Studying Like A Pro, pt. 1: Focus, Attention, and How to Keep Them

Studying Habits: Harnessing Focus to Study Effectively

If your goal is to learn quicker and more efficiently, your first area to address is attention. Attention is the basic ingredient of learning—in some spiritual traditions, the basic difference between an enlightened person (like the Buddha) and most of us is simply a matter of how we pay attention. It’s that important.

Without attention, your brain has no signposts for what to remember and what to forget. It’s all just a jumble of information, with no way to keep it organized! Now, as you may know, your brain can really only pay attention to one task at a time. Maybe you’ve had a conversation where someone was nodding their head, but you could tell they weren’t really listening. Maybe you’ve been guilty of that, too—we all have! Hundreds of studies have shown that multitasking is ineffective and stress-inducing.

So, perhaps the most crucial study method of all—which will also help you socially, professionally, financially, emotionally… everywhere!—is learning to channel your attention.

Attention…

  • Is limited to one task at a time. (Seriously! If you need proof, check out Daniel Simons’ selective attention task.)

  • Strongly prefers new stimuli over familiar ones

  • Is sharpened by personal level of interest

  • Is affected by overall health (i.e. poor sleep habits really hinder it!)

Task-Switching: The Focus Killer

Ah, yes, task-switching. The attention vortex. The no-man’s land where so much good concentration—and good relaxation!—gets swallowed whole. The 21st-century Black Plague of happiness and flow. In short, fixing this habit is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. Your mind and body will thank you.

Task-Switching Experiment: over the next 2-3 days, try to notice how often you get pulled out of the task at hand. How many times per minute? Per hour? Per day? Once you begin to realize the impact it has, you can make commitment to reducing multi-tasking in your life. You can make a promise to yourself to notice when something is sapping your attention, and look for solutions.

One good solution to losing focus is a “daily distraction sheet.” This could be a post-it or a blank piece of paper. Just keep it handy when you’re working so that, if something pops into your mind, make a quick note and get to it once your study session is over.

Task-switching causes what’s known as the “cognitive switching penalty.” Basically, the act itself of switching from one activity to another is a drain on our mental energy. You probably do this hundreds of times per day! (We’ve all been there.) Think of all the energy and brainpower you’d have access to if you made it a habit to always put your life on full-screen mode.

Focused Reading:

Nothing on earth is more challenging to your single-tasking goals than browsing the internet. Billion-dollar industries, YouTube celebrities, you name it—they exist because we are extremely distractible, and the internet knows that. So here’s a neat tool for single-tasking when you’re reading on the web: the Just Read extension for Google Chrome.

Say goodbye to sidebar ads, to Amazon dangling “related products” under your nose, and the endless “articles you might enjoy” about how Space-X is launching radioactive cats to Neptune. Just Read is your sanctuary for internet reading. Flip it on, and everything but the text and important photos will magically evaporate.

Also, it’s likely that, if you want to improve your attention, a huge change you could make is to address your physical health more carefully. 

Healthy action steps:

  • Eat healthy foods 90% of the time

  • Exercise regularly (Hint: if you’re feeling frustrated or resentful towards exercise, look for something new. Dance, jump rope, play squash, bear crawl in a field, go wild on a punching bag, go for a swim… there are hundreds of ways to release physical energy. If you’re bored (think: treadmill zombies), it’s because you’re thinking of it as work, instead of play.)

  • Get more sleep! At least 6 hours per night, if we’re being realistic.

Andrew Delman