It's an extremely common question, but like many other cases, it depends. The problem is, we suck at making objective and accurate decisions. With all our cognitive biases, our ability to deal with uncertainty also sucks.

So the best way we can gain more certainty and plan is by looking at our ability to learn. If you're efficient at learning, you won't have to spend that much time studying.

To answer this question, we need to be extremely self-aware about how efficient we are at studying. The biggest issue here is to do with the Dunning-Kruger effect which describes a cognitive bias that we all face - we often tend to overestimate our abilities as we can't quickly grapple how much more an expert knows about the topic.

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And related to this is a bias that I like to call "future competency bias" (I have not found its official name online but I'm sure it exists) - if you know, please reply!

This cognitive bias is truly rife. We expect that as time passes and we become more mature, we'll somehow solve the issues that we've never solved before. We think that our future selves will be different from now and more competent without considering how that will actually happen.

So if you're doing well right now, that isn't a guarantee that things will always stay that way. There will be different challenges. It is naive to assume 'you'll be ready by the time comes' without preparing for it, so it's important to always prepare for the worst and continue to upskill yourself. Our day-to-day choices and actions compound to create significant progress (or decline) and this is the Aggregation of Marginal Gains.

It is completely within your control to change the likelihood that you'll be better prepared in the future, but frankly, so many of us just don't want to bear this responsibility day-to-day. This can easily end up being one of our biggest limitations that can hold us back for months or easily years.

So how do we answer this question?

1. Measure your average efficiency currently

You should objectively measure your ability to learn, observing how long it takes for you to learn something to a certain depth, and how long you can remember it before you forget. A great way of checking this is by attempting to teach the content, which allows you to get some of the benefits of active recall, as well as using higher-order thinking skills required in order to teach it in a way that is comprehensive yet concise.

If you find you don't remember knowledge very quickly, that's completely okay too! A lot of us need time and patience in order to retain information and to gain practice with engaging in higher-order thinking skills and study techniques. The first step in changing for the better is by acknowledging that you have the ability to improve now. The good thing about noticing it early on is that we now know what we have to work on to achieve the best results we want. There will always be opportunities for us to improve if we start looking in the right area.

2. Now knowing how efficient (or inefficient) you are, how do you know what to work on to become faster?

We need to know how effective our study techniques are at producing learning. Many students incorrectly gauge this due to the hundreds of cognitive biases we have. Being open-minded to being wrong isn't easy.

We must always keep in mind that studying is the action we try and do to produce the outcome of learning. Ask yourself, what techniques have I been using lately that’s been successful and favourable to me, and how do I truly know it's the most effective?

Keep in mind that opportunity cost is a huge issue here. You may have something that works, but is it working as well as you'd like it to?

3. Work backwards to figure out how many hours you need before your next test/exam

So think about the final goal (knowing everything for the exam), and work backwards from there. We can begin to split our large outcome-based goals into smaller measurable goals. Then we can begin to estimate how many hours it would take to cover each chapter and all the practice papers that we'd like to cover. Here's an example

  • The exam is in 30 days.
  • I want to finish all my practice papers by 26 days so I have a 4-day buffer between then and sitting my exam. (I acknowledge I am likely to run overtime in my 26 days of preparation so I'm giving myself 4 days across the month to catch up).
  • If I want to complete 5 practice papers, I'll need at least 7 days back from this.
  • Therefore, on day 19, I should have revised all the topics in this exam.
  • etc etc. Earlier than this point will be highly individualised to how many weak areas you have and how much you need to retrospectively study again.

This process allows us to focus more on the process of learning instead of being fixated on the results. We can’t control the outcome, but we can control the process and the journey up until it ends. It is best to set small measurable goals and a time frame of when you need to be hitting those. The key here is to always overestimate how long things take so you can have a more strict deadline for yourself. If I mentioned I wanted to get topic 3.2 done in 7 days (when I think it will take 5 days), I have no excuse for not having it completed in 7 days.

And once you have this, you can continue to work backwards to figure out how much study you need per day.

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I've had some really rough weeks recently so I've been very grateful to have those around me to help me through this time, and I am also very grateful that you take the time to read some of my thoughts when I post them.

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"It is much better to make friends with what you do not know than with what you do know, as there is an infinite supply of the former but a finite stock of the latter." ~ Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order

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