When it comes to studying, most of us bank on being able to focus on our subject like the Terminator on its mission target. That is until we actually sit down to study. Then (spoiler alert) we perform more like Homer Simpson in a donut factory.
How we think our future studying-self will be:
How we actually are:
This is because attention and focus are both like a muscle. Unless you build it, you’ll be distracted by every … squirrel!
Getting your brain fit for studying is like training for a marathon. You run a bit every day, and the first week or so isn’t that great, but then you get fitter, it becomes fun, and you build the muscles you need.
Or ... you could wait till three days before the race to get training, basically wreck your body, and never want to even look at a running shoe ever again.
In other words, learning to focus takes work!
Training students to concentrate was indeed one of the big motivators that drove Brainscape to create the world's most effective flashcards app.
And through all our cognitive science research, we ended up writing a comprehensive guide on how to focus when you keep zoning out. (<– peep this article, it's awesome)
We are now proud to share some additional cognitive science principles to help you actually build your attention span like a muscle, so you can become more Terminator-like in your focus over time.
Your brain on focus
Why do focus exercises work to build up your attention span and help you study harder? It's a complicated answer and deals a lot with neuroscience, but here's the brief answer.
Brains learn via neural connections
Inside our brains lives a neural network, with literally millions of possible connections. These neural connections are like muscle fibers. While you can't build new neurons, you can definitely build connections. In fact, building connections is how we learn.
If you want to become an intense focus machine, you need to train your brain to develop a neural "pattern" of focusing. And this pattern needs to be maintained because it can atrophy from inactivity, just like a muscle.
Brains are energy-hungry organs
Next fact about brains: they need a lot of energy to run.
When Henry Ford said: “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably why so few people do it,” he was right on the money. According to neuroscience, our brains demand around 20% of our overall energy load—and that’s just when they’re resting. When we need to actually use our brain to learn things, there’s a steep energy demand to meet.
This matters because there’s real, physiological reasons why you need to work on your focus. You wouldn’t expect to bench press 200 pounds without any training. But many people expect that kind of performance from their brains when it comes time to study intensively. And, unless they train for it, they’ll end up disappointed.
If you haven’t been training your brain’s powers of focus, you may not realize why it’s so hard to get down to work. Subconsciously, our brains are quite good at sliding out of work that promises to be hard and energy draining. What you’ll probably notice is that instead of revising your Spanish grammar, you somehow fell down a YouTube rabbit hole, and discovered fifteen ways to accessorize your gym bag. #life-skills
So, let’s run down a list of what you can do to build your focus power so you can do all the things.
Checklist: 10 Focus exercises to build your attention span
Exercise 1. Keep a to-do list
Sometimes the simple act of writing down everything that’s on your plate makes it more manageable. You get it out of your working memory, it’s no longer part of the free-floating anxiety cloud around you, and you can tick things off, one by one.
Once it's out of your head, it won't distract you. You'll be better able to focus.
Exercise 2. Cold showers
Take a cold shower for a little bit longer each day, and delay gratification of getting a nice hot shower afterward. Or … end your normal shower with an increasingly longer cold one.
This is a hack to build your willpower, and willpower is very closely linked to your ability to focus and do hard things.
Exercise 3. Meditate
One simple practice is to focus on your breathing. Just that. Breathe in, breathe out. Try this for five to fifteen minutes doing that each day.
Doing this meditation is a great way to practice both focus and metacognition (becoming aware of your thought processes.) It also helps reduce stress and prevent burnout.
As they get into this practice, most people find their mind is in fact an incredibly noisy and distracting place. The meditation usually goes something like this:
Breathe in, breathe out ... how long have I been doing this? It seems like forever ...
Breathe in ... my back hurts. I wonder if I should book in for a massage. Hang on, I was doing something. Ah yes, breathe out ...
Did I leave the oven on? Maybe I should get up and check on it.
What’s that noise? Hmm. It’s stopped now. Breathe in ...
I wonder what’s on TV tonight?
This is normal, and the point of it isn’t to become disheartened at how difficult it is to focus on one thing. The real value is in noticing every time your mind wanders, and then bringing your attention back to your breathing.
This type of meditation builds mental focus in the same way that doing push-ups builds arm strength. You’re practicing concentrating on one thing and forcing other peripheral thoughts out.
Most people who try this for the first time are astonished at how hard it is to focus on just one thing for more than ten seconds. Over time, though, it becomes a rewarding and relaxing exercise, and, like fitness, has spillover benefits into every other aspect of your life.
Exercise 4. Move your body
Exercise is another activity most people don’t feel like doing beforehand but feel great after. (It’s the opposite of eating a fudge sundae, which makes you feel gluggy after and kind of wish you hadn’t.) Inverting this “before vs. after” phenomenon is one of the big keys to getting where you want to in life, and having a happier, healthier time while en route.
It takes mental fortitude to get out there and go for a run when you don’t feel like it. Every time you do, though, you’re building up mental stamina.
You’re also helping your brain work better—there are proven mental benefits to exercise.
Exercise 5. Practice memorization
Memorization is cognitively taxing. When you do it, you build your proverbial brain muscles, and, with practice, you’ll start noticing the difference when you need to use them. As the saying goes, “the mentally fit keep getting fitter.” (Well, if there wasn’t a saying like that, now there is …).
It's therefore helpful to practice memorizing things, especially using spaced repetition flashcards like the ones in Brainscape. Brainscape is a great tool to learn more effectively if you struggle with focusing on your studies. The adaptive algorithm introduces new material at just the right rate so you’re learning optimally.
Studying with Brainscape can double the speed you learn, and it’s strangely addictive.
Exercise 6. Read difficult works
Another way to build your focus power is to read difficult writing you're interested in (The Economist, Science, Dickens, etc.)
Keeping the cast of Crime and Punishment straight in your head as you work your way through this classic is the mental equivalent of running a half marathon wearing gumboots. (For example, what relation is Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov to Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikov? Think fast …)
Reading difficult material successfully requires real concentration and determination, and your willpower will grow accordingly.
Exercise 7. Listen
Listen with great attention to audiobooks or lectures. Focused listening is a life skill, one that can be applied in many areas.
It’s important to do your listening actively and single-mindedly, not while browsing Pinterest or playing Candy Crush. When you do this, you’ll discover that deep listening is HARD WORK and requires brain power. Take breaks when you find your attention wandering too much; however, try to stay focused for as long as you can.
Exercise 8. Practice sitting still
Do you remember being taken somewhere formal as a child (funeral, wedding, classical concert, presidential inauguration speech) and being told to “Just sit still for goodness sake!” Well, although you’re probably better at it now, it may be time to revisit this skill.
Try timing yourself to see how long you can sit absolutely still. (Combine this with our previous point on meditation.) You’ll find it’s not that easy. If you have kids, it may make you sympathize with their plight a little more. Either way, it’s a great exercise to build up your focus muscle.
Exercise 9. Monologue with a ball
Practice reciting all you know about a topic you're studying, while throwing a ball in the air and catching it. It’s difficult to concentrate on both actions but this builds your attention span and focus.
In addition, getting out and delivering a lecture on what you’re learning (even if you have an audience of none) is known as the Feynman technique, and it’s a great way to consolidate your knowledge.
Exercise 10. Find your Why
Finally, one of the most powerful tools for building focus is to remind yourself WHY you’re doing something. Link your goal to something that’s part of your identity, and you’ll unlock a whole new level of mental energy.
Prepare to succeed
“We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training” —Archilochus, Ancient Greek poet and soldier.
At Brainscape, we believe this: preparation is the key to achievement and success. Focus is a skill you can nurture in yourself; the more you work on it, the more natural it will become for you. It takes effort, but the results are well worth it. And the better you can focus, the better you'll be able to study.
In other words, if you work your focus muscles like Arnie getting ready for Terminator 7 (or is it 8?), then, come judgement day, you’ll perform like a champion.
Hasta la vista, baby.