How To Maintain Focus


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Thursday, January 25, 2024
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In Lao Tzu's classic work of sage wisdom, the Tao Te Ching, he has a quote in the 50th verse about leaving "no place for death to enter": "He will not be wounded in battle, for in him rhinoceros can find no place to thrust their horn/Tigers can find no place to use their claws." A running theme throughout the Tao is that we must make space for the things that matter to us and close ourselves off to the things that can distract or hurt us so they have no point of entry.

Most of us in the year 2024 don’t have to worry about tiger claws or rhino horns, but we have a more mundane and ever-present problem to deal with: distractions. We are constantly being drawn away from the things we want and need to do. There are a hundred excuses to feed our urge to procrastinate, and most of us carry around digital tools that make it even easier to lose our focus. If you want to study - or work -  the right way and give it all your attention, you have to leave no place for distractions to enter.

Read on as we explore a few different techniques for maintaining focus.

Make a Plan

The great scientist Louis Pasteur once said “chance favors the prepared mind.” It’s easy to lose focus if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing. Developing a study plan ahead of time to know what you need to focus on and when is a crucial part of the process.

"At the beginning of each block, set up a schedule for yourself that includes all of your priorities such as work, class/study time, and sleep," said Rio Salado College Adjunct Counseling Faculty Amberly Lebeck Brown.

Be Comfortable (But Not Too Comfortable)

The key to focusing on a project (whether it’s writing, studying, reading, or putting together a bookshelf you bought online) is to be comfortable enough to stay on task but not so comfortable that you lose interest in what you’re doing. If you’re sitting at your desk, make sure you sit upright—don’t slouch. Poor posture saps your energy and could leave you with back pain and other long-term health issues. Sit in a chair that offers firm, comfortable support to your back and posterior but has just enough rigidity to keep you from leaning back. A recliner, as comfortable as it is, makes for a bad “busy” chair. Anything that you feel like you could sink into and veg out for hours is a distraction. Comfort can lead to drowsiness, and drowsiness is the enemy of focus.

You should also be cognizant of the temperature and lighting in whatever study space you’re working in. Set a temperature that won’t require you to adjust it, and take the same approach to your lights and/or windows situation. Set up your environment in a way that promotes clarity and comfort but doesn’t require you to break away from what you’re doing to make constant adjustments. One of the ways in which we subconsciously sabotage ourselves is giving ourselves busy work around the home (“turn this on,” “close this,” “maybe I should switch on a fan”) that pulls us away from what we’re doing. If you have the ability to give yourself a controllable, predictable space to work in, set up the conditions to be the most optimal for you and then put them out of mind.

This principle also applies to clothing. If you want to stay laser-focused on something, it’s best not to do it while dressed in your snuggliest jam-jams. Save the pajamas for when you’re done. You don’t have to bust out your dressier work clothes, but you should wear something that sends a signal to your brain that your day isn’t “done” yet.

Find the Quiet Moments

Daily life can be profoundly distracting. You may have pets, children, roommates, and friends who take up your time. You could be trying to fit in study time while holding down a full-time job. And as we mentioned earlier, there’s always the never-ending busy work of keeping a home in order to contend with. That’s why it’s so important to find the quiet moments in your day. If you live with others, when are they out and about? Are you awake before anyone else, or stay up later than your housemates? These quiet hours are perfect for focused work. 

If you live alone, there can still be “noise” at home. Maybe it is a certain hour where you watch a favorite TV show, or you spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Schedule your focused time around these moments so they’re not conflicting with your daily routine. You can also use “fun stuff” like video game time as a reward to look forward to after finishing more concentrated efforts. That kind of delayed gratification doesn’t work for everybody; if you find yourself speeding through your work to “get to the good stuff,” you may be better off waiting until after you do your hobby/downtime to focus on what you need to do.

Vary Your Routines

Have you ever noticed how much more alert you get when you change your commute? If you drive down the same roads every day, you can experience a kind of highway hypnosis where your brain goes on autopilot. You know the way so you do not have to think about it. That autopilot goes out the window when you go off the beaten path; you become more alert to your surroundings in a focused way, taking care not to lose your way.

As important as it is to have a comfortable, dependable environment to study in, it’s good to step out of that space now and then to put yourself in that unfamiliar, more-attentive headspace. It’s why studying at a coffee shop or the library can be so reinvigorating. You don’t even have to leave the house to achieve this effect: sometimes just studying in a different room or taking your work outdoors can do the trick. Leaving the house to study does greatly limit your ability to control your environment but you can mitigate any potential distractions with a good pair of noise-canceling headphones or earplugs. It also helps to pick a place where you won’t cross paths with people you know well to lower the risk of getting caught up in a distracting conversation.

Airplane Mode isYour Friend

Nothing poses a more immediate distraction than mobile devices. Cell phones are distraction machines, designed to keep you engaged with a steady stream of dings, rings, and vibrations. It can be easy to lose yourself down an hours-long Internet rabbit hole because you idly looked up something in the middle of a study session. 

To cut down on the risks of your phone breaking your concentration, mute the volume and set it to airplane mode. You won’t have to worry about any distracting notifications or calls while this mode is on, and it also makes using social media or web surfing impossible until you switch airplane mode off. If you need to keep your phone on because of family or work obligations, go into your settings and switch off the notifications for your apps and anything you don’t need while you’re working.

Fuel Up

All the prep work in the world won’t matter if you don’t eat right. A hungry mind is a distracted mind, and the same goes for someone who’s overly caffeinated, crashing from a sugar rush, or deficient in an essential nutrient. Make sure you are well-hydrated; dehydration can impact your cognitive skills and make it harder to concentrate. Foods rich in flavonoids promote mental plasticity and memory, so getting a helping of flavonoid-rich fruits like berries and citrus can do wonders for maintaining your focus. Dark chocolate and cocoa are also delicious and dependable sources for flavonoids. Other foods to look out for include anything that is high in vitamin E and zinc (nuts); vitamin B12, choline, and selenium (eggs); lutein (avocados); nitric acid (beets); omega-3 acids (fish); vitamin B-6 (poultry & chickpeas); and carotenoid pigments (red, orange, and green vegetables).

Avoid sweets and fatty foods that will make you drowsy. You especially want to avoid foods rich in tryptophan like turkey, cheeses, and beef/pork roast.

As to the question of “to coffee or not to coffee”: a cup of joe won’t set you astray so long as you get the timing right. Caffeine takes about 20-30 minutes to take effect, if you want to get the most out of your caffeine intake aim to have your coffee before you study. Don’t forget that black and green teas are also good caffeine alternatives, and tend to have a much smoother “come-down” than coffee does. As with most things, moderation is key. If you drink too much coffee or tea, you might get too energized and find it hard to stay focused.

“Exercise is also fuel for your body,” Brown said. “You don't have to spend hours in the gym to reap the benefits, either.  A daily 15-minute walk will help you successfully complete the educational marathon.”

Sprints, Not Marathons

When it comes to studying and staying focused, putting in too much time in one sitting is counterproductive. It may sound impressive that you hit the books for hours on end, but when it comes to memory retention, comprehension, and focused attention, quality wins over quantity every time. 20 minutes of focused attention is more productive than two hours of wavering, inconsistent concentration. Our minds can only focus for so long before we start to burnout; that is why it’s often recommended to take a short break every hour. Even walking away from your computer for 2-5 minutes could be all you need to “reset” yourself and give your brain a moment to recalibrate. 

“A long study session can be effective if broken up,” Brown said. “Setting a 20-minute timer is an effective way to break up a longer session while also maximizing attention span and retention of information.”

Trust your gut when it comes to breaks. If you feel your eyes wandering or getting fatigued, or if you feel an itch or soreness in your body that’s pulling your attention away, take that as your cue to step back for a moment. Drink some water, stretch, have a healthy snack, maybe go for a short walk around the house or get some fresh air. You may even want to take a short nap if you have the time. A quick power nap (no longer than 30 minutes) can have a restorative, energizing effect. It’s not something you want to do every day but if you need an extra kick on a project or a hard study day, a brief cat nap could be just what you need.

If you find that you’re still feeling distracted when you come back from your break and can’t get back in the groove, don’t be afraid to call it for the day. Don’t force yourself to keep working on your task if you can’t concentrate. At that point, you’re working against your ability to retain and comprehend information. It’s better to come back to it later when you feel up to it then to try and power through it for diminishing returns.

Article by Austin Brietta


For more of our Student Success blogs, check out some of our past stories: