How to Study a Boring Subject: 7 Awesome and Scientifically Proven Strategies

How to study a boring subject

Is the topic you’re studying at the moment totally boring? Is it driving you mad?

I’ve been there.

We all have had to study a boring subject at some point in our lives. Not only is it boring, studying it makes you tired. And it’s even harder to study a boring subject when you’re tired.

If it’s a topic you have to study for getting your major at university, professional development for university or even something in high school – here’s how to solve the problem!

In this post I’m going to show you how to study a boring subject even when you’re tired.

These aren’t just your usually strategies. They’re ones backed by science. This is what makes them awesome: they’re scientifically proven to work!

And guess what, some of them are even fun!

1. Color code your Notes.

Have you ever smelt a familiar smell – maybe the smell of someone’s perfume – and had a really vivid memory of them? That’s because smells can unlock packets of memory really effectively.

The same is true with colors.

Your mind uses colors to withdraw information from memory. You can hack this nifty psychological trick to remember even the most boring topics.

Here’s how you do it:

  • Use Colors to categorize ideas. Let’s say you’re studying the human anatomy. Sometimes this can be a boring subject. You could use red highlighting for organs, blue highlighting for bones and green highlighting for muscles. Over time, when you use flashcards or study recall, you’ll start to categorize words more easily because you won’t just visualize the words: you’ll also visualize the colors!
  • Use a white background. The colour contrast between bright and fluorescent colours and the white background helps the highlighting stand out, which is scientifically proven to help make memorization easier.

Don’t believe me? A scientific study in the Journal Psychol Sci found people’s recall recognition of images increases by 5% when the images are in color. Another study found that people more quickly recall and recognize objects if they are colored than black-and-white.

2. Use the Spaced Repetition Technique to Study Smarter, not Harder.

Want to save time studying a boring subject while also improving your memory? Use a strategy called spaced repetition.

This trick dates back to the late 1800’s. A psychologist named Ebbinghaus tried to memorize information in two ways:

  • Cramming studies into one 8 hour day;
  • Studying the topic for 1 hour a day over 3 days.

Crazily enough, he actually found that he learned and remembered just as much using both techniques. Clearly, spreading it out and doing less studies is the smart option. Save yourself time with spaced repetition.

But wait, there’s more.

You should pair spaced repetition up with what’s called the lag effect. The lag effect shows that you should increase the gap between study times the longer you study. So, you could wait 1 day between studying a concept, then 2 days, then another 3 days, then 7 days. Increasing the gap between studying ensures your brain reinforces ideas into its long-term memory rather than constantly keeping them stored in short-term memory.

Crazy, hey?

You might want to use a range of spaced repetition flashcard apps online that can be really useful for studying. Here’s a few good ones:

  • Anki – A totally free, easy-to-use app that you can use on both your phone and computer. Make your own flashcards and let Anki space out the frequency with which you see each flashcard.
  • Brainscape – Brainscape has a good range of flashcards already made for you. You can also create flashcard sets and share them with other Brainscape users.
  • Tinycards – This app is by DuoLingo and has a nice aesthetic layout that makes it more enjoyable to use. Now available for both Apple and Android. Below is a video review of Tinycards:

3. Doodle.

Do you doodle during your lectures or while studying? Heck, I doodle during meetings, while watching YouTube videos, and while listening to podcasts.

Did your teacher at school ever give kids with ADHD things to fiddle with? Whether it’s a fidget spinner, blu-tac, or a stress ball, having something to play with settles kids with ADHD. Teachers also know the power of fiddling.

Now for the science:

A study in 2009 found that people who doodle while listening retain 29% more information. This study looked at 20 people who doodled and 20 who didn’t in a controlled environment to determine this enormous positive outcome for the doodlers!

Why?

It appears that situations you’re uncomfortable with trigger a fight-or-flight response in our brains. That’s why we fidget: we want to escape this terrible experience! Fidgeting and doodling actually helps you to release some of that pent-up energy so you can calm down and focus more.

Alternatively, when you’re extremely bored, it’s perhaps possible that doodling actually keeps your brain on and prevents you from turning-off entirely. Therefore, if your topic is super boring, consider doodling!

Take your Doodling to the next level

Okay, it makes sense that just scribbling on paper while listening to a lecture or YouTube video makes sense and is super useful and easy. Just get a piece of paper and scribble on it while listening!

Here’s how to take your doodling to the next level:

#Studygram!

Okay, go to your Instagram account and search for #studygram. Studygram is a hashtag that brings together world-class doodlers who take the most beautiful study notes! Look through the inspiring collection of thousands of studygram accounts to get some ideas on how to both take notes and doodle at the exact same time.

Something I love about #studygram is that you’re not just making pointless doodles, you’re actually writing notes and keywords – you’re just writing them beautifully!

This means you spend a whole lot of time looking at those keywords, tables and graphs that you’re drawing intricately. Let me tell you: if you spent 5 minutes writing the word ‘Clavicle’ in beautiful handwritten font, there’s a better chance you’ll recall the word and how to spell it when it’s time to take your test!

Here’s my favorite #studygram accounts to get you started:

  • @esteebeestudies: Something I love about Esther’s studygram account is that she’s very active about engaging with her followers. She’ll chat with them and have regular ask-me-anything sessions.
  • @janicestudies: Janice’s studygram account also shows how she beautifully sets up her study space, giving you both doodle advice and study space advice. Two-in-one!
  • @meganstudies: Megan’s studygram account uses some beautiful highlighting colours to show how she takes great notes. She’s got over 100,000 followers – a testament to her great images!
  • @studytee: What I love about Therese’s studygram is that she backs it up with awesome YouTube videos that share her tips and tricks for her followers. I’ll leave you with one of her most popular videos on creating beautiful handwriting:

4. Study when you’re Fresh.

It’s a long-held belief that studying in the morning is better because your mind is not exhausted. The same goes for eating: study on a full stomach.

Look, I probably did 80% of my PhD between the hours of 10pm and 2am so this isn’t a totally accurate claim. But as I get older, I definitely find morning time to be the best time for me to concentrate.

Teachers of children do this too: did you ever wonder why handwriting and mathematics were morning activities and sport was an afternoon activity?

The fact is that the more tired we get, the harder it is for our minds to manage cognitive load. This is why it’s not recommended to drive while tired, and why we can have microsleeps unexpectedly when we’re tired.

So, no matter whether you’re a night worker or a morning worker, pay attention to how fresh you are and focus on studying the most difficult (and boring!) concepts when you’re awake and save the easier tasks for when you’re exhausted.

Here’s a video on studying while fresh from a great study advice YouTube, Jess:

5. Bite a Pencil

This sounds ridiculous but bear with me.

Smiling actually changes your mood – whether it’s a genuine smile or not! Smiling is scientifically proven to release endorphins which decrease pain and serotonin which makes you feel good!

This could be the difference between giving up, going to bed and failing the exam, or keeping going for another 10, 15 of 30 minutes.

Have you ever noticed that ‘looking tired’ often means a droopy face, and ‘looking fresh’ means your face is more in a natural smile mode?

If you’re feeling exhausted and bored, stick a pencil between your teeth like a dog carrying a stick. It’ll force your muscles into a smile and guess what! The endorphins might just start kicking-in.

Don’t like that idea? Fine. Just watch this video and try not to laugh:

6. Use a Website Blocker

For me, the more boring a topic the harder it is to stay focused. My top tip for staying focused when studying a boring subject is to use a website blocker. They’re free, easy to use, and great little reminders that you should be staying on-focus!

The point of website blockers is not to force yourself to stop using social media altogether. In fact, for most website blockers it takes about 20 seconds to just turn them off so you can get back to Facebooking.

However, the point is to set yourself a little reminder that says: “Hey, remember you told yourself you weren’t going to do that?” Usually it’s enough for me to self-correct and get back on topic.

You just need to use your app store to find one and install it on your web browser – nice and simple! Here’s a few good, free ones that you can try out:

  • Windows users: start with FocalFilter and see how it goes
  • This one’s best for people who use Safari, but it’s also available for Chrome: WasteNoTime
  • If you use Firefox, give LeechBlock a go.

The one I’ve been using lately is  BlockSite for Chrome. It’s pretty good and I’m happy with it. Here’s an overview:

7. Use the Pomodoro Technique

This technique has been around for decades. It’s really nice and simple. It’s a simple way to ensure you give yourself brain breaks and then force yourself to focus for a specific period of time.

All you need to do is set a timer on your phone for a set amount of time: 20, 30 or 40 minutes is a good amount of time.

Then, force yourself to stay focused on task for that set amount of time. Reward yourself after that time period with a brain break before focussing again.

Really, it’s as simple as this:

  1. Put away all your distractions;
  2. Set a timer;
  3. Force yourself to focus for that period of time;
  4. When the timer goes off, have a brain break for a while;
  5. Start all over again.

When you’re taking your brain break, I recommend doing something away from the computer and physically active to reset yourself.

If you can’t think of anything, do a dance (warning: catchy song ahead!):

And finally … Here’s your Key Action Points from this Article!

Some subjects are just totally boring and there’s nothing you can do about it. But that shouldn’t stop you from having a go at studying a boring subject. Use some of these 7 awesome strategies to help you get on track, study that boring topic, and reach your goals!

Let’s sum up our 5 top strategies for studying a boring topic:

  1. Color code your Notes.
  2. Space it Out.
  3. Doodle.
  4. Study when you’re Fresh.
  5. Bite a Pencil
  6. Use a Website Blocker
  7. Use the Pomodoro Technique

Before you go, one more thing: if you liked these tips on how to study a boring subject, you might like tips to stop procrastinating as well. Have a look at this post – just click the link below:

Here’s a summary of that Procrastination post, in infographic form:

How to stop procrastinating
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Chris Drew, PhD (aka The Helpful Professor)

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