How to prevent study fatigue

Running out of steam? Try these tips from our expert teachers to reconnect with your goals.

Students in library with study fatigue
Dr Selina Samuels Chief Learning Officer BA(Hons), LLB, PhD, MEd Wednesday, 19 June 2019

We’ve all had the experience of starting strong, with a compelling sense of purpose and determination alongside a colour-coded study plan. And then – maybe over the course of weeks or months, or possibly much sooner – we lose momentum.  

Suddenly, ticking off the items in our to-do list has no appeal whatsoever. We just want to sleep. We no longer get any pleasure from post-it notes or highlighters or vision boards.  

Sound familiar? 

This particular combination of exhaustion, boredom and inertia is called study fatigue. 

It’s hardly a rare condition. It’s not terminal and you’ll be fine. However, it’s actually really difficult to sustain focus, energy, and a sense of urgency over time, particularly in the long (loooong) run up to a high stakes test like the HSC or end of year exam. Not only do you lose your enthusiasm, you start to doubt the point of what you’re doing, which in turn can lead to a breakdown in confidence.  

The most important thing to do when you think study fatigue is imminent is to reconnect with your goals. Create expectations that are tangible and realistic. A good technique for this is visualisation. You don’t have to go into a complex process of pictures, affirmations, and meditation (although meditation isn’t a bad idea). It’s enough to have a clear picture of what you’re hoping to achieve with your study. What do you want to happen? Is it really about the actual ATAR mark you get, or are you more interested in doing as well as you can to maximise your choices?

Focusing on marks alone is not as motivating as thinking about the doors that mark might open. Of course, you might want to please your parents and your teachers, but it’s important for your visualisation that you think about what you really want to happen.

Once you’ve worked out your desired outcomes, think about how you might feel when you achieve your goals. What will your emotions be? Will you feel relieved, gratified, proud, confident? Will achieving your goals this time make it easier to fulfil your expectations next time? Don’t dwell on the extrinsic rewards that might come your way. Instead, focus on your own desired response.  

If you’re finding it hard to imagine your sense of achievement, it may help you to think about how you don’t want to feel.  You don’t want to feel that you didn’t try, that you didn’t ask the people around you for help when you needed it, and that you didn’t give it your best shot. 

Even if you do have a strong sense of purpose and connection to your goals, you’ll still find yourself succumbing to exhaustion and discouragement from time to time. Because we all do. 

So, when you’re in the midst of study fatigue, try these simple strategies to re-energise.

1. Get enough sleep

It sounds super obvious, but sleep will always be the most powerful solution to fatigue. We all know that students often don’t get enough sleep. If you’re trying to study but expending more energy fighting sleep than learning anything, you probably just need to have a nap. If you’re studying at home, it’s probably more time effective to have a short nap than to fight the urge to nap (during which time you are probably not achieving anything meaningful). Set your alarm for 20 minutes and when you wake up, make sure you move a bit. Have a glass of water and even splash some cool water on your face to bring you back to alertness. 

2. Be careful with caffeine

Some people will recommend coffee to combat fatigue. In small doses it won’t do any harm and can be useful as a mild stimulant, but be aware of how much and when you drink it. There’s plenty of evidence that coffee consumed too late in the day can interfere with your ability to fall asleep. Avoid sweet, caffeinated drinks like Coke or Red Bull at all costs as these do more harm than good. They’re full of sugar, which means that although you may go up, you will inevitably also come crashing down. 

3. Ready, steady, go!

Exercise is a great way to reset your energy levels and lift your mood. If you’re sitting at your desk, head in hands, wondering if you’ll ever be able to look at your Maths homework or English assignment again, a really useful circuit breaker would be to go for a brisk walk around the block, or roll out your yoga mat to salute the sun. It’s tempting to tell yourself that you don’t have time, but let’s face it, you’re going to spend just as long in your hunched position as you will having a walk in the fresh air and we can all agree which is better for your body and brain. 

4. Clarify your purpose

Are you clearly defining what you’re trying to achieve in each study session? To clarify your purpose and increase efficiency, it’s really useful to start each stint at your desk with a simple statement of intent, such as “Revise equilibrium” or “Plan my essay on Hamlet”. Begin each of your study sessions with something that you can actually achieve, rather than setting yourself the amorphous goal to study. 

5. Actively create something

The best kind of learning is the active kind. The point of active learning is that you’re creating something, rather than just passively reading over notes or looking at a textbook. It’s only when you actively insert yourself into the learning process that it becomes real for you. Even the valuable revision process of rereading your set texts for English is made much more useful by making notes and writing down useful quotes. You want to come away from a study session with material that you’ve generated – even if you delete or throw it away. The fact of creating something in the process of learning will help embed it in your long-term memory. 

6. Change it up 

If the four walls of your bedroom are starting to close in on you and the very thought of sitting at your desk grips you with despair, it might be time for a change of scene. Something as simple as moving to a different room in your house can give you a new perspective. Some people swear by the value of working in a crowded place like the local library or a café. Just remember: be honest with yourself if background noise is more distracting than motivating — there’s no point spending the whole day glowering at the people around you.  

7. Incentives are all right

There is nothing wrong with rewarding yourself for an effective study session. Sometimes it’s as simple as having a sleep or a sweet treat when you’ve used your study time efficiently. Organise to go out with your friends or watch that movie you’ve been looking forward to. Even if you’re wonderfully focused, it’s still important to maintain some balance and have some fun. After all, study is part of your life and the more you reconcile yourself to the inevitability of periods of hard work, the easier it’ll be to tackle university, work…life! 

8. Get help when you need it

If you still feel overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted, you may need some help. And guess what, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re starting to feel anxious about your work and study, it might be a good idea to see your doctor. Ongoing fatigue may have a legitimate medical cause – either physical or psychological. You might also need some knowledgeable support when it comes to your study. Don’t be afraid to ask for help — it might do you the world of good.

Looking for study support? Cluey offers personalised, one-on-one tutoring in English, Maths, and Chemistry. Visit Clueylearning.com.au or contact one of our Learning Advisors on 1300 182 000 to learn more.  

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