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How to Enjoy Studying

Studying can feel like a drag because the reward is distant and difficult to visualize. But you can change that.

Scott Young

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

Studying is an unpleasant task for most people. Students procrastinate on preparing for an exam until a last minute cram. Professionals avoid taking the training they need to get ahead in their profession. Tests make people so anxious they change careers altogether.

If you can learn to enjoy studying, however, you’ll unlock a much larger world of opportunities. Not just in school and classes, but in life.

Those who deeply enjoy learning new things can add new hobbies, accelerate their career and develop new points of pride and confidence. That can’t happen, however, if the thought of studying hard to learn something fills you with so much dread that you only stick to easier things.

Why You Don’t Like Studying

Why people like and don’t like things is a big subject in psychology. Although there are intrinsic likes and dislikes, a lot of our likes and dislikes are learned, rather than instinctual.

This is because we learn to associate the things we like with other, instinctive, likes. We also learn to associate the things we dislike with other, instinctive, dislikes. Sometimes this effect is powerful enough that something which is a mildly instinctive dislike can be overcome through sufficiently strong pairing to an instinctive like.

Consider spicy food. The capsaicin found in hot peppers creates its sensation by activating pain and temperature receptors on the tongue. Normally these are designed to tell you to stop eating, not to consume more.

Yet many people learn to like spicy foods because they become a learned association with other rewarding treats like salsa, curry or kimchi. Eventually the spice that was previously painful may even be addictive, as you seek spicier foods and avoid blander ones.

How to Learn to Enjoy Studying

Studying is a mentally strenuous activity that often involves frustration by default. Because you’re learning something hard, it’s a natural reaction for your mind to seek out things which are easier or more entertaining.

This is made worse because this mildly difficult task can be associated with painful associations. Test anxiety. Failure. Negative feedback from teachers and peers. Boredom in school.

However, if you can pair studying with sufficiently rewarding activities, a different association can begin to develop. Now instead of feeling anxious, bored or frustrated, you can start to feel excited, interested and enthusiastic.

Step One: Pair Your Existing Studying With Things You Like

Although this could technically be accomplished simply by eating ice cream every time you finish a chapter, I’m skeptical how durable this conditioning will be. After all, you know you can just skip one to get the other. Also, needing to reward yourself each time you do a little studying can delay the whole process enough that now new anxieties form about your lack of productivity.

A better way is to try to create an intrinsic connection between what you’re studying and what you like. Studying statistics may be boring, but if you’re interested in sports, it can be a window into understanding why teams win and lose. Computer programming may feel bland, until you’re making your own game or web app.

Every subject sits in a nexus of millions of connections to everything else in the world. Seeking out and fostering those connections can help you cultivate an interest. Making the effort to see how something dull applies to something interesting can make all the difference in making studying enjoyable.

Step Two: Connect Studying with Progress

Progress itself is inherently rewarding. When you start to connect actions with progress, then this itself can be intrinsically reinforcing.
Arnold Schwarzenegger worked out so much, in part, because he enjoyed the feeling of soreness in his muscles after a workout. In his mind, that minor pain became so connected to the muscular growth he sought after, that it started to feel good every time he did it.

Similarly, if you track your progress and visualize it, you can make studying a more enjoyable task. When I was studying languages, nothing would make me happier than clearing my Anki count for the day. I would often set the new words as a countdown so I had a goal to clear them out.

How would your motivation change if you drew a map of everything you needed to study, and colored it in as you reviewed it, filling out your knowledge territory and taking the abstract mental improvement you’re undertaking and turning it into something you can see?

Step Three: Create Your Own Study Projects

This one may sound backwards. If you’re already having hard time doing the studying you need to do, why would adding more studying make it better?

The reason is that many people get into a low-confidence spiral. They don’t do as well in school as they would like, so all they feel worse and worse about studying. This, in turn, makes it hard for them to study properly so they do badly and thus deepen the spiral.

Creating self-initiated studying projects can get you out of this by removing the source of negative feedback. If you set the goal, interests, methods and materials, you can work on a project you’re much more likely to succeed with and start to recapture a positive spiral.

If this subject is adjacent to one you’re learning in school, you can leverage that confidence learned in your side project into the one you need to tackle full-time.

Step Four: Focus on the Now

Human beings like challenging mental tasks. Solving Sudoku or crossword puzzles is something many people do for fun, but if the same tasks were packaged into a classroom, many of the same people would hate doing them. Why?

The reason is that the future performance evaluation, the need to study and the only semi-voluntary nature of the activity can stifle any natural enjoyment. If I know I have to solve this Sudoku puzzle, and that if I get it wrong it might ruin my life, I’m not going to love it the same way as if it were just for fun.

Therefore, one of the most powerful ways you can learn to enjoy studying is to, paradoxically, focus on the studying itself. Don’t focus on future outcomes, just focus on the puzzles in front of you and challenging yourself to see if you can solve them. Become curious about how they work, rather than feeling burdened with the obligation to learn them.

Human beings learn through play. The more your study becomes play, the more you’ll enjoy it, but also the more you’ll learn.

Shifting Your Enjoyment

None of these steps will take you from hating something to loving it overnight. The loops of reinforced conditioning are probably years-deep and can take a long time to unravel.

However, if you an apply these consciously maybe you can take something you absolutely hate and turn it only into a minor nuisance. Or something you don’t really like into something you find kind of interesting.

Even small shifts of this kind can add up in reduced stress and less procrastination. In the end, learning to enjoy studying can matter even more than learning to study well. If you can enjoy the challenge and begin to see what you’re learning in a more positive light, you’ll be able to start performing better as well.

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This post originally appeared on Scott Young and was published November 23, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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