Study Methods: The Sawyer Effect

Hello and welcome to the first in a series of blogs that will discuss various study methods and theories. It is a truth universally un-acknowledged that not every study method works for every person. We hope that throughout the course of this series you’ll be able to find the methods that work best for you. Remember that your optimal study habits might not be the same as your friends’ and that it’s okay if a study method doesn’t click on the first try. Sometimes you have to give something a few tries before you feel comfortable with it (and sometimes you know on try number one that there is no way on this earth this method will jive with you). Be patient, follow your instincts, and let’s get studying.


The Sawyer Effect

The name of the Sawyer Effect comes from a famous scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Tasked with painting a fence, Tom is bored with his “work,” but describes it to his friends as the most wonderful, fun “play” until they’re all clamoring to help, relieving himself of the work.

Granted, Tom was trying to get himself out of work, but we can use the same theory to turn “work” into “play.” When we do this, our energy for studying increases, as well as our mental health and productivity output.

It is important to note that the opposite can be true. If we label things as work, or accidentally turn play into work, then we lose the desire to do it. Studies have proven time and time again that as soon as we tell ourselves “If I do this, then I get a reward,” we train ourselves to think that the task itself isn’t worth doing and we’ll want to do it less and less with each repeat of the experiment.


So how can we turn work into play? This will be different for everyone, but I have a few suggestions below:

1 Intrinsic motivation. A reason to do the task for the task itself. What are the reasons you might like it? Do you delight in new vocabulary? Or maybe it’s the beauty of a perfectly solved equation? Maybe it’s the satisfaction of overcoming a difficult problem. Find what you like about a given task and focus on that instead of what you don’t like.

2 Make the experience enjoyable. Find a cozy or fun or atmospheric place to study. Bring your favorite snacks. Curate the perfect Spotify study tracks playlist… but only allow yourself to enjoy these things when you’re studying. Soon enough, you’ll associate the two.

3 Take a page out of Mary Poppins’ book. With a “snap, the job’s a game.” 

  • Race yourself.

  • Race a friend. 

  • See if you can beat your last “high score.” 

  • Pit AP Bio and APUSH against each other in a battle for grade supremacy. 

  • Pretend you’re studying for your Starfleet entrance exam, or solving the greatest detective mystery of the century, or studying at Hogwarts.

  • Debate the merits of philosophy in the character of Hamlet or Napoleon or the Countess of Bathory. 

The sillier the better. Before you know it you’ll be having a blast. Happy Studying!

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