For motivated students, one question that comes up is, “What is the maximum number of hours I can study in a day?”
For a number of reasons, this is a tricky question to answer.
Here, we will take a deep dive into the maximum number of hours that one can study in a day. And more importantly, we will look at how many hours a day a student should study.
Theoretical Maximum Number of Hours Study Per Day
Theoretically, a student could study for 20+ hours a day. Obviously this is a poor decision, since it would result in a lack of self-care and no time for eating, exercising, sleeping, or hobbies.
More realistically, there are stories of top entrepreneurs, athletes, scientists, etc. that are able to put in 16+ hour days on their road to success. These stories contribute to the misconception that, because working hard is beneficial, working even harder will be even more beneficial.
Students hear stories of an entrepreneur working 16 hour days and then decide that they should try to devote a similar amount of time to studying Pre-Calculus. But putting in long hours as a CEO is inherently different than putting in long hours studying.
We will cover this in more detail in the following sections, but here is the key take-home message – effective studying requires breaks, downtime, and quality sleep in order to retain information.
Effective Maximum Number of Hours Study Per Day
Effective studying is dependent on two key factors: (1) time spent reviewing the material, and (2) downtime that allows your brain to form connections to solidify and retain the information.
In the above examples of 16-20 hours per day, there isn’t enough downtime to allow your brain to retain the information. So, you will be spending more than enough time reviewing the information, but your ability to store this information for recall will be compromised.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you study for two, 10-minute time blocks per day, your recall will be excellent. However, you haven’t reviewed enough information to properly learn a complex subject.
Clearly, we need a balance that maximizes our ability to recall information without spending an unreasonable or unsafe amount of time studying. So, what is this magic number?
We will attempt to find the ideal amount of study time per day, but be warned that there is no such thing as a “magic” number here.
How Many Hours a Day Should You Study?
To begin, numerous studies have found that working more than 50 hours per week is detrimental to physical and mental health. For this reason, we will cap the numbers at 50 hours of dedicated study time per week.
However, we need to include breaks in this 50 hours. There is no way you can effectively study for 10 hours at a time without a break. My personal recommendation is to take at least one day off per week, also.
Studying 6 days per week for a total of 8 hours per day yields 48 hours of total study time. To me, this is the cap on appropriate study time. If you have a crucial exam or one-off test occurring soon, I don’t see an issue with exceeding 8 hours per day over a short period of time. But sustained 50+ hour weeks of studying just isn’t a balanced way to live.
By the time you subtract breaks (shoot for 15 minutes of break time per hour), an 8 hour day of studying ends up being 6 hours of productive studying.
So, for my money, 6 days per week of 6 hours of productive studying is a healthy limit for studying. This amounts to 36 hours of total, productive studying. This should be enough time to accomplish your academic goals.
An important caveat here is that you should factor in the amount of time that you spend sitting in a classroom, also. If you are in a lecture hall from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. each day, please don’t go home and spend another 8 hours studying.
Again, try to limit your professional obligations (school, studying, etc.) to 50 hours per week. For a short period of time, it is acceptable to exceed 50 hours weekly. But over the long term, damage to your mental and physical well-being will occur if you greatly exceed this limit.
Discussion of Individual Differences
A key part of this discussion is the tremendous variability in studying, learning, and knowledge retention from one student to the next. As much as we try to establish guidelines, self-evaluation is an important part of the process.
Some students can make straight “A”s by only studying the night before the exam. Other students struggle to keep up with the class average even though they study a few hours each night.
Part of a student’s development should include a realistic appraisal of his/her strengths and weaknesses.
By late elementary school, most of us are aware of our own ability to learn and retain information. In middle school, we usually know which of our friends need to study hours upon hours, and which of our friends are able to study for only an hour to make good grades.
Be realistic, and adapt your study methods and study schedule to your own strengths.
If you learn best through marathon study sessions, block off some time for a marathon session. On the other hand, if you can only focus for fifteen minutes at a time, find ways to build fifteen minute study blocks repeatedly throughout your day.
Hours of Peak Performance – Quality vs. Quantity
Now, we turn our attention to the age-old discussion of “quality versus quantity.”
For most of us, our ability to focus is limited to an hour or less. This means that “studying” for 5 hours straight is a waste of time, since our brains aren’t wired to do so.
Instead, you will inadvertently build a break into your studying, often by slacking off, dozing off, or otherwise getting distracted after about an hour of focus.
Rather than wasting time in the middle of a study session, plan on taking intentional breaks. A good starting point is to plan on 45 minutes of studying, followed by a 15 minute break.
One thing that worked for me during the intense days of graduate school was to physically write down the exact time I started and stopped studying. This way, every time I got distracted by my phone, the TV, or a wandering mind, I had to “stop the timer.”
As a result, I was able to more accurately appraise my studying habits and capabilities. In time, I found that I was only able to study for ~3 hours in a 6 hour period, after subtracting bathroom breaks, snack breaks, and random distractions.
Develop a reward system that works for you and your ability to focus. Maybe you need a snack break every couple hours, or you want to reward yourself with an occasional TV show.
Some performance gurus and experts preach the importance of “peak performance.” The concept here is that you only have a few hours of peak performance each day, at an absolute maximum.
You can use this philosophy to study smarter, not harder. If your peak performance occurs early in the morning, wake up early and log an hour or two of focused studying before classes, work, and other obligations drain your battery.
Rather than relying on a set rule or guideline, you should gauge your retention and monitor your performance. Then, adjust accordingly.
Words on Self-Care
As mentioned above, there are stories of entrepreneurs and other brilliant minds that attribute their success to 16+ hour days. As a student, you need to disregard most of these stories.
First of all, it just isn’t possible to be productive and healthy while studying 16+ hours per day. This doesn’t allow you time to sleep or see your family – no amount of success is worth this sacrifice!
Second, a 16 hour day is different for an entrepreneur than it is for a student trying to study.
Successful, productive studying depends on downtime and breaks. This is the way our brains are wired and there is no way around it.
A business owner may be able to work 16 hour days if their days involve responding to emails, answering phone calls, and attending meetings and business lunches. But there are very, very few people on this planet that can efficiently study for 16 hours daily without neglecting other aspects of their life and relationships.
Remember the purpose of your studies. Whether you are a middle school, high school, or college student, no amount of academic success is worth having an unbalanced life. There will always be more facts to learn and more information to study, but it isn’t worth sacrificing your sleep or your health in a futile attempt to learn everything.
College Guidelines – “Three Hours Per Credit”?
For college students, there is an old rule of thumb that states you should study three hours for each credit hour you are taking. Doing simple math, I really dislike (and disagree with) this rule.
For an average student that is enrolled in 15 credits, this means 45 (15 x 3) hours of studying each week.
At face value, this doesn’t seem unreasonable. But you need to factor in the time that is spent in class, in labs, working on homework, and commuting or walking to class. For the typical student that is spending 25+ hours on campus, this amounts to 70 hours weekly devoted to your studies.
First of all, 70 hours of school work doesn’t allow time for a part-time job, volunteering, seeing friends/family, or pursuing any hobbies. Not only is this unhealthy, but it is regressive to assume that all students have the family support needed to get through college without pursuing a part-time job.
Next, a uniform application of this rule just doesn’t make sense. If I am taking a one-credit orientation class, should I really spend three hours studying for it each week? And alternatively, if I am pulling a D-minus in a 2 credit organic chemistry course, even 6 hours of weekly studying may not be enough.
Rather than aiming for an arbitrary goal, we should encourage honest self-evaluations by the time a student reaches college.
In other words, a college student should know their own study habits, their strengths/weaknesses, and their ability to retain information. By college, we should be able to gauge ourselves well enough to know how much to study, rather than following an antiquated guideline that doesn’t help anyone.
Many students want to find a way to study for 6 hours straight, or uncover a golden rule that tells the maximum hours per day that you should study. In reality, these attempts are futile.
Find a study schedule and study method that works for you, gauge your level of academic success, and adjust your schedule accordingly.
To maintain a balanced life, you want to keep your workload under 50 hours weekly. By the time you subtract ~25% of your study time which is actually break time or distracted time, this limits you to about 6 days per week and 6 hours per day. For most people, this workload should be sufficient to meet your academic goals – as long as you are being productive while you study.
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