Study strategies: the Study Buddy

This photo actually documents the frantic double nightmare of thesis deadline colliding with a creative project. It was here that the collaborative study process was born.  

This photo actually documents the frantic double nightmare of thesis deadline colliding with a creative project. It was here that the collaborative study process was born.
 

I’m a relatively sociable person. I’m good at getting things done on my own, but I actually do best when I’m in some kind of collaborative environment. I spent a good amount of time in college studying with other people present: in dorm rooms, in my friends’ houses, in the common space of my own home. Studying that way was a near-requirement since there were so many people around, but it was also a way of feeling less lonely and buried under a private pile of work to do. It became another way of hanging out.

Then, in my senior year thesis writing craze, I discovered a deliberate communal studying technique that, refined over the next couple of years, changed my whole relationship with getting things done. It’s my personal grail of the “study hacks” techniques. It works better than any other productivity tip I have ever encountered.

  1. Get a friend, maybe two, who has a similarly crushing amount of work to do.
  2. Get settled in a comfortable place with everything you need within your reach.
  3. Set a timer. I find that somewhere between 42:37 and 57:12 works the best. The timer should be loud.
  4. Each of you tells the other what they’re going to get done in that time.
  5. When you hit “go,” nothing happens except for work. You don’t check facebook, you don’t answer a quick email. For that chunk of time, your study session is full-on, no distractions. You may stop for water, and you may ask how much time is left. But you’re both just racing that clock.
  6. When the timer goes off, you then have 5-10 minutes for a snack, to walk around, and to chat with each other, ideally about the work you just got done. Then you agree on the time of the next session, settle back down, and then you’re off again.

I was able to write massive portions of my thesis this way. I got more done in less time than with any other study or writing trick. There’s an element of collaboration which is helpful, and also the social pressure to actually get work done, since your friend is there and also working away. When working with a friend I am more inspired and more creative, less grumpy or put-upon, and more willing to just put my head down and work away, since I know a break was coming.

The inspiration for this study technique actually came from being part of creative writing groups. I have, over the years, been part of multiple groups that get together and respond to prompts in group writing sessions. It works basically the same way: you gather and get comfortable, you pick a prompt and set the time limit, and for that amount of time you only write. And then at the end you read back what you have written (if you feel comfortable doing so). I have written some of my favorite creative pieces in these groups, and developed a real bond with the other writers I work with. Writing is a lonely process, or can be, anyway. But for me, the inspiration and camaraderie of writing in a room of other writers is so much more satisfying, and more productive.

If you've got to study somewhere, this might just be the ideal spot. Unfortunately it's in the highlands of Guatemala, so it's not convenient to most study sessions.  

If you've got to study somewhere, this might just be the ideal spot. Unfortunately it's in the highlands of Guatemala, so it's not convenient to most study sessions.
 

If you are looking for a study buddy for this kind of collaborative work time, find one who will really work well for you. You need someone who can actually work that long with no distractions, and who will be self-disciplined to make things happen. Your energy feeds off of each other, so you need someone who will add and not detract. I had many friends who would get together for casual group work sessions, and that works fine for me on smaller projects or to get reading assignments done. In that case, it matters less to me if someone checks their email or leaves to talk on the phone. But for these intensive work sessions, you need just one or two people who can commit 100%.

A variation of this will work if you’re on your own. Having the timer there is a motivator, and rewarding progress with snacks and a quick walk around the block is a good technique for productivity on any project.

And if you’re wondering about the odd time increments… Well that’s part of a larger philosophical conversation. There are two short answers, the first being that I find it kind of funny to announce a time of forty-seven minutes and twenty-three seconds. It’s such a simple way of lightening my own mood. The more high-brow reason is a question of nonconformity: if I’m going to be ruled by the tyranny of the clock, at least I refuse to bow to the pressure of “normal” times or rounded-off five minute increments. I do the same when setting my alarm clock or cooking food. I guess I’m just a rebel that way.

And on that note, happy studying! Good luck finding that perfect study partner, and building a routine. I’d love to hear how it goes!

 

How do you tackle big projects? What study practices work well for you? Leave a comment and let me know!