By Mike Jennings

There’s so much conversation about how much to study; people overlook how to study.

I fell into this trap when studying for my first actuarial exams.

I set my goal for 300 study hours, and then I locked myself away for 2-3 months. I remember forgoing a spring break vacation so I could study for 4-6 hours per day. I took pride in my marathon study sessions; I took pride in being busy.

Then I met Roy Ju, who recently became the world’s youngest FSA at age 20.

He studied much less than other students, and still made time for a balanced life (spending time with friends and family, playing tennis, lifting weights, taking a full college course-load, working an actuarial internship, and leading two student organizations on campus).

Roy opened my eyes to the importance of study strategy. Two students can study for 100 hours and have very different results depending on how they spend that time.

After many conversations with Roy and reading multiple books on how to learn, I transformed my own process to study smarter and cut down on wasted efforts. While finishing my last FSA exam, I was able to:

  • Work a full-time job
  • Keep up with my weightlifting hobby (4-5x per week)
  • Write Actuarial Exam Tactics and build the Rethink Studying website
  • Plan my wedding
  • Visit family and friends every weekend
  • Spend a little too much time playing Skyrim and Battlefield 1

I learned that with the right study strategy, it’s possible to pass your exams and enjoy life along the way.

Brea already provided some great tips for balancing actuarial exams and life. I’d like to build upon that list, focusing specifically on your study schedule.

Here are the top 5 things I learned for structuring your study schedule to achieve a balanced lifestyle.

1. Shorten your study sessions and make them more frequent

In chemistry, the ideal gas law explains that gas expands to fill the volume allotted. This idea has been extrapolated to the world of productivity in the form of Parkinson’s Law: work expands to fill the time available for completion.

That is, the more time you give yourself for a project, the longer it will take.

We’ve all experienced Parkinson’s Law in school. If you’re assigned a paper due 2 weeks from now, you use the entire 2 weeks. And if that same paper was due in 4 weeks, you would still use the entire time.

Most of the work doesn’t happen until the deadline is staring you down, and the same principle applies while studying. To increase efficiency, assign shorter deadlines for your study sessions.

You can try using the Pomodoro technique:

  • Set a timer for 25 minutes and work on a single task (you can try listening to binaural beats for increased focus)
  • Take a 5-minute break, and then repeat another 25-minute working session
  • After 4 of these Pomodoros, take a longer 15-minute break

The 25-minute working sessions give you a tight deadline for finishing a task; they take advantage of Parkinson’s Law. The intermittent breaks also keep you from burning out after these sprints.

Speaking of breaks…

2. Integrate breaks into your study sessions

Breaks aren’t just important for managing burnout; they’re a critical part of the problem-solving process.

Dr. Barbara Oakley explains this in terms of focused vs. diffuse modes of thinking. While you study, you engage the focused mode of thinking, diving deep into a complex problem. But sometimes you hit a wall.

The diffuse mode of thinking lets you step back and find alternative approaches to get past your sticking point. It’s associated with “Eureka!” moments and creative insights that occur as you wind down from a tough day.

There have been many times where I’ve taken 15 minutes to go for a walk, grab a snack, or take a shower and suddenly a difficult concept just clicks.

Try scheduling breaks as part of your study sessions to increase your chances of finding these insights.

3. Account for stress in other areas of life

In college, I loved powerlifting. I hired a coach who designed my lifting and nutrition programs, and we met for weekly progress updates.

For these check-ins, we covered the usual questions: How well did you adhere to your nutrition program? Did you hit your lifting goals for the week?

But my favorite question was: Rate your overall stress level on a scale of 1-5. If I had high stress in other areas of life, we dialed back the lifting intensity to avoid burnout.

The same idea applies to your actuarial exams – your study schedule can’t be viewed in isolation. Try taking a holistic view to manage your energy and stress, especially the week of your exam.

Increased stress in one area needs to be compensated by lowering demands in other areas. For example:

At work, coordinate with your manager and team so you can work half-days (or even take full days off) the week of your exam.

At school, try scheduling your actuarial exam when you have a break from classes. Or, talk to your professors to see if you can do assignments ahead of time to clear the workload during exam week.

If you frequently exercise, try taking a rest week or lowering the intensity leading up to your exam.

Exam-day is a performance, and you want to be in peak condition.

4. Schedule a Weekly Review Day

Most students split their studying into two distinct phases: learning and review.

You might learn about “increasing annuities” tomorrow, and then you won’t revisit the topic for another month or two after you’ve finished your study manual.

But with that approach, you’ll forget much of what you studied and spend a lot of time relearning.

This phenomenon is best illustrated with the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve in the image below. After 30 days, you may only remember 20% of what you initially read.

The best way to fight the forgetting curve is with spaced reviews.

Even with a single spaced review, you’ll significantly increase your retention. After one month, you’ll remember about 70% of the material instead of the original 20%.

Simply put: studying for 1 hour today and 1 hour next week is superior to 2 hours today. That’s the best example of studying smarter. You don’t spend extra time, you just use it more effectively.

When you build your study schedule, you can block off one day a week to review information from the prior week. It may take you slightly longer to finish your study manual, but you’ll save a lot of time in the long-run by not relearning half of the material.

(For tips on what to do during these review sessions, check out our free 5-day study skills email series)

5. Block Off Your Calendar – Protect the Time

Brea suggests that you “schedule study time into your calendar, just like you would a doctor’s appointment or class.” I couldn’t agree more.

Do everything you can to protect your study time. Block off your calendar. Turn on “Do Not Disturb” mode to silence notifications on your phone. Use an app like Forest to keep from getting distracted.

Being rigid with your study time creates freedom in the rest of your schedule.

For example, I studied from 7:30 – 9:00 AM every weekday. Non-negotiable. By tackling my most important task first, I could do whatever I wanted after work.

Your friends want to grab dinner? Your car breaks down and you need to take it in for repair? You want to watch the new Game of Thrones episode or play video games? No problem. You already took care of business, so your evenings are completely flexible (if you’re a night person, you can easily flip this around).

As Jocko Willink says, “Discipline = Freedom.”

There you have it – my top 5 study schedule tips. If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in:

Best of luck on your exams! We hope you’re able to breeze through while enjoying the process.

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Get all my best tips on how to become a TOP actuarial candidate so that you can get your actuarial dream job.

Just add your email below.