Seven Tips for Getting Started With Studying

A close up photo of some printed sheet music for Consolation No.4 in D-flat major by Liszt. The majority of the detail is slightly out for focus. There are handwritten notes on the sheets, in pencil.

The cover image for this post is by Slava Keyzman

This blog post was written by Jamie.

Let’s say that you want to learn something; it can be anything from learning to play the guitar to learning a foreign language, and anything in between. It can be very difficult to find the motivation to learn if you don’t set yourself up to fall into the pit of success, and this post contains some of my tips for learning anything - including development-related topics such as programming.

It has often been said that

a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step

but I’ve always found it important to append this with a little extra wisdom

a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step unless it’s in the wrong direction. then it could be up to two thousand miles.

This will be the first in an ongoing series of blog posts on ways to set yourself up for success with regard to studying. And development is an area which requires near-constant study, but it is our hope that these articles will be relevant to anyone studying any field.

#1. Create a Learning Space

Before you can study anything, you need to create a space to actually study in. This is vital as it will help you to mentally shift from day-to-day tasks into “studying mode”.

There is a reason why most learning in a traditional school or college setting takes place in a specific area (the classroom or lecture theatre): they are designed to get everyone into a state of mind ready for studying. To achieve this, most study spaces are devoid of external distractions - no mobile phones ringing, no loud conversations, no flashing lights, and very little of our day-to-day soundscape. These things are not removed from your environment in order to punish you, they are removed so that you can concentrate and focus on the task at hand: receiving knowledge.

As such, it is worth creating (or visiting) a space like this for when you want to study something.

Your study space doesn’t need to be as extreme as a school or college setting, but following some basic rules will help. Firstly, it needs to be a quiet, calming place. To be hyperbolic for a moment: there’s no point in attempting serious study on a building site because there are too many distractions and too much loud noise.

If you can, set up a room, or a corner of a room with a comfortable chair (I prefer a small couch that I can stretch out on) and soft, yellow lighting. Combine this with some greenery in the form of plant life and you have a highly oxygenated study space. Not only that but nature is fantastic for maintaining or boosting mental health and can help with your studies, too.

Soft yellow lighting is easier on your eyes than harsh blue lighting (most household bulbs produce a lot of light in the blue end of the spectrum) which can hinder your ability to concentrate. So swapping the lamp or lighting in your study space can help with your ability to concentrate, but also your ability to read.

If you don’t have the space where you live, try to find a local library. Libraries are fantastic places to study; they are purpose-built to allow people to read and concentrate on studying. Just be sure to follow whatever rules they have at your local library (usually being quiet and considerate to those around you).

And if you can’t do that, you could visit a quiet coffee shop. But I would recommend this as a last resort as they tend to get very busy and very loud.

#2. No Distractions

Now that you have a study space set up, you need to ensure that you won’t be distracted.

Take your phone and turn it off; better yet, put it in another room. That way you won’t be tempted to check for messages, or missed phone calls, watch any videos, or start playing any games. Obviously, let people know that this is your study time and that you’ll be available again in an hour (or whatever your study schedule is).

Now head to your computer and set it to “do not disturb” or turn it off. Unless you are actually using your computer to study with, you don’t need it on - and if it’s booted, you’ll be tempted to walk over and check anything from email to socials.

And the biggest thing is to ignore socials. Whilst you are studying the world will keep turning, Tweets will happen, people will post and Instagram, and you might miss the latest viral craze on Facebook - or whichever socials you spend time on. That’s ok, there’s no need to feel FOMO because it will be there when you are finished studying. And ask yourself this question:

what’s more important to you right now? Scrolling through Reddit or the thing I’m trying to learn?

If you share your living space with other people, let them know that you want to study and ask them to leave yoy alone for a while. If they are supportive of your goals, they will agree to only come to you if there is a problem - just make sure to offer them the same kindness when they need time and space to concentrate.

Distractions eat away at our ability to concentrate, and concentration will be required for you to achieve your learning goals. Concentrating on what you are studying will also allow you to make better notes, and give you higher success in retaining and recalling what you are studying.

#2.1 On Music

Whilst we’re on the subject of no distractions: music is fine, but find some music which enhances your studying. There are many studies which have shown that there is a link between music and studying. So go right ahead and put some music on.

But one word of caution: not every piece of music will allow you to concentrate on your studying. Your favourite songs are likely not going to help you study, because you’ll start tapping your feet, singing the words, or air drumming along to the song. This is taking vital concentration away from the task at hand. That being said studies have debunked The Mozart Effect, which means that classical music won’t inherently make you any smarter. So what now?

I would recommend looking into music which has specifically been written to aid in focus. These tend to be pieces around the 80-100 BPM range which aren’t musically complex. There’s a whole heap of music written specifically to aid with concentration; whilst the live chat can be a little off-putting (and vulgar) at times, the # lofi hip hop radio - beats to study/relax to from Chillhop can be a fantastic resource.

In fact, I have bought a large amount of their music on Bandcamp and have a personally curated playlist on my devices specifically for when I want to study or focus.

But use whatever makes sense to you.

#3. Setting a Schedule

We are creatures of habit, and as such you need to set up a schedule for your studying.

There’s a reason why most people start work at 9, leave work at 5, and have lunch at 12: they are habits which have been ingrained in us throughout our lives.

You’ll need to find a time in your schedule that you can devote to studying, and that time has to be regular as clockwork. Whether it’s 30 minutes per evening or three hours on a weekend doesn’t matter, as long as you can make it stick.

Conventional wisdom states that it takes 10,000 (ten thousand) hours to fully master something, and 10,000 hours is 416 days. That’s a lot of time for sure, but it’s even longer if you don’t study regularly. There’s a reason why school lessons and college lectures happen regularly (other than that when the teachers and professors are available), and it’s so that you’re getting regular study and practice time.

So carve out some time in your week to study. There are 186 hours in a week, and taking out 56 hours for sleeping (at eight hours a night for seven nights) leaves 112. Taking out 50 hours for work (which includes time for commuting) leaves 62 hours. This calculation isn’t meant to be all-encompassing, and it lacks the actual day-to-day detail of a person’s life, but what it does do is show that we have 68 hours after our most pressing responsibilities. Can you find 30 minutes per day (or three and a half hours) to focus on studying?

By setting yourself a schedule you’ll also be giving yourself permission to study at your own pace. This means that you can go back and cover topics you already covered, but don’t feel confident with yet. It also means that you don’t feel pressure to rush through the materials - rushing means that you won’t be taking it in completely, and will learn bad habits or make assumptions which will prove to be incorrect, affecting your later studies.

Once you’ve set up a schedule, add it to your calendar and set up reminders. You can even share this schedule with the people around you, and they will know when you are studying. The point of the schedule is to build up the habit of studying in a calm, inviting space.

#3.1 Missed Sessions

One quick note about if you miss a scheduled study time: don’t worry about it, you can always pick it up the next time. Give yourself permission to miss a study session if you need it.

A very smart person once said to me:

don’t miss two on the bounce

what they mean is that if you miss one session, it’s fine. But if you miss two, then you’ll miss three; and if you miss three, then you’ll miss four; and so on.

#4. Note Taking

There are many different schools of thought on note-taking. Some say that you should not everything down, and some say you should only note a few things down. Some say that you should use progressive summarisation - where you summarise the topic, then summarise your summation, then summarise again and again, until you reduce it down to a few sentences.

The best way to take notes is whatever works for you. But take them.

The great thing about note-taking is that you can put a pin in whatever you are studying (pause a video, audiobook or podcast, place a bookmark in your book, highlight a line in a document you’re reading), take a moment to collect your thoughts, and note it down. You can even refer back to and quote the source if you need to (and I would recommend it).

I tend to use Obsidian for my note-taking, but you can use whatever works for you. Tools like Notion, OneNote, or a simple text file can work. Or better yet, go analogue - get a pen and a sheet of paper. Going analogue is fantastic because you force yourself to slow down (most people write slower than they type), which forces you to think about the next word or sentence. This means that you’re forced to put the knowledge into your own words, and this is called Higher-order Thinking.

By writing the knowledge in your own words, you’re forcing yourself through the different stages of thinking about the information. You first remember and understand (levels 1 and two) then apply (level 3), analyse (level 4), evaluate (level 5), and then create (level 6) with that knowledge. This has been proven to help people remember what they are studying.

When I was a high-school teacher, we used to do this all the time: we would give the students 15 minutes at the end of every lesson to summarise what they had learnt and present it to the class. Students could present by themselves or as part of a group, but they had to create A3-sized posters and use them as part of their presentation. By having the students create something of their own, we vaulted them through each stage of higher-order thinking without them having to know why they were doing it.

However you decide to take notes, make sure that you are doing it and that those notes are discoverable. I like Obsidian because the notes that it creates are plaintext markdown files. This means that they are searchable and I can use git to track the changes that I make to them. Obsidian also allows me to connect my notes together and to see a graph of how they are all connected.

A screenshot of my Obsidian knowledge vault as a graph. It is a series of multi-coloured nodes connected with white lines on a black background. Each of the nodes represents a note or category in my learning, some nodes are white (indicating individual notes), yellow (indicating a topic or theme), and red (indicating a subject)
My Obsidian knowledge vault as a graph, showing nodes are white (indicating individual notes), yellow (indicating a topic or theme), and red (indicating a subject) and their interconnected nature.

But, as I’ve said, use whatever works for you.

Once you have notes from your study session, take some time to write a long-form version of what you have studied. Let’s say that you are studying JavaScript and that your study session was focused on variables and how they work. Your notes might be single sentences, but your long-form version might be something like:

JavaScript is a duck-typed language (, this means that a variable can change its type when a new value needs to be stored there. For instance:

var hello = 3;

hello = “3”;

hello = {};

This isn’t possible in strongly-typed languages (such as C, C++, Java, and C#), as the compiler will stop you from storing a string in an integer.

This will help you when you need to refer back to your notes, as they are in words that you understand. And you can use these notes to then create blog posts - if learning in public is your goal.

#5. Hydration

You need to make sure that you have hydrated both before and during your study session.

Water, juice, cordial (because juice and cordial are not the same), and milk (both dairy and non-dairy) are great ways to hydrate before your study session begins. Avoid stimulants like tea and coffee as caffeine is a diuretic (it will make you need to go to the bathroom sooner than planned); similarly avoid sugary drinks like energy drinks, hot chocolate, and milkshakes. Sugary drinks will help to boost your blood sugar level but will bring your mood and drive crashing down when the sugar level falls

Even though I recommended juice, it’ll be worth staying away from sharp or tarty fruit juice. Fruits like apples, when they are juiced, tend to be very dry and drinking apple juice can leave you dehydrated. So I wouldn’t recommend them for a study session.

although if you are recording a podcast, a shot of apple juice can help to dry out your mouth and do away with lip-smacking, and mouth sounds

Carbonated drinks can also lead to a lack of concentration because most of them are sugary or have caffeine in them. Plus the bubbles can make you burp or upset your stomach.

The key here is to hydrate before your study session, so pick a drink which will help with that. Having a drink around 10 minutes before your study session can help to ensure that your brain is ready, your eyes can focus and can clear your throat. Remember: our bodies are 55-60% water, and keeping that water level up will help us to get started with our study session.

Once you’ve hydrated, I would recommend taking a bio break. You don’t want to be partway through a study session and then suddenly get an urgent call from nature. The first few times that you schedule your study sessions you might find this hard to do, but as you start to make it a habit, your bodily functions will catch up and pre-empt your study sessions.

So now that you’ve hydrated and answered any of nature’s calls, you need to make sure that you can stay hydrated during the study session. For this, I would recommend bringing a glass or bottle of water to your study space. Unless you are a sports star, you’ll likely not need electrolyte-laden, surgary or caffeine-based drinks in order to get through the session. Water will do just fine.

In case you get hungry during your study session, it might be worth bringing some light snacks with you. I often prefer a banana and a small bowl of spinach. Those aren’t to everyone’s tastes, so I’d recommend something that’s either fruit or vegetable-based or something you might find in a wholefoods shop. Remember: you’re bringing it as a snack, not a meal, so a small portion of something will do fine.

#6. Hands-Free

this next piece of advice is for neurotypical readers. Neurodivergent readers can feel free to skip this one.

When trying to concentrate, it can actually be counter-productive to fiddle with something in your hands. Pens, paper clips, phones (especially), fidget toys, etc. Whilst the concentration required to fiddle with such things might not be high, it can be distracting to have to reset your fingers if you drop the item or fiddle with them. It’s worth pointing out that this is not the case for friends with ADHD, as there are studies which support the idea that fidget toys help our friends with ADHD to focus and feel more relaxed.

this is why I mentioned that neurodivergent readers can ignore this piece of advice. The research is on your side, friends

Of course, not everyone is the same. But my experience of both my own studying and when I was a teacher has taught me that most (not all) people find it hard to concentrate when they have something in their hands. Just quite why this is, I can’t say. I also have a lot of experience with colleagues who fiddled with (or gnawed on) pens and such whilst in meetings who would ask for a detailed summary of the meeting or completely blanked on questions which were aimed at them, because they were not focussing.

Whether this is a case of correlation implying causation, I don’t know. But since you’re going to be expending a lot of concentration on studying, it will be worth giving yourself the best shot at getting the most out of your session. If you find that it’s easier to concentrate whilst fiddling with something, then bring that in after; but I would advise trying without first. You never know, you might be unintentionally hindering your progress by spinning that pen around in your fingers whilst you are studying.

#7. Sleep, Sleep, Sleep

It has become the in-vogue thing to brag about how little sleep we get. In fact, there are hundreds of blog articles, videos, and podcasts which seem to do nothing but brag about how little sleep the creators have managed to get. This isn’t good, and the science backs me up on this.

Whether you are studying, driving, working, exercising, or anything else, sleep is one of the most important things you can do. Sleep is literally more important than eating, and yet a loud majority brag about how little they get. I’ve seen some people online bragging about getting as little as four hours of sleep per night.

When you don’t get enough sleep your attention span suffers, you feel low on energy, and your memory suffers, you may feel greater senses of anxiety, irritability, or stress, and your decision-making skills are negatively affected.

If you take nothing else from this article, please stop bragging about how little sleep you get, and consider getting more sleep

But how much sleep is enough? That’s a tough question because it differs for every single person. But a good rule of thumb is to aim for eight hours of sleep per night. This may mean that you need to be in bed for more that than. Sleep scientists talk about “sleep opportunity” which is the amount of time that you give yourself to be asleep.

Let’s say that you head to bed at 10 pm and get out of bed at 6 am, that’s eight hours of sleep opportunity. You may not be asleep for all eight hours, but you are giving yourself the opportunity to get eight hours of sleep, assuming that you can fall asleep when your head hits the pillow and stay asleep until 6 am. It stands to reason that you can never have more sleep than the amount of sleep opportunity you allow yourself. So if you only allow yourself six hours of sleep opportunity, the maximum amount of sleep you can get is six hours.

And if you are laying in bed, staring at your phone then you’re not going to get any sleep. So here are some pieces of advice to help you get to sleep at night:

  • Make your bedroom a place where only bed-related things happen
  • Ensure that you have good pre-bed habits. Working out shortly before bed isn’t a great idea, as it will raise your heart rate and could cause the release of endorphin and epinephrine.
  • Reduce your caffeine intake in the afternoon, or switch to decaf. Depending on a person’s biology, caffeine has a half-life of up to six hours and can take upwards of 10 hours to clear your system entirely
  • Avoid energy drinks from mid-morning onwards
  • If you can, keep phones, computers, tablets, and TVs out of the bedroom. They will keep you awake by demanding attention from you, and the harsh blue light from them will make your brain think that it is daytime
  • Avoid sugary foods late in the evening

Also, consider purchasing a sleep tracker. These are wearable devices that you can wear when you go to bed which measure how long you have been asleep. Measuring how much sleep you are getting and how you feel the next day will help you to make informed decisions about whether you need to increase your sleep opportunity or not.

#In Closing

Setting yourself up for success when studying requires a little groundwork, and it is best to get started on before you start studying. In this article, we’ve covered seven pieces of advice which you can apply at any time during your studies; whether you are about to embark upon them, are already studying something, or are looking to pick up a brand new are of study after many years.

Future articles will focus on other pieces of advice for when you are actually studying, but this one has focused on the things you can do to set yourself up for success.