How To Focus On Studying: The Ultimate Guide (2018 Edition)

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I have yet to meet a single student who cares even a little bit about their grades, that doesn’t want to know how to focus on studying consistently.

Here’s the problem:

Studying is one of the most difficult things to try to get yourself to do.

It requires energy, discipline, focus, confidence, and willingness to look and feel stupid over, and over, and over again. That is… if you’re doing it right.

Other comparable tasks include:

  • Wrestling a bear
  • Climbing Kilimanjaro
  • Running a 135-mile ultramarathon across Death Valley
  • Watching just one video on Youtube and calmly closing your browser to get back to your day

Alas, not all hope is lost.

Because thanks to our friend science, we have an approximate roadmap to effective, focused studying, even in the face of horrendous distractions… like that little red circle with the number in it that appears on your Instagram.

Bonus: Download a PDF of the 2018 edition guide you can take with you (with a bonus checklist not included in the post)

In the sections that follow, we’ve put together a complete guide on how to focus on studying that includes:

  • How to improve concentration and focus through strengthening and managing your willpower reserves
  • How to set up your study environment for maximal productivity
  • How to focus your mind by scheduling intelligently and unplugging from the internet
  • How to spread out your study sessions for optimal absorption
  • How to manage energy, mood, and motivation (if there is such a thing)
  • What to do when distractions and procrastination strike, and how to get your brain back on the rails
  • When to recharge the batteries (a.k.a. sleep)
  • And a whole bunch of pressing questions like: “How do I retain more of the material?”, “Why can’t I focus on homework?”, and “Can I listen to music?”

If there’s one particular section that speaks to you, go ahead and click on the button I’ve laid out oh-so-nicely for you below.

But if you’re more like: “Uhh dude I’m struggling mighty hard right now, just show me what to do,” then simply continue to scroll right on down the page.

Let’s get to it.


The Willpower Muscle: How To Improve Concentration And Focus

Check out this email I got recently from a Phyzzle reader.

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“I start my mornings off really well but sticking to my schedule and staying focused throughout the day has always been a huge problem for me.”

If you’re like Tareen and you have trouble staying focused throughout the day, you’re definitely not alone. This is something that all of us deal with, especially when we’re trying to get difficult work done.

Because studying is so mentally taxing, and learning something new uses up our mental resources, we can pretty quickly get to the point where we’re tapped out. It may be tempting to think that we can simply tell ourselves to work harder and push through, but the reality is once you hit that limit, your progress is going to slow down to a crawl.

Okay… so are we just limited to the amount of work that we can do in each day?

The truth is if we strengthen, support, and manage our mental resources wisely, we can extend the amount of focus we have throughout the day, get more done, and rest and recover so we’re ready to do it again the next day.

There’s a word we typically think about for this stuff: willpower

The Science of Willpower (Err… at least something like it)

Let’s start off by examining what’s going on here.

The American Psychological Association describes willpower as:

“The ability to delay gratification resisting short term temptations in order to meet long term goals. The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse. Conscious effortful regulation of the self by the self.”

Image from apa.org

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These are all things that we need to have in place when we’re trying to learn how to focus on studying, but the real question is:

How do we develop or manage that ability?

Although the word “willpower” has always been a part of our natural vocabulary, it burst onto the popular psychology scene back in 2011 as two best selling books on the topic came out, one from researcher Roy F. Baumeister who famously conducted those “plate-of-cookies” experiments (i.e. if you’re forced to resist delicious food, you won’t perform as well on subsequent mental tasks).

Image from Google Trends

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Since then it’s sparked tons of discussion, books, and additional research on the concept, much of which built around the idea that willpower is an exhaustible resource.

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You know… like a Legend of Zelda health bar that decreases every time you make a decision, think really hard, or keep yourself away from the refrigerator.

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As it turns out though, the picture isn’t quite as simple as we may have thought it was.

Willpower may instead behave more like “waves of motivation,” and recent work may indicate that if you believe your willpower is limited, you’re more likely to give into temptations and distractions, whereas if you believe your willpower is not exhaustible, you’re more likely to persevere and remain disciplined.

Ahh yes… nothing like science to take what we thought we knew and throw it on its head. Regardless though, it’s still a useful concept to use to structure our study habits.

Willpower and What It Means for Studying

Okay here are a few things that we DO know:

(1) Managing distractions is beneficial.

Regardless of whether your Zelda-style health bar of willpower recharges itself or not, we know for sure that distraction doesn’t help with focus, and requires more willpower to overcome that if you put yourself into a distraction-free environment.

(2) You can grow your self-discipline over time.

Through practicing focused work, you can extend your ability to focus for longer and longer periods of time. Here the muscle analogy makes sense: the more you study (followed by intermittent periods sleep and recovery), the stronger you become over time.

(3) Habits help.

The more of the study process you can routinize through repetition and reward, the better. It leaves more of your mental resources available to focus on the task at hand (actually learning), rather than convincing yourself to study in the face of a million other potential things you could be doing.

And here’s the best part:

Those same principles can be applied towards how to focus better at work, how to focus in school, and how to stay focused in life.

So even if studying is the bane of your existence, just think of it as training for success after graduation. You can “level up” your ability to concentrate by learning how to focus on studying, and then take those skills to the bank when they really count for something out in the real world.


How To Focus On Studying Step 1: Get Your Environment Right

I covered this in some amount of depth in my How To Focus On Homework guide, but it’s worth repeating here:

An inefficient study environment damages the ultimate success of your study sessions in multiple ways.

Let’s chat about them briefly.

The longer it takes to get started, the less time you have to study.

Starting with some simple arithmetic, the studying equation goes something like this:

Results = [Time Spent Studying] – [Distractions]

So if you can take some of the time it usually takes you to…

  • Find your notebook
  • Find your old exams
  • Figure out what notes you need to work off of
  • Figure out what practice problems to review
  • Log into Blackboard and try to download the lecture slides
  • Finish up the text convo you were having with your BFF
  • Move all of your dirty laundry off of your desk
  • Start studying but move everything to the lounge in the dorm because your roommate starts playing Call Of Duty on full volume
  • Get into a deep philosophical discussion with another dorm-mate about Kanye and Kim
  • Finally get back to work but quickly check reddit first and then have to wrestle your way out of a commenting rabbit-hole

And add that time back into your actual study sessions, you’ll be surprised to discover that you straight up just have more time to study.

Image from memecenter.com

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Let’s be honest: a 3 hour total duration session can easily come out to be 60-70% waste, which means in reality you’re only studying for an hour.

But with some improvement in efficiency by getting your environment optimized, you could bring that to, let’s say 33% waste if you really work at it. That means you gain a full hour of studying back, spending the same amount of time with your books out!

If you multiply that across an entire semester, it becomes even more compelling…

[3 sessions/week] * [12 weeks] * [1 hour] = +36 hours of studying gained per semester over an equivalent classmate who is less efficient

Imagine what a massive difference that could make on your exam grades and GPA.

The more mental (and physical) energy you have to exert towards getting “set up” the less you’ll then have left over for the learning itself.

Now let’s add in a second component to the study equation:

Results = [Time Spent Studying] * [Focus] – [Distractions]

It goes without saying that when you’re exhausted or unfocused, no matter how much time you spend staring at your textbook you’re not going to get very far.

So even if more of your study sessions are taken up by actual studying, we still need to make that time count… and thankfully improving your study environment can help facilitate that as well by preserving more of that valuable brain power by reducing decision fatigue.

A quick hit list for setting up your study environment for efficient focus:

  • Make sure it’s properly “insulated” from friends, family, roommates and other potential social interactions. Every distraction costs you valuable time and intelligence.
  • Make sure you have space to spread out, both physically and on your computer desktop. Nothing is worse for concentration than feeling like you’re claustrophobically confined, and have to keep flipping back and forth between references.
  • Give yourself ample “working stuff out” pen and paper, or even a separate notebook. If you’re OCD like I was in school, this will give you permission to expound on ideas and potential solutions that may be incorrect, messy, or otherwise destructive to a perfectly organized notebook.
  • Make sure you have both a computer as well as the ability to shut off the internet at the ready (see Step 3 below).
  • Make sure you have some sort of timer, either physical or digital, at the ready (see Step 6 below).
  • And you may want to consider having a mobile version of the above at the ready in your bag or backpack in case your usual study space devolves into a distraction zone and you have to make a move.

Get these taken care of ahead of time and you’ll be primed to tackle the rest of the process.


Step 2: Schedule Your Most Difficult Work Early In The Day

Now like I mentioned earlier, we may not exactly know what the rules are when it comes to willpower, but one thing we know for damn sure is that as they day goes on, you get progressively more fatigued both physically and mentally.

So it only makes sense that once you’re up and operating at full capacity early in the day, you want to take advantage of those prime hours for your hardest, most intense work.

You’ll be more focused, in better spirits, and more willing to venture into the unknown of confusing new equations, concepts, and problems to solve.

If it’s not on the schedule, it doesn’t exist.

For a lot of you this may mean just going to class first thing in the morning, which is fine if you take advantage of that time. But aside from that you’ll also need time (if you can manage it) to tackle studying independently.

So even if you don’t have class you should set aside time early on for focused study. And by this I mean physically going into Google Calendar, iCal, Outlook, or your physical planner (anybody still use them things?) and blocking off the time you need.

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Because if it’s not there telling you it needs to be done, chances are you’ll find something better to do with your time… like, reruns of Seinfeld.

Protect that time at all costs to preserve focus

Then, once it’s on the schedule, it’s etched in stone.
Make sure that you protect it at all costs, because it’s where you’ll get the lion’s share of studying done.

You don’t want to waste your mental resources on setting your fantasy football lineup, or figuring out what to eat for the day, or getting caught up in a FIFA soccer tournament with your roommate on PlayStation.

Because the alternative is “kicking the can” of studying down the road until late at night (when your focus is generally lowest), or worse until the day or evening before the exam which is just… well… good luck to you sir.

Original photo via Dennis Hill

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Side benefit: once you have your most important work out of the way for the day, you can feel better about not being at your full potential when you’re taking care of the rest of the tasks that you have to get done.

You can be pretty mentally tapped out and still do the dishes, laundry, make dinner pretty effectively. And, god forbid, go to bed on time without feeling guilty that you didn’t get your work done for the day! Imagine that.


Step 3: Prepare Ahead Of Time And Shut Off The Internet (GASP!)

If you really want to know how to concentrate better and how to focus on studying, look no further than the ethernet port on your router.

From weknowmemes.com

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Yep… things are about the get ugly. Because the internet itself, in all of its glory, can quite literally steal away the ability to learn from unsuspecting students everywhere.

The internet ate my homework

Let’s have a chat about your behavior.

What is the first thing you do when you:

  • Wake up in the morning
  • Go to bed at night
  • Head off to the bathroom to take care of some business
  • Eat breakfast
  • Eat lunch
  • Eat dinner
  • Get bored in class
  • Get bored waiting in line at Target
  • Get bored of a conversation with a well-meaning friend in the middle of a story that’s gone off the rails
  • Open up your computer to take notes
  • Open up your computer to look something up
  • Hell, just anytime you even look at your computer

That’s right, you pick up your phone, or open up a new browser window, and GO ONLINE!

Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, Reddit, Email, Twitter, etc, etc, etc…

These things rule your life, and it’s exactly what they’ve been designed to do. So whether you realize it or not, the desire to find novel mental stimuli has infiltrated your life to a degree that is directly opposed to steady, concentrated focus on your work.

And this is exactly what Cal Newport identified in his latest installment of immensely useful life advice: Deep Work. From Newport:

“If every moment of potential boredom in your life – say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives – is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the ‘mental wrecks’ in Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work – even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.”

Sound familiar?

No matter how hard you try to sit down and focus on your work, it just seems like you can’t concentrate or get anything done?

This may be why.

Kicking the drug of internet distraction

Your phone, social media, and the internet in general hurt your ability of focus in a few different ways.

(1) It’s just simply a distraction.

It’s something easy and pleasing you can do when you encounter boredom or the mental anguish that comes with struggling with solving a new type of problem, an overwhelming concept, or something you just don’t understand all that well.

  • Trying to figure out how to find the integral of a multivariate function? Why not just peruse r/todayilearned on reddit for a quick hit of dopamine instead?
  • Breaking down a philosophical argument for the existence of identity over time? Sounds like a pretty tempting time to check your email to make sure you didn’t overlook a Groupon for a local restaurant you can’t afford.
  • Need to meet with your group to finish up your programming project report? Let’s just check your Instagram DM’s first to make sure the world hasn’t been overrun with zombies first.

It takes you away from the thing you know you should be doing… and that does you a direct disservice.

(2) It subverts your ability to endure hard work, and the positive emotions you could be generating from finishing that work.

That warm feeling you get when you check email or social media is great in the moment. But afterwards leaves you feeling cold, empty, and full of self-loathing.

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That’s because in essence you’re getting something for nothing. You’re activating all of the positive emotion responses that have been historically associated with foraging for food after a long hunt, without the actual work that went into it.

And it turns out our brains don’t like that too much.

What we were designed to do instead is reserve that dump of positive emotion for actual achievement in the world.

Creating things. Building. Learning.

And when you short-circuit that response with constant stimulation of this novelty response, it slowly erodes your ability to endure the “suffering” or “work” aspect of the equation, which is precisely what is required to succeed in the world, and especially to succeed when you’re studying.

(3) It’s like an addiction.

So if that wasn’t enough, let’s stack on top of that the addictive aspects of these stimuli.

Not only are you losing the time, focus, and concentration ability you would otherwise be maintained by staying away, but you’re developing a stronger and stronger addiction to the habit of checking your email, phone, computer.

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It’s a snowball effect. The more you give in to distractions, the stronger their pull becomes, and the harder and harder it is to force yourself to sit down and study.

Does this mean you’re screwed to a life of fractured attention?

Constantly berating yourself one minute, only to be right back to your vices the next?

Not in the least. But it does mean some changes are in order.

Going cold turkey (at least for a lil’ bit)

The solution here is to engineer regular study habits and concentration-building practices that provide a counterbalance in the opposite direction of the distractions we just talked about.

This means:

  • Disconnecting from your phone and the internet
  • Allowing yourself to be bored
  • Putting in progressively increasing periods of hard focus that “make your brain sweat”

But that’s easier said than done.

Because as anyone who knows the story of Homer from The Odyssey can recollect (yup, shoulda paid attention in 10th grade English class), the Siren’s song will entrance even the most strong-willed of men.

We have to do the equivalent of his home-grown wax-in-the-ears-tie-me-to-a-pole solution to the draw of social media, smartphones, and the internet.

And fortunately there are a few tools we can used to do that.

Using FocusTime, Forest, and other software to protect you from yourself

Now one thing that we do know for sure about the whole willpower debate, is that certain tasks require more willpower than other.

It takes more “convincing” to get yourself out of bed at 6am on a cold morning to go to the gym, than it does to decide to head over to Chipotle with a friend.

Studying falls into the “high willpower” crowd of activities.

So if we want to teach ourselves how to focus on studying with minimal distraction, why not just take the most distracting things (i.e. the internet and your smartphone) and eliminate them?

“Ha!” you say… “If it were only that simple.”

Yes, yes, I am well aware of how easy it is to weasel yourself into checking Facebook or going down a Youtube rabbit hole when you told yourself you wouldn’t. Thankfully though, we can protect ourselves from… well… ourselves.

Let’s talk about your computer first.

(1) For your computer: Focustime

Even if you’re familiar with the tool RescueTime for time tracking and productivity management, you might not know that within its premium option is a very powerful tool called Focustime.

This amazingly evil little tool will block (depending on your settings) your most self-indulgent productivity-crushing websites at the click of a button… making it the closest possible thing to the digital Siren’s song buffer.

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Think of it as outsourcing your “better self.” Your inner disciplinarian wagging its finger at you for going off the reservation when you know you shouldn’t.

Use this in conjunction with your work periods. If you commit yourself beforehand that you’re going to work without distraction for 30 minute blocks, before you jump in, hit the “Get Focused” button on Focustime beforehand.

You’ll be surprised how many times you start working, think about something else and go to look it up, only to discover that you’re locked out.

See? I even as I’m writing this post, this bad boy is preventing me from doing research:

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Which even though it seems innocuous can easily pull me down an “Oooo look at this new shiny thing” side route away from writing. And short of restarting your computer, there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.

Except…

Immediately switching over to check your phone of course.

**Facepalm**

(2) For your phone: Forest

Forest is the best “get focused app” I’ve come across for the phone. And believe me, even if you don’t feel like you need it right now, eventually you’re going to need something for your phone.

It’s amazing how quickly your conniving mind reaches a distraction roadblock on your computer, only to go: “AHA! Stupid me, I’ll just check my email real quick on my phone!”

Thankfully, we can engineer some protection against that as well.

Although it’s a little less “lock you out” and a little more “don’t disappoint yourself and lose the game,” Forest is the best tool I’ve found (especially for the iPhone which allows limited interaction with OS) for keeping you away from checking it.

Your goal? Grow some trees.

And in order to do it you simply have to not touch your phone and click out of the app.

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I find myself turning this on, and then inadvertently going to check something when a text comes in, or I think of something I need to see if I have in my email. Then I see the Forest screen when I log in giving me a subtle push back to my work:

“Please don’t kill this innocent tree!”

It’s surprising how well it works. And if your phone is your main source of distraction, it can become a pretty powerful game to see how many trees you can rack up during the day.

Disconnecting entirely

Okay so clearly an immediate “issue” with doing all of this is:

“What if I need something online to do my work?”

And yes, this is becoming more and more the case as course materials go more digital. But all it takes is some forward planning (which is probably a good thing in itself) to get all of your “stuff” ready ahead of time.

If you need to figure out what the assignment is, look it up ahead of time.

If there’s a PDF of a textbook online, download it to your desktop.

If you’re doing problems on WebAssign, print them out beforehand (you should do this anyway because it’s annoying as hell trying to do problems and type them in as you’re going).

Get everything ready because this stuff really works… meaning you’ll just be sitting there twiddling your thumbs if you don’t.

You could even go so far as to engineer periods of time throughout the day where you leave your phone off and don’t have a computer available to use.

This is disconnecting in the truest sense, and although it may not always be practical, if you can get everything into analog form to work on, it can be very, very powerful for developing focus and making huge progress forward with your studying.


Step 4: Distributed Practice (a.k.a. Spread It Out and Don’t Cram)

Now let’s talk about the studying itself.

Again if we think back to willpower as, although not clearly an exhaustible resource, but one that does provide more focus and attention the more you “stay fresh” without getting bogged down by unnecessary decisions and distractions… The idea of regular short, contained bursts of studying becomes an attractive one.

Rather than forcing yourself to slog through a 5-hour marathon study session on Sunday afternoon at the library for that Calc exam you have coming up on Tuesday, doesn’t it sound so much better to put in 10 short, sweet, and highly focused 30-minute study sessions for two weeks leading up to that point?

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Study sessions where you’re not tired, bored, or intellectually compromised.

This is the idea behind distributed practice (also referred to as “spaced repetition” or the “spacing effect”).

What is distributed practice?

Distributed practice is as simple as:

“…a learning strategy, where practice is broken up into a number of short sessions – over a longer period of time.”

Ooookkkaaayyy… doesn’t sound so revolutionary….

Well when we actually take a closer look, to say that the research supporting the effectiveness of this strategy is convincing would be an understatement, with the authors of this NIH paper stating:

“The advantages provided to memory by the distribution of multiple practice or study opportunities are among the most powerful effects in memory research.”

In a time where everyone’s always on the prowl across Youtube and Reddit for an “edge” they can use to sleep less, study longer, and perform better, little did you know the best and most effective answer is actually the simplest.

“But isn’t this just obvious?” you might say.

“Don’t we all know deep down that if we just set aside time ahead of time instead of leaving everything until the last minute that we would do a lot better?”

Of course we do!

But that doesn’t make it any more likely that you’ll do it, because it requires a few things we’re not naturally inclined to do:

  • Planning ahead in advance
  • Setting aside your immediate desires for a future payoff
  • Sitting down to study on your own accord, without the threat of a failed exam looming in the near future

So executing this strategy requires both logistics and discipline – two things that take work to develop.

How to focus on studying using distributed practice

First, let’s take a typical example. Here’s what usually ends up happening when you have a burst of motivation:

  • You decide to “get it together” and study beforehand for an upcoming Chemistry test – cracking open the textbook to kick off a 3-hour study session.
  • Halfway through you start wondering whether you actually need to learn this stuff because you’re not sure if it will be on the exam, and then realize that you have an English paper due tomorrow afternoon.
  • You stop studying, run back to your dorm to get your English paper done, and then crash for the rest of the night to hang with your roommates, leaving you Chemistry work in your backpack… sad and alone.
  • Whatever burst of motivation you had to get ahead is now gone, having now placed your focus back on the immediate needs of the homework you have to get done for your other classes that week.
  • Then, more time passes as you fall back into your typical “do the homework that’s due tomorrow” habits, and you find yourself with only a weekend before the Chemistry exam you meant to start studying for a week earlier.
  • So now we’re back into cramming mode, losing any hope of building an advantage by using distributed practice to study, and back to the struggle of trying to force yourself to concentrate when you’ve got 5 hours of studying ahead of you… good luck with that!

The problem here is that your “wave of motivation” isn’t enough (something we’ll talk about in more detail in the next step) to properly execute this distributed practice idea.

So instead of using that burst of motivation to sit down and immediately crack open your textbook, use that wave to plan out your study sessions ahead of time and apply the techniques we discussed above for ensuring your environment is optimized and your distractions have limited influence on you.

Here’s Dr. B.J. Fogg, Director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, who coined the term “behavior wave” discussing this concept:

So when you feel that wave of motivation wash over you:

(1) Go into your Calendar and block off daily study time for each course, even if it’s just 15 minutes per day. This will start to accumulate over time, and you’ll start to feel the effects of distributed practice in class (when you start to understand things better), while you’re doing homework (when problem sets get done more quickly), and when you go to study for your exam (and realize you don’t actually have too much studying you need to do).

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(2) Use that time wisely. Make sure it’s spent on active studying rather than passive reading. And use hints from your professor, homework problems, and past exams to zero in on the top material you should be learning to prepare for your next exam.

(3) Track your progress. Whether that’s on a physical checklist, a spreadsheet, a notebook or an app… make sure you take credit for your proactive discipline to encourage you to keep it going.

Speaking of motivation…


Step 5: Maintaining (Or Circumventing) Energy, Mood, and Motivation

Is motivation even something worth focusing on?

What about energy? Mood?

Well if you do a quick Google search for “no motivation for studying” you’ll find a slew of people lamenting about how hard it is to get motivated to study.

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And here’s the interesting part: I pretty much agree with all of them!

Yes, it’s really hard to get motivated to study, especially if you’re not completely sure what’s going on in class, you aren’t doing that well, and maybe you don’t even know why you’re going to school in the first place (more on that in a bit).

And yes, you’re going to procrastinate, feel tired, and experience negative emotions when you haven’t worked on what you know you should have, you don’t know how to get started, and you’re stuck in a bad habit loop (damn you Youtube suggested video autoplay!).

Here’s what I don’t agree with though:

(1) You still have to do something about it. Motivation isn’t something you can manifest. And I don’t think there have been many people in recent history excited about heading off to Calc 2 lecture.

(2) It really doesn’t matter that much anyway. The list of things we have to get ourselves to do in life that we don’t feel motivated for, have to do when we’re tired, or are just sick of is endless. Sometimes studying is one of them.

The good news is there are plenty of ways (many of which we’ve already discussed) to overcome lack of motivation and energy, and get yourself to study anyway.

Just start on your work

And the magic behind all of it is: once you start to make some headway, start to understand a few things, and are able to start solving problems with your newfound knowledge, all the sudden that motivation shows up to give you a nice little push along to keep going.

So “I don’t feel like it” is not an excuse to not start doing your work.

Even if it’s just for 5 minutes, just start. On something. Even if it’s the worst thing you’ve ever done.

And in most cases that 5 minutes of momentum will carry you through to the next 5 minutes… and the next… and so on.

That’s one tool at your disposal, and it’s a great one at that. But there are a few other things you can check the box on to increase your natural motivation, mood, and energy.

Get your biology under control

Didn’t pay attention in 9th grade biology class? Neither did I.

Thankfully, we’ve got the Googles and here are a few things it says we should be doing to maximize our study focusing powers:

(1) Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. This regulates your circadian rhythm, which is a big determining factor in terms of how you feel and perform during the day.

(2) Get enough sleep! More on this below, but suffice it to say, everything seems much worse when you’re sleep deprived.

(3) Cut out sugar. Replace it with omega-3s. At one point in time there was some research out there that claimed that in order to “feed your brain” enough energy, eating high sugar food somehow improved performance. I never thought that was legitimate, and it turns out… it wasn’t!

From this study out of UCLA:

“Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information. But adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help minimize the damage.”

And in general, the more you can keep your blood sugar highs and lows under control, the more stable your energy will be throughout the day. This means cutting out the crap and going for high fat, high protein, with little to no simple carbohydrates… and not going crazy and downing 1,500 calories at mealtime while you proceed to veg out on the couch.

Set goals

This is one of those “duh” recommendations… but you would be absolutely astounded how many people have only the vaguest notion of why they’re actually in school in the first place…

  • “Well I want to get my degree but then I want to like travel to Europe and stuff”
  • “Well I looked up the stats and chemical engineers have the best starting salary”
  • “I want to go to mars”

These are not what I’m talking about.

So when people ask about how to be focused on your goal when a million other things are vying for your attention?

First off, you need to set one in the first place.

From giphy.com

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A goal needs to:

  • Be precisely defined. There should be clear criteria for success or failure (scary… I know)
  • Have a well-defined timeframe for when you’d like to achieve it (you shouldn’t be making goals that are more than 3 years into the future)
  • Be true to what you actually want, not something you cribbed off of your friend or the internet
  • Have some way of tracking whether you’re making measurable progress or not
  • Be broken down into intermediate subgoals that you can check off as you make progress along the way

Here’s Toronto psychology professor Dr. Jordan Peterson on exactly why this is so important:

In fact, this Future Authoring program was able to significantly increase the probability that the students who completed it would end up completing university. Further it has shown significant improvements in GPA in students that have completed it:

how to focus on studying image 13

Who knew the old cliche of “having goals” actually works!

Bottom line: the true determining factor when it comes it motivation is having somewhere that you’re going that gives you a reason to get up and do it all again day after day.

As Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning:

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

And that’s just as true for studying as it is for life at large.


Step 6: How To Recover From Distractions, Procrastination, and Other Nonsense

Okay look, all of this talk about how to focus on studying is well and good, but you and I both know that at some point… it’s going to go wrong.

From giphy.com

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You’re going to:

  • Make a ton of progress, and then wake up one morning with no energy whatsoever and blow off that Calc study session you had scheduled
  • Then you’re going to feel like you’ve screwed up
  • Then you’re going to struggled to get through the other homework you have due, and blow off that essay for your philosophy class to instead watch Netflix all night to give yourself a pick-me-up
  • Then you wake up the next day in a guilt-ridden panic that not only didn’t you study, but now you’re in a time crunch to get all of your other work done that you procrastinated on the day before

Or something like that.

Regardless what happens, I can confidently say that it WILL happen. It’s just a matter of when, how severe you allow yourself to get thrown off the rails, and what to do when you start to feel it happening.

Stop feeling guilty, and start getting back on track

First things first: you’re not a robot. I’m not a robot (although would I really have a way of knowing if I was?).

We’re all human, and we’re imperfect at this stuff. That means you should expect to falter when you’re trying to accomplish something difficult, like studying for your classes.

But here’s the key: that’s not an excuse to give up or not try.

First, go in with the expectation that you’re going to fall off the wagon. Even in the throes of laser focus, you’ll find that at certain points phone calls, thoughts, and uncontrollable events will in fact pull you out of concentration… and there’s not always something you can do about it.

Whether you’re pulled away because you remembered your car is about to get towed, or you forgot to turn your phone on silent, or you “broke” and got sucked into the vortex of Youtube recommended videos, just know that you’re not alone… it happens to the best of us.

So stop feeling guilty.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Stop going on reddit to proclaim yourself as a failure.

And get back to it, and try, try again.

Get your Pomodoro on

Somehow we’ve made it this far without talking about the Pomodoro Technique. But now is the time to enlighten you if you haven’t encountered it, or hammer it home one more time if you already have.

But before we cover the details a brief detour…

You know how when you have a huge project you have to get done, how overwhelming that can feel? You have mountains of work ahead of you and you really have no clue how you’re going to get all of it done.

how to focus on studying image 24

What do you do? You break it down.

  • Step 1: Do all of the research. No?
  • Step 1: Read 5 papers and take notes. Too much?
  • Step 1: Find 1 paper related to your topic on Google and print it out. Hey I can do that!

The more you can “shrink” the task down to something you can wrap your head around doing in a short period of time (less than an hour maybe), the more likely it is that (1) you’ll be willing to get started, and (2) you’ll be able to successfully complete it and build your confidence in the process.

Now let’s extend that analogy to time and focus.

Let’s say you’ve set out 3 hours to study for your physics exam. It’s a lot of work, but you manage to sit yourself down at your desk and get started.

Then, after about 15 minutes, you feel an invisible force GRAB your hand, put it on your mouse, and click open a new tab to Youtube. The distraction has taken over… Now what are you thinking?

Ugh, crap I shouldn’t be looking at this right now. How much more time have we got? STILL 2 HOURS AND 45 MINUTES!!?? Oh my god this is never getting done.

And that’s when the procrastination really sets in.

You keep watching that damn video because you can’t bear the thought of struggling along for 10 times as long as you just did.

Unless you can think of a way to break that cycle, you’re stuck until your guilt builds to the point where you start to despise yourself for being distracted, and you find your way back to your studying.

But that’s usually after wasting 50% of the time you had available…

Enter Pomodoro.

Using this technique you:

  1. Set out to complete a task: study for my physics exam on kinematics.
  2. Set the timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Start the timer and work like mad for those 25 minutes.
  4. When the timer goes off, give yourself a 5 minute break. Sit back. Relax. Do what you will.
  5. Repeat until you’re done or out of time.

So again, this works in the same way as our project example. You’re breaking down the time and energy necessary to focus on studying physics for 3 hours into small manageable chunks.

I can’t imagine focusing for 3 hours straight. But I can imagine focusing for just 25 minutes, knowing that I can completely release that focus when I’m done.

Feel like 25 is too much? Bring it down to 15 to get started.

Feel like 15 is a chore? Cut it down to 5.

This little bit of mental trickery is what can break the procrastination cycle, so use it freely. You’ll be surprised how effective it is.


Step 7: Sleep To Solidify and Recharge

Here’s an observation for you:

In the modern world, you can be “on” at any moment.

When the sun goes down, the lights go on, and we have plenty of “novel stimuli” (a.k.a. TV, internet, other people, restaurants open late, caffeine, etc.) to keep us cruising along well into the evening, past when our bodies would naturally conk out for the night.

how to focus on studying image 25

Which is totally fine. No judgement here. And in countless ways this ability to increase our active waking hours has pushed our economic achievements to incredible heights.

But…

When it comes to learning – especially when learning is your full time job (yea, lookin at you dude) – this ability consistently erodes our ability to absorb, retain, and integrate new knowledge to a staggering degree.

And in an academic culture where, at least among our peers, sleep deprivation and marathon cram sessions are worn as a badge of honor, we’ve got some badly ingrained habits to battle back against.

Take this Minnesota University study where a change in school start times from 7:15am to 8:40am improved academic performance of students across the board:

“Academic performance outcomes, including grades earned in core subject areas of math, English, science and social studies, plus performance on state and national achievement tests, attendance rates and reduced tardiness show significantly positive improvement with the later start times of 8:35 AM or later.”

If such a small shift in sleep can have such a large impact on these students’ performance, imagine what might happen if you start to pay attention and organize your schedule more to optimize for sleep, rest, and recovery…

If you’re struggling now, this could be what turns things around for you.

If you’re doing “okay” now, how about instead doing great?

If you’re doing well, how about absolutely positively CRUSHING?

Let’s see what’s up.

Rest and recover consistently in order to improve

If there aren’t any breaks, your brain won’t allow you to work hard. This is the concept of “defense spending,” and it’s what prevents you from dedicating full attention to your studying. From The Power of Full Engagement:

“When there isn’t much fuel in our tanks… we tend to hoard the energy we have and use our limited stores in the service of self-protection.”

Which makes sense: your body and brain will conserve energy, and especially so when you’re sleep deprived or have a packed schedule with no rest in sight.

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Here’s the crux of it, again from Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz:

“The richest, happiest and most productive lives are characterized by the ability to fully engage in the challenge at hand, but also to disengage periodically and seek renewal. Instead, many of us live our lives as if we are running in an endless marathon, pushing ourselves far beyond healthy levels of exertion. We become flat liners mentally and emotionally by relentlessly spending energy without sufficient recovery… we slowly but inexorably wear down.”

Wanna be a flat liner?

Then go ahead, continue as you have been. And certainly don’t take any breaks.

It’s like lifting weights. If you just continue working out without taking the appropriate time for recovery, you’ll just continue to break down muscle tissue rather than improving – defeating the purpose of doing it in the first place. The actual “working out” part is breaking you down while the rest and sleep is what really builds everything back up.

When you’re studying, it can be equally painful.

You’re sucking up valuable brain resources. Making new neural connections. And when you rest and sleep it gives your body a chance to replenish those resources and consolidate those new connections so that you’re better, stronger, and ready to add to your growing body of knowledge.

Use strategic breaks to overcome resistance and fatigue

But it’s not only just about recovery. The other thing that rest does is gives your brain and body something to look forward to.

Just like we talked about in the procrastination section, long periods of work with no rest or reward to look forward to destroy motivation and your ability to get started on work. As Neil Fiore from The Now Habit puts it:

“We are more likely to work productively when we can anticipate pleasure and success rather than isolation and anxiety. Demanding… even four hours of tedious work involving confinement and struggle is hardly calculated to get us motivated, especially when there are so many more pleasurable alternatives available.”

We need breaks in order to make sure that we give our full effort during the time that we’re already dedicating towards studying.

So back to Pomodoro, inserting a 5 minute break every 25 minutes is a great way to engineer that into your hour-to-hour work.

But even beyond that, you need to have:

  • Longer breaks of 15-30 minutes inserted throughout your day. This could be as simple as eating, working out, doing your laundry, reading a book… Anything that gets your mind into a different space away from studying.
  • A well-defined stopping point. If there’s always the “threat” of staying up all night to keep studying on the table, your brain will still “conserve” energy in the way that we’ve been discussing. Instead, have a hard stop at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep and stick to it. It will make the time you do spend during the day that much more productive knowing there’s an end in sight.
  • Fun stuff. A tyrannical schedule packed with things you “must” do is guaranteed to fail. Instead build your schedule around things you actually want to do. Obviously give yourself enough time to study appropriately for your classes and handle your day-to-day responsibilities, but beyond that make sure to block off time for friends, relaxation, and fun.

None of this works if you don’t sleep

If the title of this 2016 Nature study doesn’t scare you… well… you might be too sleep deprived to give a crap about anything at this point!

“Irregular sleep/wake patterns are associated with poorer academic performance and delayed circadian and sleep/wake timing”

Uhh yea. That just about says it all. But you don’t need a study to tell you this crap: when you’re exhausted, just living life feels like you’re moving through molasses. Then trying to learn about time dilation and relativity!? Forget it. Not happening.

Bottom line: not sleeping enough is quite possibly the dumbest thing you could do as a student.

There’s probably nothing more detrimental to your ability to learn (other than just deciding not to study), stay motivated, and continue to do well in your courses than the contestant procrastination, cramming, and then lack of sleep that occurs in most college dorm rooms.

During sleep the brain performs numerous essential functions that consolidate memories and make all of the knowledge you just shoved in during the day retrievable.

Finally! A Happy Gilmore reference

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So you need the sleep. Here’s how to get it:

  • Set a bedtime alarm. Set it to go off 30 minutes before you intend to be asleep, and make sure it’s the same time each night so that you build a consistent circadian rhythm.
  • Aim for eight. Eight hours won’t always happen because… well… life and such. But at least block off the time and plan around it. And don’t you dare give me that crap about not needing it, because there’s no evidence to back that up for the vast majority of normal humans (despite how much you might want to believe it).

Get the sleep, and you’ll be amazed at how much focus and energy you have for studying.


How To Focus On Studying: Frequently Asked Questions

Should I find a study partner?

No.

An accountability partner? Yes.

A study partner? No.

Here’s why:

When you work on problems or concepts with somebody else, it can be easy to be lulled into a false sense of security that you’re learning something when you’re really not. This is called the “fluency illusion” and it can get you in real trouble when it comes time to take the exam.

You need to sit and struggle with the material that you’re learning on your own, so that you truly know whether you understand it or not. Then, and only then, if you have questions or something you want to run by a classmate or friend… by all means.

And somebody else in the same class that you can check in with can be a great resources for determining if you’re studying enough and for keeping each other on track.

How to focus better when reading?

The most important thing you can do here is ask:

“Why am I reading this? What do I want or need to get out of it?”

It will focus your reading sessions so much more than any speed reading or focusing tactics.

Also, don’t read passively. You should never sit there with an essay or textbook, without a pen and paper in hand. Notice I didn’t say highlighter… when have those actually helped anyone?

Can I listen to music?

You can… but should you? Really?

I see this question all the time. And yes there’s mixed evidence on whether it helps or hurts… but ultimately you have to ask yourself: why do you need music?

If it’s just for white background noise, fine. Go for it. Make sure it’s relatively subdued with no words (words in music pull your attention away).

But if you can manage without it, just do it. Music doesn’t follow you around in your daily life, so better to train yourself to learn in a standard environment so you don’t develop a reliance on it.

Why can’t I focus on homework?

Maybe you find studying okay, but for some reason you can’t focus on homework. Although many of the same principles apply, there are some differences between studying and homework.

Here are some tips for focusing on homework that cover not only how to focus on homework, but also how to get it done as quickly as possible.

What do I do if I get overwhelmed and don’t know what to do?

Sit down and write it out.

What do you need to get done?

By when?

What are the steps?

Then use our friend Mr. Pomodoro to get started again. If you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed or drained, just start the timer a 5 minutes, and commit yourself to pushing forward as hard as you can on that first step you just brainstormed. Then at the end of those 5 minutes, take a break.

Rinse and repeat until you start to make progress. Although if this is a particularly rough session (and you have the option of doing it later), step away, take a mental break, and come back to it fresh after some rest.

I’ve wasted the whole week and now my my exam is tomorrow and I only have a few hours to study. What should I do?

Pray.

I do spend a lot of time studying, but I can’t seem to remember what I learn? How do I retain more of the material?

Okay first thing: are you actually studying? Or are you just going to the library for 5 hours to ultimately spend about 30 minutes of actual concentrated focus on your work?

If you think you are actually studying (which, honestly I’m not convinced…), then it’s a matter of determining how you’re studying could be improved. Are you passively re-reading? Are you solving problems with the book open to the examples? Are you using an equations sheet while you’re working through review questions?

There’s a big difference between passive consumption of information and actual learning. I talk about this in depth in my active recall post.

Additionally, consider using a technique I call reverse learning, which is a way to improve your conceptual understanding behind virtually any problem you’re working on.

Most importantly, there aren’t any shortcuts. As my engineering programming professor used to say:

“You pain. You gain.”

Get to it.

What do I do when I need to get on the internet for something, but don’t want to be distracted by Youtube?

Back to the ole Odyssey-style website blocking software. With Focustime you can segregate productive vs. non-productive websites. So you can block Youtube and Reddit while allowing Wikipedia, for example.

How To Focus On Studying: Your Next Steps

So at this point you might be asking: what the hell do I do with all of this?

And it’s a damn good question. Because talk without action is the worst kind of talk… or something like that.

First, identify one or two things from this guide that either stand out to you, or perfectly describe what you struggle with when it comes to studying. Those are what you should focus on first.

Bonus: Download a PDF of the 2018 edition guide you can take with you (with a bonus checklist not included in the post)

Second, take some of the suggested changes and write out a short plan of action. You can start by answering these questions:

  • What do you need to change?
  • How are you going to do it? When?
  • How will you ensure that you’ll stick to your new changes?

Third, let me know in the comments.

It helps to see what other students are doing, because it makes it real and tangible. So let me know:

  • What are you currently struggling with when it comes to studying?
  • What’s your biggest takeaway from the post?

Thanks, and godspeed!

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Daniel Gorham January 31, 2018, 9:20 pm

    Interesting and though provoking article. I say thought provoking because while I am past the point of studying for college classes this guide will be useful as I prepare for my professional engineering license exam (think the bar exam for engineers).

  • Jason February 1, 2018, 1:50 am

    Nice Article. I love your writing brother. I just had a question that if your course involves a lot of rote memorizing and writing the exact same answers in the test as are in the textbooks, How would you efficiently do so?

    • Tom Miller February 1, 2018, 2:40 am

      Thanks Jason! If that’s the case, then I’d recommend active recall all the way (https://www.phyzzle.com/active-recall/) with either flash cards or a study guide you can rewrite or cover up as you study. All of the stuff in here applies to that too 🙂

  • Deana February 1, 2018, 7:00 am

    Great article. I like the checklist. I’m going into a health professional program (physical therapy).

    The checklist was great. I pretty much do these things (maybe a bit too much social media).

    My question: there’s just no skimming my textbooks (acc to friends in the program). Any suggestions on studying for functional anatomy?
    Thanks, Professor!

    • Tom Miller February 1, 2018, 11:52 am

      Thank you Deana! Glad you’re enjoying it.

      I do tend to talk a lot about problem solving and understanding concepts here because my experience lies primarily in math and physics, but there are some elements of direct incorporation and memorization of information there too (e.g. formulas, procedures, etc.).

      If you think of it like a spectrum – conceptual on the one hand, and purely practical on the other hand – you can draw some conclusions about how to study for the subject. More specifically for your functional anatomy course (which I would assume is highly practical in most of it’s curriculum), that means you will be more directly trying to memorize and “map” those facts, diagrams, explanations, etc. into your own head so that you can have them available to recall later (versus a physics course where you’re more trying to understand a few principles and how they play out in many different situations).

      Long story short: similar to what I recommended to Jason above. Follow the textbook more directly but use Active Recall to learn the information, either through flash cards or study guides.

      Hope that makes sense!

  • Ray Frost February 3, 2018, 4:34 am

    Love this! Will share!

  • Nikita Nemtcev February 3, 2018, 11:34 pm

    Hi Tom,

    Great article. You made a lot of good points on the techniques of studying, particularly your point about studying actively instead of passively. This is what trips me up the most, because I always fooled myself into thinking that I had the “secret study technique” when really, various techniques work and the crux of those techniques is making use of the material actively. Things like connecting material from previous lectures to the current material, hypothesizing counter-arguments for why a point the textbook makes shouldn’t be true, that kind of thing.

    • Tom Miller February 3, 2018, 11:42 pm

      Thanks Nikita! You’re 100% right, there isn’t one “secret” technique. In reality it’s a number of principles that all come together… and getting better at studying is a continual process of getting better at putting those principles into practice as best as we can. Appreciate the comment!

  • Aituaje February 4, 2018, 2:29 pm

    This literally may have just saved my Calculus grade. I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m not doing so well — I feel like everything makes sense when my teacher explains it, but then I get to the test and I have NO IDEA how to apply the concepts that I think I know to the new problems.
    I’m definitely going to try the reverse engineering technique for hard problems and the active recall — doing all the homework problems by myself.

    Quick question: let’s say I do a homework problem. What should I do when I get stuck? Should I keep slugging through trying to figure it out or just look at the worked out solution then re-try the problem from memory? Like look at the solution, close the answer book, then try again?

    • Tom Miller February 4, 2018, 4:24 pm

      Wow, thanks for the comment Aituaje! Sorry to hear about your Calculus grade, but if you’re working on figuring it out it’s only a matter of time before your start to improve if you keep chipping away at it.

      To answer your question, the research is pretty clear here:

      (1) Do the problem all the way through, even if it’s hilariously wrong.
      (2) Then go back and study the solution. At this point you can re-write the problem following the solution and work out where you went wrong and why.
      (3) Set it down and come back to it later, preferably a day later at least, and do it from scratch again without the solution. Alternatively you could try again with a different variation of the same type of problem within the same study session.
      (4) Rinse and repeat.

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