Your exam is coming up in a couple of days. However, for some reason you cannot concentrate. Your mind keeps wandering off and you find yourself thinking about the most random things. As a student, I have also been struggling with this issue for quite some time. However, after more than 3 years of experimentation and research, I have developed a list of suggestions that might help you out. So how can you stop your mind from wandering while studying?
There are 8 actionable steps that you can take right now:
- Reduce unnecessary distractions
- Test yourself every 10 minutes
- Motivate yourself and set clear incentives
- Study in chunks and take breaks
- Use the distraction sheet technique
- Label your thoughts
- Give your mind a bit more to do
- Take notes, make a mind map or doodle
Let’s review each of these steps more in-depth and see how they might help you reduce the clutter in your head.
1. Reduce unnecessary distractions
How can you be focused if you are constantly being interrupted by various distractions? One of the easiest ways of improving your concentration is to reduce the distractions around you. This involves several steps:
- Make sure that you are in a proper studying environment.
- Firstly, a good study environment should be quiet – a library, a private room, a calm coffee shop, etc.
- Secondly, if you can, make sure that the chair and the desk are comfortable, there is adequate lighting and the place is properly ventilated.
- Thirdly, make sure that the study place is clean and organized.
- Either turn off your smartphone, switch it to airplane mode or leave the smartphone in your backpack (or some other place where it would be difficult to reach it). If you are constantly receiving notifications, it will be very difficult to concentrate. Putting your smartphone away could help you reduce the temptation to check on these notifications.
- If you are using your laptop for studying, make it a rule not to use any social media, websites, and apps that are not directly related to your studies. If you commit to following this rule while studying, it will be easier to fight off the urge to check notifications. If the urge is still there, I found that one way to keep yourself from breaking the rule is to make a bet with a friend. In my case, I usually make a “no social media usage” bet during exam time with my best friend. Every time I break it, I had to pay 50 USD. Your ability to stay honest will of course be put to the test. However, I have found that putting yourself in a “lose-lose” scenario is a very good way to make sure I maintain disciplined.
- If the area is noisy (or you prefer to study with music) you can listen to calm music and sounds (for that check out our study music playlist) or use noise-canceling headphones. However, listening to loud music or music with lyrics is highly discouraged since this could make it even harder to concentrate.
By taking these steps, you will limit yourself to outside distractions and decrease the likelihood that your mind might wander off.
2. Test yourself every 10 minutes
A study has shown that students were able to remember more and concentrate better if they tested themselves on what they are studying every 10 minutes.
Furthermore, periodically quizzing yourself has been shown to be an effective technique for increasing retention (see the video below). So test yourself and watch the immediate results! (e.g. ever 10 minutes write down the 5 key things you have learned during those minutes of studying).
3. Motivate yourself and set clear incentives
If you think that what you are studying is useless or unimportant, you will obviously find it more difficult to concentrate. So before studying ask yourself: why I am doing this? Is it to learn valuable skills? Is it to help someone or make the world a better place? Is it to make your parents proud?
If you dig deep enough you can definitely find a good reason. And if your why is strong enough you can concentrate better and achieve almost anything you put your mind to (there is a good TED talk on the power of WHY by Simon Sinek).
But if you still find it difficult to come up with a good reason for concentrating on your studies, then I would propose to conduct a brutal thought experiment. Imagine that there is a psychopath holding a gun to your head (a guy like Tyler Durden from Fight Club) and if you do not sit down, concentrate and do a good job studying that psychopath is going to pull the trigger. I know that that sounds rather crazy, but I have to admit this has helped me several times to concentrate and reduce the clutter in my head when nothing else worked.
Additionally, you can watch some motivational speeches or read some inspiring quotes if you need to pump yourself up. I personally really love to watch good commencement speeches (e.g. the one by Steve Jobs or J.K. Rowling). Of course, while these speeches inspire me, they may not necessarily inspire you – you need to find something that will work for you.
Furthermore, motivation does not have to be intangible. A study has shown that if people were promised a large reward after a successful well-timed study session they were more alert and focused on the task. Thus, promise yourself a small reward such as eating a tasty cake or going to the cinema at the end of your study session. You deserve it!
4. Study in chunks and take breaks
Oftentimes, people find it difficult to concentrate because they do not have a clear study plan with specific goals and break periods. As such, you should have a clear study plan with study and break periods. Famous efficient learning experts such as Barbara Oakley have recommended using the Pomodoro technique – studying in 25 minute periods, with 5-minute breaks in between and one larger break of 15 minutes after three 25 minute periods.
Furthermore, for each of the study sessions set a goal and write it down (e.g. to read 5 pages and to summarize key takeaways in 5 bullet points). At first, doing this might be a bit difficult, but from my own experience, I know that it really works and can help. In fact, I love studying in this way so much that I even built a custom timer exactly for this purpose (see www.kaizentimer.com). Of course, there are other good apps out there such as www.tomatotimer.com.
Lastly, do not forget to take breaks. Breaks are important since they allow your mind to rest and, as a consequence, make you more productive and concentrated. Also, you should allow your mind to wander during the breaks since according to psychologist Paul Seli of Harvard University it will be easier to focus during your study sessions.
“If you say to yourself, now I’m going to think about something unrelated, maybe problem-solve something else that is on your mind, and then come back to your task. That can definitely be beneficial” – Paul Seli.
5. Use the distraction sheet technique
Some thoughts just seem to be stuck in your head or maybe you are afraid of forgetting something and you just keep thinking about it over and over. For instance, sometimes I keep reminding myself that I need to do a certain chore like doing the laundry or writing some sort of email. A good method for getting rid of these thoughts is writing them down a sheet of paper. This is called the distraction sheet technique. It essentially allows you to offload all of the thoughts from your head onto a piece of paper and, as a consequence, to reduce the clutter in your mind.
6. Label your thoughts
Labeling is a similar method to the distraction sheet technique, but rather than writing down your thoughts it involves labeling them. Every time you notice that your mind has wandered off, you label your emotion (e.g. you can say this is “planning” or this is “anxiety”) and once you label it you just go back to your studies.
Such a technique has been shown by studies to calm you down and make your thoughts more bearable. To better understand how labeling works you can read more about it here. From my own experience, this technique works better than the distraction sheet, but it takes a longer time to master it.
Also, you can combine labeling with the distraction sheet. Use a distraction sheet for thoughts that you do not want to forget and labeling for thoughts or feelings that are just interfering with your studies and can be forgotten.
7. Give a your mind a bit more to do
Research by Nilli Lavie and Sophie Foster has shown that creating deliberate distractions such as playing jazz music in the background can make you less distracted. According to Nilli, attention is a finite resource, so if you use up all of the attention slots in your mind, it is less likely that you will wander off. This is so because if your mind is fully occupied, you will be just physically incapable to pay attention to one more thing.
Thus, adding additional distractions such as listening to calm music without words could help you to concentrate. With that being said, it might take some time for you to find a balance between having too many and too little distractions.
8. Take notes, mindmap or doodle
Another good method for stopping your mind from wandering off is taking notes. Taking notes, which summarize what you study, will force you to pay more attention to what you are studying (since you cannot take proper notes if you do not pay attention).
Furthermore, make sure that you are not just blindly writing down what’s written in the study material. You can do that without thinking that much and as a result, your mind will have more opportunities to wander off. Instead, make sure to summarize the material in your own words. Doing that will force you to think more and, as a result, you will learn more actively and concentrate on the material more.
Moreover, doodling and mind mapping are other good ways that enable you to concentrate more. One study has shown that doodling about something that is related to what you are studying will allow you to concentrate better. Of course, if you concentrate on doodling too much this might not work and could even make you even more distracted – so be careful and see whether it works for you.
I personally recommend to mind map instead of doodling. Mind mapping could be described as a hybrid of taking notes and doodling. It involves mapping out your ideas in branch-like structures and then adding colors and drawings next to those branches. To gain a better understanding of this technique sees the video below. This technique has done wonders for many people and I use it all the time. So I recommend you try it out!
Our mind and ability to concentrate are impacted by numerous things that we cannot control. With that being said, there are things that we can control, such as where and how we study.
While I have provided numerous actionable ideas on how to increase your ability to concentrate, you do not have to do them all at the same time. Start small – implement one suggestion at a time. Experiment – see what works and what does not – find what works the best for you!