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Study Skills: Focus & Productivity

This guide offers learning strategies, study skills, and resources to support student academic success.

Enhance your focus and maximize your productivity


Minimizing distractions and improving focus are essential for maximizing productivity and achieving academic success. Effective concentration helps absorb and retain information more efficiently, while productive study habits ensures that time is used wisely. By applying strategies to create a distraction-free study environment, setting clear goals, and developing routines that enhance concentration, you can improve academic performance and make the most of your limited time.

Several well-researched strategies can help reduce distractions and enhance focus while studying.

Create a dedicated study space. Establish a specific area for studying that is free from distractions like noise, clutter, and interruptions. A quiet, organized environment can significantly improve concentration.

Organize your learning materials. By creating a 'launch pad' for academic success, you’ll be well-equipped to tackle your studies with confidence and efficiency. Being prepared can save you time and enhance your ability to concentrate and be productive. Have your supplies (pen, paper, laptop) and learning materials (books, research articles, calculator) organized, ready, and easily accessible. Make sure your desk is tidy and your materials are within reach. If needed, create a checklist of items that you go through before each session.

Take care of your well-being. Be sure to have healthy snacks and water at your desk so you do not need to leave your study space and break your concentration.  Remember, proper nutrition supports cognitive function, and sugary snacks and caffeine can lead to energy crashes. 

Are you ready? Check your physical needs and feelings.  Are you ready to study?  Do you need food, fresh air, or exercise to get prepared?  Are you distracted by other thoughts or activities? Do you have a goal for your studies? 

Set a study goal.  Lack of planning is one of the biggest focus drains; it’s hard to stay in the zone when you don’t know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing! Even one minute of planning can save you as much as 30 minutes of spinning your wheels, so it’s important that you enter your study session with a goal and a plan on how to accomplish it (see interval learning, below). 

Give yourself a message. If you need to buckle down and work on a research paper for a few hours, write a note and post it within view: “This is not the time to clean my room. I can do that tomorrow.” “This is only the first draft. It does not need perfect sentence structure and wording.”

Eliminate distractions. Remove any unnecessary devices from your study space. The average person checks their smartphone once every 10 to 12 minutes and it can take several minutes to regain focus after being distracted.  For devices that you need to keep nearby, be sure to turn off notifications, and use apps that block distracting websites, like social media.  Be sure to remove other distractions that could turn your attention away from your studies (like a pile of laundry that needs folding, your roommate eating on the sofa, or the allure of a nearby gaming console).

Build a parking lot. If other concerns are keeping you from getting your schoolwork started, take a few minutes to write down what you have to do. Manage sidetracking thoughts with a “parking lot,” by making a list of distracting thoughts that can be dealt with later.

Positive distractors and regular exercise. Seek out “positive distractions” that meet your needs. Exercise is a great way to enhance focus since physical activity boosts the brain and can help you reenergize for more learning. Taking active breaks after studying gives your brain a rest and supports the natural consolidation of learning that has been proven for long-term retention. 

Use a dedicated study lamp. Consider using a lamp that you use only while studying.  Keep the lamp at your study space and turn it on when you are ready to start and turn it off during breaks or when finished.  Using a dedicated study lamp will condition you to get into the study zone faster.  Consider using a portable clip lamp so you can pack it with you if you study in various locations.  Do NOT use the lamp for any other reason, even reading for pleasure or to illuminate the space. 

Start small. Often learners give in to “mood fixers” such as texting, because the task at hand is difficult, large, or uninteresting. In order to start a task, you must make it easy and attainable (e.g. make the barrier to starting low). You can help yourself get started by selecting a simple task and setting a specific time limit.

  • Time: Set a timer for 20 minutes and say, “I’m going to do math for only 20 minutes.” Most students usually find that they can keep on going after they get started.
  • Task: Give yourself something easy to do to get started. You may say, “I’m going to do the first problem on my math homework for now.” Merely starting reduces anxiety and gives students a small sense of accomplishment and the confidence to push on.

Interval learning. Studying more does not mean you are learning more.   According to research, students can effectively read, listen, or study for about 30 mins before concentration and retention starts to decrease.  It is, therefore, better to engage with material in a shorter time frame than it is to passively read or review information over longer periods.  Students tend to remember more when they are able to concentrate on less content. 

When a student is distracted, they lose momentum and must expend more energy to regain focus. This can lead to unproductivity and frustration.  

To maximize focus and reduce procrastination experts strongly recommend learners study in intervals of about 30 minutes.  

  • Set a goal:  Before starting a study session (or even an assignment) write down a goal.  For example, ask yourself, what can I accomplish in 30 minutes?
  • Set a time limit:  If you use your phone as a timer move it just outside your door so it is not a distraction (or place it in your backpack).  
  • Maximize focus: Use the 30 minutes effectively by optimizing your energy throughout a shorter study interval.
  • Repeat: Set a goal for the next interval and then take a brief break. 

Take breaks. Always reward yourself with a break after a study block.  Breaks serve as a natural reset for our brains and allow us time to reflect and recharge before starting a new study session.  Having something ‘positive’ to work towards will drive you forward with your studies. Be sure to set the next ‘goal’ before you take a break (write it down), so you have a plan to jump right back to work. Our best learning is done when we are rested, so you may choose to do longer intervals to start supported by short breaks and then shorten the study intervals and consider slightly longer, but active breaks, to maximize focus and attention.

Actively recall. When you return from a break take a moment to recall what you learned or studied in the prior interval.  This will force you to put in the necessary cognitive effort to consolidate your learning.  It is best to try to remember what you learned by speaking it aloud. Alternatively, explain your learning to someone else (consider walking around, like you a presenting). Active learning techniques make a big difference as they help maintain interest and improve retention.  

Future you. People who can imagine the future and think about how great it would feel to finish a task are more likely to ward off procrastination. Try to also imagine how you would feel if you gave in to the temptation to put off your studies- what would be the consequences of inaction? Ask yourself: “How will I feel if I do not get my component of the group project done by our next meeting? Worried? Anxious? Ashamed?”

  • Pros and cons of action and inaction: “If I wait until the last minute to get this done, I may not get a restful night’s sleep before my exam.”
  • Remember past success: Reflect back on a time where you finished something difficult and remember how you felt after.  Next, imagine how you would feel if you accomplished the goal in front of you.  Consider setting a 'reward' for after you meet your goal. 

Know your limits. When you simply cannot focus anymore and find your mind wandering, be honest with yourself. Take a break and plan to return to the task when you feel refocused (be sure to write down where you left off before you take the break).

Stay in the zone.  Sometimes we get into the flow and make great progress.  When you find yourself in the zone it is critical to remain in it as long as you are being productive and have the energy.  So, if that timer goes off to take a break, consider pushing ahead a bit longer. 

Go easy on yourself. It’s common to become demoralized and frustrated when you fall victim to procrastination. Studies show that this negative dialogue can exacerbate the issue.  If you are not producing the quality of work you expect, try not to critique yourself until you are done, as it typical for learners to get upset and give up.

Productivity Resources