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We've all struggled with poorly-timed distractions. You're sitting at a desk, studying intently, and then: wham! Unrelated thoughts-breakfast this morning, the funny movie you saw last week, or that upcoming presentation you're nervous about-invade your mind. Or maybe you're totally immersed in your work, but your roommates, friends, or family members barge into your study space at an inopportune moment.
Internal and external distractions, like the ones described above, cause us to lose focus. But by honing your concentration skills, you can defend against these disruptive forces. The techniques outlined below will help you maximize your focused study time, as well as regain your focus if you become distracted.
Turn Off Distracting Technology
It's not a good idea to study with your cell phone on, even if it's set to vibrate. As soon as you get a text, you're going to look-the promise of a notification is too tempting! Avoid the temptation altogether by shutting your devices off and even putting them in another room. Need an even more drastic option to keep yourself honest? Ask a friend or family member to hold onto your phone during your study session.
The same goes for your computer and tablet unless you're using it to study. In that case, be sure to disable every distracting application and notification before you begin the study session. If you find yourself giving in to social media or game cravings, try an app like Freedom or Self Control to temporarily block access. Tell your friends and family that you're entering study mode so that they know not to contact you unless there's an emergency.
Choose Your Study Environment Wisely
Unless your friends happen to be good study partners, study alone. Post a sign on your door telling roommates or family members to stay away. If you have kids, seek an hour or two of childcare if possible. If your home environment is distracting, gather your study supplies and head over to a comfortable study spot.
If you're studying at home, choose a quiet room with limited clutter. If distracting background noises bother you, pick up some noise-canceling headphones and turn on a study playlist (preferably instrumental) or white noise. Create the best possible environment for studying before you open your books so that you don't have to pause mid-session to make a change.
Anticipate Your Physical Needs
If you're studying intently, you're going to get thirsty. Grab a beverage before you open the book. You may even need a power snack while you're working, so grab some brain food, too. Use the bathroom, put on comfortable clothes (but not too cozy), and set the air/heat to the temperature that best suits you. If you anticipate your physical needs before you start studying, you'll be less likely to get out of your seat and lose the focus you worked so hard to gain.
Study During Your Peak Brain Times
Schedule your most challenging study sessions during peak energy periods, when you anticipate feeling most energized and focused. If you're a morning person, that means you should be studying as early as possible. If you're a night owl, choose an evening time slot. If you aren't sure what time works best for you, reflect on your most successful studying experiences. What time of day did they take place? When does your brain feel most effective in general? Pencil in study sessions during these periods, and stick with them.
Answer Your Internal Worry Questions
Sometimes the distractions aren't coming from the external world-they're invading from within! If you're worried about a particular issue-"When am I going to get a raise?" or "What will happen if I fail this test?"-you might find yourself struggling to stay focused.
Luckily, there's a solution. It might feel a little silly, but actually answering those internal questions will help you redirect your mind back to wherever it needs to go. If you catch yourself worrying, identify your key worry question and answer that question in a simple, logical manner, like so:
- "When am I going to get a raise?" Answer: "I will speak to my boss about it tomorrow."
- "Why can't I understand this material?" Answer: "I am studying like I'm supposed to be, so I'm confident that I will figure it out. But if I am still struggling with this material by the end of the week, I will speak to my teacher about getting extra help."
You can even write out the question and the answer on paper, then fold it up and pack it away for later. The goal here is to acknowledge the worry, accept that it's there (don't judge yourself for it!), then return your attention to the task at hand.
Some people frequently feel the need to be doing something physically. They might feel antsy and energetic, or simply struggle to focus in sedentary settings. Sound familiar? You're probably a kinesthetic learner, which means that you learn best when your body is engaged along with your mind. Improve your focus during study sessions with the following techniques:
- Pen: Underline words when you read. Cross off incorrect answers when you're taking a practice test. Moving just your hand may be enough to shake off the jitters. If it's not, move to step #2.
- Rubber band. Stretch it. Wrap it around your pen. Play with the rubber band while you're answering questions. Still feeling jumpy?
- Ball. Read a question sitting down, then stand up and bounce the ball against the floor as you think of an answer. Still can't focus?
- Jump. Sit down and read a question, then stand and do 10 jumping jacks. Sit back down and answer the question.
Reframe Negative Thoughts
Negative thoughts make studying all but impossible. If you find yourself frequently repeating self-defeating thoughts, try reframing them into more positive statements:
- Negative: "This concept is too hard for me to learn."
- Positive: "This concept is tough, but I can figure it out."
- Negative: "I hate this class. Studying for it is so boring."
- Positive: "This class isn't my favorite, but I want to study the material so that I can succeed."
- Negative: "I can't study. I get so distracted."
- Positive: "I know I lost focus earlier, but I'm going to try again."
The next time a negative thought invades your brain, acknowledge it and try to turn it into a positive statement. Over time, studying will feel less like a burden and more like an intentional choice you're making in order to achieve your goals. This mindful approach will make you feel more empowered and motivated and subsequently will increase your focus.