You’ve amassed your books, notes, and stationery, sat down at your desk. It’s time to focus on your studies and …
“Ugh, I can’t concentrate!”
You may enjoy being a student of your chosen field, but memorizing a stack of lecture notes so that you can pass your exams and receive your qualification is another story entirely. Especially since there are so many distracting, exciting, and colorful things in the … oh look, a butterfly!
Even top-performing students with ninja-level self-discipline experience a mild reluctance to dive in. The difference, however, is that they have developed the right study habits that not only get them in their chairs to study but keep them there too.
What’s their secret? And how can you focus better and improve your concentration and memory when studying?
You, my friend, are holding the (virtual) answer in your hands. In this article, we're going to show you:
- How to focus from the start
- How to maintain focus and overcome daydreaming
- How to become a more focused person
(Also make sure you check out our guide 'Top mental strategies for studying at home' if you're required to be productive in an environment that can sometimes be a little distracting #netflixandchill.)
1. How to focus from the start
Almost all of the problems associated with an inability to focus on your studies fall into one of two broad categories:
- Difficulty starting to focus on your studies (issues of inertia), or
- Difficulty maintaining concentration when studying (daydreaming).
Both have the same frustrating results but can require slightly different approaches to overcome. What you need to do is still your thoughts and minimize distractions just like you do when falling asleep, only now you're going to unleash 100% of your cognitive powers on learning and remembering.
Here’s how to do that ...
1.1. Set up a peaceful, distraction-free "study bubble"
- Set out all your materials, stationery, Diet Cokes … whatever you need to learn. You shouldn’t have to get up for anything once you’ve started.
- Have a word with your family, housemates, cat, parrot, needy indoor plants … whoever you think might be a source of distraction. Explain politely that it’s study time and that you’d appreciate some quiet with minimal interruptions.
- Clear out your inbox. If there are emails that require time-consuming action, write it down on a to-do list so that you won’t forget to take care of it later. The science is clear: Multi-tasking does not actually work!
- Clear your phone of notifications and then turn it on silent so that it can’t ping and distract you. Better yet, leave it in another room. You won’t hurt Siri's feelings, we promise.
- If you’re working off a device, log out of any apps and social media that might send you distracting notifications.
- Optimize your body and brain to study. Go to the toilet, fill up your water bottle, brew a cup of coffee or tea, set out your snacks, and get a good night’s rest the night before.
- Knock out any important tasks before your allotted study time—like pay a bill, feed the cat, or break up with your boyfriend—so that they won’t eat away at your valuable mental bandwidth.
Now, you don’t have to do all of the above in order to prepare your study bubble, but if you’re easily distracted and have a tendency to procrastinate when studying, clearing your proverbial plate can go a long way in helping you focus better.
Side Note: Can music help you concentrate?
Yes and no. Music may help improve concentration and focus, but music may also be preventing you from effectively memorizing what you’re studying.
A general finding is that if you are working on memorization and knowledge-based studying, the louder and more complicated a piece of music is, the more of your brainpower it’s going to siphon away from the important stuff. So, if you’re someone who needs background sound to study, stick with quiet, repetitive music or sounds, like white noise, Lo-Fi, or binaural beats.
Just remember that everyone is different. Your challenge is to figure out how to improve focus and memory in a way that works best for you. Whether you do that with whale songs, utter silence, or the hubbub at the local coffee shop doesn’t really matter. As long as the effect the noise or music has on your brain helps you focus better when studying.
Now that you have adequately prepared your environment–your study bubble–it’s time to get yourself prepared for focusing, concentrating, and memorizing.
1.2. Prepare your study material
Even the most skilled musicians once sucked at playing their instruments. They didn’t wake up with the innate ability to shred a guitar like Slash or use their sweet, prepubescent voices to amass a mindless following of zombie “Beliebers”.
Mastery of any skill or subject requires steady learning and daily practice. The same way Slash didn’t pull his first guitar out of the case and say, “Well, time to write November Rain,” you shouldn’t crack open your first anatomy book and say, “Time to learn how to do open-heart surgery.”
If, however, you break the material down into manageable, bite-sized study sessions, you’re well on your way to fluency. The key to mastery is consistently devoting time to learning, whether it’s ten minutes or two hours a day. Therefore, your next step towards honing razor-sharp skills of focus is to set study goals or milestones.
Here are three tips to do that:
Tip 1: Skim the material before diving in
Take a wonderful trip down memory lane, starting at the very beginning of the coursework you need to learn. Lightly scan through your lecture notes / textbook / study modules and remind yourself just how much ground you’ve covered.
If you don’t have a course outline handy, create one yourself. This will help you to establish the full scope of the knowledge you need to absorb before braving the soupy, fear-sweat-permeated air of the exam hall.
Now, skim reading is the easy part since it doesn’t require you to “memorize” the information. Rather, the goal is to scan over everything and reacquaint yourself with what you’ve learned, which will prime your brain for the harder learning!
Tip 2: Identify your strengths and weaknesses
Maybe, when you scan over the year’s biology notes, for example, you find the chapter on ecology to be fairly easy but boy is the chapter on evolution giving you a hard time!
In your review, identifying your strengths and weaknesses is an important step because it alerts you to the sections and chapters you need to allocate more time to. The aim is to be prepared, not surprised, when your least favorite subject shows up on your next exam.
Tip 3: Break it down into bite-sized sessions
Once you have established a coursework outline and identified your weaknesses, start dividing it into bite-sized study sessions. This isn’t an exact science so don’t be too rigid. The goal is to create study sessions that are comfortably manageable in “a day in the life of you”, whether that’s an hour in the library or 10 minutes in the bath before bedtime.
Remember to devote more study time to your weaknesses! On this subject, Brainscape’s adaptive digital flashcards are the perfect tool for zoning in on your knowledge gaps, helping you to address the concepts in which you don’t yet feel confident.
1.3 A good start is half the battle won
Okay, so this all sounds like a lot of effort just to get started. And it doesn’t even address the fact that you struggle enormously to concentrate. How does all of this preparation help you to focus better when studying? Well, without even realizing it, here’s what you’ve achieved with these first few steps:
- Memory refresh: Scanning through and reviewing your study notes in order to establish a study plan refreshes your memory and helps to connect the dots on everything you’ve learned during the course or semester.
- A healthy perspective: By establishing that 30,000-foot view of what needs to be done, as well as a plan to get it done, you’ll probably feel a lot less intimidated by the task at hand. All you need to do is follow your study plan and, come D-Day, you’ll be totally prepared.
- Motivation: With the study material broken down into smaller, more achievable milestones, you get that delicious “reward-like” sensation far more frequently. Mmm … dopamine. Additionally, getting started is far less scary and overwhelming when the end is in sight.
- Momentum: Because this exercise isn’t memory–or even focus-intensive–it makes it easier to start, even if you have the attention span of a goldfish. And once you’ve overcome that study inertia, the momentum can kick in.
Essentially, you have just succeeded in establishing a powerful and convenient framework for learning. Good job!
Now it’s time to begin studying and actually maintain concentration.
2. How to maintain focus and overcome daydreaming
“Hey, what are you doing?” says the voice.
“I’m trying to study.”
“Cool. Did you reply to Steve’s text? He’s been super needy lately.”
“Please leave me alone, I’ve just gotten into my rhythm.”
“But it’s almost two o’clock.”
“I’ve got a massive biology exam coming up.”
“Judge Judy’s about to come on. Why don’t we watch one episode and then you can study?”
“It’s never just one episode.”
“Fine … hey, your phone just plinked. Do you think it’s Steve again?”
There is likely not a single student on planet Earth who doesn’t relate to this inner dialogue. The voice of procrastination always thinks of every possible thing to do other than what you need to do right now, which is study.
If it’s not external distractions (the cat, a noisy housemate, or emails plucking at your concentration), it’s internal distractions and the little siren’s song of the voice seducing you away from your books. Either way, maintaining concentration on your studies is hard.
So, how can you overcome that nagging inner voice that would rather chase squirrels than study, or entertain that particularly saucy daydream about Adriana Lima or Ryan Gosling (or both)?
2.1. Set study goals appropriate to your mental gear
Just like a car, our brains operate in different mental gears. On some days we pop easily into gear 4 or 5, are capable of focusing on our studies for hours at a time, happily cruising through the material like a Mercedes SLR McLaren 722 on an eight-lane autobahn.
On other days, it feels like we’re rattling down a potholed country road in an ancient pick-up that screams in protest every time you try to shift up. Try as you might, you get inadvertently sidelined every 5 to 10 minutes by life’s greatest mysteries—like where does dust come from and if humans had tails, would size matter?
It is what it is, and you’re going to have to roll with whatever gear your brain is in. The trick is to recognize which gear that is and instead, shift your study approach to suit it.
Ask yourself: Am I in a high mental gear today? Do I have good energy? Am I capable of getting in ... the Study Zone? If so, plan a long study session and perhaps confront the areas you’ve been having difficulty on.
However, if you’re feeling flakey and easily distracted, shift down your gears and instead, plan a series of short 5 to 10-minute flashcard sessions with frequent study breaks in between and some kind of reward at the end. You'll probably end up studying longer than that if you're on a roll.
Done this way, you can capitalize on the energy you do have and still manage to study productively on the days you find your energy waning. Remember, the most productive and successful people are skilled at managing their energy and attention, and not just their time.
2.2. Vary your study methods to improve concentration
Everyone burns out after a period of time. There’s only so much reading and text highlighting you can do before your mind wanders. What can help enormously to re-engage your concentration is a bit of variety, both in your study environment and method.
Here are 4 tips for changing things up:
Tip 1: Change of scenery
Try going for a walk or exercising where you engage in free recall, i.e. quietly recite everything you know about a specific topic, even with no material in front of you. You could even sing it to the tune of your favorite song. The point is to actively recall what you've been learning, which is powerful review practice.
Tip 2: A round of flashcards
If you’re bored of reading through your lecture notes, pop onto Brainscape’s adaptive learning platform and test your mettle with an appropriate flashcard deck. See how confidently you are able to answer the questions and improve your active recall while having a bit of a break from the books.
Tip 3: Study-on, study-off
Some students follow the Pomodoro Technique, where they study for 25 minutes and then take 5 minutes off, rinse and repeat. Others may prefer hour-long sessions followed by 30-minute breaks or 15-minute sessions followed by 10-minute breaks. For everyone, however, it's probably better to just set more frequent natural milestones, where you pause between chapters or sections, rather than blindly setting a timer that could interrupt you when you're on a roll.
Everyone is different so don’t lock yourself in too strictly. Find your sweet spot of time-on versus time-off. The added benefit to this technique is that it squeezes study time in even when you aren’t feeling particularly focused or mentally energized.
Tip 4: Get a study buddy
Arrange a study session with a group of peers or a friend or colleague. This shouldn’t be your primary approach to learning, but it functions as a nice adjunctive method because (1) it commits you to study, (2) your peers can help you address your weaknesses, and (3) in helping them attack their weaknesses, you're able to review your knowledge.
Just leave the beer at home. You’re not learning anything if your study sessions keep turning into games of flip-cup.
2.3. Set automated study reminders
Take the guesswork and decision-making out of studying by programming study notifications into your device. These will rap you on the knuckles when it’s time to sit down and resume your studies. It may also be helpful to specify information such as where you left off in the material, the topics you feel you should review before continuing, and how long you wish to study.
2.4. Gamify your productivity
Embrace your dopamine addiction by giving yourself more frequent, smaller rewards whenever you complete a study task.
If you’re the pony, what’s your carrot? Is it chocolate? A 15-minute walk? A 20-minute episode of Modern Family? Or even an actual carrot? Find what you can dangle in front of your nose as an incentive to complete a study session and then set yourself moving-target goals like “Once I finish making flashcards for this section on criminal law, I’m going to murder that Snickers bar,” or “Once I answer 10 flashcards in a row with perfect confidence, I’m going to go for a 15-minute walk."
Gamifying your productivity essentially requires that you design a reward system that makes studying feel gratifying for your brain. In other words: train your brain like you would a dog. With treats!
2.5. Give yourself a chance to reflect
Learning to improve your focus doesn’t require you to push yourself further than is mentally comfortable. You shouldn’t feel like you have to crack the whip every time your mind wanders to what you’re having for dinner and–ew, what did your cat just barf up?
Sometimes you genuinely need to take a break to reflect on your studies, as well as on the things that are distracting you. In fact, if you’re struggling to concentrate, maybe it’s because you haven't given yourself enough "reflective downtime" to process the things that are on your mind.
Think of it as mental admin. Each time something happens to you that elicits an emotional response–an upsetting email, a pressing assignment, a happy social development–it generates a ticket in your brain. Each ticket demands a little mental time for processing. Once it’s processed, it can be filed away. If you don’t take the time to process those tickets, they pile up and eventually those piles become unavoidably high.
Then, it’s when you sit down to concentrate on your studies that those teetering towers of unresolved and unprocessed mental tickets begin to crowd in on you, plucking at your focus and distracting you. Opportunities for introspection include long walks, meditation, jogging, swimming, yoga, commuting, peeling potatoes, watching paint dry … any low-intensity activity that allows your brain to wander, daydream, and process all those tickets.
Taking a little study break to reflect, both on what you are learning and on what’s going on in your life, is essential to your wellbeing. It’ll help improve your attention span and you’ll probably sleep better too.
2.6. Use Brainscape to improve concentration and focus
We’ve presented you with a cornucopia of study hacks, from silencing your housemates to gamifying your productivity. A really cool resource that rolls all of these hacks into one ridiculously good-looking, flashcard-based learning platform is Brainscape.
Brainscape is entirely online, and accessible by any device, from anywhere in the world with internet access or mobile coverage (and you can even use it offline if you already downloaded the content you want to study while you were "online"). This reduces the logistical barriers to studying. You can literally work towards that ‘A’ whether it’s from a bus seat or, well, the porcelain throne.
Brainscape also breaks down content-heavy subjects into collections of bite-sized flashcards, which are neatly organized into themed decks; and leverages the hyper-efficient learning power of spaced repetition, metacognition, and active recall to help students learn twice as fast as any other study technique. You can learn all about the nerdy science behind these terms in the following guides:
- Why spaced repetition works so effectively
- What is Active Recall? How to use it to ace your exams
- Use metacognition strategies to enhance your studying
(Don’t argue with science. They have lasers.)
Additionally, Brainscape's smart platform delivers study sessions that are as short as 5 to 10 flashcards, so you can squeeze in a short 5- to 10-minutes anytime, anywhere. Or, you can keep studying until you feel the need to take a break.
It’s almost like all the decades of cognitive science research we’ve read to write articles like these are also naturally integrated into the platform we built. Crazy, right?
3. Becoming a more focused person
Studying is a taxing and demanding mental activity so it’s no wonder that it tends to inspire inertia. Maintaining focus during studying can feel like a constant battle for anyone. Living in this digital world with its constant distractions and slavish devotion to instant gratification just compounds the problem.
But after reading all this, (good job by the way!) you should have a comprehensively stocked mental toolkit at your disposal. Now you know how to improve concentration, how to focus, and how to actually remember what you learn.
Use these study hacks because they work. You just need to figure out which ones work best for you.
One final thing. You can actually build your attention span like a muscle. With the right training and regular exercise, you can end up with Bruce Lee-level focus and concentration long beyond your current study goals.
Remember that there is nothing inherently wrong with your attention span; it's just a matter of the way you've trained yourself in the past, which is totally reversible. Keep working at it, like you would anything else.
You have everything you need to smash that exam into the bleachers right there in your he—SQUIRREL!