient connections. If we wanted to drive from New York to Chicago, the learning process would be like cranking up the velocity and clearing out traffic; the path becomes smoother, quicker and easier. Through the magic of biochemistry, your neurons become quicker and more efficient at linking up and sparking a lightning-fast chain reaction. That chain reaction is what we’re going for: learning!

Learning happens when synapses are created or destroyed in the brain.

Learning happens when synapses are created or destroyed in the brain.

Let’s think about running to our enchanted treehouse. What we’re looking for, by studying, are quicker and easier ways of getting to the treehouse and back. We want some ninja-status tools for clearing away the grass, and maybe some rocket boots to make the trip zippier. Now, re-reading your chemistry textbook before an exam is not a bad thing at all. In fact, it provides your brain with a key element of learning – repetition – which helps strengthen connections. But the problem is, if you only rely on repetition using the same method (e.g. reading a book), you’re missing the whole other half of the equation – variation. To really speed up the pathway between you and the knowledge you need, variation is a must.

The Study Senses

This is where the study senses come in. Using your study senses is all about giving your brain the variety it needs to learn something in depth.

Source: Gretchen Wegner

Source: Gretchen Wegner

Here’s the rule of thumb: If you really want to learn something, make sure you engage all the study senses in as many ways as possible. This is how your brain will remember that a concept is really crucial. The number one mistake students make when studying is only using one or two of their study senses.

Study Senses table.png

Study Senses Exercise: Think about your favorite study strategy. (For most students, their go-to method is re-reading a textbook.) Now, ask yourself: how many study senses does this method engage? And how could I improve my habits to include ALL the study senses? In the example of re-reading a textbook, the only sense involved is the eyes. Ears, mouth, and hands are left out of the picture—this is why simply re-reading is never enough to get you the understanding you need!

The Feynman Technique

One awesome technique for taking an active approach to studying is called the Feynman Technique. This exercise involves picking a topic and trying to explain it as completely as possible. Here’s a great video on how to try out the Feynman Technique.



Chapter 4: How to Take Notes Like a Study Ninja

When someone mentions “note-taking,” this is probably what you think: sit down during a class or lecture, write down the most important information (or just the slide headings), fill in with some details, then close your notebook. Done-zo!

Well, sort of. The good news: you got half the note-taking work out of the way. The bad news: there’s still another half! Just think of it this way: the notes you take in class are part one of a two-part series. Ignoring the second half of note-taking is like watching the first hour of Finding Nemo, but never finishing it. Inconceivable!

The notes you take in class, let’s call those First-Pass notes. They’re important for getting down big ideas, useful examples, references to look into, and more. However, in the moment, you don’t have time to pause and ask questions, to compare and contrast what you’re learning with other ideas, or to organize the information with helpful visuals. That’s where Fine-Tune notes come in. Making good Fine-Tune notes means redesigning your First-Pass notes on a new page (physical or digital), where you can lay out important ideas in a more intentional way. It might sound like a chore, but in reality, in the Fine-Tune phase you get to be autonomous and learn for yourself (instead of someone else telling you what to do!).

Very important: Fine-Tune notes are NOT just a repetition of your First-Pass notes! They’re much more: they help you add, subtract, research, rearrange, and re-word ideas until you’ve cleared up any confusion. They often use one or multiple of the visual organizers below:

Visual Organizers for ninja-level notetakers.

Visual Organizers for ninja-level notetakers.

Fine-Tune Trick #1: Visual Organizers

  • Try using some of the following techniques to organize info visually

    • Mind-map

    • Graph

    • T-Chart

    • Venn Diagram

    • Timeline

    • Flow Chart

Fine-Tune Trick #2: Chunking

  • Are there any helpful ways of grouping – or “chunking” – the ideas you are studying? For instance, in a history class, you might be able to group important events into categories: cultural, military, international, economic, etc.

Fine-Tune Trick #3: Vacuum Pack Your Notes

  • Fine-Tune notes are all about the big ideas. They’re designed to give you a clear understanding of how different sub-topics relate to the main ideas. What’s most useful about Fine-Tune notes is that you are in charge of organizing them—not your textbook or your teacher.

First-Pass and Fine-Tune notes go together like PB&J. If you put this one-two punch of note-taking ninja skills into action, you’ll a better grasp on what’s happening in class, and studying for exams will be way easier than before. Taking excellent notes—today!—is the key to deeper understanding, better grades, and more confidence as a student.


Chapter 5: Quizzing Yourself with High-Efficiency Tools

Remember the Golden Learning Equation...

Variation + Repetition = Learn anything!

Far and away the best method of creating variety and repetition—and therefore learning—is by quizzing yourself in diverse ways.

Effective self-quizzing means prompting yourself to access the relevant information. It is not enough to simply consume (read, hear, see a picture of) your subject. Producing it is critical (i.e. speak, write, explain, map out, etc.). This means engaging your study senses!

Think of your brain like an X-ray machine: if you only take X-rays from one angle, you’ll get a flat, two-dimensional image. Boring! Forgettable! But if you were to rotate around, observing from every angle, soon enough you’d get a rich, 3D image of the bone.

In school, every additional study method you use gives you a new angle: textbook reading is one angle, explaining to your study buddy adds another, as does mind-mapping a chapter summary, drawing a flow chart, and so on.

Xray 1.jpg

Below are some tried-and-true examples of quizzable study tools. How many have you tried before? How might you use one for your next quiz or test?

  • T-Chart

  • Flashcards (physical or digital)

  • Above/Below: When you do your homework or build study guides, place the answers on a line below the prompt. Then, cover the answers with a piece of paper as you read the question. This allows you to think it out, and immediately get feedback by revealing the correct answer.

  • Quizzable Voice Memo: Record your flashcards as an audio track, pausing after each question to quiz yourself on the answer.

Reflection Questions

Another great way to round out your understanding is to ask deeper questions about the content you’re studying. This is a powerful study method – one that too many students overlook.

This skill, it turns out, comes in handy in many life situations. In relationships, in grad school, in thinking about your work opportunities (and the ones you believe are inaccessible), it is always worth your time to ask, “What am I not noticing here? What am I taking for granted? What questions haven’t I asked yet?”

Reflection Question Ideas

  • Describe a movie/television scene that depicts this concept

  • Describe how an animal might portray this concept

  • Describe this concept without using any key words written on the flashcard

  • Draw this concept

  • Give a real life example of this concept

  • How would you explain this to a child/someone who has never heard of it before?

  • What is the opposite of this concept?

  • What situation in your life has depicted this concept?

  • Why is knowledge of this concept useful to you?

The Forgetting Curve and Spaced Repetition

It may seem intuitive to you that repetition helps you learn, but the science of it is pretty interesting. Have you ever heard of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve?

Forgetting Curve.png

According to Hermann Ebbinghaus, how much we retain information depends on a couple of factors:

  • The strength of your memory

  • The amount of time that has passed since learning


And there are two factors that we can influence here:

  • Repetition

  • Quality of memory representation



Repetition is simple enough – the more frequently you study something, the more likely it is to embed itself in your noggin. But what does he mean by “quality of memory representation”? Simply put, it’s about feeling a meaningful connection to the topic. Some important factors include:

  • Is this information important to you?

  • Can you connect it with concepts you already know?

  • Are you able to put it into practice in any meaningful way?

Making Learning Relevant

In school, this can be tough. We often find ourselves asking, “How is this relevant to me? Why do I need to study calculus to get a degree in history?”

Practically speaking, here’s a good solution: at times when the content of what you’re learning doesn’t feel highly relevant to your goals, remember that the learning process is always extremely relevant to your personal and academic goals. Without a doubt, the ability to learn new skills and subjects quickly is worth its weight in gold. In college, graduate school, or studying a new language while traveling… learning how to learn is probably the most useful skill out there.

So, when you’re banging your head against the wall on a physics assignment, just remember: maybe the content doesn’t feel relevant to you long-term—but the process truly is. And you’re in it anyway, so you may as well get skills at building skills.

Chapter 6: How to Study from a Textbook

Two words: Active Reading!

The main mistake for most students, when reading a textbook, is that they treat it as a passive event. Almost like watching a golf match. You show up, glance around, pay attention here and there, and then head to the shade with a tasty snack. Done!

Well, not quite. If there’s one thing you should take away from this study methods guide, it’s this: learning doesn’t happen on its own. Your classes will expose you to information, but exposure is NOT the same as learning. Learning is a personal, internal process—and only you can make it happen.

So, grab that pre-calc textbook by the horns! That’s the main idea with getting the most out of a book: active reading, not passive.

Typical students...

  • Open the book to the chapter they’re studying

  • Start reading

  • Rarely or never pause to check comprehension

  • Forget what they read, soon after

  • Be frustrated that they don’t remember well, then blame their memory (an external cause).


Tactical, extra-awesome study ninjas...

  • Review the Table of Contents first. You always want to get a “birds-eye view” of how the pieces fit together.

    • For example, you might be reading a chapter about Lewis structures in chemistry. Why should you care about where and how to draw electrons?! Why so many rules? In this case, the important underlying concept is that electrons play a central role in how two compounds react, so understanding that behavior allows us to synthesize new chemicals, create medical devices, etc. It’s important to think through how the dots are connected.

  • Read “backwards.” Go straight to the chapter summary before diving into the content.

  • Create questions while you read. One easy trick is to use section headings as the answer to a question. Then, make this question a flashcard.

    • Section Heading example: In the Meiosis chapter of a biology textbook, a section heading is Crossing Over

      • Corresponding question: What kind of DNA exchange occurs when the arms of non-sister chromatids combine?

      • And, voilá! Perfect flashcard right there.

    • This is an awesome way to actively turn content into quizzable study materials.

  • Pay attention to formatting. Are there any lists, charts, tables or graphics? Pay special attention to these.


Chapter 7: How to Plan Your Semester like a Ninja

Ace Your Tests from the Top Down

Instead of just plopping down and starting to study from day one, we want to give ourselves an advantage by doing some careful planning. The best way to achieve this is to plan from a birds-eye view.

The Top-Down Study Plan

  1. What’s on the test?

  2. What is the format of the test?

  3. What tool will I use to quiz myself?

  4. Am I evaluating myself the way my teacher will?

  5. Make a list of study actions using active verbs (not “study” or “review”)

  6. Put the study actions on your calendar

This is called “top-down” planning because we have to zoom out to build a long-term plan. Imagine climbing to the top of a mountain and looking at your semester schedule from above.

If you put the Top-Down Plan into practice, you’ll have a serious leg up over students who simply start from page one without a strategy. This is the same idea as actively reading a textbook: in order to understand the context and scope of what you’re studying, it’s important to look at the overall structure. Doing so will also help you be more relaxed, because you’ll know that you’re not forgetting about anything. Before you know it, you’ll be acing your classes with ninja-like finesse—from the top down!

Grouping

In scheduling your semester, we recommend grouping your class materials by unit, and keeping them all together. For instance, if you’re doing a right-triangle unit in Geometry, collect all your materials on that topic (notes, assignments, quizzes), and place them in a folder or paper-clipped together. This will make coming back and studying for the final exam a million times easier.

Sunday: Weekly Planning Day

If you’re reading this, you probably have a number of goals in different areas of life: you want to get good grades, ace your tests, spend time with friends and family, be healthy… things like that. Who wouldn’t?

That said, you might have noticed that poor organization habits are really keeping you from achieving your goals. Maybe you want to finish your homework in two hours, but end up juggling distractions and doing semi-homework until late at night. Or maybe you want to spend more time listening to music, but you end up getting roped into playing video games with your friends all the time. All this can be really draining.

One of the simplest hacks you can do to take control of your time is to pick a weekly planning day. In our experience, Sunday works best. By planning your time out, you’ll eliminate the anxiety of deciding when to do what. You’ll be able to calmly plan out your responsibilities, balancing them with the activities you love to do. Once you start, you’ll never go back!

Calendars

Unless your memory runs on supernatural levels of processing power (which might make you a cyborg?), you’ll need a calendar to plan out a whole week. You want to make sure you have a high-quality calendar system in your life.

Some recommended calendar systems:

  • Paper

  • Digital: Google Calendar, iCal

  • Wall

Once you have a calendar that works for you, you’ll want to start with a technique called time-boxing. This means blocking out chunks of time to get specific tasks done. Here’s an example:

Time Boxing 1.png

Important: Time-boxing does not mean arbitrarily picking chunks of time and hoping for the best. Yes, it’s good to have a plan, but that plan should be a) realistic, and b) optimized for your body and mind, not anyone else’s. What do we mean by that?

If you know you eat dinner at 7pm every night, then probably don’t put “Study Geometry, 6-8pm” in your calendar. It’ll never happen! And if you know you fall asleep at 10pm every night like clockwork, it’s probably not functional to plan to start your English essay at 9:45.

Also, it’s important to have a sense of the environments and times of day that best help you focus. Do you like to take naps, or do they just make you drowsy? Do you work well outside, or better at a quiet desk? Do you like having other people around (for instance, in a library), or prefer to study solo?

When planning out your week, be honest with yourself. Time-boxing only works to the extent that you’re honest about what you will and won’t realistically do.

Semester Planning Summary

When it comes to your education (and more broadly, in life), you have two choices: Planning Mode or Zombie Mode. In general, if you’re not at least doing some planning, you’re in Zombie Mode. And that’s totally awesome, if your goal is to be a forest nomad who feeds on fresh brains under the moonlight. But, if you want to get on top of your studies and whip your grades into shape, Planning Mode is the choice.


Chapter 8: A Formidable, Four-Part Organizational System

A complete organizational system has four parts to it:

  • Task Manager

  • Calendar

  • Note-Taking System

  • Physical Storage

Here are some examples of how you might create an organizational system fit for a true study ninja:

System #1: All Digital

Organization 1.png

System #2: All Physical

Organization 2.png

Feel free to mix and match! There’s no right answer. Just make sure that you’re consistent, and that you use your Weekly Planning Day to evaluate whether your system is working. If it’s not, make small changes and try them out for a week.

Chapter 9: How to Keep Your Files Organized

On most people’s computers, you glance at their desktop and want to run screaming. It’s like little folder and document critters are crawling out of the screen, waiting to climb inside the next person who sits down at the keyboard. They’re eeeeeeverywhere!

And if you dare take the plunge, looking at their file organization can be just as traumatic. The downloads folder has 12,000 abandoned files; there are 150 essays in a row named “American Lit FinalFinalFINAL2.0”; recipes are mixed in with homework assignments, selfies and resume drafts. It’s pure chaos out there!

On the other hand, you can use simple techniques to zen out your digital life. First, organize all your school files with a folder for the semester, and folders for each class and extracurricular activity. Make it a policy to file things in their place right away—otherwise, you’ll have mountains of digital chaos on your hands, reproducing like slime mold.

Digital Files 1.png

Here’s a tip—it’s cheating, but it works! At the very least, you can take your desktop files and place them into a single folder.

Desktop.png

In this case, even if everything inside this folder is completely chaotic, at the very least the desktop is looking squeaky clean.

Long story short: don’t be the crazy cat lady of digital file storage! There are tons of great ways to get your files organized. This is a crucial skill to develop, no matter what you study.


Summary: Being a Study Ninja is a Full-Time Job

We sincerely hope you’ve found this guide to be useful for sharpening your study-ninja sword. As you can see, building your organizational system and knowledge of study methods takes time and dedication. What’s most frustrating is that you basically get no help with these skills in middle school, high school, or even college. If you did, that’s awesome! But in general, we’re expected to figure it all out on our own.

So, print this guide out and keep it near your desk. Refer back to it regularly. Mastery happens by developing tiny habits, slowly, one at a time. So pick one area you’d like to improve, and take a baby step. Then take another.

Acknowledgements and Resources

The following authors and creators have contributed greatly to the world of study skills, and deserve recognition. Check them out on the web!

Andrew Delman