There are thousands of books out there to learn about learning and it seems quite overwhelming to pick the right ones especially since this is “only” the preparation for your preparation.
So what are the best books to improve your study skills? First of all, let’s take a look at which skills can be improved: Study skills are the best ways to motivate yourself to study and memorize more relevant facts in less time in an optimized healthy environment without distractions. So here are the key areas to improve including the best book(s) to find on this topic:
- Sleep Management – “Sleep smarter: 21 Essential Strategies.”
- Motivation – “Eat that Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastination“
- Time Management – “The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated: The Easy Way to Do More in Less Time” + “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity“
- Learning Techniques –“Accelerated Learning Techniques“
- Study Environment and Tools – There is no dedicated book available for this topic but read on – I got you covered
- Overall – Improving your Study Skills (Shelley O`Hara)
Nobody really has time to read 20 books on study skills so I just focus on the essential books per knowledge area that get the job done and will change the way you study forever. Some of them are already classics and I stick with them because they have proven their worth over time. So let’s take a closer look at the specific skills that can be improved and why I recommend the books below. I will include a link to the Amazon pages so you can check out other peoples reviews, no need to just take my word for it.
In all my articles I make it very clear that high quality (not quantity) sleep is the best improvement you can make because it influences every area of your life, not only your study skills. The main reason I looked into improving my sleep was not really a health aspect but I simply heard that when I improve my sleep quality I would need fewer hours per night to wake up fully relaxed. That was one of the best decision ever! I can now live with 6-7 hours instead of eight and gain 1-2 hours of extra time EVERY day.
It is just amazing what I have done with that time (passed 10+ exams, started a photo business, blogging, wrote 2 ebooks, wrote Apps for mobile phones and so on) – no bragging intended. I was surprised at how many mistakes I made throughout the day that had a bad influence on my sleep. Sleeping better improves many areas of your life.
According to Shawn Stevenson who wrote my recommended book “Sleep smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to sleep your way to a better body, better health, and bigger success.” sleep tuning also has other benefits:
- Better skin health/youthful appearance – Guess I started too late with this to really confirm or deny this (yet)
- Emotional regeneration/Better relationship – My wife and I did this together and we are definitely calmer and understanding
- Decreased risk of heart problems – Can’t really say since I don’t have them so, I hope so
- Fewer accidents – I didn’t have an accident for a very long time
- Enhanced immune system – Not sure this is because of the sleep improvements but I haven’t even have a cold for years now
- Faster rate of weight loss – Definitely – the combined change of what we eat and when we eat it made me lose 33 pounds (15 kg) in about 4 month
- Stronger bones, Lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, Longevity – Time will tell but for me, if there is a chance to improve on these factors I am all in
I wrote an article about sleep improvement which you can read here that focuses on having more time to study (if you just want the short version). Reading the book gives you a great behind the scenes view of how sleep works and why all the factors above can be derived from sleep improvement so go ahead and get it.
Now that we gained more time to study the next step is to get motivated. The sleep improvements I just described brought me a huge boost of motivation as well. Sleeping less means getting up early so when I get out of bed at around 5 in the morning getting on the balcony and taking a deep breath while watching the sun go up is a huge energy boost. I always try to use that positive feeling to get started right away and start with the “ugliest frog”.
For my next recommendation, I am a bit biased because I am a long term admirer of Brian Tracy and his work. I listened to every single audiobook and read most of his book and I can honestly say that they turned my life around. Even now if I need a pep talk I get one of his audiobooks and listen to it. “Eat that Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastination” is a motivation masterpiece which is an Amazon Bestseller for a reason. It contains 21 practical tips to change the way you work on tasks. Let me quote the one single truth Brian Tracy mentions in his book:
Throughout my career, I have discovered and rediscovered a simple truth. The ability to concentrate single-mindedly on your most important task, to do it well and to finish it completely, is the key to great success, achievement, respect, status, and happiness in life.Brian Tracy
The phrase “Eat that frog” in the title refers to the advice to do the most unpleasant task first every day. This is an incredible motivator and the book teaches you how to get there. The skill to learn how to do unpleasant things right away is really something that can turn your life around. Even if you would only get this one thing done every morning and take the rest of the day off you would still eat 365 frogs every year! Imagine where that would get you. The other great effect of this method is that everything else during the day seems so much easier because the ugly frog is already gone.
Another thing I like about the book is that it aligns with the Time Management methods I introduce below. Tracy introduces the 6-P Formula: “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance” which is based on the 10/90 rule. This basically states that the first 10% of the time a person uses for planning will lead to a 90% saving of time when actually doing the task. This is what Tracy also uses as a basic strategy for his OPIR book reading strategy (Overview, Preview, Intensive view, and Review) of which you can read all about in my article here.
The ABCDE method he introduces is very similar the Getting things done approach I explain further down. It basically categorizes all tasks into classes from A (Super important, have a significant impact when not completed) to E (Eliminate – tasks that bring you nowhere or might even hurt your progress). So if you want to minimize the books to read at first you can leave the GTD – Method by Tim Allen I introduce in the next Chapter and just use Tracy’s approach to Time M
Now that we have more time each day and the motivation to get started it is crucial to make the best out of every minute. This book recommendation is probably the most difficult one to pick because there are so many Time Management approaches out there. I tried out quite a number of them and ended up using a simple combination of Pomodoro and GTD (Getting Things Done). Most important was that the method is easy to learn and use without complex tables, planning, and tools. Both methods below do not require anything except a notepad and a pen, a timer and the knowledge on how to do them. Here is a short summary of both techniques and the books that explain them the best:
On a very basic level, the Pomodoro technique slices the day in manageable chunks of time interrupted by a short break. Especially for studying this method is very effective because or brain is not able to stay focused for longer periods of time as studies have shown. The name Pomodoro (which is Italian for tomato) comes from the Kitchen Timer the inventor used to create this technique which has the shape of a tomato. What I like about this method is that it uses a timer which forces you to stay on the task (and I even found the ticking sound very supportive).
There are simple Apps for every phone to help you keep track of your “Pomodoros”. Ticking off those chunk of times and tasks from your daily ToDo list is very motivating and creates a feeling of accomplishment. To learn more about this technique I recommend: “The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated: The Easy Way to Do More in Less Time” from Staffan Noteberg. This book goes beyond the simple explanation of the technique which was originally invented by Francesco Cirillo. The book comes with a lot of background information and explains the influence of the Agile approach taken from software engineering that is used in this technique.
Getting things done
The GTD method is something you might have heard of already because it is a very popular method from Tim Allen to help you organize all your tasks and categorize them so you work on what is most important. I found this to be a very effective method when it comes to working on specific tasks but for studying I prefer the timeboxed approach from the Pomodoro technique.
The reason I also recommend the Getting Things Done method is that it helps you to deal with “all the other Stuff”. When you can get other important tasks out of the way with the GTD method and then use the Pomodoro technique for the study time you are well prepared. Especially the part of the GTD method where you “Empty your brain” in the evening by just writing down what bothers you on a piece of paper so you can have a “worry-free” good night sleep very effective. So as a recommendation there is only one book from the master himself which is available in many different formats: “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by Tim Allen.
As I said, I am a little bit biased so my next recommendation is also from Brian Tray and Colin Rose: “Accelerated Learning Techniques“. I like this “book” because it is an audio program so you can easily learn how to learn in your car, it includes a PDF Workbook and has a Bonus CD with relaxation music to get you into the right mood.
Study Environment and Tools
Surprisingly there is no book available that focuses on this topic I might as well write one). But no worries, I did a lot of research and wrote many articles about this topic so here is a summary of the most important aspects of your study environment and the tools to use:
Place your desk in the right spot
When I started to redesign my study room the first thing was to place the desk in the right spot. I always thought putting the desk in front of a window not only gives me a lot of natural light but also a nice view into the garden so I could relax my eyes once in a while. After doing some research I found out that that is actually wrong. The 3 main rules to follow when placing your desk are:
- Never sit with the door in your back
- Do not sit in front of a window
- Do not sit in front of the wall
The main reasons for these rules are that you can see the door and basically “own” the room. Having a window in front of you makes your mind wander staring out of the window and sometimes with direct sunlight creates a huge contrast and makes it hard to look at the computer screen or into your book. Having a wall in front of you is quite depressing, the best thing is to have a strong supporting wall behind you (and no window).
Other improvements to your study room should be to uncluttered it and tidy it up! The theories Bagua (Chinese) as an aspect of Feng Shui explains in detail what should be placed where in a room. I am not really a believer but since I had no idea how to organize the room I thought I might as well use this system. It turned out to be very nice. If you want to read all about it check out my detailed article on how to recreate your study space.
Article link: Improve your study room
Improve the smell in your study room
Making your study room a place you like to be can definitely be improved by using a scent you like. But picking the right smells can additionally influence our mood and learning abilities. Without going into too many details here a Lavender scent can be used during breaks because it has a calming effect and a Rosemary smell can help to increase alertness during study periods. All the details and why this works can be found in the article below.
Article Link: The best smells for studying
Use the right background noise
Though many articles and people suggest otherwise the best noise level for studying is silence. This is around 40dB or below. Do not use or buy “relaxing” study music. If your room or house does not support a quiet environment a highly recommend getting a good noise cancellation headphone.
Article link: The best background noise for studying
Good lights are crucial
It is not only essential to have enough light but also important to make sure it is natural if possible. Try to avoid direct sunlight and if the desk can be placed in a position where light through a window comes from the side that would be perfect. The color temperature also has a great influence on our alertness. I explained everything about it in my article below, just take a look.
Article link: The best light for studying
Optimize the colors in your environment
Colors have an influence on our emotions and mood, that’s why advertisers use them so intensively. But can this also be used to improve the way we study? Studies have shown that increased alertness helps to focus on the task at hand. The most suitable colors to do this are red, orange and yellow. Probably if you are going to redesign your study space by putting some refreshing new colors here and there might be a great idea (I recently painted my desk yellow and I love it). Take a closer look at my article below of how colors influence our memory and learning ability.
Article link: The best color for studying
Use the right font for your studies
A very surprising fact I discovered is that when you choose a difficult to read font it actually can improve your study performance. So when you are creating your cheat sheet or have the chance to convert your study material before you go through it you should pick a font like Bodoni MT, Monotype Corsiva or Haettenschweiler. Studies have shown that we tend to fly over easy to read fonts. If a font is harder to read we need to concentrate much more to actually understand the meaning which ultimately improves study performance.
Article link: Use the right font
Eat these things to boost your learning efforts
During your study period, it is important to stay healthy, energized and hydrated. Drinking too little and eating too much junk food while studying for hours is a common mistake. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 0.5 liters of water per hour. To satisfy any snack cravings hard-boiled eggs, Smoothies, Nuts, Celery, Carrots or Salami and Cheese are a good choice. Since you don’t want to spend too much time on cooking for your main meals you should aim for one-pot dishes or have a cooking day once a week to prepare meals that you can portion and freeze. If you like to check out my favorite recipe and also want to learn what to eat the day before and during an exam check out my article below.
Article link: Eat this
Drink coffee to stay focused
Studies have indeed shown that coffee or more specifically the caffeine inside can help you to learn better. It keeps you alert and increases your focus. A good cup of coffee just gets you in a good mood and research has even linked the effects of caffeine to better short-term memory.
Article link: Coffee can help your study
Do these exercises to stay energized
To avoid fatigue and help you concentrate exercise during your study can greatly improve your performance. Having a break once in a while and walking around is the obvious choice but small exercises at your desk are also helpful to keep you going.
- Eyes – Shift your focus once in a while, especially when you are looking at a screen all the time. When you take your walk in your study breaks try to go outside and focus on a point far away. When your eyes start to hurt while you are sitting at your desk rub them gently or close your eyes and put your hand palms on top to apply some heat.
- Hands – When you need to type or write a lot your wrists and hand start to hurt eventually. Once in a while just shake your hands or make a fist. You can also try to pick some imaginary apples out of the air which additionally exercises your arms.
- Head – To avoid neck pain I circle my head once in a while, just st straight, look down, close your eyes and circle to the right, up, left and down again several times.
Article link: Do these exercises
Improve your posture for relaxed studying
In short, the most important thing is to sit correctly. Follow these steps for the perfect sitting posture:
- The height of the seat should be adjusted so that your hips and knees are at the same height while your feet are flat on the floor
- Put your upper body into an upright position
- Move your hip back as far as possible
- Make sure there are no obstacles in the leg area
Another important part is the screen, it should be about an arm’s length away and the top of it should match your eye level. The monitor should always be in the center right in front of you, not on the left or right side of your desk.
Article link: The perfect study posture
Once I started to get into improving my learning skills and found out how much you can actually do for your memory and study skills I read many books and took some online courses. To prove that this actually worked I set out to pass 10 exams in 1 year (which I did). So if you are interested in some further readings I recommend:
No Excuses! The power of self-discipline.
Again, another Brian Tray classic. The book teaches you why we make excuses and how to “Make yourself do what you have to do when you have to do it” or in other words: Self-Discipline. An important key factor is to have a long-term perspective. If you cannot answer the question where you want to be in 5 or 10 years I really recommend reading this book or listening to the CD. Take a look inside here.
The 4h-body by Tim Ferris
This is not directly related to study but getting your weight under control and knowing how your body works tremendously helped me to not only lose 33 pounds (15 kg) but also to eat healthier. I strongly believe this improved my ability to focus (because I am not constantly thinking about eating something) and increased my self-discipline and self-confidence. And here is the link.