Training for a better study routine – it’s possible!

At the beginning of a study period, exam week seems far away. You can picture it happening: at the last possible minute, you’ll find yourself in the library buried beneath a mountain of books. You started studying far too late, even though you’d promised yourself never to let that happen again. UU scientists Denise de Ridder and Marieke Adriaanse are here to help with their Handbook of Self-Control in Health and Wellbeing. Their message: you can train willpower.

“Willpower, or self-control as it’s called in science, is the ability to prioritize long-term goals when confronted with fun, short-term distractions,” says Denise de Ridder, professor of Health Psychology. “Long-term goals are often more profitable – like doing well on an exam. But it’s hard to keep studying constantly when faced with a fun distraction, such as going out with friends.”

The two Social Scientists presented their book on Friday, January 19th, in the Winkel van Sinkel in Utrecht. The presentation included a panel discussion. International scientists spoke about training willpower. “Self-control is an important topic, often appearing in scientific publications,”  says De Ridder. “It’s seen as a crucial psychological process to understand how people can successfully work on their long-term goals. People want to do things, but they don’t always make it happen. We, the handbook’s authors, thought it was time to create a workable overview that can offer a better overview than all these separate publications.”

The Ridder says many people have the wrong idea about self-control or willpower. “They think it’s about resisting temptation. They often use the sentence ‘I have to be strong’ when talking about willpower. You see this in people trying to lose weight, for instance. It’s easy when you’ve just eaten a meal – but a lot harder when you’re hungry and there’s a cake right in front of you.”

Tips for students

Although the book is aimed at scientists, De Ridder has some tips for students who want to train their own willpower. One of them is the classic ‘keep everything up from the beginning’. The best thing, it turns out, is still making sure not to get to a point where only willpower can save you.

1. Make a plan
“Most people have goals or resolutions. But they’re not thinking about when and how they’re actually going to make those ideas happen.” It’s important to state specific goals. “You can say ‘I want to study more’, but that’s too abstract. It’s better to say ‘I want to have read a certain book before the end of the week’, or ‘I want to read twenty pages today’. The more specific a goal is, the better. It increases the chances of actually making it happen.”

2. Don’t do too many things at once
“It’s an advantage if you don’t have to do too many things at the same time. If you have to study, go to work, and you have several other obligations to fulfill, you’re asking an awful lot of yourself. That takes more willpower. It’s better to put that energy into one thing.”

3. Create your own motivation
You’re always going to have some courses that you just don’t like much. Or really, really hate. It’s going to be hard to open those books in those cases. “If you can explain to yourself why that course is important, you’re making yourself look at it differently. Or you can try to make it fun despite your dislike. By studying with someone else, for example, or rewarding yourself after an hour’s worth of studying.”

4. Be aware of your distractions
Everyone who has to study, deals with this: procrastination. It happens all the time that students are planning to start studying – but first, just have to clean their room. “If you know you’re going to read the newspaper, do the dishes, or clean your room, then schedule those activities. If for instance you start studying at 10 AM, make sure you do those things that you’d do as procrastination activities at 9.30.” All too often, unplanned procrastination activities lead to complete cancellation of studying, she says. “It’s not a bad idea to plan breaks or time off. Once you’ve built a routine, that’s easier to do than when you’re just locking yourself away for a week to study.”

5. Routine is better than willpower
When you have to do something, make sure there’s a certain time and context in which you do it. “Make a deal with yourself, that every day between 10 and 11, you’ll read through the study material, sitting in the library. By planning these things in short time periods, you can build up a routine. Students at the conservatory, for instance, practice daily, and that ensures that it doesn’t take willpower to study anymore. By building a routine, you decrease the amount of willpower it takes. That’s better than making a deal with yourself about a time you’re going to do something, and then not doing anything when the time comes, because you don’t feel like it.”

6. Don’t let it come down to just willpower

“Willpower should actually be a last resort. There are other tactics that are much more useful. Too often willpower is employed just to resist temptations. That has limited success, and only if you manage to turn your task into a routine.” See also: point 5.

The Routledge International Handbook of Self-Control in Health and Wellbeing, edited by Denise de Ridder, Marieke Adriaanse and Kantaro Fujita is now on sale for 195 euros.