8 Ways to Work Harder Without Even Realising It

What’s the missing ingredient in your studies?

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Perhaps it’s the spark of understanding that makes the whole course make so much more sense. Perhaps it’s eating better, so you have more energy for post-lunch studying sessions. Perhaps it’s finding a way to become more engaged with the subject, so that your motivation gets an all-important boost.

Sadly, it’s often the case that you’ve already made these kinds of easy fixes, and what would make all the difference in your studies is simply working that little bit harder. But studying is exhausting, especially in the final few years of school. You may well think that you’re working as hard as you can. There’s always the danger of diminishing returns, where working longer hours might leave you so worn out that you don’t retain much more of what you were studying than you did when you were spending less time on it. Being exhausted is never a good way to learn.
In this article, we’ve taken a look at ways you can work harder, without wearing yourself out. In fact, in some cases, you might not even notice the extra time or effort you’re putting in.

1. Find extra hours in the day

Don’t worry, this isn’t a suggestion that you skip sleeping! If you’re ever starting to think that perhaps you could manage on four or five hours of sleep instead of the full eight, you should reconsider – being tired and cranky all the time will not help with your studies.

"Goodness me, is that the time already?"
“Goodness me, is that the time already?”

But often there will be times in the day that you aren’t currently using to study, that perhaps you could. There’s the classic example of using any journey time in your day to catch up on studies (for instance, listening to audiobooks if you travel in a way that isn’t textbook-friendly), but if that doesn’t work for you, there may be other time that you can use instead. One such example is first thing in the morning. Could you get to bed half an hour earlier, and then use that half an hour to do some work between your breakfast and going to school? It’s a short enough period of time that it may not seem like a big deal, but over a few weeks those half hours will begin to add up.
If you’re not a morning person, that may sound unbearable. But there may be other times that you dismiss as ‘not for studying’. For instance, if you’ve gone out to the cinema with friends, and you get back home half an hour or an hour before you’d usually go to sleep, could you use that time for studying? There are often parts of the day that we dismiss as too short to get any real work done, but if you put your mind to it, you might be able to make considerable progress by using that time wisely.


2. Cut out irrelevant tasks

School instills strong habits in us all. It may be that even in the later years of secondary school, you’re still following the primary school habits of writing a title neatly at the top of each page of notes (perhaps in fountain pen), underlining it, adding the date, and whatever other articles of good note-taking were instilled in you when your age was still in single digits. These are the most obvious examples of irrelevant tasks that you can cut out of your studying, especially if no one but you is going to see your notes. They don’t need to be beautiful, just legible, so give yourself more time to do the work that counts by not worrying if your handwriting looks pretty.

There's not point perfecting your handwriting on notes that only you are planning to use.
There’s not point perfecting your handwriting on notes that only you are planning to use.

But these obvious things are just the tip of the iceberg. There may well be other irrelevant tasks that you can just skip. There might be easy questions that you can answer without thinking, for instance. There might be studying activities that are simply a waste of time – highlighting endless sheets of notes without really taking in their content is a good example of this. If you catch yourself thinking, “why am I doing this, this is stupid” without an obvious answer to the question (e.g. “because the mark scheme is stupid”), then it’s probably the sort of study activity that you ought to cut in favour of something more beneficial.

3. Speed up where you can

You may be a faster speaker than a typist, and that's perfectly fine.
You may be a faster speaker than a typist, and that’s perfectly fine.

The more things you can do faster, the more time you’ll have to spend on valuable studying. We recommend not worrying about your handwriting looking nice in order that you don’t slow down your note-taking speed, but there are other things you can speed up too. For instance, it might be a good time to look into whether there’s any way you can speed up the performance of your computer, so you’re not wasting time waiting for programs to open or to de-freeze. This might be as simple a task as closing down programmes that are slowing down your computer – for example, you might have Skype set to load up whenever you switch your computer on, but there’s no point in having it running unless you’re actively using it or would like other people to be able to contact you. There are lots of articles online offering advice on how to speed up a slow computer – or it may be worth thinking about buying something newer and faster instead.
There are other ways to speed up your work, too. Working on improving your typing speed can be time well spent if you make rapid improvements – going from 40 wpm to 80 wpm is not impossible, and would allow you to take notes twice as quickly. Alternatively, you can look into options such as voice typing, which is available for many word processors, including for free on Google Docs. You might feel self-conscious speaking rather than typing, but it’ll get your thoughts down on the page much more quickly than even a very good typist could.

4. Work out the times when you’re best at different tasks, and work accordingly

You’ve probably thought about whether you’re an early bird or a night owl before, looking at the question of whether you do your best work in the morning or in the evening. That’s certainly something to consider when you’re planning your study schedule; hard work at 10pm is useless if you’re too tired at that point to take any of it in.

It's been suggested that creative work is best done first thing in the morning.
It’s been suggested that creative work is best done first thing in the morning.

But it’s also worth considering what type of work you do best at which time of day. There are lots of articles out there citing a study that suggested that creative work is best done first thing in the morning, while another article suggests that we can overcome mental blocks and become more insightful when we’re tired, perhaps because being sleepy shifts our perspective and allows us to see fresh solutions to a problem. As with anything that claims to be proven by Science as if Science were a single entity, it’s worth taking this with a generous pinch of salt. But it’s certainly the case that the time of day can affect your abilities in some areas. Which those are probably depends on you as an individual, so if you notice that writing essays is easier first thing in the morning and Maths problems make more sense in the evening, use that knowledge when you’re planning your studies to make the most of the time you have available.

5. Use apps and other programmes to help you

Efficient revision? There's an app for that.
Efficient revision? There’s an app for that.

Even thirty years ago, most of your studying would have been about going to the library and getting on with it, and if you wanted help in managing your time, you’d just have to be really nice to your friends or creative in your use of alarm clocks. Thankfully, it’s the 21st century now, and there’s a whole world of studying apps out there, designed to help you, as well as apps that aren’t for studying, but that may help you all the same. For instance, f.lux changes the colour of your computer screen depending on the time of day so that you’re not staring at a harsh white light shortly before you want to go to sleep. SelfControl lets you block distracting pages like Facebook for a set period of time, so you can focus more on your work.
There are dozens of project management apps out there to help you manage your time and deadlines, which are invaluable for studying. Similarly, there are endless apps to create quizzes or flashcards, which you can use to help you study – especially on the go, if you load them on to your phone.

6. Make sure your work is sufficiently challenging

It can be tricky when you’ve been set work that is too easy for you. But if you have any flexibility in the work that you do, make sure that it’s challenging enough for the level at which you are studying. If you’re flicking through the pages without needing to make much effort, you’re wasting time in which you could be doing proper hard work.

Keep challenging yourself with reasonable goals.
Keep challenging yourself with reasonable goals.

If you’re revising, making sure your work is challenging can be tricky; you might think that the point of the exercise is to go over the easy stuff. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make it more of a challenge for yourself. If the content is easy, you could make the activity you’re using to study it harder, for instance by writing yourself a quiz with less information, or by doing exam papers in shorter time limits than you would be allowed in the real thing. That way, you’ll be working harder without needing to spend additional time studying.

7. Find opportunities to be competitive

Sometimes, the only thing standing in between you and working harder is sufficient motivation. Ways to motivate yourself fall into two categories: motivation that acts as a reward once you’ve done something, and motivation that makes the actual doing of the thing more fun. Most tips for motivating yourself while studying fall into the first category – that might be eating a sweet for every page of a book you read, or giving yourself a 10-minute social media break every time you finish an hour of study. These methods accept that studying isn’t fun, and provide a way for you to make it up to yourself afterwards.

A sweet per page? Now that's the sort of incentive we can get behind!
A sweet per page? Now that’s the sort of incentive we can get behind!

More effective for working harder, though, are means of motivating yourself to enjoy the work you’re doing more. Making it harder can help (so that you’re not bored by doing something too easy) as can finding routes into the topic that make it more interesting to you. But if these methods don’t work, competition is a great motivator. Can you persuade your friends into some kind of leaderboard, for instance? If you’re not at comparable levels, you could assess yourselves by level of improvement rather than raw scores. Alternatively, figure out some way of measuring your personal best, and compete to break it.

8. Collect small tasks to do when you have time

Get organised and prepare work in advance.
Get organised and prepare work in advance.

Starting a new task when studying is time-consuming. You have to gather your books and notes, get yourself in the right frame of mind, and figure out exactly what it is you have to do. Going through all that means that if you’ve only got a short period of time free – half an hour, say – it can seem pointless to start studying at all. But thinking like this can mean you end up wasting a lot of time that you could have devoted to your studies.
Having a list of small tasks that you can do as and when you have time enables you to make use of these shorter chunks of time in a sensible way. What sort of tasks they might be depends on the subject – for a foreign language, it might be a short list of vocabulary to go over, while for Maths it might be a single problem that you expect to be able to solve in ten or fifteen minutes. If you’ve got this kind of work prepared, you’ll cut down on wasted time, but since they’re such short chunks of work, it shouldn’t feel like much extra effort at all.

What have you found helps you work harder? Let us know in the comments!

Image credits: woman taking notes; relaxing by pool; old man with watch; handwriting; tin can; mug of coffee; girl on phone; mountain; jelly babies; notebook

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