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Need a break

After hitting the books for a few hours, should you refresh by watching movies or going out for coffee? Not necessarily, according to new research from a team of Stanford psychologists, published in Psychological Science (Vol. 21, No. 11). In fact, we probably only need study breaks because we believe we need them, says the paper's lead author, Veronika Job, PhD.

"Students who may already have trouble studying are being told that they need to take frequent breaks" — even when they're unnecessary, says Job. Yet their classmates who have more faith in their ability to concentrate "can go on and on."

Using four tests to determine and manipulate students' beliefs, Job and her colleagues found that students who believed in unlimited willpower — defined as the ability to control oneself and suppress impulses — were able to think and study for longer, more fruitful spells. But those who believed in limited willpower — and in the need for movie breaks and Snickers bars during exams — weren't as productive.

In addition, students who believed in limited willpower tended to take more study breaks. As finals approached, they reported eating chocolate and junk food 24 percent more often and procrastinating 35 percent more often than the students on the other end of the willpower-belief spectrum. "They're less able to focus, to concentrate, to have self-control," says Job. "It really matters what people think about willpower."

That's not to say there aren't physiological limits to studying, Job emphasizes. Everyone, of course, requires adequate food and sleep. But the research suggests that people's beliefs about their abilities play a large role in self-control.

So, this finals season, you may want to re-evaluate your beliefs about willpower. "I think you can definitely change it or adopt a different view," to make yourself more productive, Job says.

—D. Jamieson