​​Diligence (and how to have it)

academic advice skills study skills

By all accounts, diligence is the source from which academic success springs. But finding a steady pulse of initiative to propel ambition into routine is much easier said than done.

How to acquire and maintain a diligent approach – to studying, writing, researching, test-taking – becomes the million-dollar question. This is not simply a question of motivation, of intelligence, or even of pouring endless hours into your work. Rather, diligent people understand how to answer two questions: ‘how will I respect my own time and priorities?’ and ‘how will I take responsibility for my aspirations and my potential?’

Some lucky people were probably born with innate intuition when it comes to answering these questions, but I wasn’t one of them. More than once as a student, I crammed for exams last-minute, fell down research rabbit-holes into dead ends, or otherwise spent hours over-articulating shaky arguments only to lose the thread mid-essay. However, not being born with these answers was actually a blessing in disguise, as I’ve learned how to cultivate my own diligence. To this end, here are a handful of strategies that have helped me succeed.

Set realistic and outcome-oriented goals.

Break down your academic goals into manageable, bite-sized tasks. The size of these can vary, but each one should feel achievable in the short term. Doing so provides a roadmap for your work and allows you to measure progress and maintain motivation, preventing burnout. Ideally, define these goals in terms of achievements, not sacrifices. Instead of telling yourself, ‘I will spend all my free time this weekend reviewing my notes,’ say ‘I will gain a full understanding of the material from Thursday’s lesson, whether this takes fifteen minutes or all afternoon.’ If this feels too big, then break it down further: commit to understanding one topic before lunch and another topic after, perhaps. Set reasonable intentions for the outcome of your efforts and be honest with yourself about when they have been met. This way, you can establish both short-term and long-term objectives and celebrate small victories along the way.

Give yourself grace for failure so you can use it as a learning tool.

Diligence requires detaching one’s ego from lapses in performance so that you can dispassionately assess your mistakes and move forward. Most people understand in principle that getting things wrong is the best opportunity to learn; tracking mistakes on standardized testing or taking “wrong answer” exams are powerful tools for diligent students. However, beating yourself up too hard for these mistakes will only make you doubt your process and undercut your future self-discipline. Negative self-talk is an unproductive response to failure, and avoiding making a habit of it is itself an exercise in self-control. Moreover, it’s equally important to track areas of improvement in your work as they emerge. What did you accomplish or improve upon in your last practice exam? How did you do it? How can you replicate those learning strategies? Considering your successes and failures in this way requires a critical distance between your work and your self-esteem, and maintaining this mindset is crucial to cultivating a diligent work ethic and setting the proper goals.

Eliminate distractions.

In an age of constant connectivity, it’s even more essential to create an environment conducive to focused study. Identifying and minimizing distractions, whether they be electronic devices, social media, or other interruptions, is something you just have to make yourself do. When you allocate time to study, immerse yourself fully in the task at hand. Think of this as having respect for your own time. Quality often trumps quantity, and a focused, diligent hour of study can be more productive than several distracted ones. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb or in another room if you have to and train your mind to be present and engaged during study sessions. Using study timers or scheduling regular breaks away from screens can help you form these habits. Like anything, this will get easier the more you practice it.

Remember: your routine serves you; you do not serve your routine.

It’s consistent dedication and follow-through toward goals which differentiates good students from outstanding ones. If you want to remain consistent, come up with a study routine which doesn’t feel like a prison sentence. Maybe it’s going to your favorite café to take notes on your readings, scheduling a social event as a reward, or building music walks into long study days. Consider the possibility that forming habits which allow you to work calmly and confidently is a gift to yourself, not a punishment. It is not only less effective to approach work from a place of last-minute desperation, but also deeply unpleasant. If you embrace the idea that your routines can make your academic life not just productive, but also personally fulfilling, consistency will follow more easily.

Hawthorne graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 2021, where she majored in English and Political Science. She next received her Master’s from Cambridge University in Politics and International Studies.

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