How to study successfully: overcoming mental blocks

By Kat Knights writer, tutor and mentor at Professional Academy

You’ve signed up to a new course and you feel excited and eager to get started. You attend the first workshop and you still feel full of energy. But then the time comes when you need to do some homework or personal study for your course and everything grinds to a halt. Something in your mind stops you from taking action. To put it another way, you’ve hit a mental block.

When your mind stalls it can feel paralysing, preventing you from taking action with the things you have set out to accomplish.

So, how do you overcome your mental blocks so that your mind feels less busy and you can reach your learning goals?

What is a mental block?

Sometimes referred to as ‘brain fog’, when you have a mental block you lack the ability to focus, which results in a loss of drive and activity. These blocks are barriers standing in the way of your creativity, motivation, and productivity.

Mental blocks can manifest them themselves in different ways:

  • Self doubt – feeling unqualified to do the task that you’re faced with, even when you know other people around you know that you can do it aka imposter syndrome
  • Indecision – overthinking things to the point where you cannot make a decision
  • Fixed mindset – viewing a task as being above your level of capability
  • Comparison – looking at other people and feeling like everyone is doing better or making more progress than you
  • Uncertainty – knowing the task you need to complete but being unsure of your first step
  • Too much choice – having so many options or tasks in front of you that you feel overwhelmed and unsure of which one to begin with
  • Tunnel vision – only seeing the ways you have approached a task previously and being unable to create a suitable solution for the current one

Five steps to help you overcome mental blocks

Here are five steps you can follow to help you overcome your mental blocks and improve your study technique.

1. Identify the cause

When you identify a problem you have the power to solve it.

Common study problems include:

  • Not handing in a piece of work because you think it won’t be perfect
  • Carrying out long hours of research to avoid writing an assignment that someone will judge you for
  • Spend long periods of time comparing yourself to other people and imaging they are better than you

Take some time to jot down the main problem that prevents you from studying. If you are struggling to identify what you think the root cause is, go for a walk. Walking is a great way to solve problems. It has been suggested by one Stanford study that coming up with creative ideas and solutions increases.

2. Have a plan

Now it’s time to create a plan to get you into a positive headspace and set the intention for action.

Make a list of all the things you have to do in relation to your studying.

Decide how long each task will take and how challenging it will be (1 = easy, 2 = medium, 3 = difficult). Break down the longer and more difficult tasks into smaller pieces. For example, if you have a 5,000 word assignment to complete the first thing you might decide you need to do is read the assignment brief.

Assign a ‘do it’ date i.e. a date when you should work on each task.

Finally, make sure your list begins with a few short and easy tasks to get you started.

3. Remove physical distractions

Spend some time finding a place where you won’t be distracted and make this your study space. This will send a message to your brain that this is where you come to when you need to work.

Make sure you remove any distractions. Staring at an inbox that’s full whilst you try to study or a phone that keeps pinging with notifications will only make you feel stressed and anxious. Only have the things in front of you that you need to study with.

4. Take breaks

Build regular breaks into your study time. If you’ve been sitting at your desk for half an hour without taking action then it’s unlikely anything will change n the next half an hour.

Taking a quick break helps clear your head and, as already mentioned above, if you go for a walk it can also help to boost your creative skills so you can approach a tasks from a different perspective

Try the Pomodoro technique (working in 25 minute chunks) to keep you focused and energised.

5. Turn destructive thoughts into positive ones

Before you begin to execute your study plan you will need to look again at the root cause you identified in step 1 so that you have a strategy to manage it.

Turn your destructive (negative) thought patterns into constructive (positive) ones. Lots of mental blocks come from fear and fear that is irrational. For example, if you are scared to ask questions to your tutor about your homework, consider what’s the worst thing that could happen if you did ask a question?

Sure, you will have highlighted you have a gap in your knowledge, but when you are studying your mind will be full of gaps that you are trying to fill.

Turn your fear into something positive by re-framing it in your mind. It is healthy to ask questions and your tutor will be happy to help you. In fact, there may be other students in the room with exactly the same question!

Once you have rationalised your thoughts and turned them into positive ones you will find it much easier to study and remain motivated.