And it’s not just that the beautiful pictures of neatly organized pens and careful notes for class are so deeply soothing, either. It’s actually proved quite helpful for organizing my writing projects. It’s provided some good insight to stereotypes, privilege, and rhetoric, and what is effective for whom. It’s even become a source of celebration for female creativity and female space, especially for teens. It’s an amazing place where girls can be ambitious, driven, goal-oriented, and hardworking… indeed, where she can be celebrated for it. Based on all this, I’m sure Studyblr practicalities and culture will likely be the subject of future blog posts here.
NOTE: A lot of this stuff applies directly to writing, too.
However, I’ve noticed one particular thing right off the bat: while everyone starts off enthusiastically, within three months, a large chunk of Studyblrs seem to peter out.
How come this is a common feature in a community that is about following through on goals? Are there some tips for studying beyond practicing handwriting and setting those daily objectives?
I might be able to offer a few possibilities. After all, I’ve been in this game a long time… longer than many of Studyspo students have been alive, in fact. Yes, I’m old. Plus I’ve attended, taught at, and gotten degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the world and some of the most specialized little-known programs. And I started this journey as a poor, suburban, easily-intimidated girl from a family where no one went to college or valued education. It was a long, scary, uneven slog to get to where I am, with Ivy League and Oxbridge names on my CV, and let me emphasize that’s not the important part at all.
The important part is that, with my academic work, I’ve become the person I wanted to be. Even more, I’ve gone beyond what I thought I could do, time and again. Education is an amazing opportunity, and whether it’s neuroscience or the fine arts or law or pop culture studies, you will benefit from learning. Especially when you have to battle your way to access it.
So I’ve been where you are. Academically, I’ve experienced the highest highs and lowest lows, too. I know what it’s like to juggle jobs, classes, friends, a relationship, parental expectations. I know what it’s like to look at academia and education as a coterie of the privileged few, something I will never be able to afford or access. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re doing it all wrong, and want to quit.
And oh, yes, I know what it’s like to hit that state of panic and fear and overwhelming anxiety, or be piled under depression. Lots of us have. So remember that along the journey: you aren’t alone, and what you’re feeling isn’t a singular anomaly. It’s okay.
That said, you have to stick with this and work hard, harder than you think possible, for a long, long time to make it all really happen.
So keep in mind when you start that….
It’s not about the stuff
Your teachers and profs aren’t going to be impressed if you show up with the Muji notebooks and Mildliners and Staedtler pens and everything from your binder clips to your bujo to-do list color-coordinated unless your work is also good. It’s not going to make a magical difference if you (can afford to) buy the unicorn drink at Starbucks and take a picture of it next to your Apple laptop and Lilly Pulitzer folio or Leuchtturm 1917 notebook.
So you can decorate your notes with all the doodles and washi tape you want… but you still need to write a solid essay, pass that exam, finish these assignments.
The stuff is fun, I get it. It feels super-productive to collect a huge haul from the office supply superstores. I’ve been an addict for decades, hoarding notebooks and organizing color-coordinating pen holders even before “office supply superstores” existed. But the stuff isn’t a magical ingredient that will get the work done. You need to be able to do this with the shitty pencil and notebook, too. (This also means if you, like me, can’t always afford all of the super-expensive stuff, you are not excluded from what makes Studyblr really work, mind!)
It’s not enough to buy the notebook and fineliner pen, to take pictures of the stuff from above in great light. You need to do the work. You need to put in serious time and effort. You need to make this your priority.
It’s about discipline.
It takes practice
A lot of practice. Remember, this is not a one-time deal to pass a test or finish an assignment. This is a long-term commitment, and everything will not be magically perfect from the beginning.
One of the things I hear most from my undergrads, especially first-years, when they get a lower-than-expected grade is, “But Teacher, I worked really hard on this!”
Good. That’s great. I’d certainly hope you did. But if you haven’t answered the questions completely, if your essay is just “fine” and not “great,” if you get exam questions wrong or misunderstand the primary material, you aren’t going to get a high or passing mark… even if you’ve worked hard or studied. If your essay does not critically engage with the topic at the level I’d expect to earn a high mark, I am not going to change your grade to a higher one because you tell me you “worked really hard on this!”
It sucks, and it’s disappointing. It hurts. I get it. You thought you’d studied enough. You thought you’d come up with a good idea for an essay. But unfortunately, sometimes one-time “hard work” just isn’t enough.
Sometimes months of hard work isn’t enough.
However, if you keep up the hard work, with your instructors’ help, you’ll get there, and it will be better than you thought. I promise.
This is a much longer journey, and it takes a lot of work, long-term, to get good at this. It takes practice.
One of the dirty secrets about procrastinators is that we are perfectionists. Procrastinating doesn’t necessarily mean you’re dumb or lazy or unmotivated; it often means that you feel like unless you can do something perfectly, you’re afraid to do it at all, or think that it’s not worth doing. If you made a mistake that one time, then forget trying again.
But those are lies your mind tells you to cope with overwhelming feelings.
You’re going to mess up. You aren’t going to do something perfectly the first few tries, whether it’s writing out your notes or taking a test or even getting through an entire semester. You’re just plain going to fail at some of these things, even. You’ll be frustrated, but that doesn’t mean you’ve ruined everything or should give up or should not try something again.
Don’t make/find excuses not start
I know it feels like you can’t really do the whole studying thing until you have one of those Instagram-worthy minimalist desk spaces, all clean and white. You don’t want to try changing everything until you can afford a Macbook, or those expensive highlighter sets, so as soon as you can manage that, you’ll totally start changing your study habits for the better. And it’s half-way through the semester, so next term, you’ll totally commit to it all and have everything ready and start off on the right foot.
I mean, what’s the point unless you can do it right, right?
The problem with that thinking is that someone is always going to have a cuter notebook or a nicer desk area. Someone is always going to have better handwriting. Someone is going to illustrate their poli sci notes with watercolors and pen-and-ink sketches worthy of museum postcards.
So don’t look at your half-page of messy notes and tell yourself “Why bother?” because you don’t have everything color-coordinated with pressed flowers and calligraphy accents… because instead, you have White-Out blobs and coffee dribbles.
Those things aren’t important. Learning is important.
My worst habit is feeling like if I didn’t start right away in the morning, the whole day was off and so I’d have to try again tomorrow. No. There’s no reason why, at noon, I can’t take a walk or a shower, and then get to work, instead of feeling like I’ve lost the whole day because I wasn’t working at 9am. I was just finding an excuse to put something off because I wasn’t doing it perfectly, or as good as what I thought someone else was.
But all that meant was that I was the one missing opportunities… and missing out on doing things I really enjoyed, too. Because even if my handwriting is messy and my notebooks look like they’ve been chewed by animals, I love learning. I love academia.
Messy notes and scribbles are better than no notes at all, or even beautiful, artistic notes you hate. There is no reason why you can’t start right now and get a productive hour of studying in, instead of waiting until tomorrow when you’re in your cute, coordinated pajamas and can take well-lit pictures of your desk and then work for six hours with a cup of hot tea and a dish of perfect blackberries within reach.
Finish reading this, grab your notebooks, books, and pen, and get to it. A little is better than nothing.
Get into productive routines
One of the things that works so well with the Studyblr habit is just that: it is a habit. You get up, you go to class, you go to your favorite study spot or the library or home to your desk, you take a couple pictures of the things you’re using or doing this afternoon — your notes for an exam, your draft of a paper, your steaming hot coffee, your reading for lit. — and then you get to work.
You certainly don’t scroll through seventy other Studygram posts, or hop onto Amazon to order more pens. You don’t rewrite those notes for a third time because you want to use a different color scheme. You don’t spend two hours on one bullet journal page, decorating your list of movies to watch with more banners and stickers. You don’t end up using all that time to film a new vid to upload.
You don’t eschew that chapter for writing a blog post about studying tips instead, do you?
This is why I have become successful in academia. It’s not because I’m super-smart (I wasn’t, I’m not) or learn things quickly (I still don’t). It’s because I developed good, productive habits over time. And because I kept going instead of giving up on what I loved doing, even when I was brutally discouraged.
Sometimes I had to hide for a day or two, or a week, but I got back to it, even if it required therapy and medication. I didn’t quit, and I got into effective habits. This is a basic life skill anyway. (Good and effective habits allow me to structure some time for writing the blog posts and pen-shopping, too.)
This means you may need to scale back on some of the technology if it isn’t working for you, even if all your favorite people in the community use such-and-such app or program. Speaking of which….
Figure out what works best for you, and adapt it
There are a lot of recommendations for studying, everything from the best pen tip to exactly how to section a bujo notebook page to color-coding your flashcards. Quite a few of these elements have become seemingly intrinsic to the studying community. But that doesn’t mean you have to do everything that someone else does, just the way they do it. It means you may have to experiment, and that even after several weeks, you still hate the Cornell note-taking system and want to go back to the mapping method, the way you used to. Don’t be afraid to not do something that is not working out for you.
I hate notebooks that fold at the top. More than three different colors of highlighting on a page makes my head swim. I don’t like grid paper or fine-point pens. My handwriting sucks and I’m too busy to invest hours a day in penmanship practice. And, especially, I am not a visual learner and have zero drawing/doodling skills, so I don’t illustrate my notes with massive amounts of pen-and-ink sketches. Just because it is a hallmark of the Studyblr community, or just because ___ loves it doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
On the other hand, I love camping out at the library or a coffeehouse for hours. I adore Post-It index markers/tabs.The Pomodoro method changed my life. I usually write 1500-2000 words a day, almost every day. I find writing prompts effective. I make piles of flashcards, as well as themed notebooks and binders for different projects. I’ve been Scotch-taping picture collages and print-out things into my diaries and onto my notebook covers for decades. I have certain music that works well in the background for studying or writing. But just because these are things that work for me doesn’t mean you have to do them, or should do them the same way.
Give it a real try to see if getting into the habit of going to the library to work, or exchanging and combining notes with a friend are effective for you. See if your test scores improve after using Cornell-style notes for studying. But, if after you’ve forced yourself for a couple weeks to go to the library, and you still start to twitch after the first hour, maybe you really do and will work better at an outdoor cafe table in the sunshine.
Trial-and-error exists for a reason.
Another note: Students’ all-nighters have a certain sadistic glamor to them, but they are usually not productive. So I know lots of Studyblrs post about how they’re only getting by on 3 hours of sleep this week, and are pulling their second all-nighter in a row to review vocab, but really? It’s not worth it. If you have good study habits built up, you don’t need to kill yourself and diminish your mental capabilities with an all-nighter before a big test. You don’t need to impress us with how little sleep you get or how much coffee you consume, either.
It’s about actually, really studying, not performing studying.
On the other hand, if I don’t have anything major next day, I’ve had some wonderfully productive late- and all-night fiction writing or reading sessions with friends and classmates. If you’re excited about a project, there’s nothing wrong with spending an occasional crazy all-nighter or weekend getting that Power Point presentation done or finishing reading the book that you can’t put down or working with two friends trading critical articles and writing drafts of your 30% essay.
It’s about motivation, not competition. Be healthy and do what’s most effective for you, whether it’s a ton of Post-Its or one favorite pen.
Turn off the TV/movies
One of my biggest regrets in life is the amount of time I spent watching TV and movies when I was younger. I felt like I was missing out on something important about life itself if I didn’t know all of the references people were talking about at work or on the radio. I’d get caught up in a show, and, even when it all went bad, still had to watch every week to find out what happened next. Sometimes I lost between 3-6 hours a day because I was watching a show and then chatting about it afterwards online, like I was a gossipy neighbor. Omigawd, can you believe Brittany did that? Why would Peter stick around? Did you SEE what Nadia was wearing? These people are such disasters, but it’s validating to watch it, because I feel superior to these hot messes on my TV screen, so it’s beneficial, right?
Not really, no.
There are a few things I’ve watched that were important. Mad Men definitely helped me think about narrative structure and character development. Currently Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is doing the same thing. Hell, I’ve been inspired to my own academic work after a weekend binge of the entire series of Master of Study online. RuPaul’s Drag Race has made the world a better place for multiple reasons.
But spending hours a day with the trendy programs just in order to be able to go “Can you BELIEVE…?” along with everyone else was a complete waste of time. I promise you, nothing is missing from your life if you scale way back on popular entertainment , and use your time for other things. You don’t need to be able to say that you saw the “Cash me ousside, howbow dah” girl live when it happened. It is not important who “won” whatever dating reality show. In six months’ time, it won’t matter to anyone anyway. It’s not like you can put that on your CV or cite it on most academic papers.
I also know a number of people that have movies or TV on all day, every day. My mother gets up at 6am, turns the TV on to the cable news networks, and there it stays until she goes to bed at night. One friend had Back to the Future on every single day for over a year as part of her morning routine, saying it was just like having music on for someone else.
But when you are trying to study or write, the linear progression of a narrative engages the brain in certain ways that are distracting, even if you think they’re not. So when it’s time to study or read or write or concentrate, turn the TV off. No movies “just for noise.” Oh, please, not the cable networks with people screaming at each other and calling it “news.” Even if you “like something on in the background,” or “for a few minutes to wind down,” no.
Try it for a week. Scale back to just one favorite program, or keep it to a half-hour in the evening, and not while working at the same time. Get your news through one or two solid media sources (like a Washington Post subscription or a quick peek at the BBC headlines), and have your own discussions with people instead of listening to talking heads on TV. You’ll be amazed at how much more effective you are overall without the time-suck of constant media.
And don’t try to multi-task with podcasts or audiobooks or streaming lectures or anything, either. Focus on one class, one task at a time. You’ll be far more effective.
Remember, buying all the stuff isn’t the same thing as doing the work. Writing out a to-do list in your prettiest handwriting isn’t the same thing as doing the things. Posting pictures of your open books isn’t the same thing as studying them.
Think of Studyblr stuff as a contract you’re making with yourself, and do the things.
On the one hand, don’t beat yourself up for not doing everything perfectly. But on the other hand, do things. Keep commitments. Don’t b.s. yourself about how you’re just really stressed out so you need to treat yourself to that spa day or shopping or curling up in front of the telly all day. Act like a responsible student.
This is my biggest secret to impart.
Imposter syndrome is real, and we’re all faking it, to some degree. One of the appealing elements of a Studyblr is that it looks like you have all your shit together. So you buy the notebooks and pens, fill out the bujo, and… still don’t have a handle on things, still bomb a test, still struggle with that paper. Wasn’t this supposed to make things easier?!
You know that horrid old phrase, “fake it ‘til you make it”? Gosh, who wants to be fake?!
But what if it’s not about being fake, but, rather, about projecting the person you want most to be?
Constructing your ideal self, for you and you alone…?
I’ll quote my beloved Carrie Fisher here:
“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”
So do it anyway, and pretend you’re not faking it.
If you have visions of yourself as competent, dynamic, amazing research scientist doing ground-breaking environmental work in a radical laboratory, pretend you’re already there. As you collect your books and supplies to head to class, pretend you are a budding future president or Supreme Court justice or international diplomat, and someday you will be one of the most celebrated alumni from this institution. Pretend you are a famous actor rehearsing how to play a college or high school student for your upcoming film. Pretend you are at Hogwarts or the Unseen University or the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning or Malory Towers or the Ault School. Pretend you are a visitor from another planet. Pretend you are Elle Woods or Rory Gilmore or Matilda Wormwood or Hermione Granger or Cristina Yang or Penelope Garcia. Pretend you are at Harvard. Pretend you are at Cambridge. Pretend you are premed at Johns Hopkins. Pretend you are an ancient scholar at the University of al-Qarawiyyin or Università di Bologna. Pretend you are at Berkeley or the Sorbonne in the 1960s, or ETH Zürich in the 1920s. Pretend you are in a one-room schoolhouse, struggling against all odds to get an education.
My favorite pretends are that I’m someone from an earlier time period, especially when I’m on a venerable old campus. I’m one of the first women admitted to the program in the 1880s, facing all sorts of challenges, so that even going to the library is an act of progressive defiance. I’m participating in one of the Parisian literary salons of the eighteenth century. Is there a portal doorway in some unused corridor that let me slip into the 2010s from a hundred or two hundred years earlier? Either way, I cradle my stack of books and notebooks and stride off to find an empty table with good light and get to work, invigorated and feeling like I’m connected to centuries of history.
Access those spaces in your mind that infuse what you’re doing not just with enthusiasm, but magic. Go forth and study!