How can I learn to study at night?
October 18, 2009 1:38 PM   Subscribe

How can I train myself to study better at night? I'm in grad school and I need to use those evening hours for work - I just can't seem to concentrate in the evenings, regardless of if I was working during the day! I'm not a night person - but I need to be.

Somehow I managed to get an engineering degree without ever having to work past 7-8 at night. My routine was just to get up early, work all day, and then basically stop after dinner and just relax.

But... I just started my master's (and studying for the MCAT) and I need to use those hours. I can't seem to concentrate in the evenings. During the day I have no problem doing a 4 hour stretch, but at night I can barely read, and I feel completely burnt out. This is the case whether or not I was working during the day.

I usually end up online or watching bad TV, and I am completely conscious that I'm wasting time. I know caffeine is not the answer, any suggestions?
posted by piper4 to Education (16 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried doing a good round of exercise in the evening before you want to start working? It will wake you up and get the blood pumping. That might be the ticket.
posted by gwenlister at 1:50 PM on October 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

You might want to move yourself to a different environment. If you're in your apartment or wherever where you easily watch tv or access the internet you probably will.

Try and bring your materials (but nothing with internet access) to a coffee shop or library. Tell yourself that you're not allowed to leave until 9 or whenever.
posted by kylej at 2:13 PM on October 18, 2009

Exercise. Also, schedule stuff in those evening hours that doesn't require too many brain cycles. organize and file your emails. Need to email your professor? At least draft it at night.

The other thing is that you need to change the rules. Instead of telling yourself "study NO SLEEP" (which makes you watch TV because you can't sleep and your brain refuses to study= guilt.) you need to say "STUDY or SLEEP."

If you catch yourself on the TV, remind yourself that sleep isn't a bad thing. Set your alarm for a nice early time and get your work done then. Could you get up at 4? 5? Are you a real morning person?
posted by titanium_geek at 2:23 PM on October 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Another thing that might work is to find activities that aren't as thinking-intensive to do at night. For example, I'll do a lot of my citation chasing and gathering documents to read when I'm burned out. That stuff takes time! I download the documents from my syllabus and print them out, I look over the TOC for journals in my field that just published a new issue, and although I don't currently teach, I know that my partner enters grades for papers that he's already graded into spreadsheets late at night, when he needs to maximize time but can't really make his brain function. I am actually the opposite of you: I have the hardest time in the beginning of the day, so I gear up by doing some of the activities I just described. By the time I'm ready to actually start writing, or reading and thinking critically, I've already done about an hour of "busy work," but that busy work still needed to get done.

Another suggestion is this: people need down time. Your brain needs to rest. Could you get up a few hours earlier and work in the morning? It sounds like maybe you're a morning person and waking up at, say, 4 or 5 might solve this problem for you, if you can stomach it. Then, you can take the night off after 7 or 8 without feeling like you're wasting time.
posted by k8lin at 2:24 PM on October 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

wow, titanium_geek, I should have previewed. I think I suggested everything that you did.
posted by k8lin at 2:25 PM on October 18, 2009

I did my Master's part time so had to work in the evenings much like you do. It was a struggle at first. Working 8 hours then doing 4 hours of homework is tough.

What I did was scheduled the time on my calendar, setting aside very specific time to do the work. I found it helped me focus---this is "homework time" not "TV time". After a few weeks of doing that it felt very natural and much less of a struggle than at first.

The bonus was that my husband also saw the calendar and that I was intending to do homework that evening, so he helped keep me on task.
posted by chiefthe at 2:26 PM on October 18, 2009

Some people either have an innate ability, or can teach themselves, to nap for 30 to 45 minutes, in the late afternoon, as a "refresher" for evening activity. I fell into this habit some years ago, when I started studying in the evenings, again. I find that 30 to 45 minutes of nap around 5:30 p.m., followed by a light, balanced meal (a medium chicken salad, a tuna sandwich and an apple, some cottage cheese and fruit, etc.) sets me up for 3 to 4 hours of effective work in the early evening, without much effect on my normal sleeping pattern.

The only reason I'm writing this, now, instead of napping, is that it is Sunday :-)
posted by paulsc at 2:29 PM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Echoing the above comments about doing less brain-intensive activity in the evening. I do my best writing first thing in the morning, so in the evening I do as much prep work as possible for the next day. I'll gather articles, make bulleted lists of topics to address during the next day's writing, and so on.

Alternatively, I will sometimes use the evening for "fun" work. I'll read an article that I've wanted to read for a while, even if it's not related to my current project, or I'll do some completely free writing (within my discipline--I'm not merely "writing" my American novel).
posted by philosophygeek at 2:47 PM on October 18, 2009

here's what works for me (another grad student who can't do anything at night...)

1) i try to get as much of my work as i can done in the mornings.
2) i separate spaces: i only work in my office, and almost never work at home. office-time is work time, and home-time is relaxing time.
3) i try and take little breaks throughout the afternoon if i know i'm going to be working late. 3pm tea, 8pm pint, etc...
posted by chicago2penn at 2:57 PM on October 18, 2009

As somebody that pulled an all-nighter last night, why can't caffeine be the answer?

It seems the OP needs to do this on a regular or semi-regular basis rather than the occasional all-nighter. Doing that with or without caffeine on a (semi-)regular basis is going to wreak havoc on his life.
posted by asciident at 2:59 PM on October 18, 2009

Nthing separate spaces for homework and everything else. Definitely helpful for separating life's tasks.

Also, how is your lighting? I've found that if the entire room is dimly lit except for my directional desk lamp, it just doesn't work out for me energy-wise, especially once the sun goes down. One of those daylight simulating lamps might be what you need to fool your body into thinking that it's still time to go-go-go for a bit longer.
posted by asranixon at 4:32 PM on October 18, 2009

I felt the way you do, too fried to get much done in the evening. Getting up at 4 AM really worked for me. I felt like I accomplished more in less time, I was more focused. I went to bed around 9, got plenty of sleep. No TV, and this was before internet.

Good luck!
posted by mareli at 5:37 PM on October 18, 2009

Another vote for do some exercise in the evening before you start to study.
posted by Chrysalis at 5:37 PM on October 18, 2009

Sounds as though you may just be a morning person. Why not go to bed right after dinner, wake up 8 hours later, and do your studying in the morning?
posted by decathecting at 7:48 PM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

"You might want to move yourself to a different environment. If you're in your apartment or wherever where you easily watch tv or access the internet you probably will."

In my case (I'm a night owl) it wasn't staying up late that was the issue for my evening grad school studies -- it definitely was the environment. Being at home with my usual comforts and family distracted me like crazy and made me feel less focused and energetic about my work. So I agree -- find another environment. I know the hours and locations of every late-night coffee shop within a reasonable distance of my house, because I used them to do almost all my writing. (Unfortunately, most libraries aren't open as late as I needed.) You might have more energy and more focus in a different place.

"Try and bring your materials (but nothing with internet access) to a coffee shop or library. Tell yourself that you're not allowed to leave until 9 or whenever."

This is good advice. You might not need to avoid the internet access, though -- for me, when I was out at a coffee shop working with internet access, for some reason I wasn't as distracted by it as I was at home. Very strange, really, but I could just focus really well even with the nearby temptations of the Web. (I wouldn't have used the access at all except sometimes I actually had to for my work.) Your mileage on this may vary, of course.
posted by litlnemo at 10:45 PM on October 18, 2009

I used to have this problem too. My solution was/is to go out to work in the evenings. Generally coffeeshops work for me. Once I'm there, it puts me in the working frame of mind, and I can squeeze a couple of extra hours out of the evening that I otherwise would have wasted watching tv or reading stupid shit on the internet.
posted by number9dream at 9:53 AM on October 19, 2009

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