There don’t seem to be enough hours in a day. While time management and efficiency are core components in getting more done with less time, learning how to sustain intense focus for prolonged periods is equally important. If you ever have difficulty staying focused to study or do work, I’ve got the remedy for you.
While modern technologies like smartphones and computers can be used for great good, they’ve also taken a tremendous toll on our ability to focus. And as Cal Newport describes, Time x Intensity = Quality of Work Produced. We all are limited by the same 24 hours. To get a leg up, then, one must work on the intensity piece of the equation, and to do that we must cure your inability to stay focused for prolonged periods.
How to battle this fragmentation of attention is a common concern I help students overcome during our sessions together. I have distilled what is most beneficial to students into 7 steps to reclaim your focus.
1 | Find the 20% of Factors that Yield 80% of Distractions
The first step is admitting you have a problem. It’s ok, we all do. The next step is applying the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 Rule, to the factors that are most distracting in your life and detrimental to your ability to focus. We want to find the 20% of elements in your life that are leading to 80% of the distractions.
If you’re anything like me, chances are your smartphone is the biggest culprit. The constant notifications, updates from social media, and checking emails for those small dopamine snacks are all too alluring. As important as self-discipline is, it’s important to craft the systems in place that reduce temptation and the energy required to resist it. We’ll get back to that shortly.
Other common sources of distraction include Netflix, or the TV in general, rambunctious roommates, or video games. After watching this video, take 5 minutes to sit with a journal and jot down anything that you would consider a distraction from you getting work done. You should be able to come up with a list of at least 20 items. Rate each factor from 1 to 10 in terms of how powerful the distraction is. We’ll be applying the following steps to this list.
2 | Systematically Reduce Temptation
From your list of 20, take the top 5. We’ll be focusing our energy there in systematically reducing temptation and the risk of distraction.
Chances are your smartphone and social media is high on the list. For this reason, I’ve disabled notifications on my phone except for phone calls and text messages. I don’t have badges anywhere on my phone. My wallpaper is straight black and boring. I’ve done these and several other tweaks to reduce the temptation of using my phone.
When I need to get prolonged focused work done, like writing this blog post, I work on my laptop or iPad. If I’m on my laptop, I’ll fullscreen my writing app of choice, Bear, and enable Do Not Disturb mode to block notifications. The iPad is similar, as I’ve disabled notifications and apps run full screen by default.
If you need additional help in maintaining focus and not getting off track, there are apps that block other websites and forcibly limit your ability to waste time. My personal favorite is Focus, but other apps like SelfControl or Freedom are other solid options. Links are down in the description below.
But let’s say you’re struggling with Netflix or those rambunctious roommates. In that case, environmental interventions may be more effective.
3 | Environmental Optimization
The optimal work or study environment will differ from person to person. Some people enjoy the background noise of a busy coffee shop, others prefer the library, and some would rather stay at home with their dual 4K monitor standing desk setup, like me. It’s been noted that extroverts tend to enjoy busy areas to study, whereas introverts prefer silence and solitude. That isn’t a hard rule, and there are plenty of exceptions, so be sure to experiment for yourself.
Regardless of what level of noise and activity you prefer, there are three shared fundamentals that a good study environment should have:
1. Limited Distractions
Situate yourself in a position such that in your immediate periphery, there are few, if any, distractions. Don’t sit right in front of a TV. Don’t sit in front of a door that has people walking in and out constantly. Don’t have your phone on the table in front of you or even in your pocket. Put it in your bag or in another room. I was shocked how effective this was in getting me to stop checking my phone.
2. Conducive to Extended Periods of Work
To get meaningful work done, you’ll need a certain amount of time. Make sure you can sit there for long enough without running into issues of the shop closing or being kicked out. This also means having outlets to keep your laptop charged. You should have a flat and clean desk to work on. Trust me, despite the name laptop, you won’t want to work from your lap for extended periods. Lastly, make sure you are comfortable. For some people that means supportive chairs, for others stools, and some even prefer standing, like yours truly.
3. People Respect That You’re Working
It’s critical that you limit distractions, including from others. If you find yourself being interrupted frequently by friends at a certain spot, it’s likely not a good environment. You can ask them politely to let you work, but this is a point of friction and a temptation you have to resist, rather than allowing the environment and system facilitate the outcome you want.
4 | Prioritize Solo Work
Which brings us to the next point, working alone. I’ve spoken about the importance of small groups in discussing the Feynman Technique. When you do work in groups, groups should be kept small, no more than 1 or 2 other people. But equally important, group study sessions should generally be kept to a minimum, usually for situations where you need to work through difficult concepts or problems together. Beyond those instances, solo work is a better fit for the majority of students, as the temptation for conversing with your friends is eliminated.
5 | Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is my favorite productivity hack for three reasons. Almost every student I have recommended this to has seen drastic improvements in their effectiveness while studying.
1. Acutely Forces Focus
When using the Pomodoro Technique, you choose 1 task for 25 minutes and focus on that alone. Having these parameters is insanely effective at maintaining focus in the overwhelming majority of students I tutor.
2. Pacing for Extended Work
In the traditional Pomodoro Technique, you work for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break, and repeat for 4 cycles, after which you take a longer 20 minute break. This is a great pace to marathon study for an entire day while reducing the risk of burning out.
3. Builds Your Focus “Muscle”
We tend to get better at the things we practice. After regularly using the Pomodoro Technique for a weeks, you should see improvement in your ability to maintain sustained focus. As your focus “muscle” grows, experiment with extending the cycles. From 25 minutes, increase to 35 or even 40. I personally enjoyed using 25 min on, 5 min break, or 50 minutes on, 10 min off. Experiment to find intervals that work best for you.
6 | Use Psychology to Your Advantage
After extended use of the Pomodoro Technique, you may also notice that getting into the groove of studying is becoming easier. While your ability to focus has certainly developed, there’s also an element of classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning.
By having a routine you repeat, such as setting a 25 minute timer, putting on your headphones, grabbing your notebook, and sitting at your desk, you’re training your subconscious to more quickly get into “work mode”.
Take this a step further and create a study playlist for yourself. As we’ve gone over in a previous video, not all music is created equal when studying or getting work done. By repeatedly listening to the same songs exclusively for studying, I find myself snapping into work mode as soon as I hear HR 8938 by deadmau5. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter if you want occasional study music recommendations.
7 | Reprioritize Delayed Benefit Activities
When we’re crunched for time, our healthy habits are the first that we compromise on. No more exercise, our nutrition goes to garbage, and we stop meditating. The truth is, no matter how hard you want to work and study for that upcoming final that you procrastinated for, your ability to study is not limitless. You can’t study for 24 hours a day. Breaks are necessary, and how you use those breaks is just as important as taking them in the first place.
Rather than turning to social media or TV, focus on delayed-benefit activities. This includes those healthy habits that you are willing to give up when you’re stressed. Understand that these healthy habits have incredibly powerful compounding effect benefits. While you may think you’re too busy to exercise today, there’s actually several reasons you should. First, you cannot study nonstop all day, and you need to take a break. Second, Parkinson’s law states that time expands to fill the time allotted to it, meaning if you provide yourself healthy time constraints, you’ll get more done. And third, regular exercise will improve your sleep, your ability to concentrate, and your mood. Better sleep means your memory consolidation is more effective, meaning what you studied is more likely to stick. Better concentration means more effective use of your study sessions. And a better mood is hard to argue with.
You’re the sum of your habits, and prioritizing these healthy habits, that we all know we should do, but are too willing to give up, can lead to drastic beneficial effects over months to years.