“Is there anything I can do to prevent falling asleep while studying?”—Larry C., Pennsylvania State University
Short answer: Yes.
Longer answer: For some background, there are two common causes for the phenomenon you describe: sleep debt and boredom.
Sleep debt is what you accrue when the quality (or quantity) of your sleep isn’t sufficient to your need. This is usually because of inadequate time spent sleeping, but may also be due to subconscious sleep interruptions.
Your brain wants 8–10 hours of sleep a night with the same bedtime each night and wake time each morning. Anything short of this becomes sleep debt that your brain looks to recover at the earliest opportunity. (Now you know why you can sleep almost nonstop the first three days of vacation.)
Alertness varies during the day. Roughly speaking, we’re most alert about 4 hours after waking up and again about 12 hours after waking up, with a drowsiness trough about 8 hours after waking up. So for instance, if you get up at 10, trying to study at 6 is likely to lead to nodding off. If you are waking up feeling unrested or are routinely falling asleep during the day, check in with your health care provider or a community health clinic.
The treatment for sleep debt is sleep. The more you sleep, the better you concentrate. The better you concentrate, the more easily you form memories (which then get locked in during sleep). The more easily you form memories, the less time you need to study. Sounds easy, but we all know it can be tough to make it a priority.
Boredom is the clinical term for the situation in which the subject matter with which you are interfacing is, to you, dull as ditch water.
In the meantime, try these tricks to help you stay awake:
Switch up when you study Try to study at times you’re most alert. As a general rule, the later at night you study, the poorer the quality of your learning.
Switch up where you study Sometimes it’s helpful to be in a quiet place without distractions. Other times it’s helpful to be in a busy environment where you have to tune everything out. Change it up.
Switch up how you study—physically One of my first-year RAs was pre-med. He did all his homework standing up with his books spread out on his lofted bed. I think he should get credit for anticipating the standing desk movement. Maybe it was all his idea and he made tons of money off it. I hope so. Regardless, pay attention to your study posture and shift from sitting to standing to avoid the dreaded hunch and all of its associated pain.
Plan breaks Study hard for 45 minutes, then reward yourself with 15 minutes of something else. I suspect you’ll get a lot more done this way, even though you’re “spending less time studying.” We all respond to incentives, and efficiency is not to be overlooked. Want more on productivity? See three systems for getting more done here.
Still getting stuck in a slump? Try a power nap or mini workout.
If you always crash at a particular time, consider a quick nap or short workout (check out one of the free seven-minute workout apps). Just be sure your nap takes place before 3 p.m. to avoid messing with your sleep later.
And if all of that doesn’t work—look at your subject matter.
Maybe the issue isn’t your study habits or your sleep. Maybe you just aren’t loving what you’re studying. That’s worth paying attention to—you might be able to drop the class or use another subject to fulfill the degree requirement moving forward. Who knows? Maybe you’re about to discover what you do love. Dig in and ask yourself the big questions. And then listen carefully.