How to Focus When Studying: 20 Uncommonly Effective Tips

I'm going to cover 20 evidence-based tips which you might not have heard of to help you concentrate while studying.

Do you find it hard to focus and stay productive when you’re studying?

One of the best ways to improve your grades is to learn how to focus effectively as even if you're using the best evidence-based learning techniques like active recall if you're not focused when studying you won't score top grades.

1. Tidy Your Desk

I'm slightly obsessed with having a tidy, minimalist workspace because it helps me to get more done.

Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found that our brains are able to process information more effectively in an uncluttered environment.

If your study area is messy, try to take a leaf out of Marie Kondo’s excellent book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and tidy things up so you just have the essentials laid out on your desk.

Having things neat and tidy has a calming effect on your mind and will help you to concentrate.

2. The Real Reason You Procrastinate

Ever get stuck procrastinating and then feeling guilty that you're not studying?

A lot of people think procrastination is a time management issue, reflecting laziness, or a lack of motivation, but it's actually none of these things.

Research tells us that the cause of procrastination isn't issues of self-regulation instead, it's actually linked to emotional regulation.

You'll make excuses and procrastinate when there's a risk that you might fail at something where you are scared of the difficulty, or you are uncertain about how things will turn out. You might even be expending all of your energy doing other things. So when it comes to actually doing the things you need to do, you have no willpower left. This is called decision fatigue.

So before you assume you need better time management skills, see if you can solve the emotional foundation of your procrastination first by asking yourself why am I actually avoiding this? What am I afraid of?

If you lose focus or procrastinate set a minute on a timer and tell yourself you'll start working when the minute is up.

This is called an “implementation intention” and it makes it easier to get started at something as you're signalling the intention to start to yourself.

This will eliminate the resistance you were experiencing and reduces the time your brain has to think about reasons you should avoid starting.

3. Take Some Deep Breaths

Deep breathing exercises increase the ability of our brains to focus.

Researchers at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience have studied the effect of breathing exercises on the body’s production of noradrenaline. Noradrenaline functions as a neurotransmitter, which affects your concentration.

By regulating your breathing, you can optimise your levels of noradrenaline.

The researchers concluded that “there is a strong connection between breath-centred practices and a steadiness of mind”.

So take a breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 2 and breathe out for 6 before studying to increase your focus.

Apps like Shiken actually integrate breathing and mindfulness exercises into how they work with breathing exercises popping up after you've worked through some active recall questions to help you learn more effectively and stay calm.

4. Study With Mindful Meditation

There is strong evidence that mindfulness can help reduce stress, improve attention, reduce distractions and improve memory and academic performance.

A randomised controlled trial in 2013 by the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital found that mindfulness can help to reduce stress and anxiety and a 2018 study by the same researchers found that mindfulness practise can actually reduce stress hormones released by the body.

Mindfulness has been shown to have positive benefits on attention in a number of studies. A leading study from the University of California in 2010  examined those who practised mindfulness over a 3-month retreat. The study showed that while normally people’s attention declines over the course of a task, this effect had virtually gone away after 1.5 months of intense mindfulness practice.

Another effect that has been studied is the tendency to get distracted. A study by Mrazek et al in 2012 observed that 8 minutes of mindful breathing reduced behavioral indicators of mind-wandering when participants were given a very boring task. The authors hypothesised that mindfulness practice helps to reduce outside thoughts creeping in and helps you to become more aware of distractions when they occur so you can quickly identify them and get back to the task at hand.

Reduction of mind-wandering following mindful breathing. 8 minutes of mindful breathing reduces behavioral indicators of mind-wandering during a Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART) compared with both passive relaxation and reading

5. Hop Onto A Study-With-Me

Recording yourself study or watching other study may sound strange, but it works.

Whether you're watching a study with me stream on YouTube or you're streaming your own study session the idea is to create accountability.

There are lots of great Discord servers, Reddit communities and websites like Studyverse which offer virtual study rooms where knowing that you are being watched will hopefully keep you focused on your work.

If you're a bit more private and don't want to stream yourself, just watching study with mes can help you to focus and help bring some structure to your study time. The timers on screen improve time tracking and time management, and the personal, quiet atmosphere gives you the impression of studying with a friend for social accountability. If someone else is studying so can you.

You can also check out websites like Focusmate where you get paired with an accountability buddy and you then both hop on a live study session.

6. Set Study Goals Like Harvard

A Harvard Business study found that the 3% of graduates from their MBA who had their goals written down, ended up earning 10x as much as the other 97% put together.

Rather than setting time-based goals and assigning time to simply reading chapters of books set mastery-based goals that are based on the number of active recall questions you will complete.

I would usually work out how long it took me to do practice questions and then map time in my study timetable to complete a certain amount each day at a similar time to build habits and make learning into a game. I would then allocate time to read around topics to ensure I understood facts and could apply concepts.

Apps like Duolingo and Shiken allow you to set mastery-based goals and a regular time to study complete with reminders to keep you on track and help you stay focused when studying.

7. Set A Consistent Study Time

Studying at the same time each day helps you to build habits and to stay consistent.

Your brain will get used to studying at a certain time of day and focusing will become easier. I'm a huge fan of time-blocking work and study sessions and putting these into my calendar and diary. I'll also add in time for breaks.

This forms part of how you should plan out study sessions. While it's great creating a study plan in excel the process of actually adding in study times into your calendar makes planning a much more practical process.

If you're not a fan of calendars I used to just set myself a regular study time where I committed to get down to work each day. For me this tends to be in the morning when I have most energy and I'm free from distractions. As the day progresses I find that I gradually tire so I try and get my main work done in the morning starting at 7am at my desk.

8. Write Down Your Purpose

Having a clear idea of why you want to study in the first place is a great way to stay focused when studying.

You can do this the night before a study session or you can write out your purpose when you start revising for a specific exam or a new school term.

You might want to write out something like:

"I'm sitting medical finals as I want to become a doctor." or "I'm going to master Spanish so I can speak fluently when I visit Spain."

Try and be as specific and personal as possible.

Why is this?

By setting an overall objective or purpose you are making the process of studying much more personal and relevant to you. This then makes it more likely you'll focus as you know it's important rather than just studying for the sake of studying. When you're deep into a revision period around exam times it can be easy to lose motivation and focus as we're so heads down working we actually forget why we're working in the first place. So coming back to that written purpose statement reminds helps us to focus on the importance of studying.

9. Celebrate Showing Up

You can't always control the result, but you can always control the process.

While getting a specific grade or test score can never be 100% guaranteed, showing up and doing a set number of practise questions is completely within your control and achievable.

By rewarding yourself for just showing up and committing to the process of studying you are training your brain to actually enjoy studying and helping it to build a habit through positive reinforcement.

If you focus on a specific outcome this is likely way off in the future and this can lead to lack of focus. If you celebrate the process you commit to everyday on the other hand you're staying more in the present moment and building daily momentum which then adds up over time.

So focus on the process of studying rather than any outcomes and celebrate just showing up.

10. Study at Optimal Temperature

Researchers at Cornell University found some interesting results when office temperatures were raised from 20°C to 25°C (68°F to 77°F).

Typing errors fell by 44% and output increased by about 150%.

Most research shows that the temperature most conducive for working and studying is in the range of 22°C to 25°C (72°F to 77°F). You're not distracted by the cold and you're not too warm either.

So, if you can change the temperature where you study, make sure it stays within this range.

11. Put Your Phone In Another Room

Did you know that a 2017 study found that the mere presence of your phone near where you're studying reduces available cognitive capacity?

If you are trying to focus on studying or work and you leave your phone on your desk, or even if it's in your pocket and on silent, it will reduce your working memory and negatively affect your performance.

To really remove any distraction or even thinking about your phone researchers suggest leaving it in another room altogether as the effort of having to get up and get it is far harder than just reaching into your pocket. Like James Clear says in Atomic Habits we want to make good habits easy and bad habits difficult.

12. Don’t study in bed

Do you study sat up in bed?

Studying in bed is bad for two reasons.

Firstly as we associate our beds with sleep and relaxation it can be easy to become distracted or feel sleepy.

Secondly if we study on our laptops and phones in bed it can mean we disrupt our sleep cycle. Exposure to light suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that influences circadian rhythms. Even dim light can interfere with a person's circadian rhythm and melatonin secretion. While light of any kind can suppress the secretion of melatonin, blue light at night does so more powerfully. Harvard researchers and their colleagues conducted an experiment comparing the effects of 6.5 hours of exposure to blue light to exposure to green light of comparable brightness. The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours).

13. Listen to Beethoven’s Für Elise

Listening to classical music has been shown to help you focus when studying.

According to a 2007 study from Stanford, classical music can help your brain absorb and interpret new information more easily.

Your brain processes the information it receives from the world around you by separating it into smaller segments.

The researchers found evidence to suggest that music can engage your brain in such a way that it trains it to pay better attention to events and make predictions about what might happen.

How does this help you study? Well, if you struggle to make sense of new material, listening to music could make this process easier.

14. Build A Study System

Staying productive isn't all about hustle culture.

As James Clear outlines in Atomic Habits; systems and processes help you to build effective habits.

Good systems make it easy to complete a task as they organize the required information and make it easy to then edit and do something with that information with as little effort as possible.

For studying, systems like having a study routine, planning out your timetable in Notion or in your calendar and spending time planning what and how you are going to study us a really important use of your time that isn't talked about enough.

I'd also add in spending time learning how to learn by reading books like Make It Stick as part of your system.

These investments before you begin studying will help you stay focused and keep you productive.

Hopefully this video and channel are helping you build up your own study system and I've linked my spacing schedule and a free Notion template in the comments below too.

15. Don't Check Your Phone

If the first thing you do when you wake up to check your phone you might be ruining your day.

When you first wake up your brain switches from Delta waves, which is what happens during deep sleep to theta waves which is a more focused and active state but which is also more malleable.

When you check your phone, first thing, whether looking at Instagram, checking emails or reading the news, you're actually skipping this theta state altogether and going straight into alert mode.

If you read the news first thing and come across something negative, you could actually trigger your body's stress mode, which puts you on edge for the whole day and causes you to lose focus.

Instead of checking your phone go straight to your desk and start studying.

16. Listen To Nature Sounds and LoFi

Research in 2015 from the The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America found that using natural sounds like a flowing stream was an effective way to improve employees’ productivity and moods in the workplace. One small experiment (n=40) found lower stress levels among those who listened to nature sounds compared to silence or classical music. If reducing stress improves productivity, then listening to nature sounds could help boost your workrate.

LoFi music helps you to focus too. A research paper in the Journal of The International Association for the Study of Popular Music concludes that the emotional connection listeners make with LoFi music evokes a nostalgia combined with the repetitive, soft, anime visuals that feature on YouTube channels likely factor into its calming effect.

17. Use The Zeigarnik Effect

Want to learn a brain hack to help you study?

Our brains are actually hardwired not to leave things unfinished. It's called the Zeigarnik Effect effect.

It’s the tendency for incomplete tasks to be better remembered than tasks which have been completed.

Once you invest time and energy into something, you'll feel compelled to actually finish it.

So how can you use this to focus when studying?

Well when planning out your study session the night before try actually starting to study and then stop. By doing just a few study questions or reading a few paragraphs of text and then leaving it unfinished you'll wake up focused on picking up where you left off. And as an added bonus your books will be open at your desk.

18. Stop Multi-Tasking

Multi-tasking is one of those myths where the research shows that juggling too many tasks at the same time actually makes you less productive and effective not more efficient as many people are led to believe.

And this makes sense right? If we're not focused on studying our brains won't filter the information and we're increasing the extraneous cognitive load by filling our brains with unnecessary information and tasks.

If you're studying you can't be doing anything else. So block out dedicated study sessions

19. Get Into A Flow State

Ever felt like you're just in the zone when you're working on something? This is know as a flow state where the task you're working on is enjoyable and you are lazer focused on it. But how can you get into a flow state when studying?

Flow State
Flow State

Well you can make studying easy to get you into a flow state by removing any barriers and ensuring that you:

  • Know what to do next
  • Know how to do it
  • Are free from distractions
  • You must get clear and immediate feedback
  • And you must feel a balance between challenge and skill

A great way to do this is to set reminders (external triggers initially) to study for a set period of time at the same time each day. Having your study area prepared and laid out and the topics you will be studying and the method for studying prepared the night before means that you can immediately dive into studying with minimal resistance. You should plan to use active recall and testing to receive immediate feedback and plan topics that you have not yet mastered or set realistic goals that challenge you for the study session such as applying knowledge.

20. Make Studying Fun

Here is one focus and productivity tip I don't really see talked about enough.

And that is to make what you are working on fun. Because if you're not enjoying the process or what you're learning what's the point?

If you're studying for an exam this might not sound like the most fun thing you could be doing with your time but there are a few tricks to switch up how you see study sessions.

Firstly switch up your mindset so that you treat learning like a fun quiz or a game. There are lots of apps out there like Duolingo or Kahoot or Shiken that gamify learning and whether you get a question correct or incorrect it should be a fun process where you are seeing improvement rather than studying being a chore.

Secondly you need to make sure you're enjoying the content you're studying and find an emotional connection to make it relevant and interesting to you so you want to learn more. A great hack here is to google the topic and look through images and news articles for things that might interest you and which you can then get excited by. For example if you're learning about Lupus did you know that Selena Gomez was diagnosed with it? A quick google search lends a more personal story to the disease you're learning and makes the whole topic more interesting and relatable. You can use this method to make any hard topic easy to learn and interesting to keep you focused.