The Counterintuitive benefits of Studying less

The piece of advice from the headline is probably one that you don’t hear so often from your lecturers, teachers or parents, and you may be having doubts as you read this, but read on and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

While tutoring a Cambridge AS English Course today, I thought I’d conclude by discussing study habits with my students – I’m always interested to see differences in how people learn. And one thing I generally notice in students is that rather counter-intuitively, many high-achieving students seem to study relatively little in comparison. Coming from a competitive boys-only school, I initially believed this may have been to tactfully discourage other competitors from studying hard, a popular perception at the time, although I later found this was rarely the case. This observation seemingly contradicted the popular advice of success being solely due to hard work. So how do you explain this? Is it because they’re “born geniuses”? Or are they “genetically gifted”?

Apologies to the general Facebook community for having been such an ego-driven prick :P
Apologies to the general Facebook community for having been such an ego-driven prick 😛

I don’t believe so. In fact, I could not disagree more with having personally been labelled as “smart” or a “genetically gifted” student for achieving high grades with relatively little study – although at the time I admittedly liked to accept it in order to serve my self-inflated ego.

For someone with a huge ego about academics, I had excruciatingly painful writing!
My painfully stupid and illiterate old Facebook posts – well said Chaowei :p

However, the truth is that throughout my education, I have always asked myself how I could learn and study more in less time. I began to obsess with the idea of productivity in an ironically unproductive manner, reading all sorts of advice on how to maximise my learning. I learnt that daily exercise, sleeping well, taking regular short breaks during study and summarising notes were a few of the techniques I could apply to dramatically enhance my learning.

I was already a fan of running, but I started doing it religiously rather than just as a mere habit. I also made sure to take regular walking breaks every 40-50 minutes of study, and focussed on summarising each of my subjects’ notes to being a maximum of 5 A4 pages. I was very proud to show off all these habits of mine as a sign of my minimal study.

It is ironically this obsession with studying less, but with very high focus, which helped me to achieve good grades.

I liken this to a fascinating example from our own body; the heart – bear with me as I explain the relevance! As the heart pumps blood around the body (which represents study), it experiences resistance in the arteries and blood vessels, especially when you eat too much KFC! This resistance raises your blood pressure and can be likened to times of stressful study, where you aren’t taking breaks, exercising, or sleeping well; which happens all too often for students around exam time. The result is sadly a vicious cycle of heart failure, where the heart muscle keeps getting bigger in order to pump against this greater pressure, until the heart has become too big that it can’t pump efficiently. Likewise, we students can try study more and more hours near exams in order to fit everything in, but the fatigue hits us and our study quality goes down dramatically.

Remarkably, a surprising treatment for heart failure are a class of drugs called beta blockers, which decrease the pumping of the heart in order to rest it, which in turn improves its pumping efficiency and reduces heart failure. Exercise, study breaks and sleeping well are therefore all examples of “beta blocker drugs” for your study; they decrease your study time slightly but promise to improve your study efficiency massively, leading to far more successful study.

So to summarise, I personally think that although it’s important to have a good base-level of study, many students could potentially benefit by focussing on more effective, short bursts of study rather than long, laborious chunks, which could ultimately lead to much better grades.


As my first ever blog post, I more than welcome your feedback or opinions about this in the comments, healthy discussion is always encouraged!

10 thoughts on “The Counterintuitive benefits of Studying less

  1. Insightful post, Mark. I’m interested to hear your thoughts regarding longer term fatigue, what some people describe as “burning out”.

    My understanding here is that you are advocating students to study for relatively shorter amounts per day, interspersed with breaks, and ensuring adequate sleep. For example, you would encourage someone to study a cumulative 6 hours per day, with adequate exercise breaks and good sleep, as opposed to studying a cumulative 10 hours per day, while taking no breaks and living off 5 hours sleep per night.

    Would you advocate logically extending this argument over a longer timeframe? For example, would you encourage a student to get involved in plenty of extra-curricular activities 3-4 months out from final exams, and focus on study in the final few weeks? Or would you encourage someone to study consistently from day 1 of class? I realise that different approaches may suit different students, but I ask this question because I’ve seen some of my colleagues start the year with great motivation to study, only to drop their standards in the critical couple of weeks leading up to exams, and putting the blame on “study fatigue”.

    • Thanks Patrick, likewise great insight in your comment, this definitely got me thinking!

      Regarding the long time frame, I see that the trick is to maintain the healthy study balance throughout. People who study consistently from day one may actually be studying unhealthily, only that it’s initially masked by their enthusiasm/passion. While the enthusiasm is great, it’s unfortunately not a sustainable method of study, and so eventually the unhealthy study overcomes that passion, leading to the “study fatigue”. I’ve definitely experienced this while working on exciting projects and it gives a false illusion of what we’re capable of sustaining.

      If however people study healthily from day one, I’d argue that this burnout will actually be altogether prevented. Sure in the very long-term everyone still needs a break/holiday, but we can last much longer than we think if we actually maintain a healthy balance throughout.

      Finally since you mentioned extra-curricular activities, I believe these are a great practical way of forcing us to maintain this healthy balance, even when we’re really enthusiastic/passionate. They can slow us down when we’re too excited while providing a valuable break during exams.The key though is that they must be year-long and maintained strictly to ensure their balancing effects.

      I hope that answers your question, and once again thanks for your question which helped to solidify my understanding of the idea!

  2. Mark, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and I respect that you have a blog, something I have been wanting to do for a while now. I hope you can achieve more and help more people through this.

    I very strongly agree with what you have said and you present a logical and easy to follow argument that is backed up by evidence. I hope more people can apply this to their lives.

    I was interested to know your opinion on not just study breaks but taking days off, what do you recommend in that regard? do you think people should do it when studying for exams? do you think it’s wrong to go out when you have an exam in two days, even if you’re prepared for it?
    what is your opinion on the whole going out or spending time with friends near an exam?

    also, lastly, what is your opinion on studying in groups or with another person? is it counterproductive? or is it merely dependent on your environment or is it dependent on each person?

    thanks Mark, appreciate your time and looking forward to your response.

    • Thank you Anon, I really appreciate your feedback and am happy that you’re also considering creating a blog!

      Regarding days off, this is a really interesting one which I would say depends on context. For the majority of the time, I’d argue against a complete day off, acknowledging that it’s much better to have continued work and enjoyment on all days rather than cramming our workload into a few days. This is most clearly seen in those with Monday-Friday office jobs who may dread weekdays with their primary joy being weekends. I therefore prefer the approach of enjoying all days while fitting work into them, although there is certainly justification for taking whole days off occasionally while on holiday for example – this is needed much less than we think if we remain healthy though!

      So that explains my views on going out during exams, that I’d say it’s highly encouraged to socialise with friends during exams (something which sadly too few do) although it’d be good to have study in between. Even if you’re prepared then I’d say it’s fine to enjoy most of the day as long as you revise the topic briefly to keep everything fresh in your head, while also keeping your brain stimulated and ready for exam-mode.

      Finally, I believe group study is an excellent method of sharing learnings between a regular, core group of students. Obviously the group dynamics are crucial, so if everyone is at a similar academic level and takes those sessions seriously, they can be hugely beneficial. However, individual study is usually much more efficient since it entirely focusses on your own needs, so group study is best used as part of a total study plan, where you meet up with a group every week or so to share key learnings you had, or any concepts that you’re finding difficult to understand. I admittedly have not been part of a study group myself, but I have still enjoyed the benefits of group study by bouncing these ideas with colleagues whenever I bump into them – not as reliable or effective as regular group meetings, but you can get a surprisingly large benefit from these small encounters!

      Once again, cheers for your great insightful question and hopefully I’ve been able to answer it!

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