Have you ever wondered how to stay focused when you study?
We all have and every person, no matter what age you are, experiences this from time to time.
If you find yourself struggling, know that the problem isn’t actually that you’re not able to focus.
It’s more about you not knowing how to focus.
Picture yourself doing something you love.
Watching football, bingeing on Netflix, playing videogames, reading your favorite novels, scrolling on social media…
You don’t lose concentration doing things you enjoy, right?
Because focusing on these things is intuitive when you’re motivated and interested – your brain naturally perks up and can help you concentrate.
So how do you apply this ability to your learning?
Fortunately, neuroscience has many of the answers for us.
Let’s Be Clear on What it Means to Stay Focused
Staying focused might not mean what you think.
For example, you may think that the only way to learn is to sit with your school books or workplace reports for hours until you finish.
But neuroscientists show us that the best learning doesn’t happen that way.
There is a much more effective, brain-friendly way to “focus”.
Forcing yourself to pay attention to something for an extended period of time might mean you remember less.
Your brain learns more efficiently when you focus for just a short amount of time, about 30 minutes.
Then, take a break. Then go back to studying again.
By doing this, you give your brain enough time to process the information you’ve learned, and retain it before moving on to something new.
Based on how the brain works and backed by neuroscience, let’s take a look at the ways you can stay focused when you learn.
10 Best Ways to Stay Focused When You Learn
1. Spaced Learning – Primacy and Recency
If you’ve tackled a bunch of new information in one go, most likely, you’ve found you had trouble recalling things afterward.
The brain doesn’t remember things well it encountered only once, unless you do some review.
It’s just like exercise – one set of bicep curls will not yield a bigger, stronger bicep!
Jumping from one topic to the next one without pause is ineffective because of something very science-backed called the Ebbinghaus curve of forgetting.
This curve makes use of primacy and recency – in other words, you remember what you saw and heard first, and what you saw and heard last more than what’s in the middle.
Hermann Ebbinghaus used this curve to demonstrate the rate at which we forget information if we don’t try to store and consolidate it.
Scientific studies show that we can forget almost half of what we learned within an hour of learning it if we don’t actively try to retain it.
Explains why we draw blanks trying to remember what we did in class an hour ago, sometimes, doesn’t it?
To combat the forgetting curve, neuroscientists and learning experts recommend “spaced learning.”
This practice refers to spacing out periods of learning – instead of studying at a stretch, study in short but fruitful sessions.
The forgetting curve (that includes Ebbinghaus’ work on primacy and recency) shows how we tend to remember the material at the beginning and end of a study session, while things in the middle are fuzzier and we forget them faster.
This is called serial positioning (ok, enough with the big words already :):), and basically, when you shorten the amount of time between the beginning and end for each learning session, it aligns with how your brain works.
You’re better prepared to remember.
So – space out your learning times with Primacy and Recency and you’re good to go!
Here’s the “how” to make your learning faster, easier and a smarter fit with your brain.
Study for about 25 or 30 minutes.
Then take a short break, maybe 5 minutes.
Then go back to study again for 25 -30 minutes.
After about three or four of these sessions, take a longer break, or better yet, have a nap or turn in for the evening so your brain can consolidate the information during sleep.
This gives your brain time to process current information, before piling on new things and making it more likely that you’ll forget the whole lot.
2. Spaced Repetition – Consolidating What You Learn
Spacing out shorter study sessions is just part of the solution on how to stay focused when you learn.
As the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve demonstrates, if we don’t attempt to retain information, we end up forgetting it.
Rather than devoting single-minded attention to reading every line in your textbooks to pressure yourself to remember, repetition and review works much better.
Neuroscientists find that the process of forgetting a little, and then reviewing and recalling the information you’d forgotten, strengthens your memory.
Every time you learn something new, the neurons in your brain form new connections.
If you don’t reinforce these connections, they’ll wither away.
On the other hand, if you review information repeatedly, the same neurons keep activating.
The more they activate, the stronger those associations grow.
The stronger the associations grow, the better your memory of what you’d learned!
Overall, there is a saying – the neurons that wire together – fire together!
So, remember that, along with spacing out your learning, mix in some time to review what you’ve learned.
It doesn’t matter if you forget things here and there when you start learning something.
The actual process of forgetting something, then retrieving it, later recalling it over and over, works much better for memory.
3. Don’t Multitask make another space between this and the image
For many years, we thought multitasking – doing several things at once – was a good thing.
Research seems to suggest it’s not, however.
If anything, we might damage our productivity by trying to do several things at once.
When studying the productivity of multitaskers, researchers found they were slower to achieve outcomes compared to those focusing on a single task.
Studies also suggest that those who frequently multitask might interfere with the creation and strengthening of neural pathways for learning.
It might not just interfere with learning but other cognitive processes, too.
So, instead of trying to do several things at once, plan your tasks one by one (spacing them out) and tackle them thoroughly before moving on.
You ensure higher long-term productivity and improved ability to focus, without getting distracted as your brain keeps switching between what it needs to do.
4. Switch Off Your Phone
Multitasking doesn’t only refer to trying to learn different things at the same time.
Taking a minute to check your messages, tapping on that Instagram notification, noticing there’s a new YouTube video you want to watch, can all affect your focus.
Even if you think you have great self-control and glancing at your screen once or thrice won’t set you back, studies suggest something different.
One experiment in a workplace found that once you break your focus from the task at hand, (other than the 25-30 minute segments you planned in advance) it can take almost 25 minutes before you can refocus.
That’s as much time we recommend you to focus without interruption to learn effectively and efficiently.
In short, it’s a great deal of wasted time.
While you’re learning, your brain is doing all kinds of things to accommodate the new information.
Imagine every time there’s construction happening, and a distraction comes along that keeps stopping the work.
The building wouldn’t go up as quickly and efficiently as it could, just like your brain won’t be able to create the associations you need to learn and remember if you’re constantly interrupted.
What if you’re using your devices to learn?
Thankfully, there are apps like Freedom that you can download to block websites that might tempt or distract you.
You can always unblock them after your 25-30 minute learning stretch, and then block them again when you go back to learning after your break.
5. Get Some Exercise
Of course, working out is great for your physical well-being, but the benefits stretch far beyond just your body’s health.
Working out is something even surgeons recommend as a way to help them focus for hours on end during procedures that require all their care and attention.
Exercise gets your heart pumping more blood to your brain.
All this oxygen-rich blood optimizes your brain for better functioning.
Just going for a run before learning, can make all the difference when you settle down to study.
Exercising helps build brain muscle along with body muscle, so the learning benefits are countless.
Among these benefits is the fact that exercise is associated with the growth of the hippocampus, which plays a significant role in long-term memory building.
So, by working out regularly, you optimize your brain to stay focused when you learn and to learn and recall better!
6. Get Better Sleep
Exercising and reducing the time on your phone contribute to better sleep and better sleep is necessary to stay focused when you learn.
When we go to sleep, the brain starts converting short-term memories of what we learned during the day to long term memories.
Many studies have found that people retain and recall information better if they sleep or even take a nap after learning than those who don’t.
Memories form through three steps –acquisition, consolidation and recall.
Memory consolidation happens when we are sleeping, with the hippocampus and neocortex becoming active to review and process the day’s events.
So, if you are thinking about staying up late to catch up on your learning, scrap that plan immediately.
Not only will you be harming your brain’s big window for memory consolidation, you’ll also damage your ability to focus for the next day.
7. Sip Some Tea
Green and black teas contain an excellent amino acid called l-theanine. But matcha green tea has more of it!
Combined with the caffeine in these drinks, a cup of tea in the morning can give you a boost of alertness without the jitters you might get from black coffee.
I like this matcha greeen tea because it is called ceremonial grade (first harvest) and has a super smooth taste (most matchas are kind of bitter but that is because it is a later harvest).
L-theanine is an amino acid that relaxes you. It stimulates the production of certain neurotransmitters, which help your brain to work better.
Among these are gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), dopamine, and serotonin.
These neurotransmitters boost focus, alertness, and energy, making them excellent aids for learning.
They also help ease feelings of stress and anxiety, which can disrupt your focus when you’re learning.
8. Pick the Right Study Space
If you’re lying down on your couch or your bed, you might end up confusing your brain because it associates these positions with resting and not focusing.
Similarly picking a place that’s noisy and likely to pull your attention away, like in front of the TV or a busy cafeteria, isn’t great for learning for the same reasons we advise you keep your phone off.
Pick a place where your brain will naturally focus, like an empty classroom.
Develop a study ritual.
This could involve switching your devices off or blocking distracting apps, selecting your desired highlighters so you can make Mind Maps or picture perfect summaries, plugging your laptop in, and clearing a space to put everything.
By doing this, you’re sending signals to your brain that you’re getting ready to study, so it helps prime you for concentrating.
This works far better than sitting on a couch with the TV and your phone because all these other stimuli can distract your brain from what you intend to do.
9. Remember the Big G! Gratitude Alters the Molecular Structure of Your Brain
Did you know that neuroscientists have found scientifically-backed evidence of all the ways gratitude improves your brain?
In fact, there are more than 26 studies, including those from the National Institutes of Health, that show how much gratitude improves everything in your life.
According to studies at UCLA, gratitude actually changes the molecular structure of your brain.
Scientists showed how gratitude causes synchronized activation in several brain areas and lights up parts of the brain’s reward pathways and the hypothalamus.
Bottom line, gratitude works to boost the neurotransmitter serotonin and activate the brain stem to produce dopamine and this makes you feel great when you study and helps you focus more!
By being thankful and expressing this gratitude consciously, you focus on the many good things, big and small, in your life rather than fixate on the negative.
This positive mindset can make an immense difference to your overall health.
Remembering and keeping track of all the things you are thankful for has been associated with less stress, more focus, better sleep, better mood, a better heart, and more.
A great way to do that is to use a gratitude journal!
All of these things contribute to helping you stay focused when you learn.
10. Practice Mindfulness
Meditating and practicing mindfulness helps you learn how to allocate your attention and tune out things you don’t want to distract you.
By separating your foreground and background awareness, you consciously focus on one thing and push the rest away.
Breathing exercises, where you tune your focus into your breath and let the rest of the world fade away, is an example of a mindfulness exercise.
By consciously developing your foreground awareness, you can prevent background distractions from disrupting your focus.
Again, neuroscientists have found significant evidence of how the brain changes and grows thanks to meditation.
This includes a greater ability to focus, study, and remember, as well as plenty of other focus-related benefits, like reducing stress and anxiety, and better sleep.
And there you go – the 10 best ways to stay focused when you learn!
Did you find these tips helpful?
Which are you going to try out?
Let me know!
Pat Wyman is a learning expert, university instructor, best-selling author and the CEO of HowtoLearn.com. She invites you to take the free Learning Styles Quiz on the home page.
Her courses, Total Recall Learning™ for Students, Total Recall Learning for Professionals™, Total Recall Speed Reading™and Total Recall Memory™ have benefited over half a million learners with higher grades, increased productivity and the ability to know how to read faster, learn and remember anything.
She’s worked with people in such corporations as Microsoft, Raychem and Sandvine and has won several life-time achievement awards for her work. Pat is a mom, golden retriever lover and big time San Francisco Giants fan! Come on by if you’re ever at a Giant’s game and she’ll welcome you with open arms.