I was recently asked an interesting question in the YouTube comments and that was "How do I study when I'm heart broken?". And this got me thinking there are lots of life events and circumstances that can mean that you find it extra difficult to focus and basic advice like making learning and studying a habit probably isn't actually that helpful. In fact I've encountered a similar problem recently as I've just got a brand new puppy called Basil and I also got asked to do a TED talk and juggling both was really distracting alongside my day job.
1. Hold Yourself Accountable
Tip number 1 is to hold yourself accountable and focus on what you can do and control. If you've split up with a partner, had some bad news or have just bought a super cute puppy it can be really difficult to focus on learning or studying or working. Many of these life-events are out of your control but your brain overthinks and causes distractions as it perceives those things to be important due to their emotional impact. To try and overcome this it is really important to try and focus on the things that you can control and to become aware of distracting thoughts entering your brain. If you have recently broken up with someone for example you'll naturally overthink and dwell on negative thoughts and ideas which are likely outside of your control. But what can you control in this situation? Well rather than focusing your energy thinking about whatever has happened you can catch yourself and remind yourself that this isn't actually going to help you and your energy is better directed to something you can control such as studying for that exam or test. If you've experienced a powerful emotion like anger from an argument for example you can even re-direct that energy and think "I'm going to show that person by doing my best in this exam."
In my case when I got a new puppy who needed attention and to be taken outside every hour or so rather than get annoyed about this I accepted that I couldn't control a puppy's bladder and instead focused on writing my TED talk between puppy breaks and practising it when I took him outside. I also held myself accountable to try and give the best talk possible and remembered that giving a TED talk was a huge opportunity and that lots of people were coming to hear me talk so I put some leverage on myself to help me focus even when I was tired and wanted to just go and play on my Nintendo switch with basil chilling next to me.
2. Single Focus
Tip number two follows on from tip one and might sound obvious but it's to remember that multi-tasking just doesn't work. If you need to study for an exam or get that work project completed thinking or worrying about anything other than that single focus is going to distract you.
Studies show that when our brain is constantly switching gears to bounce back and forth between tasks – especially when those tasks are complex and require our active attention – we become less efficient and more likely to make a mistake.
This might not be as apparent or impactful when we’re doing tasks that are simple and routine, like listening to music while walking, or folding laundry while watching TV. But when the stakes are higher and the tasks are more complex, trying to multitask can negatively impact our lives and lead to poor studying and exam scores.
Multitasking divides our attention. And as we know the first step in learning anything and to get new information into our working memory is that we need to pay attention and focus on it. For example, in a 2001 study published in Frontier Psychology, attempting to complete additional tasks during a driving simulation led to poorer driving performance. Another study by Stanford psychologists suggested that people who frequently “media multitask” (like listening to music while checking email or scrolling through social media while watching a movie) are more distracted and less able to focus their attention even when they’re performing only one task.
And the reason I'm reminding you of this in tip two is because it's so easy to think about other thinks or to get distracted and we often forget that we really can only focus on one thing at a time. So if you're studying choose one topic area to learn at a time and go over that in detail in a single session.
3. Set A Single Goal
Tip three is therefore to set focused goals to help reduce doing too many things. I will usually plan out my study and work sessions using a calendar or my diary and each say I'll set a single daily goal or highlight that I want to achieve. If I'm studying for medical finals or a math test I'll time block study sessions of active recall questions around single topics and will set myself a specific goal such as doing a set number of recall questions on a topic or being able to explain a single topic in simple terms. Only once I've done this and feel I have mastered it will I move onto something else.
If we look at the science setting goals is linked with higher motivation, self-esteem, self-confidence, and autonomy as outlined by researchers Locke & Latham in 2006, and a 2015 study by psychologist Gail Matthews showed that when people wrote down their goals, they were 33 percent more successful in achieving them compared to those who formulated outcomes in their heads.
The goal-setting theory by Edwin Locke (1968) answered all the seemingly important questions about the importance of goals for a successful life.
Locke believed that there are five key principles of goal-setting:
- Clarity – How specific and comprehensive the goal is.
- Challenge – How difficult the goal is and the degree to which it requires us to extend our abilities.
- Commitment – How dedicated we are to reach the goal and what value it renders to us.
- Feedback – How our achievements are perceived and recognized by others.
- Complexity – The difficulty of the tasks that we need to accomplish for reaching the ultimate goal.
So when you are setting yourself a daily goal or reminding yourself about your ultimate goal or the reason you are studying or working it's important to make sure your goal is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound also know as a SMART goal. And you should also be sure that you reward yourself for hitting your goals to help give you that dopamine hit and help you stay positive and enjoy the process of learning.
4. Exercise, Eat and Sleep
When life events take over and you have to study or work as well it can be easy to forget to look after yourself. When I was first looking after Basil here I had to take him out late at night and get up extra early and if you're worrying about things or you're looking after a new baby or you're feeling unwell your sleep and health can easily start to suffer. However if you want to stay focused and learn effectively it's vital you exercise, eat well and get enough sleep.
We all know regular exercise benefits the body and the brain. Short bursts of exercise are also helpful for cognition. Just 10 minutes of physical activity can boost attention and memory performance and make you feel healthy and energised.
Exercising plays a role in how well our memory works and also has a reciprocal relationship with sleep. A study done at the University of Georgia in 2008 found that young adults who did just 20 minutes of low-intensity exercise 3 times a week experienced both higher daily energy levels and much lower levels of fatigue.
One meta-analysis looked at 21 studies and the effect of acute and long-term cardiovascular intervention on human memory concluding that:
Acute exercise improves memory in a time-dependent fashion by priming the molecular process involved in the encoding and consolidation of newly acquired information. - Roig et al., 2013
Dozens of studies have confirmed that memory depends on sleep and if you've ever got to bed late you'll know that waking up to study when feeling tired is a real struggle and you often lose concentration and are just not that great at retaining information.
To elaborate on how sleep helps with memory let's look at some research. In one experiment published in Nature, participants were asked to complete the Tower of Hanoi task. Subjects attempted it once and then were re-tested but in different scenarios. When they were re-tested one week later with normal rest they had a 40% improvement in performance. What was really interesting was that if you let them try the next day, but mess with their REM sleep the night before, no such improvement was seen suggesting that sleep plays a powerful role in consolidating memories.
5. Make It Fun
This then brings me to tip number 5 which is to make sure that you make whatever you are studying or learning fun, interesting and relevant to you. If you have some major distractions going on in your life you want to make learning, studying and working a helpful distraction from any events you're dealing with. If the work you are doing is enjoyable or you find it genuinely interesting and rewarding you'll be less likely to procrastinate as it will no longer seem like hard work. We naturally don't want to do things that seems too hard or which seem less enjoyable than doing nothing but if we re-wire our brains to actually enjoy the work this often helps you to focus and stay motivated.
Now while I'm a huge fan of giving yourself rewards and using game design to level up your learning by tracking your scores or using learning systems like Duolingo or Shiken that show you leaderboards, streaks and points you need to go a little deeper and build genuine interest in what you are learning. Now this can be pretty tough for some subjects and topics that you might not enjoy but one hack here is to try and relate things to real life applications of what you are learning and to things that you find enjoyable and interesting. For example when I was writing and learning my TED talk I was genuinely interested in researching the topic and knew that giving the talk was going to be a privilege and a fun experience that not that many people get to do. Similarly when I was studying surgery and learning things I didn't necessarily enjoy like embryology I found that actually relating the deeper genetic and developmental concepts to real-life diseases and concepts was way more interesting and if I then remembered why I wanted to be a doctor and how these things I was learning were going to help me I started to actually enjoy learning way more.
6. Intentional Laziness
And this brings me to a final bonus tip which is a really important one. And this tip is to remember that as humans we are easily distracted and our phones and apps and pretty much everything in the digital world around us is designed to grab our short attention spans. While I've talked about switching off your phone and putting on lo-fi music while studying to get you into that flow state it's also really important to look after yourself and take breaks where you don't feel guilty. If you are tired or you're dealing with something like a breakup or life event outside of your control yes you need to work and study but it's fine to take breaks too. I'll often jump onto my PS5 or head out to the gym to make sure I'm relaxed and staying focused on things and I'll also use these activities as a reward. But I'm also doing them intentionally and I'm not feeling guilty that I'm not working. And this comes back to studying smarter, not harder if you're struggling with distractions putting pressure on yourself to spent hours and hours in a library is really counter-intuitive. When I'm studying I'll optimise for efficiency and will study only the most high-yield and useful topics with a focus on good encoding and lots of active recall as evidence-based study techniques which save me time. I'm not trying to cram in too much and I'm not trying to rote-learn an entire textbook.
When I was writing and learning my TED talk I didn't try and perfect things and used mnemonics like telling stories from my own experience to illustrate points rather than trying to completely memorize every single word and this was why I was able to learn it in a short space of time while looking after a puppy.