How To Make The Best Memories

by on August 19th, 2012

How much did you study this past week-end? For how many hours? Over how many sittings? What did you study and how did you study it?

Most importantly: how many breaks did you take and how long were they?

Time Magazine just published a fascinating little article: To Boost Memory, Shut Your Eyes and Relax. Go take a look at it. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. :)

Has this happened to you? You have ambitious plans to study a ton of things this week-end. You get tired, but you’re determined to push through, so you keep studying. You begin to get a bit anxious because you feel you aren’t learning well (and you’re not!), so you study even more. You get even more tired, and that makes it even harder to learn. By the end of the week-end, you’re exhausted, frustrated, and demoralized.

You may have already heard me say this (many times on various forums or in blog posts!), but I’m saying it again because it’s so important: your brain makes better memories when it’s not tired.

The Time article quotes Michaela Dewar, the lead author of a new research study on this topic. She notes that we are “at a very early stage of memory formation” when we first start to study new information, and “further neural processes have to occur after this stage for us to be able to remember this information at a later point in time.”

The italics are mine. Note what Ms. Dewar has said: more “stuff” has to happen in our brains after we have studied this info in order for us to be able to recall that information later on.

The best part? The article indicates that this “long-term memory consolidation” occurs “automatically, without people having to think about it.” We just have to go do something else that doesn’t involve learning other new things. Eat lunch. Take a walk or exercise. Listen to some music while cleaning the house. Call your mom to say hi.

Also, get a good night’s sleep. As the article indicates (and as we’ve known for years), our brains continue to form new memories while we sleep each night. Interestingly, the article notes that sleep is especially helpful in developing what’s called “procedural memory” – how to do something, such as solve a certain kind of GMAT question.

How can we use this in our GMAT study?

There are many ways to study, but for a “significant” study session – one in which you want to cover a decent amount of material and learn multiple new things – plan for 1 to 2 hours. If you can make it to 2 hours without getting too tired, go for it, but cut yourself off if you realize that you’re feeling significantly mentally fatigued. (What does that feel like? Read this.)

Note: watch out for an all-or-nothing attitude (I can’t study for the full 2 hours – either because I have a conflict or because I know I don’t have enough mental energy to last – so I might as well not even start). That’s just a recipe for procrastination. You can do an effective review or skill-building activity in just 10 or 15 minutes, if that’s all the time you have!

If you hit that 2-hour mark, though, stop. You can study more today, if you want, but not right now. Take at least an hour break. My general rule is that I break for at least as long as I studied – so if I studied for 2 hours, I break for at least 2 hours. During your break, particularly within the first 30 minutes, try to do things that do not require either learning something new or making difficult decisions. In other words, try not to do things that take much of the same type of brain power.

Next, if you plan to study on days that you also have work or class (and most of us do have to do this), see whether you have the flexibility to study before or during the class / work day. You could get up a little earlier than normal (warning: don’t try this if you’re a night person) or possibly arrange to get into work a bit later than normal a couple of days a week. You could study on your lunch break or take your books or laptop with you to class so that you can review between two classes. These kinds of sessions are less likely to be able to last for 2 hours, but that’s fine – you’re just trying to get some studying in while your brain is still fresh.

If you’re a night person, and you work during the day, then you don’t have to worry about this as much because your brain will naturally be relatively alert at night. But if you’re a morning person, work hard to try to find some alternatives that will let you get at least some studying done earlier in the day.

Key Takeaways for Making Strong Memories:

  1. Don’t overload your brain. When you become mentally fatigued, your brain does a poorer job of making new memories.
  2. Know what mental fatigue feels like so that you can recognize it when it’s happening. It does not feel like physical fatigue and it can actually be hard to realize when you’re in the midst of it – after all, the whole point is that your brain is really tired! Read the article I linked above (Too Many Decisions Drive You Crazy); it contains a good description of mental fatigue.
  3. Keep to a steady sleep schedule as much as possible. You can’t guarantee yourself a good night’s sleep every night, but the steadier your schedule, the more likely you will be to get good sleep. Also, if you have been in the habit of getting too little sleep during the week and making up for it on the week-ends, make an effort to change the pattern to a more steady one. Your body, your brain, and everyone you know will thank you.

* GMAT® is a trademark of the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Usage of the name or any material does not imply endorsement by GMAC.


  • Thanks for this article Stacey, I've totally felt this way many times before:
    "You have ambitious plans to study a ton of things this week-end. You get tired, but you’re determined to push through, so you keep studying. You begin to get a bit anxious because you feel you aren’t learning well (and you’re not!), so you study even more. You get even more tired, and that makes it even harder to learn. By the end of the week-end, you’re exhausted, frustrated, and demoralized."
    Sometimes I just feel like I want to take a nap while studying for GMAT and now I won't stop myself from taking valuable breaks.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Elena. I have a feeling that many students have that same feeling (I just want to take a nap). :)

      Part of it, too, can be that you're bored and anything that's boring also makes you want to take a nap. I mean, who actually gets excited to study for the GMAT? (Well, I do, but I'm a special case... :) )

      Anyway, my point here is that, if you find yourself wanting to take a nap 15 minutes into every study session, then you're never going to get anything done, so part of what you also need to do is figure out when you have the most energy. This might be at a certain time of day (morning, evening, whatever) and / or right after you've done something that gives you energy (exercising, listening to music, drinking some Gatorade, whatever.)

      Note: for most people, mental fatigue will increase throughout the day, so studying at night after a long day at work is going to be less productive than studying earlier in the day - but this does depend on your body clock. If you're a night person, you might be fine.

  • Hi Stacey,

    Maybe you can help me with a problem I'm having. I took the GMAT March 1 2011 after about three months of solid but sane studying. My review efforts were focused mainly on verbal and I scored 70(90%), q43(64%), v42(95%). At the time I was happy with the score.

    I've been told, however, that adcom will see the subpar quant score and question whether I can handle the math. So, February I started studying again, this time with a math focus. But I think I OVERstudied.

    So far, I've missed TWO exams (I keep getting it into my head that the exams are at different times. Very uncharacteristic of me) and I've done rather poorly on the two I've actually taken. During both live exams, I experienced serious decision fatigue. I end up not caring about the questions, and instead of taking the time to do the scrap work, I just eliminate a few answers and guess.

    The strange part is that, during practice test, I always score pretty high on both sections--total scores are usually in the 720-740 range.

    I think part of it is exhaustion due to a calorie deficit. Mornings of exams, I find it hard to eat, and I'm pretty sensitive to carbohydrates so I usually eat light anyway.

    And then there's the "over-studied factor."

    Any thoughts?


    • What time of day are you usually most alert and awake? Perhaps you should be taking the test a bit later in the day - or do you think you wouldn't eat all day then?

      What you describe sounds like it has a pretty strong basis in nerves / anxiety, in which case you need to figure out the stress management aspect of this. Do you have a history of significant anxiety and underperformance during highly stressful situation? (Other standardized tests, final exams, etc.) Or is this happening for the first time?

      Here's an article on stress management. It talks about multiple approaches; you'll have to figure out what might work for you based upon what things you think are specifically triggering the stress. For some people, it starts upon arrival at the test center - the physical environment brings on a physical stress response. For some, it's only while the test is running. Etc.

      Also, re: overstudying: as a general rule, the closer you get to the test, the less you do. The day before, I tell my students they're not allowed to study for more than 2 hours absolute max, and I really prefer only an hour or so. They don't do practice problems - just high level review of major strategies, that's all.

      Take a look at these two articles; they describe what to do for the last 2 weeks before the exam:

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