So you have a free day and you are prepared to study a lot. But you probably have heard that studying too much is not effective and could be harmful to your health. So how do you reach the Goldilocks Zone – what is the optimal amount of hours that you can study in one day?
Although studies are still inconclusive on the topic, based on our research most students can study about 7 or 6 hours per day and still stay effective. However, the total time can vary depending on numerous factors and is different from student to student.
We will look into how long you could theoretically study for, then review some scientific literature on the topic, and lastly provide a recommendation on how you can figure out the optimal time for studying that will work for you.
Theoretically speaking, for how long could you study and still stay efficient?
First of all, let me define what I mean by effective studying. It means studying in a way that:
- does not harm your health
- you are learning the most material in the shortest amount of time possible
- you can continue this for prolonged periods of time (several days or weeks)
Now with the definition out of our way, let’s look into how long you could study every day without harming your health, theoretically speaking.
According to Stanford’s Dr. Dement, there are three main ingredients to a healthy life – sleep, exercise, and nutrition. So here is a conservative approximation (some of you might spend a lot less on these activities) of how much time you would need to dedicate to these three activities every day:
- Sleep – about 9 hours. According toThe National Sleep Foundationuniversity students (aged 18 – 25) should get from 7 to 9 hours of sleep – so for simplicity let’s say an average student might need 8 hours of sleep (I actually wrote an entire article on how much sleep a university student might need – check it out here). Also, you might need about 30 minutes to fall asleep and then another 30 minutes to get out of the bed so that is an additional 1 hour.
- Exercising – about 1 hour. According to Harvard Medical School, most of the studies recommend a manageable 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day – this can be going for a brisk walk, swimming, stair climbing, tennis, dancing, etc. Also, you might need an additional 30 minutes to go to shower or to prepare for the activity – so that brings the total to 1 hour.
- Food – about 2 hours. Good food cannot be rushed. Precision Nutrition recommends dedicating about 20 – 30 minutes for each meal. Also, it might take some time to prepare the food as well, whether you cook at home or go to a restaurant. If we assume 3 meals per day with 30 minutes for each that is 1.5 hours. Lastly, there are various snacks that you might take, which might take about an additional 30 minutes.
So if we sum up these 3 activities you have to spend at least 12 hours on your health. Thus, you have 12 hours remaining for studying. However, you should not spend all of them just studying. As discussed in our previous article, if you want to study efficiently – you must take breaks.
The topic regarding how often you should take breaks is rather nuanced and I wrote an entire article on it. But in short, we recommend taking short breaks (about 15 minutes) for every hour of focused work and longer breaks (about 30 minutes or more) every 2 or 4 hours of work.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that for every hour of work, you need to spend 30 minutes on breaks. Also, since most people consider eating food and exercise as breaks we will count those activities as breaks. So let’s do simple math and figure out how long you can study for:
- 24 hours – 9 hours of sleep = 13 hours of waking time
- For every 1 hour of waking time you have to spend 30 minutes on breaks => this means that you have to spend 1/3 of your waking time on breaks and the remaining 2/3 of your waking time can be spent on studying.
- 13 hours of waking time * 2/3 = 8.6 hours (approx. time spent studying)
So theoretically you can effectively study for about 8.6 hours every day – this means that you are taking proper breaks, are exercising, eating, and sleeping properly every day.
For many of you, 8.6 hours might seem small but keep in mind that this is just the time spent studying excluding breaks, many people include breaks in their total time spent on studying. Also, here we’re talking about time spent on effective studying not studying as much as possible.
So if you are really committed this is what an ideal day of effective studying could look like (based on what we discussed above).
|7 am – 8 am||Wake up and eat breakfast|
|8 am – 9 am||Study for 1 hour|
|9 am – 9:15 am||15 min break|
|9:15 am – 10:15 am||Study for 1 hour|
|10:15 am – 10:30 am||15 min break|
|10:30 am – 11:30 am||Study for 1 hour|
|11:30 am – 12:30 pm||Exercise (1 hour)|
|12:30 pm – 1 pm||Eat lunch (30 mins)|
|1 pm – 2 pm||Study for 1 hour|
|2 pm – 2:15 pm||15 min break|
|2:15 pm – 3:15 pm||Study for 1 hour|
|3:15 pm – 3:30 pm||15 min break|
|3:30 pm – 4:30 pm||Study for 1 hour|
|4:30 pm – 5:30 pm||1-hour break|
|5:30 pm – 6:30 pm||Study for 1 hour|
|6:30 pm – 6:45 pm||15 min break|
|6:45 pm – 7:45 pm||Study for 1 hour|
|7:45 pm – 8:45 pm||Eat dinner 1 hour|
|8:45 pm – 9:45 pm||Study for 1 hour|
|9:45 pm – 10:30 pm||Relax|
|10:30 pm – 11 pm||Go to bed|
If you follow this schedule in total you will spend:
- 8 hours sleeping
- 9 hours studying
- 7 hours on breaks, food, exercise, and other activities
Of course, this is just an example. There are different ways of approaching the same problem and as discussed in our prior article on the best time for studying, some people might prefer to go to sleep and work at different times of the day.
There are people such as Scott Young who are able to pull off such an intense learning schedule and focus 8+ hours per day. Scott is famous for his MIT challenge, where he learned 4 years of MIT courses in 12 months. And he did this by putting studying effectively 8+ hours per day. See this post and the video below for more information.
However, the biggest issue with such a schedule is that it is not very realistic since most students are not Scott Young and will not be able to study effectively for such a long period of time. Let’s see why.
Why you should study less than 8.6 hours every day?
I understand that many of you have studied for more than 8.6 hours per day (I myself once studied for 16 hours in one day), but the issue here is that most students cannot maintain the same level of productivity for such a long period.
For example, Cal Newport shared astoryof a student who spentabout 70 hours (which is quite close to studying for 8.6 hours every day) studying every week and still got an unsatisfactory exam result. See the student’s crazy study routine below:
- Monday – Thursday – 11 hours
- Friday – 10 hours
- Saturday – Sunday – 9 hours
You might say that this is just one case and that this student maybe got unlucky, etc. But as Cal Newport says it is very likely that this student could have achieved the same result by spending a lot less time studying.
And I have to agree with Newport here – based on my personal experience this applies to most of the students. I have often forced myself to study more than I could physically manage and it did not work – I ended up wasting time in the end.
Such reasoning is supported by scientific studies as well. According to 3 academic studies (1,2,3), time spent studying is not that important for your grades.
“Contrary to popular belief, the amount of time spent studying or at work had no direct influence on academic performance.” –Sarath A. Nonis & Gail I. Hudson
These studies have tracked students over a period of time and looked into what determines a good GPA (Grade point average).In all of these studies, just the amount spent studying did not predict GPA (1,2,3).There were students who studied a lot and still got bad grades and students who studied very little and got good grades. And vice versa.
I know that this might sound rather weird – that time spent is not that important. But keep in mind that these studies are quite solid – one of these studies was conducted by Anders Ericsson – a famous researcher on achieving top performance and the author PEAK.
So what is happening here should you stop studying because it does not matter how much time you spend studying? The answer is NO – don’t stop studying, but study smartly – focus not on time spent but on how you spend that time. These studies find that rather than time spent on studying, your study and health habits and the way how you study play an extremely important role in determining your GPA.
So going back to the main question – how long can you study effectively? So far it seems that for most people this number is definitely less than 8.6 hours.
Although science is not clear on this question, there are several studies on the subject. For instance, according to a Swedish study, working for 6 hours each day seemed to increase productivity.
Also, we know that working too much is generally bad and it seems that working for more than 45 hours per week is bad for your health. Of course, the exact number differs from study to study. For example, according to Kamerade-Hanta, working over 48 hours is generally bad for an average employee. Or another study found that productivity falls after a person works more than 50 hours a week.
So what is the verdict? Well to generalize, working more than 50 hours per week is not productive. Therefore the maximum amount that an average student could pull off seems to be 50/7 = about 7 hours per day. This number seems to work for me as well. So based on the discussed research and my personal experience I recommend about 7 or 6 hours per day of studying for most students.
Of course, this might vary from student to student an in the next section I will discuss several factors and that might help you determine how much exactly you should study.
So how to figure out how much exactly you should study for?
As mentioned, there is no perfect number of hours that fits every student. Rather the number might differ from to person and might vary from day to day. Here is a list of factors (primarily based on my opinion and analysis) that might help you determine the amount of studying you can perform effectively:
- Type of the task or studying – if the task is extremely intensive or cognitively demanding (such as trying to write a mathematical proof) doing it for a long time even with proper breaks might be impossible.
- Your overall health and mental condition – if you are not healthy, or are depressed it might be rather difficult to concentrate or to work for prolonged periods of time. And vice versa.
- Your study habits and overall ability to concentrate – if you know how to study effectively, have a studying habit, and are used to concentrating for extended periods of time – it is more likely that you will be able to study for longer effectively. Of course, building such capacity might take some time as Cal Newport discusses in his book “Deep Work”.
- How you feel on that particular day – we do feel differently from day to day – sometimes we are excited and energized and sometimes it seems that we cannot even leave our bed in the morning. So as a result on some days, we might find it quite easy to study productively for an extended period of time such as 8 or 9 hours, while on other days we will not be able to study even for 2 hours effectively.
- Other obligations – what if you have other tasks apart from studying such as a part-time job or participating in various student organizations. If that is the case the time that you can spend on studying will naturally be smaller.
Although many of these factors are common sense, the point is that you should experiment, create your own study routine, and change it depending on the circumstances. Try to note how are you feeling that day, try to build study habits, improve your health, etc.
Lastly, you can just use a simple rule of thumb, study with proper breaks for as long as you feel effective. Once your productivity starts dropping try switching the task or just try to take some rest or even call it a day.
Of course, such advice might encourage some of you to procrastinate. So to avoid that, I would suggest setting a minimum amount of hours that you have to study every day such as 3 hours (because everyone can study productively at least for 2 or 3 hours).
But what about Elon Musk and all the other people who spend extensive time working every day?
You probably have heard that there are people like Elon Musk who almost on a routine basis work 80 or 90 hours per week. Or people like Gary Vaynerchuk, according to whom, if start-up founders want to make it, they should put in at least 18 hours a day for the first year.
Students who idolize Elon (I do like him myself) might conclude that you should just work and study as much as possible. However, such a line of reasoning is flawed and could be harmful. Here is why:
Firstly, research disagrees with such reasoning. As already described above, the research is quite clear – working for more than 50 hours per week is not productive. Also, as mentioned previously, the research is clear that just studying as much as possible does not work. What matters is not how much you study, but how you study. Quality over quantity.
Secondly, running a company is very different from studying. Thus, saying that because Elon musk spends 14 hours per day working you should study for 14 hours per day – is a flawed line of reasoning. Think about it – running a business involves lots of talking, making calls, going from place to place, email, etc. All of these activities do not require as much mental capacity as learning some difficult study material.
I am not saying that being an entrepreneur is easy – I am just saying that your brain can handle a lot of diverse low mental effort activities (such as calls, taking, email) for a prolonged time, but studying intensively for a prolonged period of time is way more taxing for your mind and for most people impossible to do.
According to well respected researchers (K. Anders Ericsson,Michael J. PrietulaandEdward T. Cokely) – most people cannot engage in mentally demeaning activities for very long periods of time. And most executives do not engage in such activities “since the majority of their time is consumed by meetings and day-to-day concerns.” (HBR)
Here is what these researchers wrote in Harvard Business Review:
“It is interesting to note that across a wide range of experts, including athletes, novelists, and musicians, very few appear to be able to engage in more than four or five hours of high concentration.”
“In fact, most expert teachers and scientists set aside only a couple of hours a day, typically in the morning, for their most demanding mental activities.“
Thirdly, there is plenty of other high-performing famous people who spend a lot less time working. For example, think about Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps, who “trains for aroundfive to six hoursa day atsix daysa week.” (Sports Engine). Or about Terrence Tao, a Fields Medal winner and arguably the best mathematician currently in the world. In his article on the way he manages his time, he described that sometimes he is happy if he can do just 2 hours of thinking in a day:
“Another thing is that my ability to do any serious mathematics fluctuates greatly from day to day;sometimes I can think hard on a problem for an hour, other times I feel ready to type up the full details of a sketch that I or my coauthors already wrote, and other times I only feel qualified to respond to email and do errands, or just to take a walk or even a nap.”
To sum up, the reasoning that you should just study as much as you can because Elon Musk works crazy hours is incorrect and flawed for the aforementioned three main points.
You might have come to this article expecting that I will give you a crazy number like 14 hours per day or more, but it is quite clear, based on good research, that people just can’t be effective for such long periods for a long time.
Many students hope that they can compensate for all the time they have spent slacking off with just a couple of days of nonstop studying. But sadly real life does not work like that. Two days of working 14 hours per day is not the same as four days of working 7 hours per day.
As discussed in a prior article (how many hours do top students study for) nothing can beat consistency and good study habits. Rather than concentrating on quantity focus on your productivity, study techniques make sure that every day you spend at least a couple of hours studying. You will be a lot more healthy, happy, and essentially a better student. And remember that good studying takes time, but this time is spread over a long period of days.