We live in a world with a continuous stream of information from various channels demanding our attention. In addition, social media can be engaging – we scroll through photos and messages and find it hard to stop to get back to our work. Without realising it, hours can go by, leaving less time available to progress our goals.
Studying requires focused time and effort. We need to be on our own to concentrate on our work, so it can be hard to do as we also want to connect with family and friends.
Academic work requires reading lengthy and more complex texts. It can be challenging to focus on one task for a set period when we are used to scanning websites and reading content online presented in a bite-sized format.
What to do when distracted?
Notice when you are not paying attention to the page you are studying. Pause, then, without self-judgement, gently bring your attention back to focus on the task again.
Do one task at a time: we like to think we can multitask, moving quickly from one
task to another. However, every time we switch from one task to another, we
need to refocus (Goleman, 2014).
It requires time and energy to control our impulse to do something different and refocus again. It is best to focus on one task to engage with it and learn the content. It will save energy and help get things done.
Be patient: learning requires time and effort. We can feel impatient when we are dealing with a difficult task. Practise tolerating frustration and view the task as a manageable.
Persevere with your efforts: being consistent and maintaining a routine helps develop our skills and gradually strengthen our capacity to do more complex tasks. And when things do not work out as you hoped, reflect on what you can learn from mistakes and apply the knowledge to improve your work.
Identify distractions: Before starting to study, identify what things distract you. Then, plan what you will do to manage the distraction and continue your revision. Having the phone in view makes it harder to ignore the notifications. One strategy is to keep the phone silent and out of sight to prevent being interrupted when studying. It will help reduce being distracted to check social media and increase your capacity to focus on a task.
Take short breaks: it is essential to take breaks to restore energy: pause, practice mindful breathing, to help focus on what is happening now. Letting our mind wander for a bit allows our brain to connect different contents nurturing our creativity to develop our work (Baird, et al, 2012).
Disconnect from digital devices: Our eyes need a break from screens, and we need to move after sitting for a while. It will restore energy and our ability to manage distractions when we get back to our task. Repeated practice will help to increase our capacity to concentrate on a task. In addition, turn off all digital devices about an hour before bedtime as part of your sleep routine.
Be curious: Our concentration improves when we are interested and adopt a flexible attitude. When we are open to new ideas and are willing to consider other possibilities, it improves our concentration and motivation.
Pause and be kind: When distracted by external events or negative thoughts, acknowledge these, and then bring your attention back to the task you are working on, without self-criticism.
Look after yourself: When we are tired, it is more challenging to manage our emotions and maintain our focus. Maintain healthy habits to keep well and have the energy to persevere with your work.
Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J. W. Y., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1117–1122. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23355504.
Goleman, D. (2014) Focus. The hidden driver of excellence. London: Bloomsbury publishing.
Hari, J. (2022) Stolen focus. Why you can’t pay attention. London: Bloomsbury publishing.
Styles, E. (2006) The psychology of attention (2nd edition). London: Routledge.