You may enjoy being a student in your chosen field, but memorizing a stack of lecture notes so that you can pass your exams 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 struggle to stay focused while studying. 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? How can you better concentrate while studying?

You, my friend, are holding the (virtual) answer in your hands. In this article, we're going to show you:

  1. How to focus from the start
  2. How to maintain focus and overcome daydreaming
  3. How to become a more focused person overall

(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 #doomscrolling.)

How to focus while studying, from the start

Student focusing on studying

Almost all of the problems associated with an inability to focus while studying fall into one of two broad categories:

  1. Issues of inertia: Difficulty starting to study
  2. Issues of daydreaming: Difficulty maintaining concentration when studying

Both have the same frustrating results but can require slightly different approaches to overcome. What you ideally need to do is calm 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 ...

Tip # 1 for focusing while studying: Set up a peaceful, distraction-free "study bubble"

Prepare your study bubble
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. If you’re working off a device, log out of any apps and social media that might send you distracting notifications.
  6. 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.
  7. Knock out any important, potentially distracting tasks before your allotted study time—like paying a bill, feeding the cat, or breaking up with your annoying boyfriend.

Now, you don’t have to do all of the above 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.

Tip # 2 for focusing while studying: Set goals and milestones

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 steps to doing that:

Step 1: Skim the material before diving in

Start at the very beginning of the coursework you need to learn and lightly scan through everything, jotting down an outline as you go (think: roadmap). This will give you a 30,000-foot view of your subject AND prime your brain for the harder learning and memorization work to come.

Step 2: Identify your strengths and weaknesses

This will alert you to the sections and chapters you need to allocate more time. The aim is to be prepared, not surprised, when your "weakest" and least favorite topic shows up on your next exam.

Step 3: Break everything down into "bite-sized" study sessions

Now you can break your outline down into manageable daily chunks, depending on the amount of time you can spare each day to study. This isn’t an exact science so don’t be too rigid but make sure you comfortably spread everything out over the days you have left before your test or exam. And remember to devote more study time to your weaknesses!

(You can use Brainscape's free study schedules and exam planners to do this!)

How does all of this preparation help you to focus on studying from the start?

  • 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.
  • Motivation: With the study material broken down into smaller, more achievable milestones, you get that delicious “reward-like” sensation far more frequently. Mmm … dopamine. (Also, keeping a finger on the pulse of your study metrics can be a huge motivation because it allows you to visualize your progress toward your goals.)
  • 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 let's look at how you can stay focused while studying and maintain concentration.

How to maintain focus while studying

Man sleeping on the desk

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, staying focused while studying is hard. How can you overcome that particularly saucy daydream about Adriana Lima or Ryan Gosling (or both)?

Headshot of Ryan Gosling

Tip # 3 for staying focused while studying: Set goals that are appropriate to your mental gear

On some days, it feels like we can cruise through our study material like a Mercedes SLR McLaren 722 on an eight-lane autobahn. On other days, it's like we’re rattling down a potholed country road in an ancient pickup truck.

The trick is to recognize which gear your brain is in and shift your study approach to suit it.

If you're in a high mental gear, plan a long study session and try attacking the areas you’ve been having difficulty in. However, if you’re feeling flakey and easily distracted, shift down 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.

The point is to 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 people are skilled at managing their energy and attention, and not just their time.

Tip # 4 for staying focused while studying: Vary your learning methods

Everyone burns out after some 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:

  • Try a change of scenery: Go for a walk or relocate to your local library, coffee shop, or even just a different room in your home.
  • Do a round of flashcards: Take a break from your books and try a different study medium altogether, such as studying flashcards in Brainscape!
  • Pepper your studies with frequent breaks: Some students follow the Pomodoro Technique, where they study for 25 minutes and then take 5 minutes off. We advise you to use natural milestones as breaks—between chapters or sub-sections—rather than blindly setting a timer that could interrupt you when you're on a roll. Find your sweet spot of time-on versus time-off and give yourself that space to breathe!
  • Arrange a study session with a group of peers: This functions as a nice adjunctive method to your regular studying because (1) it holds you accountable, (2) your peers can help you address your weaknesses, and (3) in helping them, you're able to review your knowledge.

Just leave the beer at home.

Tip # 5 for maintaining study focus: Set automated study reminders

Take the guesswork and decision-making out of studying by programming study notifications into your device. You can easily do this with Brainscape, which has study streak reminders: gentle “nags” to keep your daily study streak alive.

Brainscape study streak reminders

To activate, simply go into the menu in the mobile app (left), select Notifications, and then you can then toggle on Streak Reminders (top right). Those will show up as push notifications on your phone’s home screen (bottom right) reminding you to stop what you’re doing and put in a quick study round with Brainscape. You can also customize the time of day you’d prefer to receive your reminders!

Tip # 6 for motivating yourself to study: Gamify your productivity

Dog catching a treat
Train your brain to focus better when studying in exchange for rewards.

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!

Tip # 7: Use the right tools to stay focused while studying!

Brainscape software on laptop and mobile

One effective study tool that rolls all of the aforementioned hacks into one ridiculously good-looking flashcard-based learning platform is Brainscape, which breaks down content-heavy subjects into collections of bite-sized flashcards. These are then delivered to you via the hyper-efficient learning power of spaced repetition, metacognition, and active recall to help you learn twice as fast as any other study technique.

In short, Brainscape is engineered to:

  • Make starting studying as easy as tapping a single button, eliminating mental inertia.
  • Make learning incredibly accessible, wherever you go, even offline.
  • Deliver the content to your brain in a way that is optimized for retention so you get more done in less time.
  • Create a fun, engaging, and gamified study experience with tons of learning stats and awards to chase.
  • Provide you with detailed study metrics so you can keep a finger on the pulse of your progress.

In other words, if you struggle with staying focused while studying, Brainscape is a powerful study tool that'll get you through any test or exam prep.

Tip # 8 on how to concentrate while studying: Give yourself a chance to reflect

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, such as an upsetting email, a pressing assignment, or a happy social development.

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. 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 well-being. It’ll help improve your attention span and you’ll probably sleep better too.

How to become more focused on studying

How to be more focused

Studying is a taxing and demanding mental activity so it’s no wonder that it tends to inspire inertia. And then maintaining focus while studying can feel like a constant battle in this digital world, with its constant distractions and slavish devotion to instant gratification.

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 remember what you learn. You have everything you need to smash that exam into the bleachers right there in your he—SQUIRREL!

Squirrel sitting on a path