If you’ve made the decision to return to learning after a long break, you may feel excited and upbeat – but you might also feel overwhelmed and apprehensive.
Whether you’ve chosen to complete a university degree or an online course, returning to study after a long period can be tricky. Sometimes, it can feel like our brains need a reboot, that we lack the ability to concentrate for long periods of time, or that we’ve simply forgotten how to get into ‘study mode’.
But the good news is that there are lots of things you can do to make getting back into learning that bit easier – and make the learning process itself more effective and enjoyable too.
If you’re returning to learning after a long break, here are nine tips that might help.
1. Make a plan
If you have a clear plan, the chances of succeeding at anything become much higher. When you begin studying again, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by how much there is to learn, or feel panicked at the thought of missing assignments, or not being ready for exams. But if you plan, it can help you to feel like you’re on top of things, which can go a long way in minimising stress levels.
Drawing up a plan and creating a schedule for yourself is a really good way to kick off the learning experience. If you like working digitally, you could create an electronic plan, but if you prefer using pen and paper, you may want to buy a planner, diary, or calendar. Then, you can make a note of all the important due dates for your course and make sure you have enough time to study.
If you feel concerned about sticking to deadlines, you might also want to draw up a timetable with daily and weekly tasks. At the end of each week you can then cross off everything you’ve achieved, and flag anything you haven’t completed yet. Life, with all its upheavals and unexpected events, has a way of getting in the way of our plans at times, so this can help you feel like you’re on top of things, even when there are delays or hiccups along the way.
2. Get into a routine
Once you have an outline of what your larger study goals are, the next step is to create a learning routine. Routines are really important because they provide productive structure to our days, and without knowing that we’re meant to start studying at a certain time, it’s easy for time to run away with us, or for our days to stretch ahead of us aimlessly.
If we’re learning from home, routines also create boundaries between leisure time and study time. If you work full-time, you might want to get into the routine of finishing work, doing some exercise, or going for a walk, and then settling down to study for a couple of hours before relaxing for the rest of the night.
These recurring actions can help us to step into different modes (for example, work mode, study mode, relaxation mode, etc), making the psychological transition between each mode easier, and allowing us to better disconnect at the end of it.
A final, powerful perk of routines is that they can act as emotional regulators. According to Harvard Business School professor Mike Norton, routines are a “powerful human mechanism for managing extreme emotions and stress”.
Because they’re familiar and comforting, routines can ward off anxiety and stress, and help us feel productive as well as stay focused. Routines are so vital for success that countless books and articles have been written about the daily habits of some of the world’s most successful people. To get inspired, you may want to read this article by Balance The Grind.
3. Figure out which time of day you study best
We’re all different, and when it comes to learning, there definitely isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. So, when you first get back into learning, it can be useful to take some time at the start to figure out when you’re most productive and focused. Then, try to plan your study schedule to maximise that.
For example, if you’re a morning person and wake up feeling energised and motivated, try to schedule your learning time first thing. Or, if you’re a night owl, then why not plan to study in the evenings, or after dinner?
Many people find that their brains seem to perk up after exercise. Therefore, if you have a full-time job and don’t have time to study before work, you might want to get into the habit of doing some exercise when you get home, and putting some time aside after it for studying.
It might take a bit of trial and error before you figure out when you work best. But once you’ve identified your peak times for learning, it’ll be much easier to focus – and at the end of each learning period, you’ll hopefully feel like you’ve achieved something.
4. Create the right environment
To get the best out of each learning session, it’s important to find the right study spot.
If possible, it’s good to have a dedicated study area. This should be somewhere you don’t relax in – such as the living room – as this can help you to get in the zone whenever you sit down to work. If you don’t have space in your home for an office or a desk, then you could consider using a kitchen table – but it’s key to keep the area tidy and clutter-free.
It’s also helpful to think about ways you can turn your learning space into a pleasant environment that energises you, and encourages you to study more, not less. You might find that keeping a vase of fresh flowers on your desk works – or perhaps you want to burn essential oils, or light a scented candle. Playing gentle music can also help create a good environment for learning and focusing: YouTube has a good selection of focus music, as does Spotify.
However, some people might find they work better out of the house. Sometimes, simply stepping outside can provide a sense of purpose and direction, and eliminate distractions that are common at home – like a sink filled with dirty dishes or ringing phones.
If this sounds like you, you could try studying in your local park (when the weather’s nice) or heading to a nearby coffee shop. Some people find that the ambient noise in coffee shops can even improve creative thinking, so give it a try and see what works for you.
5. Limit distractions
In our hyper-connected digital world, it’s easy to live in a state of perpetual distraction. You might sit down at your desk, ready to do a good hour of studying – but then your phone starts ringing, or an email flashes up.
It’s important to note that each time you get distracted, it takes our brains on average 23 minutes to refocus. So, just taking a quick look at your phone can detract from your studies far more than you may think.
But of course, we’re only human, and it’s natural to be curious about what’s going on around us. So, to help protect your learning time, try to limit distractions as best you can. If you get distracted by your mobile phone, try turning it on to ‘do not disturb’ or ‘airplane’ mode. It can also be helpful to put your phone in another room while you’re studying so it’s out of sight and out of mind.
You might also want to consider unplugging the house phone, and if you find you become distracted by other people in your own home (or your pets!), you may want to think about buying some noise-cancelling headphones. These can help you focus entirely on your work and not get diverted by sounds of the TV or other people’s conversations.
6. Use focus apps
To give your learning sessions an extra boost, you might also want to consider downloading tools and apps that help you focus. If you find it hard to resist checking social media or news sites, you can download anti-distraction apps that block distracting websites for certain periods of time.
A really good free anti-distraction app is Cold Turkey, which blocks specific websites within specified times, and a free version can be downloaded for both Mac and Windows. If you’re happy to pay a fee to improve your focus, you may want to check out FocusMe. After subscribing, FocusMe gives you much more control over when you block certain sites, and for how long. You can always do a 30-day free trial to see if it’s right for you before committing.
To further improve your focus, it may be beneficial to try some different productivity techniques. The Pomodoro technique is a simple yet effective technique that can really improve your focus: it involves working in a state of deep concentration for 25 minutes, followed by a five minute break. This cycle is repeated three more times, after which you take a longer break of around half an hour.
The Pomodoro technique is one of many different productivity and focus techniques, and what works for one person may not work for another. It’s worth exploring different techniques and seeing which works for you. You can read about other productivity techniques here. If you’d like to find out more about different ways you can improve your concentration, then you might want to read our article; 7 ways to improve your focus.
7. Ask for help
If you’re unsure about something or have questions, it’s always better to ask for help than it is to struggle alone. Whether you want advice about which study materials you should buy or download, or have questions about a certain topic you’re learning, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it – that’s what professors and tutors are for, after all.
Taking some time to try to build a relationship with your tutor or professor can be really beneficial for learning. Not only does it make it easier to reach out and ask for help if you need it, but it can also help motivate you. Tutors aren’t only experienced in their respective subjects, but they also have plenty of learning experience, so they may also be able to give you advice on how to best study or revise.
If you have friends or family members who might have experience with a subject, it’s always a good idea to ask for their opinions and advice. They may have helpful insights or be able to point you in the direction of other useful learning materials or online resources. Whatever you might be struggling with, remember that there’ll always be someone who can help you.
8. Make sure you have a good work/life balance
When you begin learning again, it can be tempting to throw yourself into studying a bit too intensely – particularly if you’re enjoying the learning process. While it’s great to feel enthused and motivated, it’s important to maintain some boundaries and make sure you have a good work/life balance. Otherwise, it’s easy to experience burnout, especially if you’re trying to juggle learning with a full-time job.
If you’re studying for long periods of time, take regular breaks, even if they’re only for a few minutes. Research shows that these types of ‘microbreaks’ help re-energise our brain and make it easier to concentrate – so listen to your body and brain, and if you feel tired or frustrated, take a break. It’s a good idea to have one day off learning each week too, if that’s possible. Having a learning-free day helps clear the mind and allows you to feel refreshed and ready for the next study session.
Learning involves dedication, commitment, and often a degree of sacrifice, but it should never come at the expense of your physical or mental health. One of the most important things you can do is to make sure you still have enough time to do the things in your life that are meaningful – whether that’s meeting up with friends, watching a spot of TV in the evenings, or enjoying a relaxing bath before bed.
9. Prioritise living healthily
When we’re thinking about the best ways to maximise learning, it’s easy to focus on the things that seem directly related to studying, like drawing up timetables. But one of the most crucial things we can do to improve our learning is often overlooked – and that’s making sure that we’re living healthily.
Getting enough sleep plays a big part in improving how we study. Our brains need a certain amount of sleep to function properly – and because learning and memories are consolidated during sleep, you may notice that it’s much harder to concentrate and study when you’re tired. If you struggle to get enough sleep, you’ll find plenty of information on the sleep and fatigue section of our website.
To ensure you’re learning at the best of your ability, it’s also crucial to make sure you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet. What we eat can have a direct impact on memory and focus, and eating the right nutrients can even improve our ability to do certain tasks.
For example, foods containing vitamin K, like broccoli, have been shown to improve cognitive function and brain power. To find out more about the right foods to eat, you may want to read our article; 10 foods to boost your brain health.
Finally, it’s also important not to underestimate the value of exercise when it comes to learning. Research shows that getting regular exercise doesn’t only improve memory, it can also make it easier to concentrate. For example, according to studies, walking while learning a language makes it easier to remember new words, and just 10 minutes of gentle exercise, like bouncing a ball, can improve concentration.
To find out more about how exercise can enhance the learning process, you might want to read our article; How exercise can lead to better brain health. Or, for ideas of how to become more active, visit the fitness and exercise section of our website.
Starting to learn again after a long break is exciting, and can mark the beginning of a new adventure in your life, or perhaps even a new career.
However, getting back into studying after so much time away can also be a daunting experience, so it’s important to be kind to yourself while you get back into the swing of things. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself, and celebrate your wins – however small they might be.
Learning may seem really difficult at first, but remember that it’s like any other skill – and the more you practise at it, the easier it will become.
If you’re thinking about returning to education, then you might find our short guide on becoming a student in your 50s, 60s, and beyond, helpful.