Do you find you’re unable to concentrate? Do you drag your feet when it comes to revision? Despite the alarms, the study schedule, the want or will, maybe it just isn’t working and you just can’t focus?
Or maybe you can focus the first time you sit to work or revise but after you take a break, forget it. You just lose the flow.
In this article I will take you through the actionable steps you can take to increase your productivity and ability to retain information while studying or working from home. I will go through not just the how but also the why.
I have divided the rules into 4 sections:
1: Create your study environment
2: Build effective study habits
3: Learn to retain information easily
4: Increase your brain’s efficiency
Why is it (SO) Difficult to Study or Work at Home??
Some of why you find it difficult to concentrate may not actually be your discipline but the environment you put yourself in. The environment we are in gives our brain psychological cues as to how to feel in certain places, for example if you are lying in bed you will feel relaxed and want to snuggle in the covers – a conducive or productive study environment it is not.
The simple and effective rules written below will bring your learning under your control, increase your productivity, ability to retain information and increase your enjoyment of it.
Don’t try and implement all the rules at once! It won’t work. Choose 1 or 2 and implement them to begin with, then add in another later once you’ve mastered the first two.
Suggestion: start with rule 3 and rule 5. These are ones I have tested and implemented with my students with great results. After you get into the habit and stick to it, these simple changes will start to improve your concentration within a week!
Step 1: Create Your Study Environment
You need to create an environment that tells your brain that it is time to study.
Rule 1: Go to the Library (when the government doesn’t lock us down…again…)
If you have a library, go there. A library is subconsciously, and consciously, associated with quiet studying and reading. This environmental cue will focus your brain that it is time to get to work.
*N.B.* HOWEVER – whether the government will allow you to go to a library (or even buy books as in Wales) is hit or miss at the moment, depending on the month, so, until governments have made a decision, going to the library is not a viable option.
Rule 2: Turn your desk away from places you relax
If you need to work or study at home, you can create the same environmental cues as you have at a library with a little bit of rearrangement of the furniture.
If your desk is in your bedroom, make sure you are NOT facing your bed. Your bed is for sleeping and you have already trained your brain, through the countless repetitions, this is where it will relax. If you face your bed, your mind will become distracted and will have the cue to relax. So make sure your desk faces away from your bed.
The same goes for if you have a desk in a family or living room. The sofas are for relaxing, watching TV or reading a book, make sure if your desk is in the living room that your are facing away from the areas you relax in.
Rule 3: Use a study lamp.
To help create environmental cues, use a study lamp. A study lamp is a lamp that you designate ONLY for studying. You turn it on when you are studying, you turn it off when you are not (including when you take a coffee or toilet break). The idea of this is the same as going to the library, it is creating an environmental cue that tells your brain when the light goes on it is time to study. Incredibly simple but one of the most effective.
If you need to work at a place that is usually for socialising, such as the dining table, you can bring your study lamp with you. This will tell your brain its time to study even though the location is different to the library or your desk. Also great when travelling because you can bring it with you.
Buy a lamp, or repurpose a lamp in your home. You may want to label it with a sticker that says “study lamp” on it to remind you not to use it as a just a lamp to turn on when it gets dark. Putting a label on the lamp is especially useful with young children as they can make the label, giving them ownership over it and then they know it is theirs. The action of the child turning the lamp on and off is also very good for building the ritual with “study-time.” (You can use this with even children who are 5 or 8 years old!)
Rule 4: Get rid of distracting noises.
Psychologist have discovered that although we think we can multitask, humans aren’t as good at it as we think.
Remove yourself from environments where people are relaxing or socialising, as this will distract you. If you can’t, use noise cancelling headphones and listen to alpha wave music to help you focus.
If you don’t have noise cancelling headphones, use ear pugs or buy a pair of ear defenders from your local hardware store or amazon (the type builders use when drilling). You can put headphones on inside with alpha wave music on and it will direct your mind to focus on the tasks at hand.
Remove any digital distractions also, this includes your phone, email or social media notifications. Silence your phone, or put it in aeroplane mode. If this is not enough and having it next to you is still too much of a temptation, put your phone in another room. I also find it useful to turn my internet off if I don’t need it, this is so that I don’t get any notifications or the temptation to surf the web when my concentration starts to fade.
Step 2: Build Effective Study Habits
Rule 5: Divide your studying into 20-30 minute tasks
Researchers have found that on average people can only concentrate for about 20-30 minutes before they start to lose focus. In order to maximise your brain power and focus, divide your studying or revision into 20-30 minutes tasks.
Young children can only focus for 5, 10 or 15 minutes on one thing. This is ok. Don’t force a longer amount of time but slowly build it up over weeks and months.
The same goes for adults and anyone else who has trouble studying or concentrating. Start with what it manageable and productive, even if that is 5 minutes at a time. DON’T try to study to the point that you hate the studying. Like you can teach yourself good habits, you can also teach yourself bad habits. If you keep studying past the point of focus, flow, enjoyment perhaps saying to yourself “I must study more, what I’ve done is not good enough,” you will teach your brain to hate studying and you will stop yourself from learning. If you start to get bored or tired, stop and take a break.
Rule 6: Reward your studying with a break
By giving yourself a reward break for your study session you will reinforce your study behaviour.
Remember to turn off your study lamp before you leave for your study break and tell yourself this is a reward.
This behaviour will train your brain that studying is good which will help you become more productive and concentrate more because your subconscious wants to be rewarded again.
These little in-between study session breaks could be to grab a drink, call a friend for 5 minutes, have a conversation with your parents or housemates. It only needs to be about 5 minutes to refresh your brain.
Once you have finished your studying for the day, reward yourself with something a bit bigger. It might be going to the pub or out to dinner, watching a movie or having a bath. Whatever you choose, remember to tell yourself that it is your reward for your studying.
Rule 7: Intend to learn
Concentration does not fall into your lap, it takes a deliberate decision. The same goes for learning. Researchers aren’t completely sure how it works, but intending to learn helps you learn.
So, when you get ready for your study session, tell yourself, “Today I intend to learn ……” or “Today I am going to learn how to ….” The deliberate decision and effort helps to focus your mind and keep it present for the task at hand.
Step 3: Learn to Retain Information
Rule 8: Think about concepts
Information is hard to retain when it is not connected to what we already know. When you set about learning a topic look for concepts that you can learn, these include categories, principles, definitions and relationships. Think about how the information links together, how does it link to what you already know? Think about how the information is useful. When you find a use for the information, you will start to understand it better and then you will remember it.
Rule 9: Use mnemonic devices to remember facts
Facts are names, dates and numbers that you will need to remember. The easiest way to remember facts is to use mnemonic devices. The 3 most effective are acrostic, acronyms and interacting images. Whatever you make up for your subject, it doesn’t need to make sense to anyone but you, so the weirder (or risqué) the better to help you remember!
Acrostics are little rhymes or sayings to help you remember something. For example, it is difficult to remember how many days there are in a month but with this little acrostic it is easy: 30 days hath September, April, June and November, all the rest have 31 except February which has 28 or 29 in a leap year.
Acronyms are coined phrases, words created from letters that mean other words. For example, NHS = National Health Service, FOIL = first out, inner last – used to remember what order to do multiplication in in algebra.
Interacting images is when you create a story or image to explain a process or remember a meaning. When I was in University I studied Ancient Greek, we had a lot of vocabulary to learn and our lecturer advised us to create a picture or story from the vocabulary word to help us remember the meaning. Two words I still remember now is ‘lambano’ which means ‘to take/receive’. The image I used was, the words lambano sounds like lamb and bun, you take or receive lamb on a bun. The other was ‘toplos’ which means ‘place’: it sounds like ‘top’ and you can’t be naked outside so you need to take your top off in a place. They’re random but I still remember it many years later (since 2012).
Step 4: Increase Your Brain’s Efficiency
Rule 10: Get enough quality sleep
You cannot concentrate effectively if you haven’t had enough sleep. Arrange your life so that you can have a proper amount of sleep. Your brain uses sleep time to process the information you’ve learned so make sure you give yourself enough time to have your 8/9/10 hours.
If you really want to make your brain more efficient and increase the quality of your sleep, black out your room so it is completely pitch black. Light changes your circadian rhythms, and even if you don’t wake up, your skin will register light and that will change your brain activity. If your body thinks its light outside it won’t know to go through the sleeps cycles properly, this means you will wake up tired.
Rule 11: Eat properly.
Your brain is a muscle. When you study you are growing that muscle, and to maintain its ability to grow and function efficiently, you need to feed it protein and fats so that it can build and repair itself.
Avoid sugar, sugary drinks, biscuits and grains as they will give you an energy spike but along with a spike comes a crash.
Eat something high protein before you start studying such as eggs with butter, meat or fish. It will keep your energy going consistently without a big crash a couple hours later. If you are studying intensely, you may find that you eat as much as if you went to the gym. Don’t worry, just keep feeding yourself the meat, eggs, cheese, fish until you are full and avoid the bread/pasta/biscuits/sugar. You might be surprised how well you are able to concentrate.