How to craft your perfect study week

Written by: Matthias Frank
Last edited: April 12, 2024

It’s time for another way to level up your learning game! You’re obviously already well prepared for your next exam period because you’ve read my last post oThe Three Principles of Effective Learning.

Amazing. It was on a pretty meta level though. So let’s break things down further and take a look on how to craft your perfect study week.

Why? It’s dead simple. Taking the time to structure your week in advance greatly simplifies your life.

Did you know, that Barack Obama never picked out an outfit in the morning? That’s because Decision Fatigue is a real thing.

Every time you make a decision, you pay for it with mental energy. And the more we spend our energy on questions like: “what will I practice today?”, the less we have to tackle our actual work.

Besides, it will make sure that you don’t lose track of what’s important when time get’s tight.

Sure, on an abstract level it is easy to welcome effective study techniques. They got science behind them, they make intuitively sense and they promise you great results. What’s not to love?

But when it’s t-3 weeks before the exams and stuff keeps piling up, it is tempting to forget all good intentions and go back to mindlessly re-reading your notes, staying up late to finish one more page and to prioritize that one niche topic over practicing the actual exam work.

That’s why we set up a system in advance.

Crafting your study week is like a puzzle. You got the puzzle pieces and you got a puzzle board. Putting them together once you understand both those things and the rules of the game is rather easy. The trick is to actually think it through once, instead of playing Jenga with all of it.

Step 1: Gather your pieces

First, our pieces. That’s the work you do in any given week. While everyone’s pieces will look slightly different, we can distinguish between four types of pieces: the four key elements of learning:

  • First Exposure – listening to a lecture, reading a course book, watching an explanation. Whatever you do in the beginning to get a first idea of the topic.
  • Understanding – really getting a hang of the idea. What does it do? How does it relate to other stuff you know? Why does it matter?
  • Practicing – applying your newfound knowledge. Exactly in the way you ultimately need it. In other words, Direct Practice.
  • Internalizing – interweaving the new topic with what you already know. You could also call it memorizing.

Each one of these pieces deserves it’s own dedicated blog post, so here, we can only scratch the surface. The most important aspects you need to keep in mind are:

  • Never internalize before you understand. You are not allowed to put down an internalizing piece before you placed the understanding piece.
  • Practice doesn’t require internalization. To the contrary, practicing will help you to remember it later. So both pieces should be played together.
  • First exposure and internalizing will never use the same medium. In other words, you will never just re-listen, re-read or re-watch something, because that is passive and ineffective. If your Internalizing piece looks like a First Exposure piece… it’s First Exposure, not Internalizing.

A good puzzle, just as a good routine, lives from a sufficient balance between pieces. Sure, that all-black-puzzle looks like a fun challenge. But it’s similarly hard to pass your exams if you just try to internalize things as it is to solve this crazy puzzle here.

So always remember (particularly in the beginning!): Never omit Understanding and Practicing for First Exposure and Internalizing. They all work hand in hand.

Here’s what to do:

Take a piece of paper and do the following (10 min)

  • on the left, write down the four categories (1/2 min)
  • next to them, note the activities your currently doing. (3 min)
    • e.g. listen to Criminal Law 101 for First Exposure
  • revise: are all steps represented? (2 min) – Typical imbalances are:
    • You learn more new things every day, but never internalize
    • You never bother to understand. A clear indicator for that usually is the feeling of having to just remember random and arbitrary facts. While you may need to do that occasionally, it is much more likely that you haven’t found the inherent logic behind it yet.
    • You amass theoretical knowledge without ever practicing it
  • adjust: brainstorm missing parts (4 1/2 min)
    • trouble Understanding? Try Knowledge Trees or Mindmapping for structural knowledge or the Feynman Technique for conceptual knowledge
    • trouble Internalizing? Build a habit of revising old stuff first thing in the morning before you do the regular work. Don’t confuse it with First Exposure though and always, always use Active Recall
    • trouble Practicing? Remember that unless you train for a Quiz Show, facts alone won’t win the game. Get yourself practice sets and do mock exams. If you can’t practice the exam itself, get as close as possible (e.g. write essays to last years questions) or dissect it into parts

I’ll take a detailed look at Knowledge Trees, Mindmapping, the Feynman Technique, The Revision Timetable, The Pomodoro Technique & Drills next time. Sign up to my newsletter to make sure you get it!

Step 2: Understand yourself

Once you figured out the pieces, you need to focus on the board: yourself. Your puzzle pieces can’t be placed everywhere equally. This is a next-level puzzle, not your oldschool kindergarden stuff.

Do you actually know when you work best?

We all have phases of higher and lower mental energy throughout the day. And for the most part, it would be much more efficient to accommodate to this instead of fighting it with energy drinks and the like.

Take another piece of paper aaaaand…

  • quickly sketch out a day, dividing it up in two-hour-parts each. You can go more granular, but for now, a rough idea is sufficient.
  • now fill in the segments. When do you actually get work done? When are you focused enough to tackle that new and complicated subject? And when do you mostly work on autopilot? To keep things easy, I’d stick with three levels: Hyper-Focus, Normal-Mode and Crazy-Lazy.

If you have no idea how to fill this out, then keep an Energy Journal for one or two regular work days. Start with the same sketch of the day and fill in each part as you go through it.

Most important thing here is honesty. It’s okay if your day can only start at 12 o’clock. Fill in how you feel, not how you think you should.

Step 3: Structure your day

We got the pieces. We got the board. Time to play.

Ultimately, no one can tell you how your perfect week looks like. So instead of giving you a recipe that is to be followed to the point, I’ll give you some general techniques to apply:

Input vs. Output

There are generally two ways to schedule your work. You either focus on input or on output.

Output focus is the way we typically approach things. Output is about setting goals and measuring how well you achieve them.For studying, that would mean to break down in advance what you want to achieve in a given day. You could simply add up all pages you need to read and divide them by the number of days. Or divide the question sets that need revision into daily chunks.

DOs and DON’Ts

  • Do write down your goals a day in advance
  • Do keep a reasonable workload. It’s all about setting realistic expectations.
  • Don’t keep working. Once you’re done, you’re done. Reward yourself for effective work instead of just piling on and on. It will help with motivation long term.

Pro: easily track progress, reward yourself for efficient working,

Input focus on the other hand puts your time first. Instead of working toward a goal, you work for a specific time.You can set this up without much advance planning. How many hours a day are you able to work at least semi-productive? That’s the time you have available to use as study time. Just block it in your calendar, and you’re good to go.

DOs and DON’Ts

  • Do plan according to your energy levels (see below). Distribute your workload effectively.
  • Do some thinking ahead of time about what to work on. Not focusing on output ≠ not knowing what to work on.
  • Don’t keep working once time is up. Parkinson’s Law knows, that your work expands to the time allocated for it. Few things counteract procrastination as effectively as a fixed deadline. Treat them as such or they will lose any effect.

Pro: easy to set up, fixed schedule helps with creating habits, more flexible to adapt if the things you need to work on change suddenly

Which one to choose? I’ll write in debt about them soon, but for now, this should be a good starting point for you to pick one:

  • Do you have a lot of different things to do that need handling? Can you easily estimate the time it would take for each of them? Examples would be a regular study semester, where you got a number of classes and several assignments to work on weekly.→ use the output method
  • Are you working towards big, hard to measure tasks? Is it one big project, where goal setting is arbitrary or a lot of work? An example would be a master thesis or a catch-all exam like the bar exam→ use the input method

Blocking vs. Interweaving

When it comes to topics, there are again two main approaches: you can either work en block on a specific topic or interweave them. While the first aspect was more of a personal choice, we got some pretty good scientific pointers for this one. The answer? It depends:

  • for your First Exposure and Understanding, you want to work en block on a specific topic. Chances are, that you are dealing with complicated questions. You really need to take the time and dive in deep.Science has shown over and over again, that multitasking is a bad idea and frankly, doesn’t work. If you take your mind of something, you’ll need on average 25 minutes to fully refocus. 25 minutes!Now in law and probably in every other subject too, there are enough questions that require thinking through a whole lot of pre-concepts again before you can tackle a new question. The intrinsics of mortgages are fun to deal with – but they take time.If you switch between complex topics, you’d have to go through those “initial set up thoughts” time and time again. Save the time and finish one after the other.
  • when it comes to Practicing and Internalizing though, mixing it up is what you should aim for. It’s rather intuitive why:When I was in school and had to memorize French vocabulary, I hated mixing things up. I would go down my list exactly as I wrote it down, always the same direction “German to French”. That was easy. Because it was familiar. My brain new what came after “boulangerie”, because it came there every time.Our brains love connections. And the more often we repeat them, the better we get at them. But most of the time, those connections are arbitrary. It’s most likely not the connection you need later on. So we get tricked twice: first, we confuse familiarity with knowledge (Recognizing something is not the same as remembering something) and second, we might form suboptimal connections.We already know that easy practice is most likely ineffective practice. Mixing up your topics for Internalization or Practice amps up the difficulty significantly. So I guess it comes at no surprise, that studies have shown improved learning, when students interweave topics.

High Energy vs. Low Energy

This one is a no-brainer, but it’s worth to quickly consider whether you act accordingly: are you doing the most intense work during times of high energy?

In my opinion, this is how the four key elements are structured in terms of required Energy Level (from high to low)

Understanding > First Exposure > Practice > Internalizing

That’s not to say that you should try to internalize things while you are at your all-day energy low point – that’s the time where you take a break. But maybe don’t spend your most productive time going through flashcards, when you could finally figure out instead why you need to learn them in the first place.

There is one exception to this rule: the eat-the-frog-principle:

Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day – Mark Twain

If there is a thing on your to-do list that you either (a) really really don’t want to do or (b) always forget, try doing it first.

Abort mission quickly, if that means you start your day four hours later than usual, because you really really really don’t want to do it.

Hard work vs. Relaxation

Time to reiterate my memento mori: you don’t have unlimited energy.

If your work schedule is all work, then it won’t work. It’s that simple. So make sure to plan sufficient breaks inbetween sessions. Have a low point after lunch? Take a nap, go out for a walk, play some videogames (if you can stop after “some”) or work out. Meditate. Read my blog. Really anything, but don’t “power through”. While you might be able to do that occasionally, it won’t be a sustainable habit.

Your energy resembles resembles a bank account (s/o to Scott Young). You can only continue to withdraw if you fill it up from time to time.

Everyone is different, so there is no “fit-all” approach. Take five minutes and quickly brainstorm:

  • what makes you feel “recharged”?
  • What relaxes you?

Here’s some inspiration:

  • Get 8 hours of sleep, minimum. This is non-negotionable and it’s rather unlikely that you are an outlier who get’s away with 4 hours per night.
  • Have a wind-down routine after work. I personally need at least two hours after dropping the pen to get my mind clear. Focus on the routine part: if you study in a routine, you might want to relax in a routine too.That doesn’t mean that you can never do something unplanned. But just as fixed work routines signals “time to focus” to your brain, so does a “unwind routine”.Triggers could be a specific sort of music (try rain sounds, Jazz or XX on youtube), leaving your study place for good or changing from cold white to warm light
  • Give meditation a shot. I’ll cover it in depth in a different post, but for now, this is a good starting point:Sit upright and comfortably. Put a 5 minute timer on your phone. Breathe in deeply through your nose, breath out through your mouth. Repeat 3-5 times. Close your eyes and let the breath return to a natural rhythm. Now just rest your attention on the flow of breath. Feel where your body expands and retracts. And don’t worry if your mind wanders. The aim of meditation is not to stop your mind from wandering. It’s to become aware of when it does and then just return to your focus point.For guided meditation, check out Headspace!

And with this, I leave you to it. Take that piece of paper and go through these steps to set yourself up for success.Next time, we’ll take a look at individual study techniques. Sign up below to get notified and never miss out!

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