To do better at school, think of studying like bathing

High school students have to study. (I’m using “study” to mean all the academic work that has to be done outside of class: reading, homework, working on a project, preparing for a test…all the stuff.) There’s lots of advice out there about different techniques of studying. How to take notes. How to read quickly but effectively. How to review before a test. But I don’t like to recommend certain study techniques. Different techniques work for different people; what works great for me may be disastrous for you. It takes trial and error.

What I’m more concerned with are the routines and habits behind those techniques, the background. I’m much more interested in recommending the culture of studying. And the more I think about the culture of studying, the more I realize students should think about studying the same way they think about bathing.

Studying, it turns out, is a lot like showering.

If you wait until you absolutely need to and the people around you can tell, then you’ve waited too long. Don’t wait until there’s a crisis to take a shower; don’t wait until there’s a crisis to study. Don’t wait until the last minute to shower; don’t wait until the last minute to study. Don’t go so long without showering that adults tell you there’s a problem and you need to shower; don’t go so long without studying that adults tell you there’s a problem and you need to study. Be pro-active. Do it before you know you need to. Because, after all, you know you’re going to need to do it.

People who think they don’t need to are fooling themselves. Studying, like showering, isn’t always a reaction. You’re not always responding to an urgent need. You also do it out of habit, to make sure that a strong need doesn’t actually arise. Some people may give themselves a little sniff every day and think they don’t need to bather—they’re fine. But what happens is they don’t notice the slowly-but-surely increase in their funkiness until it’s too late. Studying works the same way. To “get by fine without studying” is only “getting by” in the short term. When the time comes for real study—later in high school, in college, or in the working world—you won’t know how to do it best, and you’ll be at a disadvantage.

Daily is best. For cleaning yourself. For studying. Maybe not a long, extravagant shower each day. Or a long, intense study session. But still, daily.

There are only a few places you should do it. Sure, you can study just about anywhere. And you know what? You can clean yourself anywhere, too. You can say to yourself “I don’t really have time to shower. So I’m just going to wash my face real quick here at home. Then, when I have some time at school, I’ll use the bathroom sink to wash up a little more. And there’s a water fountain between the school exit and the bus, so I can maybe wash a little more there.” But that would be ridiculous. And gross. Studying is the same. Sure, you can squeeze in a little bit here and there throughout your day. But you should have one or two designated study areas, preferably one at home and one at school. They should be places you visit regularly, because you study regularly. And they should be places you don’t use for anything but studying. Train your brain that when you get to your study space, you get in the study frame of mind. Don’t leave your brain wondering if it’s study time or not. This is why you should especially avoid studying in your bed.

Sometimes you need a little extra. Even if you have a very regular and thorough shower routine at a specific time, sometimes you need a little more. You get extra muddy or sweaty or stinky, and you take an extra shower, even if it’s not part of your routine. You don’t whine about this or procrastinate, because you need the shower. Similarly, sometimes you have a big test or project and need to set aside extra time to study. You shouldn’t whine or procrastinate, because you need the studying.

Faking it is a waste of time. There are kids who don’t want to take a bath, and so they fake it. They’ll go into the bathroom, run some water, splash it every few seconds for a while, get their hair a little wet, and then drain the tub. They didn’t save any time; they didn’t get to do anything else. But they faked their way out of taking a bath. There are high school students who do the same with studying. They sit down, open their book and their laptop, and pretend to study while they’re actually zoning out or wasting time on the internet. They don’t save any time; they aren’t prepared for the future. Don’t be one of these students.

You need the right amount of self-assessment. If every time you get out of the shower you look in the mirror for a few seconds and are sure that you look horrible and the shower isn’t worth the effort, you’ve got a problem. You’re not giving yourself credit; you’re being too self-critical. If every time you get out of the shower you spend half an hour looking in the mirror to preen, pose, and pride yourself on how awesome you look, you’ve got a problem. You’re being a little too full of yourself. Studying’s no different. Be honest with yourself about what’s working, what’s not working, and what you need to do differently next time. Don’t feel like a failure; don’t feel like the smartest person in the world. Moderate.

It’s best to be alone. Otherwise you’ll get distracted. Like showering, it’s best to study alone if you want to avoid distraction, social anxiety, or discomfort. Yes, sometimes study groups can be effective, just as sometimes a group—usually an athletic team—can all shower at the same time. But if your study group isn’t making the best use of your time and improving your knowledge and skills, then it’s best to go it alone.

Take time to be grateful. There are many places in the world—including here in the United States— where water and bathing are not common resources. There are places in the world—including here in the United States—where books and a good, free education are not common. Remember to be grateful for your homework and studying, even when you’re not enjoying it.

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Photo by Zoe Herring.

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