How to beat the January exam blues: 5 steps to creating a successful study routine

Neuroscientist Dr Julia Ravey, author of Braintenance, on the best way to prepare for exams.

Are you struggling with revision? An expert procrastinator? If you're going into the new year facing exams, or want to know how to prepare for some further down the line, you're in the right place. Neuroscientist Dr Julia Ravey is an expert on building healthy habits to help you achieve your goals. Here she offers her top five tips for successful study. 

With exams on the horizon, it is easy to find ourselves putting off revision because it can feel overwhelming and stressful. But by following these five brain-based steps, you should be able to find a calmer way to revise which is easy to keep up with.

Create small action steps

When exams are approaching, our to-do list often says one thing: ‘revise’. Such a generic, big goal can lead to massive amounts of overwhelm because each time you sit to ‘revise’ you end up thinking about ALL the things you need to do to pass your test. But, if we treat our revision like baking a cake – following small step by step instructions to create an amazing final product – it makes getting down to work much easier. 

Your ingredients are hiding in the syllabus. Take each exam and break it down into topics, then further into subtopics (and if still overwhelmed, sub-subtopics!), and jot down in a list. Now, take these topics and turn them into action steps: things like ‘read about. . .’, ‘test self on. . .', and ‘make notes about. . .’. From here, assign a rough time to each action step (overestimating is always better!) and add them to your calendar to create a clear revision guide for the run up to your exam.

Have a gateway goal

Even with a great plan in place, sitting down to actually revise can still be daunting. Most of the time, once we get started, it isn’t so bad, but that fear can really get in the way. To ease yourself into a revision session, create tiny ‘gateway goals’ for each of your revision action steps. These goals should be easy enough to do so your brain doesn’t protest, but also allow you to build some momentum. 

For example, if you are doing a reading session, your gateway goal could be ‘read for 5 minutes’ – short enough that you can convince yourself to do it, but long enough to get into the topic you are revising that day. Other examples could be ‘do two practice questions’, or ‘write three sentences’ – aims that are no drama, allow you to consistently show up to revise, and can be ticked off your list! 

Make a revision routine

The brain is an association maker: it pairs up situations that often happen together so it can predict what is coming next. We can use this to our advantage when studying to get into the zone. Our gateway goals make creating a study routine easier as we can be consistent, but we can also try revising at the same time each day, or sitting in the same space to work. You could even make some ‘revision only’ cues which are sacred to your work time – like a playlist of specific songs you only play during work time, or a candle with a certain scent that you only light when testing yourself. Over time, all these things will become signals to the brain that it is time to focus and get your head into your books. 

Welcome procrastination (and wave goodbye to it) 

The urge to procrastinate won’t ever go away. When your brain is faced with doing something hard and challenging, it can often throw another ‘option’ your way to move you away from the discomfort you’re feeling: “watch another episode”, “scroll on social media”, “reorganise your entire room.” It is natural to move towards short-term comfort, but to get those grades, we have to pick the less appealing option. Thankfully, there are a few ways to do this.

Setting yourself a timer with a built-in procrastination break gives you time to focus on your work while knowing you will have space to have a scroll in the very near future. You can catch the procrastination urges which pop into your head on a list during this time (like ‘what is the time in New York right now?’) so you can come back to them in your break (and normally see how unimportant they are!). Also, just being aware that the urge to procrastinate is completely normal helps us not give into it. In fact, it can be seen as a sign you are doing something challenging – well done!

Rest up!

Taking time away from revision is as important as revision itself in the run up to big exams. Your creativity, memory and wellbeing all benefit from time off. Block time in your diary to do things you enjoy and also make movement or getting outside something you practice regularly. Exercise boosts memory, so that walk around the park after revising is helping you to solidify information. And, of course, the most important recuperation for the brain is sleep. This is when new information is committed to long-term memory stores, so getting proper shut eye is a staple to any good revision routine. Taking time out also takes the pressure off, and should help you to go into your exam period feeling less stressed.

Hopefully these steps help take some of the stress out of revising (and maybe even make it a bit enjoyable!). Good luck!


by Dr Julia Ravey

We have no trouble imagining the goals we would like to achieve – a healthier lifestyle, passing exams or embarking on a new career ­– but turning them into reality is far harder. Dr Julia Ravey explains the practical methods that will enable you to transform your life for the better. By using the latest developments in science and psychology you will learn how to direct your focus, boost belief, beat procrastination – and why you should forget motivation. Using our current understanding about the brain and the way we behave, Ravey has developed techniques that enabled her to pursue her goals – and they will work for you, too.