How to Be More Productive in College Without Losing Sleep

by Evan Thompson
• 4 min read
TheBestSchools.org

College culture insists that if you're not sleep-deprived, you're not doing it right.

But pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion won't help you become a better student. It might make you worse.

"It's my opinion that a lack of sleep is the number one reason why college students have difficulty academically," said Terry Doyle, a sleep researcher, author, and professor emeritus at Ferris State University.

You need at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night for your body and brain to function normally, but up to 60% of all college students don't get enough sleep. The negative consequences can include:

"When you look at the research of what happens when you're sleep deprived and what it does to your attention and your concentration and your memory ability and your recall ability, it's a pretty clear picture of why students would have a terrible time," Doyle said.

For the students who get better sleep in college, the rewards are huge. Being well-rested helps with building short- and long-term memory, reducing stress, and increasing academic performance.

But how can you be more productive in college without losing sleep? We asked sleep specialists, college professors, and students to share their tips on doing it right.

How to Be More Productive in College Without Losing Sleep
Track your productivity in a journal. Take notes on how well you perform academically throughout the day to figure out when you're at your best.
Pick the right study times. Study when you're best able to focus and concentrate, not when you're feeling groggy or about to go to bed.
Stack or stagger your classes. Take classes back to back to avoid long lulls, or space them out to give your brain time to refresh.
Keep a steady sleep schedule. Control your wake-up time and/or avoid undersleeping and oversleeping to maximize your potential for the day.
Be well-rested before you study. Regular full nights of sleep will help you retain more information and make study sessions more productive in the long run.

Tips for Being More Productive in College Without Losing Sleep


Track Your Productivity in a Journal

Students in Jessica Doyle's theater and dance classes at East Carolina University need maximum energy to perform well on stage, but they don't have any if they're running on fumes.

One of her strategies is having them keep a practice journal.

"I think doing something like that, be it with practice or study habits, is very, very helpful in terms of that self-discovery of when you are most productive," said Jessica Doyle, a professor, vocal coach, and author (Terry Doyle is her father).

Each week, the students track how they perform at different times and decide when to practice based on personal preference. They also know what time they need to get to bed so they're fully rested before practice.

Some figured out that they feel crummy before noon. Others started waking up an hour earlier to capitalize on their high energy in the morning. You can do the same thing with studying or picking class times as you plan your sleep schedule, she said.


Pick the Right Study Times

According to Terry Doyle, study times and sleep patterns should go hand in hand.

"You want to study at the time that you are best able to focus and concentrate and make that time beneficial to you," he said. "You don't want to do it when you're tired because obviously then your concentration is diminished, your attention is diminished, [and] your ability to process that information is more difficult."

In practice, that means choosing to study when your brain works at its best. It could be in the morning, midday, or at night, depending on whether you're an early riser or night owl.


Stack or Stagger Your Classes

Do you prefer to take classes back to back or give yourself time to recharge? Stacking or staggering your classes is another way to boost your productivity, especially if you struggle with sleepiness.

Terry Doyle believes students should stagger their classes because the mind needs time to organize and process information.

"Taking an hour off between classes is actually a really beneficial thing from the standpoint of learning and connecting that information and processing that information," he said. "It's something high schools can't do, but certainly college students could do."

The opposite approach also works. Davis Roberson, a first-year student at Auburn University, prefers to take classes one after the other to avoid long lulls during the day.

"I would rather stack my schedule because when my classes are spread out, I find myself waiting around, not really doing much," Roberson said. "My perfect schedule would be having the majority of my classes being around 10-2 every day."

Both options have merit. Consider testing out the two methods to see which works best for you.


Keep a Steady Sleep Schedule

Dr. Alex Dimitriu, founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine clinic, knows it's tough for students to go to bed on time. Nighttime distractions seemingly never end in college. But staying up too late will make students less productive the next day.

His advice? Wake up at the same time every day.

"The best way to control your bedtime is by controlling the time that you wake up," he said.

A fixed wake time will gradually create a sleep cycle that helps you feel sleepy at the same time every night, helping you maximize your potential each day. It's a technique that even works for Dimitriu's patients with insomnia.

Dimitriu also recommends avoiding oscillating sleep cycles, meaning a schedule where one night you undersleep and the next night you oversleep. While catching up on sleep is a good thing, research has shown it can take several days to recover from just one hour of lost sleep.


Be Well-Rested Before You Study

The tried and true rule is to always get a full night's sleep before the big test. That way, you're fully rested, can concentrate fully, and have a higher cognitive function.

But if you're sleep deprived in the days leading up to the test, including the time you spent studying, you won't perform as well as you could have. Dimitriu says it's just as important for students to manage their sleep on study days as it is right before a test.

"For exam performance and academic performance, the craziest thing I've read so far has been that it's not even about how much you sleep after you study or before the test," he said. "Before you study, the amount of sleep that you get will also play a key role in how much stuff you're able to retain."

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Header Image Credit: SDI Productions, PhotonStock | Getty Images

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