It’s easier to study for a certification exam when it’s dark outside, and a cold, blustery wind is blowing. But now, the days are warm and daylight lasts late into the evening. Summer vacations beckon. Countless other seasonal events, from pro baseball and kid’s soccer games to trips to the local swimming hole, all compete for your attention. As a result, it’s more difficult to motivate yourself to study for a certification exam.

Despite the distractions, you can still find quality studying time, even during the dog days of summer. The trick is motivating yourself to study. Here are three simple real-world tips you can use to recharge your resolve.

Set aside time specifically for studying
A year ago, I wrote about the importance of managing what I called The Isabella Factor. Essentially, The Isabella Factor represents those interruptions that might derail your studying efforts.

One of the best ways I’ve found of guarding against such derailment is setting aside specific time for studying. It’s much easier to maintain your motivation, too, if your study periods have distinct beginning and ending times.

Only you know when you study best. Depending on your schedule, taking two hours early Saturday morning and two hours late Sunday night might be best for you. Others may find waking an hour earlier each weekday to be their best bet.

When planning your study time, be honest with yourself. If you won’t be able to get out of bed early, don’t schedule early study sessions. Defer to a period later in the day.

Once you set aside the specific time you’ll use to prepare for certification exams, stick to it. Do your best to eliminate interruptions. One of the great benefits of having such a schedule is that you don’t have to feel guilty about not studying when you find yourself with free time later in the day or week. That’ll help improve your motivation level, too.

Free time should be just that: free time to do whatever you please. Your reward for sticking to your schedule should be allowing yourself to do whatever you want with your free time. One of the surest ways to burn yourself out and kill your motivation is to consume all your free time studying. That method might work for one exam, but you certainly won’t enjoy the process.

Break certification prep into manageable steps
You’ve heard the saying that a long journey begins with a single step. That perspective certainly applies here. Don’t approach a certification effort by thinking about how much you have to learn and memorize. That’s another motivation killer. Instead, begin by breaking the exam down into several parts. Often, an exam’s objectives offer excellent dividing points. Having smaller, more manageable sections to study makes it easier to motivate yourself to get started.

Once you’ve broken your certification preparation into sections, decide how much time you’ll allot for studying each one. And be sure to build in a few breaks. For example, let’s say you’re preparing to earn Windows 2000 Server certification (Exam 70-215). You could break your studying down into the following sections:

  • Installing Windows 2000 Server
  • Installing, configuring, and troubleshooting access to resources
  • Configuring and troubleshooting hardware devices and drivers
  • Managing, monitoring, and optimizing system performance, reliability, and availability
  • Managing, configuring, and troubleshooting storage use
  • Configuring and troubleshooting Windows 2000 network connections
  • Implementing, monitoring, and troubleshooting security

Set studying two sections a week as your goal. Make the one exception the configuring and troubleshooting network connections section, as it covers a lot of material. Make that the only section you review one week.

Following two weeks of studying, take the next week off. You’ll find motivating yourself is easier when you know you have breaks coming up. Taking such breaks opens time for leisure pursuits and other summer activities.

Using such a schedule, you’d complete your studies in around seven or eight weeks. While that’s no fast track to certification, it’s a much better solution that simply writing off the summer.

Try a multitasking approach
Take a moment to reflect on how you spend time each week. Are there occasions when you have one obligation to attend to but you could also be studying? Take those opportunities to study, freeing up time later for other activities.

Attending one of the kid’s baseball games? Take along a study guide and read it when your kid’s warming the bench.

Do you commute to work each day? Take advantage of audio recordings to turn your drive time into study time. Audio Whiz, for example, has a wide range of CD and MP3 Listen N Learn recordings you can try. (Watch for a review here in just a few weeks.)

Catching a flight for a work-related endeavor? Take an exam prep book on the plane. Minus hands-on time working with the OS and a class, all of my studying for the Windows NT 4.0 Server certification was completed at 30,000 feet somewhere over the states of Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. I was in the midst of managing a project 1,039 miles away and found I could eliminate weekend studying by maximizing my time in the air.

Consider taking study materials anywhere you’re made to wait in line. Where appropriate, such as at a doctor’s office, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the barber, and other similar locations, you may well find 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there that add up to a few hours each month. Back in March, I began driving to a local allergist’s office for shots three times a week. At first, I dreaded waiting, but I found my time at the allergist was among the most productive time I spent each week. While waiting, I could read and make notes interruption-free—something I can’t even claim to do in the office.

It’s easy to motivate yourself to study for a short period of time. Motivating yourself to study for long periods is where most of us run into trouble. Take advantage of short opportunities that arise where you can pull out a textbook and study. Knowing that you’re shaving minutes or hours off the time you’ll need to study later will help improve your motivation.

Eckel’s take
Just as important as setting aside time to study is setting aside time to relax. I’m a firm believer that you’ll retain more information if you’re more relaxed. Studying at every free moment might help you earn a certification, but scheduling time for studying and time for leisure activities helps ensure that you better learn about the systems and software you’re studying.