Paris Andrew, TIP’s Director of Partnerships and Engagement, is here to help gifted students. She used to run the residential programming at TIP’s educational programs, and she is completing a PhD in related areas, so she knows what she’s talking about.
Sometimes I lose focus in the middle of studying and go off to do random things. Is this normal, and what can I do to stay focused and accomplish my work faster? I would like to know how this can be stopped, and how I can prevent it from happening in the future.
Dear Can’t Focus,
Losing focus is absolutely normal! We are not robots; we are humans. Losing focus can be particularly common when we have a lot of other things on our minds or a lot of goals that we want to accomplish.
On the plus side, when it comes to losing focus, there is substantial research that shows that spacing out while studying is actually beneficial for long-term retention of material. This is one of the many reasons why you shouldn’t cram the night before an exam! Spreading work out over time can help us store content knowledge in our long-term memory.
Of course, for bigger projects like writing a paper, having sustained uninterrupted time can be really helpful, too. Interruptions can make the total amount of time needed to accomplish a task longer by requiring you to re-acquaint yourself with your assignment (i.e., a “now, where was I?” situation). So what can you do to minimize these times? It may take some experimentation to figure out what works best for you, but here are a few options.
Know Yourself. Think about times when you successfully stayed on task. Was it at a particular time of day? In a particular room? After you had eaten? Similarly, think about times when you have been unsuccessful at staying on task. Are there common themes there? If you can avoid what distracts you and seek out (or even create) situations that help you stay on task, that can be hugely helpful.
Try the Pomodoro Technique. This involves scheduling regular breaks. If breaks are planned, they don’t feel like an inefficient distraction. There are many variations, but it could involve working for 25 minutes on a desired goal. Then, when the time is up, take a planned break of 5 to 10 minutes. Then, try to do another 25-minute chunk of concentrated work. If possible, you can set goals for yourself to try to get at least four or five sessions in a day. And then over time, see if you can grow that number. There are some apps you can download that make this into a game (like growing virtual plants during each session if you successfully complete the session without closing the app to go to something else on your phone).
Reward Yourself for Success. Rewards work. TIP’s Research director (who answered this question for you!) uses M&Ms (but not too many at any one time!) to reward himself for getting tasks done. Rewards could include time spent reading for pleasure, playing video games, exercise, or anything that helps motivate you.
On more thing I would add is to make sure that you are setting realistic goals for yourself in the first place. Mental and physical health is crucial to you performing at the top of your abilities. Protect that health by setting realistic expectations for yourself, even if they are high. Expecting to work productively for hours on end, every single day, with no break in concentration, is not realistic! Try setting shorter term or more specific goals for yourself, like “I will concentrate on this paper for fifteen minutes and then take a break.” Or “I will not play my favorite video game until I am done with working twenty minutes more on this paper.”
People struggle with this issue day after day, by the way. We live in a world with a very short attention span. Know that you are not alone and that the habits you build right now will likely serve you well throughout your entire life!
Have a question for Paris? Use our submission form to get the advice you need.