9 ways to avoid sleepiness while studying

Studying isn’t always stimulating — especially after a long day in class or at work, when your brain feels ready to shut down.

If simply staying awake while studying seems harder than quantum physics, try one of the following nine strategies to help you be alert and focused.

1. Keep moving

Movement is a well-documented energy booster. In addition to helping you stay awake, it may also help relieve exam-time stress and improve your ability to actually remember what you study.

A 2018 study of students of all ages — ranging from elementary school to college — found that 10 minutes of walking outdoors significantly improved students’ performance with memory, feature detection, and mathematical problem-solving tasks.

Aim to take a short break every 30 to 50 minutes to walk, dance, or do a few jumping jacks.

2. Let there be light

Our bodies are attuned to respond to environmental signals such as light and darkness. While the relationship between light and sleep is indirect — it’s possible to fall asleep in a well-lit room or to stay awake in darkness — light is a cue that can help promote wakefulness.

According to a 2017 study of zebrafish, this tendency may come down to a protein that’s activated when we’re exposed to light.

When it comes to studying, try to mimic a daytime environment with plenty of light. If it’s dark outside, a single lamp or overhead light might not be enough to keep you alert.

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3. Sit upright

It might be tempting to get comfortable while studying, but it won’t help you stay awake.

Lying down is associated with increased activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, known for its role in functions such as “rest and digest.”

In contrast, sitting upright is associated with sympathetic nervous system activity. The sympathetic nervous system controls functions such as alertness.

4. Avoid your bedroom

If you live in a dorm room or shared apartment, the most convenient place to study might also happen to be the place where you usually sleep.

But it’s best to avoid studying in any place that you associate with sleep, which could leave you feeling drowsy.

When possible, study somewhere else, such as a library, coffee shop, or a dedicated, well-lit area of your home away from your bedroom.

5. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

Fatigue or sleepiness is sometimes a sign of dehydration. But dehydration won’t just drain your energy — it may also disrupt cognitive functions, making studying difficult.

A 2010 review examined dehydration, including its effects on brain function. The authors reported that mild to moderate levels of dehydration might impair short-term memory, concentration, mathematical ability, alertness, and perception.

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To ensure that you don’t doze off while studying, stay hydrated throughout the day. This is especially important if you’re physically active or live in a warm climate.

6. Don’t forget to eat (healthy)

What and how much you eat affects your energy levels.

While it may be tempting to treat yourself while studying, it won’t help you stay awake. Sugary snacks and junk food can make your blood sugar spike and then crash, leaving you feeling sluggish.

On the other hand, if you forget to eat or eat too much, you might find yourself dozing off. Instead, aim for a diet of small but frequent meals.

Make sure each meal contains protein, a complex carbohydrate, and a source of healthy fat. Some examples include:

  • Protein: whitefish (like cod, halibut, tilapia, flounder), lentils, beans, white-meat poultry, peanut butter, tofu, lean beef, eggs, Greek yogurt
  • Complex carbohydrates: fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, peas, oats, brown rice, whole wheat bread
  • Healthy fats: avocado, salmon, eggs, nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, nut butter

7. Make studying active

Reading and rereading class notes or a textbook might not be enough to keep you awake, let alone absorb information.

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Keep yourself awake — and get the most out of your study sessions — by using active study techniques. To do this, try one or more of the following:

  • Transfer information to a map, cue card, diagram, chart, or other visual.
  • Read out loud.
  • Teach the material to a classmate.
  • Do practice exercises.
  • Create your own examples and practice exercises.
8. Study with friends

Avoid nodding off by talking through the material with a classmate, friend, or study group.

Not only is social studying more motivating and stimulating, it can also offer new perspectives and interpretations of class materials. Ask someone to explain a confusing concept to you, or solidify your own understanding by teaching the material to a peer.

If you prefer to study individually, you might find that simply studying in the presence of other people makes it easier to avoid falling asleep.

9. Get quality sleep

Sleep plays an important role in mood, attention, motivation, and memory — all of which affect learning. It’s no surprise then that poor sleep is associated with poor academic performance.

In fact, making sleep a priority — both in the short- and the long-term — might be the most effective way to stay alert when you’re studying.

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