As he was doing research for his book, published author and Georgetown University Computer Sciences Professor Cal Newport discovered that many straight-A students spent less time studying than most people thought.

Newport breaks it down on his blog:

If this sounds unbelievable, it is probably because you subscribe to the following formula:

work accomplished = time spent studying

The more time you study the more work you accomplish. The more work you accomplish, the better your grades. Ergo, straight A’s imply more work. Right? Then how do you explain me and my interview subjects…

To understand our accomplishment, you must understand the following, more accurate formula:

work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus

To further illustrate his point, Newport shares an example:

Intensity of Focus over Time for Marathon Session Approach
hour 1 : 10
hour 2 : 9
hour 3 : 5
hour 4 : 2
hour 5-10 : 1

[For math geeks, this is standard exponential decay.]

If we take the area under this curve, we see that the pseudo-worker has accomplished: 32 units of work.

Now let’s consider another approach. Assume, instead, that you break up the paper writing into two bursts. One burst you do for two hours Saturday afternoon. The other burst you do for two hours on Sunday morning. The long gap in between ensures your focus can recharge. Following the rates of focus decay used above, your chart looks like:

Intensity of Focus over Time for Short Burst Approach
hour 1 (sat) : 10
hour 2 (sat) : 9
hour 3 (sun) : 10
hour 4 (sun) : 9

Clearly, this work schedule is much less painful. Just two hours at a time. And a whole day separating the two sessions. However, when we calculate the area under this curve, we see that the short burst approach accomplished: 38 units of work!

Don’t expect better results simply by putting in more hours, and don’t do ineffective pseudo-work just because it makes you feel productive (or less guilty). Instead, work in short bursts in order to make sure your focus gets a recharge and become more effective and efficient.

  • William Peregoy

    This may explain why it’s sometimes the people who procrastinate who come out on top – by forcing themselves to wait until the last minute, they force their own focus and intensity levels to be top notch.

    • NarniaNitro

      That’s a good point. I tended to procrastinate somewhat even into graduate school. I found the work I did right before a deadline forced me to focus on things that were most essential, whereas earlier studying was good for “background” information that was nice to know, but typically periphery.

    • Gabriel Walker

      I have found this to be very true-for me at least.

    • Jared Krauss

      I caution, as that is a slippery slope, and is not the implicit point in this post, nor in the report.

      While true, one is forced into action by deadlines, I feel your above post borders on being a rationale for procrastination.

  • Alex Schiffer

    I’ve always wondered why studying over several days leading up to an exam is better than cramming. One part of it, is the lack of sleep and the stress that comes with cramming, but this explains another reason to spread out the time spent studying. I wonder how long you need in between to reset your focus to ten. Do you need a day in between study sessions or just an hour?

  • Rodrigo Conde

    I’ve been doing this for a while now. It works. I work better in less hours.

  • Rose

    so true! works for me! I feel less stressed and retain more information when taking long breaks in between rather than working straight.

  • Ica Turla

    This is very applicable to my current situation. Thanks a lot for this! 🙂

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