Focus is an important skill, especially in academia, but most students are lacking in this regard.
I personally have (and still sometimes do) struggle with this – especially when I experience burnout – but after some research into the inner workings of our focus and attention, I have found some tips to help.
Focus, broken down.
Focus can be split into 3-4 distinct groups.
Selective Attention is when you are able to focus on certain objects in the presence of many. In other words, you are able to pick out distractions, and focus on a single object, like a conversation, or an assignment. This mode of focus lasts for a short period of time.
Sustained Attention is focus that is used to focus on one specific task for a long period of time, like playing a video game, or concentrating on an assignment. This mode of focus is quite hard to sustain, however, because it requires that you don’t get distracted while focusing.
Divided Attention is when you can focus on 2+ things at once, also called ‘multitasking’. Many people think that they are multitasking, when in reality, they are quickly switching their focus between tasks. You are splitting your attention between each task, so only a fraction of your focus is being put into any one stimulus. This is why we often preach that multitasking is not worth it in the long run.
Alternating Attention is focus in which you quickly shift between certain points of interest. Often mistaken for Divided Attention, this is possible because of the mental flexibility of your brain. Quickly switching between tasks is ideal if you are reading a text book, and switch focus to write down an annotation in your notebook.
IMPORTANT: Alternating and Divided Attention are not as effective as their Selective and Sustained Attention counterparts.
Which of these focus ‘modes’ are ideal for studying?
Before we answer this question, let us evaluate the nature of studying.
When you study, two things mainly happen.
You are concentrating on watching a video, re-reading your notes, or going through a textbook.
You are taking notes, drawing illustrations, or completing an assignment.
For the first scenario, we can conclude that Sustained Attention is the most ideal, because we are focusing on one thing for a long period of time.
Of course, Sustained Attention should be intermixed with Selective Attention, because you need to be able to block out distractions, both from your life, and through your means of studying (distractions on your laptop).
For the second scenario, Alternating Attention is the most ideal, because you have to constantly switch from reading your textbook to taking notes. If you’ve read our analysis of Cornell Notes, you know taking good notes also means being able to digest and summarize what the lecturer is saying in real time.
How do we improve our focus?
Because Sustained and Selective Attention are generally more effective than Divided Attention and Selective Attention, our focus will improve if we are in an environment which encourages Sustained Attention.
Further, because Selective Attention comes with practice (you need to train yourself to isolate your focus from the various distractions in the area), we will focus mainly on Sustained Attention.
How do we stay in Sustained Attention?
Because Sustained Attention requires the practitioner to be in complete focus (no distractions), one should fix their environment to be ideal for this kind of attention.
First, let us start at the digital level (computer, phone, etc.)
Your phone should be out of immediate reach
It should also be silent
Your phone should not have distracting applications on the first page of the home screen. Here’s why
Social media applications should at least be on the second page. Ideally, it should not be on the home screen in the first place.
You should have notifications turned off
If you can block all apps temporarily, utilize that
On iPhone, you can use the ‘Downtime’ feature to restrict app usage
On Android, there are many third party applications that let you achieve the same thing, arguably with greater ease than iPhone users.
Your computer’s task bar should be only filled with applications you need.
Having any distracting applications on your taskbar makes you more likely to steer your focus away from your studying. (Also, it looks minimalistic)
The same mentality should be used for your desktop, however this is of less importance, because you often don’t see your desktop when you have a browser open.
Turn on Do not Disturb whilst studying (no notifications)
On Windows, you can toggle Do not Disturb in system settings. On macOS, you can turn on a ‘Focus Mode’ in the control center.
If you use the file manager often, keep your folders structured
File directories should go down a gradient of specificity, with the most general topics being main folders, and subtopics narrowing down the types of files in that directory
And now, we move to your study environment
Everything you need to study should be in easy access – textbooks and notebooks should ideally be within an arm’s reach (or in a bag nearby).
This space should only have study related items within easy reach
This is so important. If you have a PS4 controller in the vicinity, you are much more likely to take a ‘break’ and play some Rocket League (and play your long neglected 1s placement matches) instead of writing that essay.
The more minimalistic, the better
If you have less ‘stuff’ surrounding you, your brain has a much lower chance to get distracted looking at a distracting book cover, or anything else in your area.
I understand, transforming (often) your room into a study space is easier said than done, but if you do it successfully, it will benefit you greatly.
My room is quite cluttered, so I feel that I work much better at school in an uncluttered environment. I have recently started to go to the library to study – this can be a great solution for people who have hectic households, or have a cluttered room that they don’t want to clean.
There is science behind the temperature of your room correlating to your relative productivity. 70 degrees is the sweet spot to be most effective, because your mind doesn’t have to focus on how cold/hot the room is.
If you like it slightly hotter/colder than that, you can heat/cool your room accordingly.
Studies show that good posture can help you stay more calm (and focused), especially when you are studying.
Make a concerted effort to correct your posture when you slouch, and you will start to notice that you become more focused when sitting up straight.
Further, once you continue correcting yourself for 1-2 months, good posture will start to come naturally to you when you sit down.
Yes, I know, I know.
The one word that everyone reading self-improvement prose has heard before.
However, we are using meditation differently. Instead of using it for relaxation, and to assuage stress, we are using it to practice concentration.
When you meditate in this way, posture is just as important as if you were studying.
Keep your back straight, but try to stay as relaxed as possible, with your hands on your lap.
(Your hands can go wherever you please, I personally lay my hands on my lap for the most comfort).
Focus on your Breathing.
A common mistake is to make artificial ‘deep breaths’ to relax. That is not the goal here. Your breath should be completely normal, remaining unchanged. Focus on the qualities of the breath – the temperature, the texture, the speed of the air, your chest rising and falling, etc.
Allow your mind to wander.
If your mind wanders, that is completely normal. Take note of where your mind wanders. If you want to take it to the next level, put a list of your distractors in a list, so you can reference them later.
When your mind wanders, and you have taken note of it, bring your focus back to your breath.
As you continue to meditate, you should start to realize that you are able to focus on your breath undistracted for longer periods of time without mind wandering.
This means that your focus is improving!
If you implement these tips, you should be on your way to improving your focus, and getting more done as a result of it.
Developing your focus is a constant process, and the development of superior focus can put you ahead of the game for school. This is especially important for students who have trouble sitting still, and have their mind wandering during class. It isn’t their fault, it is simply in their nature.
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