Back to School Tips, Part 2: Use a Timer for Homework Blocks

As a writer, a teacher, and a student, I have found that using a timer can help me break up my work into manageable chunks.

Do I have a chapter to write? It’s best if I use a timer for 45 minutes, take a break, then go again. I can usually finish a chapter in one to three writing sessions this way, and I don’t feel exhausted in the same way I would if I wrote for two hours and fifteen minutes straight.

Do I have a class to prepare for? I use a timer to break up my class preparation time. I take breaks between each timed session. I often work more efficiently, knowing that I need to finish by a certain time. This also keeps me from preparing a long-winded sixty minute lecture on something obscure like the possible operatic influences on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

As a student, I use a timer to break up chunks of my study time. First, I see what I need to study. I break the homework into these types of sections:

Top Priority/Today

Second most needed/Today or this week

Third/long-term projects to do over time

I consider how long it might take me to do each task. I look at when everything is going to be due and use a calendar to plan out long-term project work.

Then, I put my Top Priority List in front of me, and break that into manageable chunks based on how much concentration it’s going to take me for each.

If I were studying mathematics, I would give myself shorter chunks but expect myself to do several sessions because math is a tough subject for me. So, for math I might do 20-minute sessions, take a five minute break between each, and do three of those sessions.

For another subject that I find easier, I might do a 45-minute session and do only one session because I work faster in subjects I find easier like history or language arts.

In any subject where I am having a tough time or with any tough-to-remember concept, I will add on a 5-minute “reminder” session sometime between dinner and bedtime. Some studies show that doing a 5-minute reminder session just before going to sleep helps students learn and retain information best. However, I have found that I can’t always relax enough to go to sleep if I study right before bedtime, so I add my 5-minute “reminder” session an hour before I go to sleep, then I do something relaxing between the “reminder” session and bedtime.

If all of my studies seem relatively easy, I tackle a secondary level priority or work on a long term project for a 15-minute or a 25-minute session.

If you find you like to work in larger chunks of time, go for it!

I have read studies of how working beyond 45 minutes causes students to lose their ability to retain information, but I know there are days when I enjoy studying certain subjects longer. I think you need to make sure you are working at your optimal study level. Try the shorter sessions, then try longer ones, and see which ones help you succeed.

Having said that, I still recommend studying with a timer. Try it, and see how much you get done. It might surprise you. (But don’t look at the clock repeatedly. Put the timer across the room.)

I have read a number of books and articles on study habits, but I admit I have read about this subject over the course of thirty years and I don’t remember all of the resources I have read. I have included a short list of helpful references for more on studying habits.


Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential by Barbara Oakely, PhD.

“Memory Tip #12: Divide Your Time Into Short Bursts of Study” by Lingaholic.

“Studying 101: Study Smarter Not Harder” provided by The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth, PhD.

“Research-Backed Studying Techniques” by Edward Kang.

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