I often (read: constantly) talk about how the time you spend studying doesn’t matter and it’s all about the quality of your studying – not the time you sit at the desk. So how do you actually focus better while studying?
As I write this (and it’s entirely what gave me the idea) I’m sitting in an airport. With three hours to kill I find a quiet corner and pull out a book and a notepad. I’ll squeeze in a few productive hours I naively thought.
Of course, life is full of distractions. Whether it’s your phone, other commitments or (in my current case) the constant drone of a loudspeaker every minute.
I can sit here for the next four hours and read the same paragraph over and over again. To anyone on the outside it looks like I’m being productive but I’m not going to take anything away from that session other than the desire to smash the loudspeaker with a very large bat.
This is one of the reasons I commonly talk about the idea that effective time studying is far more important than the time you waste away at a desk. We’re going to look at some ways to maintain your focus while studying but I absolutely suggest you download the audiobook from the chess grandmaster on unlimited memory which is going to get you better results with less time studying (at least cutting down your need to focus as much).
Without the ability to focus the session isn’t worth anything.
However, focus is not a binary state. It isn’t a case of you’re able to focus or not. Most of us are able to spend at least some level of focus in our average session. Enough to read more than a single paragraph at least.
We find little ways of coping.
To write this, for example, I’ve stuck on headphones. We might have a coffee, go to a different location (like a library) and I’ve even wrote about using earplugs to study which was based on what I saw people actually do.
Being able to focus on your studying is about more than just removing distractions. You could be sitting in absolute silence miles from anyone and your mind still wanders.
Sometimes sorting out your sock drawer never seems more important than when you have an incredibly boring or difficult topic to go over. And if the exam is not the next morning it’s incredibly appealing to just put it off and relax or (just as bad sometimes) study something easier instead.
Improving Your Study Focus in Any Situation
I’ve seen all sorts of approaches to improving your study focus. Strange rituals, diets and sleeping patterns. I’ve covered a bunch of different suggestions and shared others opinions elsewhere on Study TV.
And everyone is a little different so it’s hard to give one single answer which is going to help everyone – but I do have two big suggestions.
Eat the frog.
I love this term. It’s the title of a book (which is worth a read) but the basic idea is tackle the hard topic first. I know how tempting it is to start with the easy stuff. You tell yourself you’ll warm up with the easy stuff because sometimes getting started is the hardest part.
But, trust me. The studies on this stuff are extensive.
You’re going to have more energy at the start of a study session. The easier stuff can still be done afterwards and won’t take as much out of you to focus. You’ll also not have to deal with it hanging over your head while you tackle the easier bits.
I talk a lot about study plans as well. Not just sit at your desk for x amount of hours but actually planning out what you’re going to look at. Put the hard stuff first. Eat the frog.
And be honest with what is actually the hard part. Don’t try and tell me (or yourself) that it’s all the hard bit. Don’t feel like you can’t change the order around if you find something is actually easier or harder than you thought. Improving your focus starts with being honest about what is going to require the most focus.
Build the Habit
Motivation is fickle. Discipline is strong but takes years to build. Habits become an easy reliance.
Again there are entire books on the subject of building habits. If you’re already in the habit of studying then great – you’ll find it easier to make the time for your study sessions. Now, we just need to build the habit of focusing.
This also means accepting that you are human. We’re not all studying machines capable of tearing through textbooks for days on end. Your focus is never going to be 100% on one thing and that isn’t the goal.
The goal is to recognise when your focus has wandered and bring it back to your study session. Not to grow annoyed and abandon the session altogether. The more you’re able to catch your mind wandering and bring it back the less often it’ll happen.
I’m not saying it’s alright to watch TV while you study and have your focus constantly shift to it. I’m saying it’s human for your mind to wander normally even when you remove all distractions. You just need to start building the habit of noticing when it happens.
Planning the Session
Yes, this old chestnut. If you’re a regular here you’ll have heard me say it before. Study planning is more about just outlaying when you’re going to study and how long for.
It’s about having both long and short-term goals. If your plan is just to sit at your desk and look at a certain topic for x amount of time your focus is almost guaranteed to wander.
Take some time at the start of the session if you haven’t already planned it ahead of time. Break down the topic into segments. Have a clear idea (in writing if need be) of what you need to cover and what kind of time you think you’ll have to give each section.
If you compare an average unplanned study session to one done the night before an exam with last minute panic it’s because you have a time frame. You have to cover a topic (or several if you’ve really left it last minute) before the next morning. It’s harder to procrastinate when you have a clear deadline in the short term.
Setting yourself short-term goals for every session is exactly the same. You’re not focusing at getting into a college or career down the line (which is tough to keep in mind staring at a textbook) you’re focusing on getting this next chapter done because you need to move on to the next part in 30 minutes.
Try it. You’ll see what I mean.
I hope this helps. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a loudspeaker to attack.