When (Not) to Study

Ruby is a third year student studying a BSc (Biotech) and a Dip Lang (Japanese). Her hobbies include curling up with a good book, listening to and creating movie scores, and hunting down free food on campus.

Sometimes, we will do anything to avoid studying:

  •  9am: Lecture? Pssh. Too early. Time to punch the snooze button.
  • 12pm: Wait, was that my alarm? It’s already the afternoon? Better grab some lunch.
  • 3pm: Starting to feel that 3:30itis… snack time! Study can wait.
  • 7pm: OK, time to study now. I’m going to do it. Books, check. Pen, check. Laptop charged, check. Lecture notes prin… Wait a sec, is that? Oh my god. Leonardo DiCaprio is on The Project! Watch now, study later.
  • 10pm: Too late now, may as well do it tomorrow. I could study better with some sleep anyway.


Do you find yourself feeling something like this?

I’m here to tell you that it’s not always your fault. There are some times of the day where we are not programmed to feel motivated and energetic. Sometimes, you just want to take a nap. It’s all in your hormone levels, which are regulated by the brain, your brain. So yeah, sorry, I guess it is your fault.

It’s not about taking a personality test for ‘Are you an early bird or a night owl?’, because let’s face it, university simply doesn’t run at 3am. This is about getting the best out of your day, based on your natural body clock.

So first things first, meet my little friend cortisol. I’m not about to give you a science lesson, but I do want to introduce you guys. You’ve probably all heard of adrenaline, and cortisol here feels a touch left out. As you may have gathered, they’re both stress hormones. They’re released by the adrenal glands (in your kidneys) to give you surges of energy. But while adrenaline surges when you’re being chased by Myki inspectors on your Swanston St tram, cortisol is released gradually throughout the day. However, there are natural cortisol spikes at various points in the day – those are the times you can be most efficient with your study.


So let’s take a look, shall we?

Before you mention it, I agree, this graph is a touch ugly. But as you can see, it gets the main points across.

Best times to study?

  • 8­–10am
  • 12:30–1:30pm
  • 6.30–7.30pm


  • 11am–12pm
  • 3:30–5:30pm


But hang on, you’re a university student, right? At this point you may be laughing. There is something off about this graph. According to the first spike, your cortisol is rising at a reasonably fast pace around 7am, supposedly when you’re waking up. But what university student wakes up at 7am?


Does it work the same if you sleep in?

Research into this is slightly unclear, but the most obvious inconvenience is that you will have missed the opportunity to take advantage of your morning cortisol peaks. Secondly, there has been evidence to suggest that waking up late means a slower onset of cortisol, and less of a spike in the level released. Just because you wake up at 1pm, does not mean that you can expect your cortisol to peak at 1am. As cortisol levels are largely dependent on sunlight, you will most likely not be experiencing those spikes during the night time.

Am I doomed?


Just joking. Do not worry yourself. If you have just woken up at 1pm and are reading this, you are still safe. Your cortisol will still spike 20–30 minutes after waking up, and last for around two hours. So grab yourself a breakfast burrito and get to work. You can still take advantage of the afternoon sun, which will also help keep you alert. If you’re feeling sleepy and your adrenal glands seem to have gone on vacation, the sun is also your friend. Oh and coffee, did I mention coffee?

– Ruby

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