How to Stay Focused While Studying
Do you find yourself struggling to keep motivated when studying?
Maintaining the momentum to study for long periods of time can be tough. Whether you’re a secondary school student revising for those all-important GCSE exams, or an undergraduate student trying to motivate yourself to complete your dissertation, figuring out how to stay focused and avoid distractions while studying are challenges that we all face.
How to Stay Focused: 12 Tips to Avoid Distractions While Studying
Below, we’ve compiled our list of 12 expert tools and techniques to help keep you focused on your learning. Each of them are selected to help make you a) keep focused and b) understand your progress to give you all the motivation you need to keep going with your studies.
Each of the techniques can be adapted to suit you and your learning preference and style, and it’s encouraged that you trial a selection of them to see which benefit you the most.
1. Create a suitable study environment
Creating a suitable study space is an essential part of any successful study session. As humans, we are creatures of habit. And for you to get into routine and stay focused on your studies, you need a dedicated study space where your brain knows it needs to study.
If you’re studying from home, it’s important to try and locate your study space in an area which you don’t associate with relaxing. Understandably, for students at home or in university accommodation, it can be difficult to dedicate an entire room or desk to your studies. In this case, try to find a small, open section of space where you can sit each day and clear once you’ve finished studying. This could be your dining table or a shared family desk.
But for those who have the opportunity to study outside of their home, this can create a great separation from your studies and allow you to ‘switch off’ when you do return home. For some, the quiet of a library is their haven, while others thrive in the light bustle of a local coffee shop with their headphones plugged in.
Whatever your choice of location, just ensure your study space passes all the following criteria:
- Clear surfaces – With enough space to comfortably hold all the mugs of coffee, notebooks, textbooks, pens, pencils, laptop, and anything else you may need to have an effective study session;
- Comfortable seating – When selecting somewhere to study, it’s important for you to pick a place that has the right furniture to promote good posture for prolonged periods of time. Whether you’re using an ergonomic chair with the right back support, or even a standing desk, sitting upright is not only crucial for good posture and health, but it’s also been shown to increase energy levels;
- Power supply – This is especially important if you’re studying at a library or coffee shop. If your laptop doesn’t have a long battery life, you need to ensure there’s a power outlet close by.
2. Set clear, precise goals
One of the key motivations behind being able to stay focused while studying is to understand exactly why you want to study in the first place.
This doesn’t just mean writing down “I want to do well in my exams,” but being precise with the detail. If you want to achieve a certain grade, write it down; if you hope to attend a particular university, include it in your goals – anything you can do to make your goals as vivid and as ‘real’ as possible will make them more impactful.
Some examples of goals you may want to achieve can include:
- “I want to achieve [insert grades] in my A-Levels so I can study [subject] at [insert dream university].”
- “I want to develop my [insert skill] so I am prepared for the workplace.”
- “I want to cultivate healthy study habits so I can always do my best.”
Whatever your goals, write each of them down and keep the list visible and displayed near your workspace. This way, you can remind yourself of your motivations for studying each time you feel your concentration slipping.
3. Create a study schedule
Do you ever find yourself sitting down at your desk or table, opening your laptop and thinking “now what?”
One of the other critical components of helping you to stay focused on your studies and achieve your goals is to create and implement a study schedule that helps you establish a routine.
Over the past year, not having a rigid school or university timetable has left many of us trying to navigate a new way of managing our time. For some, it’s been a chance to fit in studying around a busy schedule of other commitments, while others have struggled to manage their own time.
Setting a study timetable is a great way to track your progress towards your goals, establish a routine, as well as provide you with a sense of accomplishment at the end of your day of studies. So, even if your usual routine has gone out the window, you know you can still add some rigidity to your day with an effective study schedule.
Here’s our top tips to make one that fits in around your lifestyle:
- Include all your goals/deadlines– Are you studying for upcoming exams? Or perhaps you just need your timetable until you return to school? Whatever your ‘deadline,’ make sure you create a schedule with all these important dates in mind – it gives you a final date and achievement to aim for;
- Add ‘free’ time – One of the key factors in helping you to stay focused on your studies is to allow yourself a healthy study-life balance. Schedule regular breaks, days off, and downtime in the evenings, allowing you to relax and recharge with the things you love.
- Colour-code subjects and topics – Colour-coding your timetable is a great way to ensure you’re spending enough time on each subject or topic. Highlighting each subject, or even topic in a different colour will help you – visually – see if you are actually balancing out your studying effectively.
For further guidance on how to create an effective but flexible study schedule, please refer to this guide.
4. Along with a study ‘ritual’
As well as creating a study schedule, it’s also important to create a study ‘ritual’ that helps get your mind into the flow and focus of studying.
A good place to start is to create a pre-study ritual, such as setting up your desk space, going for a brief walk around the block, creating a daily to-do list, or doing a 10-minute yoga session to focus your mind.
Taking this time to set up your studies in this way will not only physically prepare you for a study session, but also help train your brain to recognise and transition into a focused state more effortlessly. The more you practice this ‘ritual’ before sitting down to study, the more association your brain will have with needing to focus and motivate you.
As a result, you’ll use your time more effectively, spending less time trying to get into the flow of your work. You’ll stay more focused during your set study times, ultimately resulting in a more effective and efficient learning session.
5. Don’t forget: Share your study schedule with friends and family
Once you’ve created your schedule and developed your pre-study ritual to help you ‘get into the zone,’ you want to make sure you share these with your friends and family, so you can avoid being distracted during the moments when you should be studying.
If you’re studying at home, post your schedule on your bedroom door or on the refrigerator door in the kitchen. This way, your family will know when to leave you alone. You can also do this on your bedroom door if you’re at university and tend to have friends pop by for a chat.
Have a WhatsApp group with your friends? Encourage everyone to share screenshots of their study schedules so you know when not to message and distract each other. Even better, see if you can try and find some times when your timetables sync up so you have set periods of free time to chat with one another. This way, you can avoid getting distracted and not have to worry about missing out on any fun time together.
But there’s also a greater benefit to sharing your schedule in this way: you’ll gain more accountability for your work. By making a pre-commitment to your family and friends about when you’ll be studying, you’ll be more likely to stick to your schedule. It’s just another way to help you stay focused while studying.
6. Block out all possible distractions
Now, this may be an obvious point to make, but it’s certainly one of the most important when it comes to finding ways to avoid distractions while studying.
Did you know that, on average, it takes us 23 minutes to refocus on our work after being interrupted?
If, like most of us, you find yourself picking up your phone as soon as you see the screen flash, or checking your emails as a new alert pops up, you’ll know that phones, apps and websites can be the death of all productivity.
Using site blockers, turning off your notifications, or – even better – putting your electronic devices completely out of sight will help keep you void of all distractions and help you to stay focused on your studies.
According to a recent research project carried out by Harvard University, when we receive a social media notification, our brain sends the chemical dopamine along our reward pathways, making us feel good. Dopamine is associated with all the things we love, including food, exercise, and gaming. And more recently, social media.
Over time, these dopamine hits become addictive, and we crave that positive feeling more. As such, our attention spans begin to shorten, as we find ourselves looking at our phones more and more.
Therefore, eliminating these ‘feel-good’ distractions at periods of time when we need to focus can not only help us to train our brains to stay focused for longer periods of time, but also help us avoid becoming addicted to our smartphones and other electronic devices.
Of course, we can’t eliminate all distractions. Sometimes, it can be easy enough to zone out and find yourself staring at the wall for a few moments. But hiding anything ‘of interest’ that you associate with fun, relaxation, or socialising, will really help you to keep on-track and not get distracted.
7. Try the Pomodoro Technique
Recently, the Pomodoro Technique has been hailed for helping students and workers to help stay focused and make their working sessions more focused.
Its premise is very simple: select a task to work on, set a timer, work until it rings (completely interrupted), and then take a short break. Usually, it’s recommended that you study for 25 minutes and have 5 minutes off, and then repeat until the task is completed. But it really comes down to what works best for you.
It’s been found that short breaks increase our ability to concentrate, allowing your brain help to quickly revive and prepare for the next ‘stint’ of focus time. The Pomodoro Technique allows you to do so, and will ensure your overall study sessions are more focused and ultimately, effective.
But beyond helping you to stay motivated while studying, the Pomodoro Technique also gives you better awareness of the time it takes you to complete different tasks, allowing you to build a more effective study schedule. You can count up how many ‘stints’ of studying you’ve completed in this way, and gain a more accurate judgement of how long it has actually taken.
Not convinced? Try timing yourself completing a task and see how long it takes. Then, try completing a similar task using the Pomodoro Technique and see which method takes the least amount of time. You might just be surprised!
Remember, the key to the success of the Pomodoro Technique is to work straight through the time, without interruption. This means no replying to emails, no hopping off to pour yourself a glass of water. Just straight-up study time.
8. Keep a record of all the tasks you’ve completed
Another great way to keep focused while studying is to regularly remind yourself of all the work you’ve completed so far. Often, studying, especially at the start of a long stint of revision, can feel like a huge feat. However, if you can monitor your progress as you go, and keep a record of everything you’ve achieved, you should be able to remain focused – propelled by the sense of accomplishment.
There’s two main reasons why tracking your task completion is so beneficial:
- It’s easy to monitor if you are meeting the objectives set out in your study schedule
- Seeing your progress is really important to boosting your morale and helping you to keep motivated
Sometimes, simply studying itself can be an activity which isn’t always easy to measure. But if you keep track of all the tasks you’ve completed, you’ll have a much better idea of progression and how much closer you are moving towards your goals. On top of this, you’ll be reminded of how productive you have been, which will help in the long-term of keeping you focused on your studies.
9. Exercise regularly
Now, we know how beneficial exercise is for our physical health, but did you know the effects it can have on your brain, its ability to stay focused, and retain new information?
Studies have shown that regular exercise isn’t only beneficial for your body, but also your brain. Research suggests that in the short-term, increasing blood flow to the brain with exercise can help you to improve your focus for up to two or even three hours! While making time to exercise regularly has been shown to improve our overall mood and sleep, while reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety – all of which can affect our cognitive function and ability to concentrate.
To start experiencing the benefits of exercise, begin with introducing a few brisk walks around the block to get your heartrate up. We recommend starting with a walk before a study session, to get the blood flowing to your brain, as well as during the day to stimulate you during moments when you might feel ‘sluggish.’
On top of this, you can also look at running, or even online aerobics exercises. Yoga can also be great at helping you to de-stress and stretch out at the end of the day, while activities like Pilates and weight-training can strengthen your core and other essential muscles.
10. Review your study methods
As with everything in education and beyond as you move into the world of work, you’ll discover that reviewing things is the best way to track progress and make improvements.
When it comes to checking in on your study goals and progress, you should fit time in to review and monitor how effective the tools and techniques you’re using are at helping you to reach them. The more effective your study tools are, the more motivated you will feel, and more likely to stay focused during your studies.
Taking five minutes at the end of each week, month, or even year, to review your habits, routines and progress can help you identify patterns in your workflow and optimise the areas which aren’t as beneficial as you’d hoped they may be.
Some students like to use SWOT analysis to monitor their strengths and weaknesses, while others like to run through every method they use and will have an intuition about whether it’s been effective or not.
Of course, objectively, completing end of module tests and past papers can be another great way to see if your studying is working. Marking yourself will help you to identify any areas for improvement, giving you a next set of goals to focus on.
11. Give yourself regular rewards
When used correctly, giving yourself small but regular rewards can help you to stay focused while studying and maintain concentration for longer periods of time.
In the study of psychology, the “theory of operant conditioning,” suggests that we learn through reward and punishment. More specifically, it states that when a particular behaviour (i.e. studying) is followed by a pleasant outcome, we are more likely to repeat the behaviour in order to repeat that reward - also known as positive reinforcement.
You can use this positive reinforcement while studying, by rewarding yourself whenever you meet a study goal, complete a particular project, or simply after spending a long period of time sat at your desk working hard. No matter what it is you’re rewarding, the more you associate good outcomes with studying, the more motivated you’ll feel when you next sit down to study.
For them to be effective, rewards need to be something you enjoy. Now, just because some of your friends may see a trip to the gym as a reward, others may see it as a chore. Make sure you choose something that really resonates with you; such as a day off at the end of a hard week, or a break to watch your favourite TV show at the end of the study session - so you are compelled to repeat the behaviour in the future.
One thing to keep in mind with rewards is the distinction between using internal and external rewards. External rewards are physical things or experiences that you may rewards yourself to, such as a nice coffee, or a day off. Meanwhile, internal rewards refer to a particular emotion or internal state of mind, such as feeling of pride after completing a particular piece of work.
Interestingly, psychological studies have found that if the long run, internal rewards are more effective than external rewards in motivating students to keep studying because you gain a chemical release from the task. Therefore, as good as an external reward may be at helping you stay motivated, allow yourself to soak up all those positive feelings that are also associated with learning.
12. Find a study group
Studying, especially in the run up to exam season, can be very stressful and isolating. So it’s advantageous to seek support from your fellow classmates during these periods to help you stay focused and push through the tougher periods.
Working alongside other driven students can be a great way at helping you stay motivated whilst studying, encouraging you to keep pushing on - even when you notice your concentration begin to dwindle. It also removes some of the feelings of isolation that can come with revising and studying on your own.
With that being said, there are a few factors that need to be taken into consideration when forming a study group to ensure they don’t become a purely ‘social’ group. Try these top tips to make yours as effective as possible:
Limit the group to a maximum of 6: It’s recommend that study groups have no more than 4 to 6 people in them. In larger groups, some members may not contribute as much, or you may find it difficult to get everyone organised to meet up at the same time each week. They can be slightly more chaotic. With smaller groups, you’ll minimise socialisation, maximise individual contribution, and still enjoy the benefits of of sociable learning.
Don’t just choose your friends: When forming a study group, it can be tempting to ask your friends to join you, but they may not be the most effective study buddy. The best group will be composed of members who all share common goals, work at similar abilities, and be dedicated to completing all their schoolwork. Depending on the subject you’re studying, it may also be advantageous to select different group members who have better subject knowledge.
Consider the study environment: As with any of your studying, you want to ensure you’re choosing the right environment to learn in. Choose somewhere without distractions, but that allows you to communicate freely. Most libraries offer bookable study rooms, while large coffee shops can also be a great substitute.
Embed study groups into your routine: If you plan to meet regularly with a study group, it’s a good idea to organise your sessions at the same time and place each week. This way, each member can have enough time to prepare prior to the meeting. But beyond this, it will also allow you to fit the session into your permanent study schedule, making it another ‘regular’ aspect of your study schedule, and therefore, routine - which we know can help you focus for longer periods of time.
Staying focused while studying is something that everyone has experienced at some point during their education. But luckily, there’s plenty of things you can do to try and help you concentrate and avoid distractions while studying.
As described in this article, there are lots of methods backed by research that should help you to harness your energy and study in a way that’s effective for you.
Sadly, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to staying focused while studying. And you’ll need to experiment with different methods and tools to see which work for you. However, with a little trial and error, you can create a routine that helps you to stay focused and avoid distractions while studying.
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Looking for guidance on how to stay focused while studying? Take a look at our 10 tips to avoid distractions and stay motivated to study.