I think we can all safely agree:
Homework (especially those ridiculously long WebAssign problem sets) can be a royal pain.
It takes forever to finish.
It leaves you feeling tired, frustrated, and wondering whether you’ve actually learned anything at all, despite all that time you spent in class.
It was created by the illuminati to keep the student population in a state of fear.
(Okay don’t fact-check me on that last one.)
So how do we break the cycle?
In this post (and video), I’ll cover how to focus on homework using a straightforward 2-step method.
Implement this (along with my setup recommendations) and you’ll cut hours off your homework time each night, while unknowingly “studying” for your exams at the same time.
Let’s jump in.
Phyzzle reader Ashley writes…
“I wish I had the ability to know enough after lecture to solve problems and was fast enough to complete my assignments and problem sets on time.”
Well like Ashley, I think at some point we’ve all wanted to figure out how to spend less time on homework and more time on things that actually matter to us.
Our projects, jobs and internships.
Hanging out with friends and enjoying ourselves.
Actually sleeping… Anybody?
But how do we do it?
Is it just a matter following this more **AHEM** “traditional” study advice I found online?
Ohhhhhh, now I get it… You just have to sit down and do your work…
Instead, our process focuses on a few key setup activities, followed by a specific 2-step technique that will actually get you results.
A quick caveat before we jump in: there are no magic bullets.
You’re not going to be able to understand everything right away.
You’re not going to be able to bust through them like some sort of finely tuned super computer.
And yes, Limitless was a very cool movie, but I don’t have a tiny clear pill for you – you’re going to need to put in the work.
That aside, here’s our process:
First make sure you have consistent time blocked off for homework, and a specific goal for what needs to be accomplished. Otherwise, life (a.k.a. Netflix) tends to get in the way.
Then, get your environment set up to maximize efficiency (reduce the amount of time it takes to get started) and minimize distractions (and preserve focus and willpower).
Third, prime yourself for work by taking a few simple steps to give your body and brain a “reset” (and recharge your focus muscle) before jumping into battle.
Finally, our 2-step process:
First, jump into solving problems as quickly as possible (start “hard learning” right off the bat).
Then, slow down when you hit a sticking point and work at it (to build deep understanding).
How To Focus On Homework Section 1: Get Your Schedule Straight
This may seem utterly obvious, but sometimes it’s the simple things that make all the difference:
Make sure you have consistent time blocked off to do your homework.
But I think you’d surprise yourself if you sat down to think about how many times you’ve…
- Gotten back to your dorm or apartment to start on that Calc problem set, only to realize you have an English essay due tomorrow at 9am (doh!)
- Told yourself, “Ah, I’ve got plent of time. I’ll get it done tomorrow.” only to realize tomorrow you have a 3-hour Chemistry lab followed by band practice
- Had some vague idea of when you’d finish your Physics homework “Wednesday or Thursday” only to find yourself on the couch, both days glued to re-runs of The Office
These tragedies of poor schedule management occur because we haven’t created the mental space (or calendar space) to finish our assignments on a consistent basis.
And if that time doesn’t get allocated ahead of time, it’s quite easy to brush off a few hours of homeowork problems to the next day, and the next, and the next.
Or if you do end up sitting down to work, that time gets contaminated by distractions like friends, eating, and fatigue if you’re not consistent about where and when it needs to happen.
Solution? Time blocking.
Block Off Consistent Homework Time In Your Schedule
Simply put: take some time (right now would be good) to block off an hour or two each day for homework in your schedule.
Make sure you know that you can protect that time from other obligations (family, friends, food, Call of Duty, etc.), and make sure it lines up with when you work best (are you an early bird or a night owl?).
Okay good – next?
Schedule Specific Assignments Within Your Homework Blocks Each Day
Let’s take this concept a step further.
At the beginning of each day (or the night before), “fill in” your homework timeblock you created for yourself in your schedule with the specific assignment you intend on working on.
This will help to minimize deliberation (e.g. “should I work on English or Calc tonight?”) which wastes valuable willpower resources, and will help you to focus more intently on the task at hand once you do sit down for your homework session.
As Cal Newport writes in his latest (amazing) book Deep Work:
“Without structure, it’s easy to allow your time to devolve into the shallow – e-mail, social media, Web surfing… With structure, on the other hand, you can ensure that you regularly schedule blocks to grapple with a new idea, or work deeply on something challenging…”
Now, you can be flexible with this if something comes up, and move around your assignments after you schedule them. But having a starting point to work from is a huge step up from just flying by the seat of your pants.
How To Focus On Homework Section 2: Optimize Your Environment
We all know the platitude:
“A cluttered desk means a cluttered mind.”
Well okay, then what does an empty desk mean?
Despite arguments to the contrary (a.k.a. “I love chaos” talk) there is definitely some truth to that original statement – and there are a few key reasons why:
(1) A dis-organized study environment will increase the amount of time it takes to get started on (or switch between) your assignments.
This involves both the physical arrangement of your work supplies (computer, notebook, pens, etc.) and work to be done (papers, syllabi, textbooks, etc.), as well as your digital life (filing system, bookmarks, online resources, etc.).
Image via Eric Molina
(2) A dis-organized study environment will increase the “distraction load” your brain has to work around (e.g. “Ooh forgot about that – lemme just check my email real quick”), which drains willpower (a.k.a. learning energy) much more rapidly.
And as we covered in Section 1, willpower is critical when it comes to staying focused, and powering through difficult learning (a.k.a. problem sets).
So now that you have your calendar in order, let’s get your study space in order as well.
Make Your Study Space Super Efficient With 5S
In the world of manufacturing, there’s a Japenese concept of organization called 5s, aimed at standardizing routine tasks, minimizing time spent searching for or re-organizing equipment, and promoting productive work through a clean environment.
Image via Tasma3197
Well, the same can be applied to your homework space.
Take an index of where you usually do your homework:
- Do your computer, notebook, textbooks, pens/pencils, backpack go in the same spot every time?
- Do you clear off your desk/table at the end of each study session?
- Is there enough space for you to fit your assignments on a desk/table along with your computer?
- Do you have a filing system (or recycling bin) set up for loose papers?
- Do you have a standard pen/paper setup and problem sheet format you use for all homework assignments?
And on your computer itself:
- Is your desktop cluttered?
- Do you have a filing system set up for files on your computer?
- Are your most frequently visited reference/assignment websites (WebAssign, Blackboard, Khan Academy, etc.) bookmarked on your web browser for quick access?
By streamlining each of these aspects of your homework spot and routine, you’re removing small friction points that, when added up, make a big different in terms of how quickly you can get up and running.
(Just think: if it takes you 2 minutes instead of 15 minutes to get set up, multiplied across 7 days a week, 14 weeks a semester… that’s 21 hours saved per semester!)
Quick caveat: it pays to sometimes switch up your routine and change study environments.
The research shows that new knowledge becomes more “flexible” when you acquire and use that information in a variety of different circumstances (e.g. the library, in class, at home, when you’re sleepy, etc.).
So after you get your homework space set up, you may want to work in a few study sessions in some alternate locations as well.
Maximize Willpower By Eliminating Distractions
A nice side effect of a clean, organized, standardized homework spot is it almost guarantees you will be less distracted by default.
No clutter on your desk or computer to sort through, only to realize you forgot to pay rent this month.
No excuses to get up to go search for your notebook, only to find yourself in an impromptu Greco-Roman-style wrestling match with your roommate.
However, just being organized doesn’t quite get us there – it’s also worth our while to actively seek out and eliminate potential distractions.
Ask yourself this:
- Are there activities you find yourself routinely “falling into” (e.g. snacking, chores, etc.) during your scheduled homework time?
- Are there specific websites you find yourself on (“oh hello fellow redditors”) that pull you away from your work?
- Do you find yourself [flipping between assignments, reading notes, researching classes for next semester, etc.] when you get stuck during an assignment?
- Are you glued to your phone?
The good news is, these are all things we can work to eliminate.
Here are some things you can try:
|Distraction||Why It Happens||What To Do|
|eating||stress due to getting stuck, boredom, actual hunger (in rare cases)||Eat something 5-10 minutes before starting your homework session. Pound ~20oz of water with it, and now you’ve eliminated the “hunger” excuse. See Section 4 on mitigating the stress of getting stuck on the homework problems themselves.|
|chores||brain looks for an easy out from doing hard learning||Schedule a time outside of your prime homework/study hours to do the dishes, laundry, clean up the apartment, etc. Eliminate the option of cleaning because… well… there’s nothing left to clean.|
|other assignments, notes, textbook reading, checking grades, etc.||poor planning (not blocking off time for each individual task), brain looks for something “different” to distract from hard learning||Make sure you have time specifically scheduled for the assignment you’re working on, as well as ample time scheduled on your calendar to complete the other items on your to-do list. See Section 1.|
|social media, email, other internet nonsense||distract me pleaaaassseee!!!||If your addiction is minor, simply closing out of tabs and extra windows might do the trick. But for most of us who struggle hard, take advantage of site and app blockers like Cold Turkey to literally eliminate the option of checking, browsing, updating, or posting. Some great additional resources on reducing internet time-wasting from Thomas Frank over at CollegeInfoGeek.|
|your phone||you’re attached at the hip, brain looks for quick hit of dopamine instead of pain of hard work||The research is in: cell phone addiction is real, especially among college students (big shocker eh?). Your phone, just like internet browsing, is something you need to actively eliminate. Forest gets it done for me, creating a game out of not touching your phone for 30 minutes at a time – but there are plent of other apps you can use to accomplish the same goal.|
Remember, not only do distractions take time directly away from your homework, they also impart a “task switching penalty” (e.g. research from Carnegie Mellon found frequent interruptions make you 20% dumber) which significantly depletes willpower.
And willpower is your most critical learning resource – protect it at all costs.
How To Focus On Homework Section 3: Prepare Your Brain
Ever notice how drained you start to feel after grinding on the same task for hours on end?
Well, good news: it’s not just you, and there are ways around it.
Studies from University of Illinois and Cornell University show that extended periods of work (> 50 minutes) degrade cognitive performance, and that short breaks (10-15 minutes) can renew attention and improve performance.
So our final preparation step is:
Prime yourself for work by taking a step back and giving your body and brain a “reset” before jumping in to work.
Step 1: Eliminate Inputs
According to Alejandro Lleras, the University of Illinois psychology professor who led the the study referenced above:
“Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness…”
At some point during that day, listening to lectures, taking notes, reading textbooks, responding to emails – all of that input starts to get progressively ignored by the brain.
Take a 15-minute “unplug” break prior to starting your homework.
Turn off your phone.
Take out your earbuds.
Close the computer.
And find a quiet spot to just sit, take a few deep breaths, close your eyes maybe, and focus on nothing.
Then, when you’re done, when you jump into your work, your attention will be renewed, and you’ll be much more prepared to tackle the difficult work of solving new types of problems.
Step 2: Apply Intermittent Breaks to Maintain Focus
To extend this concept further, also plan on working intermittent breaks into your homework sessions.
(1) Use the Pomodoro Technique, and work in cycles of 25 minutes on/5 minutes off. Here’s a link to the Pomodoro timer I use.
(2) Use the “Rule of 52 and 17” (measured by the Draugiem Group as the optimal schedule of their 10% most productive employees), which is similar to the Pomodoro regimen, but extends the work window to 52 minutes, which may be more conducive to long, involved homework problems.
(3) Use a 90 minutes on/20 minutes off schedule, which fits perfectly with our natural energy cycles (a.k.a the Ultradian Rhythm)
(4) Go with the flow, just make sure to stop and reset when you start to zone out or lose focus.
How To Focus On Homework Section 4: Jump Into Problems + Go Slow
Okay, now that we’re set up and primed, we’re ready for our 2-step process.
Step 1: Jump Into Solving Problems As Quickly As Possible
A lot of the time we get caught up in the process of what we “should” be doing when it comes to studying.
You do some reading before you class, you go to class, you take the notes.
You finish up the notes, you come home, you start your homework, your review your notes, you read the textbook.
You do that over and over and over again until you get to the exam and then cross your fingers you can actually solve what the professor decides to throw your way.
But more often than not, that story doesn’t end too well.
Plus, it takes a ton of time in the process.
The problem is this:
This “standard” formula assumes that by hearing and reviewing the information, an ability to use that information to solve problems comes along by default – something that couldn’t be further from the truth.
So when you sit down to work through the first few homework problems, you’re almost immediately struck with a dilemma: you’ve spent all this time reviewing the concepts you were “supposed to” but still find yourself stuck and frustrated.
We then waste huge chunks of time spinning ourselves in circles trying to figure out how to get the right answer, procrastinating, Googling the problem trying to find somebody who’s solved it for us…
Instead, my recommendation is to flip the script: jump into solving problems as quickly as possible.
Don’t feel like you have to read through your notes, or perfectly understand exactly what equations to use or what assumptions to make before starting to solve problems. It’s this type of hoop-jumping that’s the big time-waster.
In fact, the research shows that not only the quicker you start on solving problems, the faster you’re going to be able to get them done, but also the more information you’ll retain later on when you study and return to that type of problem again.
And this is even if you’re not doing it right, get the wrong answer, or draw a blank. The simple act of jumping in and trying first is going to help you remember it better the next time you do it.
And that’s saving us huge amounts of time in the future.
Step 2: Go Slow So That You Can Go Fast
Now, I know the immediate next question is:
“What the hell do I do when I sit down to do my homework and I’m just completely stumped, and I have no idea what to do?”
Then you spend all of this time trying to go back through your notes or trying to look it up online anyway and it ends up taking forever regardless.
Okay, yes. Fair point.
But here’s where we get into a little bit more nuanced view of how to approach the problem solving process.
So maybe you get stuck and you type in a problem to Google. You pull it up on a forum that gives you a step-by-step solution and viola, there’s your answer.
You then speedily take that solution, plug it into your own problem, and get some sort of final answer.
Then, you’re off to the next problem.
The problem is, even though you may have just solved that one problem faster, the cycle repeats itself because you get stuck again on the next problem, because you didn’t really understand what we did the first time around.
This shallow level of understanding that we get from trying to shortcut the problem solving process actually makes it so that it takes longer to get our homework done.
So instead: slow down so that you can go fast.
It means that when you hit that point in the problem where you get stuck and have no idea what to do, don’t try to work it out quickly.
This sounds counter-intuitive, but now is the time to stop, pause, take a step back, and switch into questioning detective mode to figure out what’s going on that you don’t understand.
From there you can start to build the deep understanding you need that will carry over to other homework problems (and eventually exam problems).
When we start off a problem initially, we’re in an “answer focused” thought process. We’re trying to remember what to do, what equation to use, how to get to the next step.
And we’re so focused on finding the answer that when we hit the point where we don’t know what to do next, this “answer-focused” mode actually prevents us from figuring out what to do.
So this is why we want to switch instead into “question-focused” mode – trying to understand why it’s the case that we don’t understand, what we’re missing, etc.
And this question focus is actually the basis of the whole Reverse Learning thing that I talk about all the time.
We’re asking questions that lead us in the direction of understanding what concepts are at play, which variables mean what, which equations am I using and why, etc.
It’s this questioning process that’s going to allow you to develop a deeper understanding of what’s going on, which will then allow you to go much, much faster when you jump back into solving problems because you’ll actually understand the principles at play instead of just memorizing some specific answer to a specific problem.
For example, take this integration problem (from Paul’s Online Math Notes).
I could be going through the solution and get stuck, because I’ve never done this “u-substitution” thing before.
And then I could go over and type it into Google and look at Yahoo answers for the specific type of problem I’m working on, and then move on.
This is the “standard” approach.
Or alternatively, I could really dig in and try to understand what’s going on when we’re substituting this section of variables for “u”, and then doing all this other calculus on the side, and then plugging stuff back in.
- What it is that we’re actually doing?
- How do I pick what the u is and what the du is, and how does this help me in different situations?
- Maybe I have two exponents or maybe I have an exponent and a trig function, or maybe I have a natural log?
- So on and so forth…
Like I said, this deeper understanding will not only benefit you long-term (a.k.a. handle curveballs on the exam), but it’s also going to help you short-term because, chances are, the next five problems that you have to do on your homework set are going to involve the same principles that went into solving that first problem.
The better you understand how to do those in this particular integral, it will help you to knock through those next four integral problems that much faster.
Summary: Our 2-Step Process to Homework Speed
So again, if you want to get your homework done faster…
(1) Jump into problems as quickly as possible.
Skip the “standard” hoop-jumping process of reviewing your notes and textbook, turn right to homework problem #1, and get started.
(2) Go slow, so that you can go fast later.
Vary your pace as you work – not everything should be attacked with lightning-fast urgency. Slow down when things get difficult and you feel stuck.
Back-track and follow the “question-focused” Reverse Learning thought process to build a deep understanding of the concepts, equations, and methods at play.
Then, and only then, jump back into your problems and you’ll find yourself speeding through those same roadblocks that used to trip you up.
How To Focus On Homework Section 5: Frequently Asked Questions
What if I get distracted (despite my best efforts) and procrastinate?
It’ll happen. Guaranteed.
The key here?
Don’t beat yourself up, which typically leads to “I failed, woe is me” type thoughts, which just put off your work even more.
Simply take the necessary steps to reset and start again (see Section 3).
You can also go back and evaluate what distracted you and figure out how to prevent it from happening again (see Section 2).
What about for WebAssign (or any other online platform) homework?
This method especially applies to online assignments.
How often do we just sit there, textbook and notes open, Google ready to go at a moment’s notice, frantically searching for a formula we can plug in to get the correct answer and type it into that little grey entry box?
This is the wrong approach for so many reasons (see Section 4, Step 2).
Instead, apply our 2-step approach, take your time to work through the problem solution on paper, and then enter the answer when you’re done.
Can I listen to music?
This mostly comes down to personal preference; however, there are a few rules you should abide by:
(1) No music with noticeable lyrics. Hearing human voices speaking will draw your attention away.
(2) Don’t let song picking, playlist setup, etc. become a new method of procrastination. Apply the 5S principles from Section 1 here and set it up beforehand so you don’t have to think about it.
Some great additional resources on studying with music here.
My [roommate, grandma, pet cat] is loud and distracting, and I have nowhere else to go. What do I do?
What about the library? Or the study lounge in your building?
What about a studious friend’s house or dorm room?
Have you talked to them about it and explained your issue?
Is there somewhere else the damn cat can go!?
Take control of your situation and don’t let outside factors be an excuse to degrade your work time.
I find these assignments pointless and can’t get motivated. What do I do?
Motivation is tricky. It comes, it goes.
One thing that tends to help is to take a step back and look at the “why” behind studying. What are you working towards?
But the simplest approach is to ignore motivation, and just get started – however down or grumpy you might be.
Set a timer for 5 minutes and start a little, tiny piece of work.
That small commitment will initiate what psychologists refer to as the Ovsiankina Effect – we, as humans, experience a strong desire to finish things we start.
I’m too busy, have an 11-hour commute, can only study at midnight, and other nonsense…
Take a hard look at your schedule (see Section 1).
Where is your “busyness” coming from?
Is it actual obligations, or time-wasting activities that reduce the time you have to work that make you feel busy?
If there are legitimate reasons you’re in a time crunch, think about steps you can take to create the time you need.
If you’re just simply procrastinating too much, see Section 2 and get crackin!
Now it’s your turn.
Implement this method and you’ll find yourself:
- Coming back from class and powering through assignments that used to take you days
- Grabbing back that full 10% of your grade on homework instead of throwing away critical % points
- Cutting your overall study time because you’ll actually retain the ability to solve those same problems by the time your exams roll around