You’ve sat down for a study session and are quickly realizing that you’re struggling to stay focused on the task at hand. You can’t seem to remember what you’ve read and your mind feels like it’s all over the place. What should you do?
It’s easy to panic in a moment like this, asking yourself what’s wrong with me and why can’t I just stay focused! The good news is that there is a solution. Sometimes it takes just a little self reflection and evaluation to figure out what’s actually going on.
Ask yourself a few questions to get to the root of the issue
When the panic or frustration sets in, the first step is to assess your situation. What’s causing you to feel this way, and are there some external factors you could change to fix it?
We’ve come up with nine helpful questions to ask yourself anytime you’re feeling overwhelmed or unfocused during a study session.
Some of these questions will be helpful in the moment, while others will not be. Aim for considering each question and how your needs may fluctuate based on the day.
1. Is right now the best time for me to study?
Ask yourself why you’re studying at this very moment. Did you plan for this hour of the day to be a dedicated study session, or did you do it out of obligation or boredom? We tend to struggle with focusing when something unexpected or unplanned happens. When we know something is going to occur, we’re better suited to be prepared and fully present for it.
Could there be a better time later today or tomorrow that you could study instead? That could be 30 minutes from now or later in the week. Spoiler alert: this is not an invitation to purposefully procrastinate. It’s an invitation to be more purposeful with your time. Find the next earliest time slot you can be available to try again.
2. Who’s holding me accountable?
Accountability is a powerful tool. It can be a major force for action and support, and oftentimes it doesn’t take much time or effort to put it into place.
A source of accountability can come from many places – a spouse, friend, mentor, coworker or even a pet. Yes, even our four legged friends can contribute their support to achieving our goals. The key is to determine which accountability source is best for your expectations and needs.
In practice, this could look like telling your partner you need to be left alone for two hours to study. You could also request that they ask you about what you’ve studied. If you have a pupper at home, you could set a timer to take them on a walk after 75 minutes of studying. Both of these options create a system of accountability and support.
You could even make plans to meet up with a friend at a coffee shop, getting there an hour early so you have the satisfaction of your friend seeing your hard work in person.
3. Am I over-committing my time?
Marathons are for runners, swimmers, and cyclists – not studyers. If you find yourself studying for more than 3-4 hours at a time, you could harm your ability to focus long-term due to burnout.
Scientific studies have consistently found that breaks are not only encouraged during a study session, they are required for best results. Our brains have limitations for how long they can focus and intake information. When we hit those limits and attempt to keep going, we can experience fatigue both mentally and physically.
Regular breaks should be added into your study regimen. If you don’t know where to start, read up on the Pomodoro Technique which encourages 25 minutes of study with 5 minute breaks, then after four periods, you take a longer break of 15-20 minutes.
4. Do I know how much more studying I need to do?
When you’re scrolling through movie titles on Netflix or Hulu late at night, how many times do you check the length of the movie to see if you really want to commit?
You should have the same expectations for your studies. Knowing you’re sitting down to study for the length of a single TV episode is a lot more approachable than sitting down to study the length of the entire Harry Potter film series.
Mapping out a study regimen keeps you from feeling overwhelmed, and prevents over or under studying. Not only does it encourage regular studying in small doses, it also allows the space for you to miss a study session or two and not feel stressed trying to fit it in later.
5. Should I pivot to studying something else right now?
If you’re just not feeling your chosen topic of study right now, change it up.
Our minds can be easily distracted from things that happened earlier in the day, or we can simply find it challenging to focus on a particular subject. Don’t beat yourself up for craving a different study topic in the moment.
Shift to something different, and make a plan to try the challenging subject again at a later time. Maybe it will take a couple attempts for the concept to finally click, or maybe you’ll find some supportive material to understand the concept better by temporarily focusing elsewhere.
6. Am I enjoying my study space?
Bedrooms are for sleeping, kitchens are for cooking, and bathrooms are for showers. Every place in your home has a purpose, and the same should be said for your studies.
Utilizing a space for a specific purpose is key to tranquility and focus. Having that space being catered to a specific purpose is also crucial to encouraging flow states or ‘being in the zone’. The space you study in should be comfortable, intentional, and functional.
If you’re struggling to focus, ask yourself if there are any elements in your surrounding environment that could be distracting or bothering you.
The most common culprits tend to be an overabundance of clutter, noise, or technological distractions. Keeping your space tidy and organized allows you to find what you need quickly and knowing what sort of noises do and don’t distract you will help you find a study spot that’s perfect for your needs.
7. Is my body telling me it needs something?
If you’re struggling to stay focused while studying, ask yourself if your body has everything it needs to succeed. Is it hydrated and well rested? Does it have nutrients to burn for energy in the next few hours? (Yes, you need to eat breakfast)
Assessing why you’re experiencing a lack of ability to focus is key to understanding what you can do to fix it, and many times it’s our body trying to communicate a need that isn’t being met. Our bodies need regular movement, hydration, and rest. Consistency over time is key in tending to these biological needs.
Getting one good night’s rest after a weekend of poor sleeping won’t be enough to shift your body back into a state of efficiency. The same goes for chugging a bunch of water at once or exercising for a few hours randomly.
If you are truly struggling with staying focused, tending to the needs of your body each and every day is one of the most important and effective ways to get your mental clarity and focus back on track.
8. Why am I even studying this in the first place?
Remind yourself why you’re here. What’s the end goal? What are hoping to get out of this?
Revisiting the reasons behind why we are attempting to accomplish a goal is a great way to stay motivated and become comfortable with getting out of your comfort zone. You wouldn’t be where you are right now if you hadn’t put the hard work already to determine where you want to be.
The best results take time. Anyone can make orange juice out of oranges, but growing an orchard takes time, perseverance, failure, compromise, and patience.
Visualizing the destination will help you navigate the obstacles and opportunities put in front of you along the way. It’s okay to lose motivation, just make sure you can find it again.
9. Am I giving myself enough credit for all the hard work I’ve done?
Think about all the hard work you’ve put in just to get to where you are right now.
There are people out there who want to get to exactly where you are today. Meanwhile, you’re already here, and you’ve learned a lot along the way.
Give yourself some credit for what you’ve accomplished up till now. Reminding yourself of how capable you are is a great way to keep your momentum going.
As Paul Rudd once implied, appreciate where you are and where you’re headed.