In one of my classes last week, the professor compared the “lucky” students who barely study but get A’s with the ones who study for hours but can’t seem to do well. My own explanation matched with his: most often, he said, it is a matter of focused attention.
The students who do well tend to focus and concentrate while they study, consciously thinking about the material. In one hour they can cover a lot of ground. On the other hand, some students “read” but just see the words; it’s not completely registering, and this requires them to spend extra time re-reading.
We’ve all been studying and have had our mind wander, only to realize ten minutes later that we had just been thinking about our laundry. This is natural and takes some practice to overcome. The more it happens, however, the more time we must spend studying to compensate for it.
It’s also a matter of distractions. In a great TEDtalk entitled “Why work doesn’t happen at work”, Jason Fried points out the dozens of distractions and time-wasters that drastically limit our productivity at work. He says that when people enter the office, “They’re basically trading in their work day for a series of work moments.” Between all the interruptions, they only actually have small stretches of focused time to themselves. This is undesirable because “people need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get things done.” And I really like his analogy to sleep, which is a phase-based event, and doesn’t work if we’re interrupted. Specifically, in order to get to the deep phases of sleep, we have to go through the early phases. If we’re woken up during the process, we have to go back to the beginning. Studying isn’t much different: every time we lose our train of thought we have to spend time back-tracking in order to get to the same place.
During the day, sometimes it is incredibly hard to study without interruption, especially if we have a roommate. Between eating meals, answering texts, calling home, checking Facebook, answering emails, talking to the roommate, running to class, and so on, it can be tremendously difficult to clear our minds and engage in deep thought. Below are some tips that might help if distractions seem to be limiting your ability to focus your attention.
1. Wake up early. I know most people have an aversion to waking up early, but hear me out! This is especially useful for very busy people. As an example, I wake up at 6, get ready, and then from 6:45 I read, write, study, and/or work until 8:30 every morning (when my roommate wakes up). In this hour and forty-five minutes, not a single person calls or texts me. My roommate is sleeping. I don’t eat, nor do I check anything on the computer besides the weather. This entire time is for focused work, and with out exaggeration, I think this time is worth at least four hours at any other time during the day. I have a clear mind, lots of energy, and no distractions.
2. Reward yourself at the end, not continuously. TV, facebook, and texts can be rewards to look forward to either after studying or during breaks (spaced at least an hour apart). If we’re constantly diverting our focus (five minutes of study, quick text, update status, quick study, comment on a photo, see who’s going home on Survivor, read a paragraph, text Gary back, read a few pages, grab a sandwich, take out the trash, and so on) studying for five hours really means studying for one hour. Not to mention, one hour of study divided into a dozen five-minute, non-overlapping sessions is like going to bed and setting your alarm to go off every thirty minutes.
3. Clear your mind: I was studying with a friend last week and every few minutes he would say something about his job interview earlier that day. He was excited, which was a good thing, but it wasn’t helping him study. His mind was almost completely focused on thinking about his interview. In turn, his studying suffered. My advice was to get all those thought out, write them down, and then concentrate on the current subject. No matter what else is going on during the day, when you sit down to study, approach it with the mindset “Everything else will be dealt with later. Right now, I have one focus.” I do this with reading, writing, studying, sports, and so on. To be fully in the moment requires complete concentration. As long as you are doing what you should be doing, put your other thoughts, worries, and concerns on hold until after you’re done.
Remember, the way in which we learn something will determine much, if not all, of our retention. Find out what works best, cut out distractions, and focus. In turn, this will lead to better efficiency, and ultimately, better results.
Photo by bury-osiol