There don’t seem to be enough hours in a day. While time management and efficiency are core components of getting more done with less time, learning how to sustain intense focus for prolonged periods is equally as important. If you ever have difficulty staying focused, I have the remedy for you.
While modern technologies, like computers and apps, can certainly be useful, they also take a tremendous toll on our ability to focus. As Cal Newport describes, Time x Intensity = Quality of Work Produced.
We are all limited by the same 24 hours. To get a leg up, you need to work on the intensity piece of the equation, and to do that, you must cure your inability to stay focused for prolonged periods.
Battling this fragmentation of attention is a common concern. In this post, I’ve 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 okay—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, emails, and updates from social media (i.e., dopamine snacks) are all too alluring. As important as self-discipline is, it’s important to craft systems that reduce temptation and the energy required to resist it. We’ll get back to that shortly.
Other common sources of distraction include television, rambunctious roommates, and video games. After reading this section, take 5 minutes to sit with a journal and jot down anything that distracts you from 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 apply the following steps to the list you create.
2 | Systematically Reduce Temptation
Choose the top 5 from your list of 20. We’ll be focusing our energy there to systematically reduce temptation and the risk of distraction.
Chances are your smartphone 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 prolonged focus to get 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 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 maintaining focus, 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 solid options.
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 and 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.
Situate yourself in a position so that there are few, if any, distractions in your immediate periphery. Don’t sit in front of a TV. Don’t sit in front of a door that people constantly walk in and out of. 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.
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 don’t want to work from your lap for extended periods of time.
Lastly, make sure you are comfortable. For some people, that means supportive chairs, for others, stools, and some even prefer standing, like yours truly.
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. Your environment should facilitate your desired outcome.
4 | Prioritize Solo Work
I’ve spoken about the importance of small groups in discussing the Feynman Technique. When you do work in groups, they should be kept small—no more than 1 or 2 other people.
However, group study sessions should generally be kept to a minimum and reserved 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 to converse with your friends is eliminated.
5 | Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is my favorite productivity hack for three main reasons. Almost every student I have recommended this to has seen drastic improvements in their effectiveness while studying.
Acutely Forces Focus
When using the Pomodoro Technique, you choose 1 task to focus on for 25 uninterrupted minutes. This parameter is insanely effective for maintaining focus for the overwhelming majority of students we’ve worked with.
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 burnout.
Builds Your Focus “Muscle”
We tend to get better at the things we practice. After regularly using the Pomodoro Technique for weeks, you should see improvement in your ability to maintain sustained focus.
As your focus “muscle” grows, experiment with extending the cycles to 35 or even 40 minutes. I personally enjoy using 25 minutes on and 5 minutes off, or I’ll sometimes do 50 minutes on, 10 minutes off. Experiment to find the intervals that work best for you.
I cover the Pomodoro Technique more extensively in another guide: How to Utilize the Pomodoro Technique for Efficiency and Productivity.
6 | Use Psychology to Your Advantage
After extended use of the Pomodoro Technique, you may also notice that getting into the groove of studying becomes 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 by creating a study playlist for yourself. As we’ve gone over in a previous Med School Insiders 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 our newsletter if you want weekly study strategies and music recommendations.
7 | Reprioritize Delayed Benefit Activities
When we’re crunched for time, our healthy habits are the first that we compromise on. We stop exercising, 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, 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 benefits. While you may think you’re too busy to exercise today, there’s actually several reasons you should.
First, you cannot study non-stop 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 can lead to drastic beneficial effects over months to years.