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If I want to study N different subjects what would be the best strategy to do this?

One extreme would be to take only one subject first and devote all of my free time to study it, then after I'm done with the first subject I could switch to the second and so on.

Another possibility is to study a bit of the first subject, say for 2 hours, and then switch to another subject. The second strategy keeps me interested longer, so I can study for longer hours. However, I'm not sure whether it's more productive. Switching from one subject to another takes some time.

Another question is about taking breaks. For the second strategy, I can do that even without any breaks, because switching to subject 2 is kind of a break for subject 1. I don't think that I can productively study one subject without breaks.

Is there any research in this area? How can I create an optimal study schedule?

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migrated from Oct 6 '12 at 19:57

This question came from our site for practitioners, researchers, and students in cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, and psychiatry.

Since people are different, I'm not sure research would help you. I know people who prefer to kill one subject at a time, and I know people who relax from one subject by studying another. Both kinds of people appear successful to me, and I wouldn't know if one could benefit from a switch to the other method. If you want to go about this scientifically AND learn what would be best for YOU, then you need to undertake an experiment with yourself as the subject. For this test phase, use one method, for the next, use another. Do this a couple of times and take account of the confounding factors. – what Sep 23 '12 at 14:28
I think that experimenting only with myself would take a lot of time. Every subject is different in terms of complexity and how interesting this subject seems to me. I would be more successful with less complicated and/or more interesting subject. So to achieve some statistical significance I would have to run many tests. – Max Sep 23 '12 at 14:36
Yes, but the switching cost (and switching benefit) for task switching is different for different people. If you carry out an experiment with random subjects, the results will not tell you, what would be best for you. It is like "What height is the best for a chair?" It depends on a person's height. Finding the average won't make a chair comfy for you. Psychology cannot predict outcomes in individual cases, it is a probabilistic science and finds its use for the chair manufacturer who wants to know what size of chair will be least uncomfortable for the most people. – what Sep 23 '12 at 14:50
If you want research papers, someone else will have to come up with the answer. If you want a practical tip, I'd reward myself with the fun subject and relax with it from the boring subject: study what you dislike for 45 to 50 min, take a break of 5 to 15 minutes, then study what you enjoy for 20 to 30 minutes. Take a short (5 min) break, then begin with boring subject again etc. If you have more than two subjects, do one boring/fun pair in the morning, one in the afternoon (or whenever your most productive phases are; pick the most productive phase for the most difficult or largest subject). – what Sep 23 '12 at 15:07
So you suggest taking breaks between subjects. Currently I don't take any breaks between subjects. I immediately (or almost immediately) start studying next subject when I get bored from a previous subject. Is it a bad practice? – Max Sep 23 '12 at 17:40

Something that is relevent here is that I always wondered why school's split the day up so much - I would have much prefered to have single days concerntrating on single subjects without the lag of switching.

One of the answers, it turns out, is that if you get stuck on a long day of study you get stuck - when you switch you get a fresh look at stuff and that get bring you back into focus.

To give a more personal (although possibly less relevent example) I write code for perhaps 50% of my working day - I code on a half-dozen different projects and I personaly thing that there best bet is to work until you feel the motivation slipping away or until something gets properly stuck and then switch (If I come back and I'm still stuck, I'm write up the problem for SE or another forum and switch again - this generally means I'm not stuck when I come back again)

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Check out the Pomodoro technique:

You split work into 25 minute intervals, called a pomodoro. In these 25 minute intervals, you do nothing else, don't look at Facebook, don't check your email - eliminate all distractions. After those 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break, which you use to relax, take a breather, check your email.

After 4 pomodoros each day, take a 15 minute break, or go out for lunch. It's not always optimal, but a great way to pace yourself and maintain momentum.

You should plan for around 12 pomodoros (25 minute chunks) a day, and allocate your time to how you want to spend it. It's hard to say whether or not you should focus on something. Do what you're in the mood to do; that's always the most effective method. If you're far behind on something, you'll have a strong urge to study on that.

Do note that everyone has their limits for mental stamina. This is almost directly proportional to how much effort you've been putting in the whole day and the kind of nutrition you get. Focus on low GI foods; they give you the most mental energy.

Allocate the hardest tasks for early in the morning after breakfast or right after lunch. You'll probably need a few minutes warm up time, so you might want to start with a 'soft' topic in that field.

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Part of any answer will have to be: what do you mean by a "break?"

I'm a big fan of the Pomodoro method as has already been mentioned. But I find the breaks in between work "sprints" are best spent doing something with my hands--I've taken to folding origami--which I think allows my subconscious to work on the problem and clears my mind more for the next sprint than does checking email and twitter and Stack Exchange :)

There's cognitive load in switching tasks, so I tend to work in long blocks of time on the same work. When I am ready to change to something else entirely, I get up and do something active so I'm ready to immerse again.

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There are a couple books that I Think would be very helpful. One of the techniques mentioned in the books is that there is more to studying than "how" you study, your environment is also important. You want to study somewhere where you won't have any distractions, and in the same area consistently, so you know that when you're in that area, it's time to study. It's also good to have several of these areas on campus that you can retreat to so you can study in hour breaks between classes or something. The books are both by Cal Newport, and he has a great site that I'm sure you've seen: His books are How to be a straight A student and How to win at college. I haven't read both of them entirely, but I've at least started them, and can guarantee you'll learn something from them.

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