Do you notice you get distracted in lectures and then realise that you are feeling a bit confused, not understanding what is being said? Willigham (2023) explains that this is because lectures differ from conversations.

When we talk with others, ideas are sequential and linked to what we just said. The content in a lecture is hierarchical, but we experience it as a linear narrative, like in a conversation where we connect ideas closely.

The lecturer will have a structure for the content and therefore, key points may not be linked to what was just said. For example, they may say “In this lecture we will cover three key areas, and these are the topics within each category”. Then, the lecturer will describe the content.

A good way of reducing confusion is to listen to the introduction of what the lecturer will cover and make a note of the structure. As the lecturer proceeds with the content, keep asking yourself, “What is this idea connected to?” keeping in mind the key areas mentioned at the beginning.

Difficult to get started?

You are busy with assignments that you are trying to complete by the end of term. You start the day intending to finish one assignment, starting the other, as well as preparing notes for the next lecture or for revision.

Getting organised takes a bit of time. Eventually, you sit down to get started with the assignment. When making progress, it feels good. You are reviewing your notes from the lecture and from the research you did for your essay or for a section of your dissertation.

After a brief reading of your notes, you realise you have lost track and did not take in the content. It can be frustrating when this happens, as you have worked hard and now time is going by and still there is a lot to do.

It is common to have this experience when we the task matters to us, and we want to do good work. We get distracted when we are uncomfortable, or bored, so do something else instead.

Why do we get distracted?

How many times have you caught yourself checking your phone when you want to get a task done? It is something that most of us do. We know it is necessary to put our phone away, but we want to keep it nearby just in case something important comes up.

Sometimes we think we can multitask, going from one task to another, feeling we are being productive. The constant jumping from one thing to another takes time away from the task. It takes effort to bring our attention back to the task, using our resources and depleting our energy.

We get distracted by external and by internal triggers. For example, when we feel cold or tired and when stressed. Have you noticed when reading, you get to the end of the page only to realise that you have lost track of what the author is saying?

Research shows that just having our phone within our range of vision is distracting (Ward, et al., 2018). As a result, our work suffers, leaving us feeling frustrated and concerned about potential negative consequences.

In evolutionary terms, our brain has been designed to move away from what is uncomfortable and prefer what is easier and comfortable to save energy for survival. So, when feeling uncomfortable or the task is hard, we are more likely to go towards an activity that produces ease or entertains us.

Fortunately, our brain is malleable and we can train to sustain our focus on a task. We can develop the skill of concentrating for longer, when we practise not giving in to the distraction and make the effort to focus on the task.

As a result, our ability to understand and remember information improves. With practice, we can develop the habit of noticing when we get distracted and change our response to it.

Eyal (2019) illustrates our actions during the day as if in a dimension. At one end, there are forces pulling us away from what we want to do, getting distracted, and at the other end, forces that create traction so we can keep going and make progress to achieve. When we can identify what actions or behaviours have traction, we can focus on these to support our actions.

How can we boost our capacity to concentrate better?

Practice self-awareness: When distracted by thoughts, feelings or physical sensations, notice them without judgement. When we keep in mind that these distractions are transient, we can learn to let them go by without viewing them as labels that limit us.

The practice of being mindful can reduce stress and improve health and our ability to concentrate. When we pay attention to what we are doing now, we can experience events and learn from them (Dixit, 2008).

Leave the phone out of view: Just having the phone in sight is distracting. We can see it in the periphery with its potential for providing an easy distraction.

When we shift from the task to our phones, it interrupts our train of thought, making it harder to problem-solve the next step in our task. Keeping our phone out of view reduces stimulation and distraction (Ward et al., 2018)

Focus on one task: We need to select a task and direct our attention to it, and block out other stimuli. For example, if working on a report or a dissertation, we can choose a section and then a topic with it, while letting noise from traffic or people chatting next door in the background (Jha, 2021).

Create cues: Having reminders of what we want to do will prompt action. For example, using a post-it note with a message reminding us of the value of the task and the reason we want to complete it. Cues help us follow through with our intention.

Being in the learning zone: When we are outside of our comfort zone, we are in a space where things are new. It requires patience and perseverance to develop new knowledge and skills.

When we acknowledge this is part of the learning process, we can tolerate the discomfort and focus our efforts on understanding the content, consider its significance and use it in context to remember it (Jha, 2021).

Keep the big picture in mind: When in lectures or reading material, keep in mind the topic (or question you are researching), and this will help to put things in context and interpret the details. Ask yourself: “How does this point relate to the broader topic?” (Willingham, 2023)


Dixit, Jay. “The art of now: six steps to living in the moment: we live in the age of distraction. Yet one of life’s sharpest paradoxes is that your brightest future hinges on your ability to pay attention to the present.” Psychology Today, vol. 41, no. 6, Nov.-Dec. 2008, pp. 62+. Gale General OneFile, Accessed 11 Feb. 2023

Eyal, N. (2019) Indistractable. How to control your attention and choose your life. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Jha, A. P. (2021) Peak mind. 12 minutes a day to find your focus, meet the change and be fully present when it matters most. London: Piatkus.

Pashler, Harold. “Attention and Memory.” Learning and Memory, edited by John H. Byrne, 2nd ed., Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, pp. 48-51. Gale eBooks, Accessed 11 Feb. 2023.

Smallwood, J., McSpadden, M. & Schooler, J.W. When attention matters: The curious incident of the wandering mind. Memory & Cognition 36, 1144–1150 (2008).

Ward, A.F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., and Bos, M.W. (2017) Brain drain:The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2017 2:2, 140-154

Willingham, D. T. (2023) Outsmart your brain. Why learning is hard and how you can make it easy. London: Souvenir Press.