Everyone has idiosyncrasies and superstitions when it comes to studying, especially med students who have everything riding on the USMLE Step 1 exam.
There’s that guy who swears he studies best while blasting music, while someone else requires perfect silence. Or your other classmate who has A/B tested her study habits and concluded she must study between 2 and 8 p.m. to retain more than 75% of the material.
Regardless, there are a few study practices that work for nearly everyone, and we’ve compiled them for you.
Below, we discuss how to set up an effective at-home study space, the importance of your seating arrangement and how to stay in your “happy place” when it feels like all you ever do is study.
How to Set Up Your Study Place at Home – And Manage Your Crazy Roommate
If you ever feel like you could study better in a zoo than at home, this one’s for you! Your roommates bug you, your phone is always going off, the dishes need washed, the laundry needs done, you’re hungry again and the kitchen’s right there…is this a familiar refrain?
If you find it hard to focus at home, the following tips will help you become a study at home champion. Sure the dishes might sit in the sink an extra day and you might have to wear that shirt for a second time, but at least you’ll pass the USMLE!
Create a space.
The best thing about the library is there is no bed for napping. When you’re there, your options are dictated by the environment of tables, computers and books. You can read, write and study – or do all three at once if you’re a show-off. At home, you must create a work space that gives the same options.
Set up a serious work space, and designate it only for studying.
That may mean converting the kitchen table to your study zone by clearing it of all familiar objects and setting up your books, a picture that reminds you of why you’re in med school and all the materials you’ll need for studying (ahem, Picmonic). Or partition off a part of your room with a curtain that you can close when you’re not studying. If you have the benefit of an office, retire to this room to study and shut the door. It becomes a separate place from the rest of your house. When you’re done, leave and shut the door again, turning the rest of your pad back into a living space.
Set your office hours.
Many students study each day until their brain or body gives out. Picture someone wandering the desert until collapsing from dehydration…not exactly an image that elicits a thirst for studying.
The more you dread studying, the more distractions seem to pop up, especially when you’re studying from home. Suddenly emptying the dishwasher, alphabetizing your movies and matching all the missing socks becomes an immediate priority.
Instead, set a study time period that perhaps culminates in a reward, and your brain immediately focuses on the end result of finishing. Respect those hours. If you say you’re studying for four hours, stop at four hours no matter what. You’ll return for the next study session refreshed.
Put up boundaries.
Do you have roommates who can’t comprehend why you’re always hitting the books? Does your mother have a Spidey sense for calling right when you’re tackling a particularly complex disease description? You must set expectations for the people in your life so they can respect your busy schedule and yet still maintain a relationship with you.
Once you’ve set them, let other people know your study hours. If, from 4 to 7 p.m. you’re studying, then people know not to text, call, Snapchat or otherwise distract you during those hours. Even if you’re in the common area of your apartment, suggest your roommate pretend you’re invisible during those hours. Implement this, and you’ll both value the non-study hours even more!
Change your scenery.
There will be days when none of the tips above work, when you feel like you’re on a death march as you approach your books. So change it up. Go to your favorite coffee shop or a park or a med school buddy’s house.
Changing your scenery will feel like a mini vacation and recharge your brain for more studying.
If you want to change the scenery entirely, join Picmonic and set aside those cumbersome books and pages of chicken scratch notes. Every slide in Picmonic takes you to a new world of picture and sound-based mnemonic devices where you almost effortlessly learn what you need to know to pass your exams.
Speaking of recharging, keep reading for ways recharge your posture.
You pass by a mirror and, for a second, think someone’s following you. Who is that hunchbacked person shuffling along with their nose in a medical book? Oh right, that’s you.
Your mother always told you to sit up straight, but she’s isn’t around for your marathon study sessions. And if you’re going to dedicate mental fortitude to something, it’s probably going to be to memorizing the differences between antiarrhythmics in cardiac pharmacology for your USMLE Step 1, not to making sure your posture is perfect the whole time.
But poor posture leads to a whole slew of aches and conditions you don’t want, and improved posture is possible in a few easy steps. First, give yourself a reality check by assessing your posture, then follow our straight-up advice.
Ditch the armchair and belly up to a table.
Set yourself up for success, beginning with the kind of chair you sit in. Do you study on the couch or in an armchair, curled awkwardly around your books or with your laptop in your lap? We get it, it’s called a laptop – but that doesn’t mean that’s where you should always have it. It’s too easy to slouch in a comfy chair or hunch while staring down at the computer sitting on your knees.
Instead, sit in a firm, high-backed backed chair and place your study materials on a table in front of you. Scoot your hips against the back of the chair and then do your best to keep your back pressed against it as well. If you’re struggling to align with the chair’s back, you may place a small pillow or rolled towel behind your lower back to support it. Make sure your hips are at knee level or a little below.
Watch where you put your feet.
Now that you’re in the high-backed chair, the first thing you search for is something to prop your feet on. Break this habit! It inevitably leads to your hips and lower back sagging away from the chair. Plant your feet on the floor, and kick-start good posture from the ground up.
Take deep breaths.
As you sit and study and study and sit, your body caves in on your anterior side. Because of this, you tend to take shallower breaths, which can contribute to an overall weariness.
Breathe in slowly through your nose, fill your belly with air and hold it for a two count. Then release and repeat two more times. The fresh and full breath will energize you. Toss in a little backbend on the inhale, and your whole torso will thank you.
Shake what ya Mama gave ya.
The human body is designed to be in motion. Your body is trying to tell you this when you develop that annoying crick in your neck or your butt goes numb from sitting. So once an hour, get up, put on your favorite song and dance, dance, dance. If you have limited space, sitting works too. Or every other hour, take a 15-minute break to do these posture-perfecting poses.
Cut down your study time.
Of course, you could just cut down your study time by studying with Picmonic.
Research shows Picmonic’s audiovisual mnemonic methodology helps students master information faster and retain knowledge longer.
For the days that a super long study sesh gets you down, pick one or more of the steps below to rediscover your happy place.
Studying for USMLE Step 1 can be brutal. Don’t let it suck away all of your joy. Here’s our Picmonic-endorsed 10-step plan to getting happy while studying like a madman!
1. Get outside.
Birds, trees and fresh air are all-natural uppers – after all, have you ever seen a sad squirrel? Get outside, get some sun on your skin, and smell the flowers (an act proven to reduce stress).
2. Move ya booty.
Exercise is a proven tactic for improving happiness levels and reducing stress. As everyone’s favorite Harvard Law student says, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands. They just don’t!”
3. Write it down.
It helps to get your thoughts out on paper, whether they’re good or bad. Journaling your happy thoughts can help you feel more of a sense of gratitude, and writing down your bad thoughts to get rid of them can help you feel less worried and stressed.
4. Get groovin’.
Take some time out of your day to jam out to whatever tunes make you happy. Music is proven to reduce stress and increase your overall happiness. Grab those headphones and your favorite album, stat!
5. Talk to a friend.
Call up a friend for a quick catch-up session, and you’ll be amazed how much better you feel.
6. Be kind to yourself.
One of the greatest television characters of all time, Dale Cooper, has a saying: “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.” Listen to Agent Cooper. Get happy.
7. Make a plan.
Make yourself a to-do list. Get it out on paper, prioritize, and then tell yourself, out loud, that you’re going to kick its booty. YOU GOT THIS.
8. Buy some flowers.
Once you get over the initial weirdness of buying yourself flowers, you’ll love this trick. Flowers bring a freshness into your study space that can make you instantly feel happier when you look at them.
9. Suck in some oxygen.
Take a few minutes to breathe deeply and clear your mind. You’ll feel better immediately, and you’ll sleep better as well. Speaking of…
10. Get some sleep.
Ok, we know. You don’t have time. But we make the case that you should find the time to sleep. Everything in life is easier to face after a good night of rest. If you can’t get rest, good coffee is a shortcut to getting happy; just don’t make a habit out of replacing sleep with caffeine.
Studying isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. You’re going to pass the USMLE, become a doctor and change people’s lives.
Ron Robertson, Co-founder & CEO, Picmonic Inc.
Ron Robertson founded Picmonic as a 3rd-year medical student at the University of Arizona. He’s at the helm of Picmonic’s mission to lead and inspire a new era of learning through innovative and effective educational solutions. Ron holds a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry from the University of San Diego with a focus on memory science, is the product visionary behind Picmonic, and is involved in every aspect of the company.
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