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How to get down to studying?

You are in your first year of university, the first examination period is approaching, there is a lot of material to be learnt in a short period of time. Stress and anxiety begin to attack you, because you want to pass exams and overcome this first important barrier, which will enable you to continue your education.

The only thing you have to do is to make your brain your ally, i.e. you need to take care of it so that it helps you not only to acquire knowledge, but also to live your life in general.

Set the rules

There is no universal rule for everyone to succeed in studying. People differ with regard to their temperament, ways of coping with stress or memory resources.

However, there are some golden rules that can make studying easier when put into practice. They are often discussed in the media and recommended in textbooks or manuals. They are effective, simple and make your brain ‘feel good’, so that it can assimilate knowledge better.

Let me consolidate them for you below.

  • physical movement (exercise, go for walks, play sports, move around)
  • healthy diet (drink water, eat vegetables, fruit, nuts, avoid coffee and alcohol)
  • rest (find time to relax every day, set yourself rest times).

When you are rested, ventilated and well nourished, your mind works more efficiently. Without it, no memorisation technique will be of help. These three principles are the foundation of which you need to take care first.

Ask yourself questions

The next step is to identify a few individual characteristics that allow you to assess your optimal learning abilities. When you start sports training, the coach will always assess your starting point and check what you are good at and what you still need to work on. You should do the same when assessing your abilities. Ask yourself the following questions and answer in an honest and sincere way. The answers will help you to plan your work.

At what time of the day am I the most concentrated? When do I work effortlessly and learn best? What distracts me most often? What is good for me when I am learning? Do I prefer to learn alone or with someone? Do I learn faster listening to lectures or taking my own colourful notes? Do I prefer to repeat a text which is read aloud? Do I learn on the move, e.g. by walking? What relaxes me? Do I like to listen to music while studying or do I prefer silence?


Once you have answered the questions, you may plan your learning. To create a good plan of action, you need to know what your goal is and stick to it. If you have to pass the most important and probably the most difficult exam, you need to pay the most attention to it and plan when to get down to work. Starting with the easiest task is a human strategy aimed at avoiding difficulty. It is a common mistake, because the most difficult things poison your thoughts and make it difficult to focus. We like to do things that we are good at. That is why you usually start from the simplest and easiest tasks. You may be thinking – I will do it quickly and I will be over with it. If it is easy, do it last, because even if you are tired, you will get it done. When you plan, break tasks down into chunks. For your mind, the message ‘learn criminal law’ is like the slogan ‘be good’ for a child – it is too general and frightening. Divide the elephant into pieces, then it will be edible. Big goals should be broken down into small actions set for specific days and times. Your plan should include breaks for rest, sleep and eating. Write a plan and try to stick to it, but do not get too attached to it. Not everything is under your control. Do not reproach yourself if things do not go according to plan. Assess the situation: has something distracted you or maybe you did not manage to learn the material because you did not have your notes or the right textbook? The plan can always be modified and adapted to your needs. Do not be influenced by the fact that others are going faster. Do not compare yourself. You are unique and have your own rhythm, focus on yourself and on what you can influence.

Act in your own way

And now a little guidebook which may be useful when getting down to work:

  • The brain likes rituals, but hates boredom and monotony. Is it a paradox? Well, the point is that we feel safe within a certain framework, activities or predictable events, but we also need challenges. Study in different ways in different places. Do not waste time on long and monotonous study marathons fuelled with coffee or energy drinks. American scientists have confirmed that the effect of such practices is short-lived and harmful.
  • Adapt the place of study to your needs - organise the environment in such a way that it supports you, turn off notifications on your phone. You can use phone apps that reward you by showing you that, for example, if you do not touch your phone for a few hours, a tree grows in the app, and then a forest (just type ‘phone apps’ into your browser). Assertively ask your housemates or roommates not to disturb you when you are studying.
  • Use different learning techniques - mnemonics, mind maps, charts, recording highlighters, flash cards - anything that works for you.
  • You are not an island. Study with someone. Ask to be quizzed, have a casual discussion about the topic or a simple chat.
  • Take breaks and rest, it is better to get some sleep than to study for several hours hoping that something will stay in your head. It will not stay in your head: a tired head has difficulty concentrating, while after a good night’s sleep it will find the memory trace faster or come up with something on its own on the basis of the knowledge it already has.
  • Do not worry too much - learn relaxation techniques, visualisation, find time for a mindfulness course or use an app on your phone to learn how to breathe, listen to music. Your right brain hemisphere will return the favour with creative thinking and more imagination.

The brain is like a muscle, you have to train it. There will probably be moments of doubt and crises. If you feel that you are trying your best and you are using the techniques described, but you cannot achieve your goals and you feel anxious and depressed instead, seek specialist help. This is not a sign of weakness but of maturity which manifests a desire to take care of yourself.

Reference literature:

Alloway T. P; Training Your Brain For Dummies, For Dummies, 2011.

Greenberg M.; The Stress-Proof Brain, New Harbinger Publications, 2019.

Minge N, Minge K; Jak uczyć się szybciej i skuteczniej, Warszawa 2017.

About the author

Jagna Kazienko, MA– psychologist and psychotherapist

She graduated in Psychology from the Jagiellonian University and completed a postgraduate programme for psychotherapists (currently in the process of certification) offered by the Faculty of Psychotherapy of the Jagiellonian University Medical College. She is a certified community therapist. She has completed a first degree Solution-Focused Brief Therapy course.

She has gained professional experience working at the Krakow Psychotherapy Institute, the Counselling and Family Therapy Centre ‘Dom Terapii’, the Crisis Intervention Centre in Bochnia, a day ward of the Pro-Psyche Mental Health Centre and in her own private practice. At present, she is Director of the Student Centre for Support and Adaptation (SOWA).