Help! I struggle to focus!

Students often share their struggles to focus both in and out of the classroom and how they feel frustrated, discouraged, and powerless. This blog post is intended to clarify some misconceptions about focus and offer some practical and empowering strategies to help increase one’s focus.

Definition:

According to Psychology Today, focus “is a dynamic process of choosing what is important to notice, do, or recall” (1).

Myth #1: We won’t ever get distracted

While it is helpful to eliminate distractions as a strategy to help with focus, we are bound to be distracted. The real skill comes in our ability to re-focus our attention (11). This is also where the wording of the definition for focus is helpful: it is a DYNAMIC process of CHOOSING what is important. We can think of our focus or attention like a spotlight or a large flashlight – where we shine that light is where our attention goes (12). Inevitably our attention will drift, but when we realize we have lost attention we can re-shine that light back where we want.

Act on it:

  • When your focus wanders, kindly remind yourself of what you were trying to do. No need to beat yourself up!
  • Imagine your attention like a spotlight and choose where to direct and shine your light (12).
  • Have a “parking lot” (a notebook or word document open) to capture random thoughts or tasks that surface. This ensures you won’t forget them but frees your working memory to return to the task (2).

Myth #2: Focus comes easily

We tend to think of focus as something we either have or we don’t – something outside of our control. In fact, it is more accurate and empowering to think of focus like a muscle that we can train or a skill that we can practice (3). Unfortunately, media, social media, and entertainment have given us a lot more practice in being distracted than focused. We have also been led to believe that we can multitask. When we think we are multitasking, we are just quickly switching our attention between tasks (4). Generally, our performance on whatever task or tasks we’re trying to complete is compromised, not to mention the task may take longer. We need to practice focusing with deep attention to build that “muscle” back up. With practice, our brain can re-wire itself for more focus. (5)

Act on it:

  • Notice patterns in how and when you get distracted to better predict distractions and plan ways to get back on track (1).
  • When you notice your focus has lapsed, record a small check mark for yourself. When you are finished the task, note the number of check mark’s you accrued. Next time you try to focus, aim to reduce this number slightly (6).
  • Be concrete and specific about the task you are trying to complete so that it is easier to focus (7).

Myth #3: I should be able to focus for long stretches of time

In fact, we have two different ways of thinking: focused and diffuse (8). Focused learning is when we consciously give all our attention to a task. Diffuse learning is when our mind has the freedom to wander, perhaps as we do something else like walking or resting. We need both types of thinking to learn effectively. Attempting to study for long stretches of time without breaks does not allow your brain the opportunity for both types of thinking. Instead, plan to intersperse short chunks of focused studying with short breaks. Plan a few of these focused chunks with short breaks each day, spread out over the week to ensure consistent and repeated study sessions instead of cramming.

 Act on it:

  • Use the pomodoro method (see source #9 for more details) to structure your time, especially in moments when you are struggling to focus or get started (9). This ensures you have time for both focused and diffuse thinking (8).
  • Use your short breaks to go for a walk, do some short physical exercises, nap, or have a little fun.

Myth #4: Focus is just based on willpower

Focus is greatly impacted by many factors including nutrition, sleep, exercise, etc… If you have not given yourself sufficient sleep, food, water, or exercise, your brain has not been given a chance to perform optimally (10). High stress and anxiety can also decrease our ability to focus (12). Devoting time to learning stress and anxiety management techniques such as exercise, relaxation, mindfulness, and breathing can really help free up your attention and focus (12).

Act on it:

  • Prioritize good sleep, nutrition, exercise, and social support to take care of yourself
  • Learn stress and anxiety management techniques such as breathing exercises
  • Schedule “movement breaks” during your study time – perhaps it’s a 10-minute walk, going up and down a few flights of stairs, or doing a few push-ups (12)!

 

Post authored by Christy Rotman, College Life Skills Coach at the University of Virginia,
March 2022

 

Sources Cited:
  1. ADHD and Focus | Psychology Today. (n.d.). Www.psychologytoday.com. Retrieved March 9, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-way-adhd/202101/adhd-and-focus
  2. ‌Landmark College Institute for Research and Training. (2016). Embedding Metacognition & Coaching Practices: Generating Open-Ended Questions.
  3. 10 Focus exercises to build your attention span like a muscle. (2020, October 29). Brainscape Academy. https://www.brainscape.com/academy/focus-exercises-build-attention-span/
  4. (2017, June). The Science is Clear: Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work. Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic; Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/science-clear-multitasking-doesnt-work/
  5. Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. Penguin Books.
  6. ‌Boutelle, K. (2013). Landmark College Institute for Research and Training. Strategies for Managing Executive Function Challenges.
  7. How to Work with INTENSE Focus – 3 Steps Most People Skip. (n.d.). Www.youtube.com. Retrieved March 9, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwX8d5ebnmc
  8. Focused vs Diffused Thinking: Solve Hard Problems with this Simply Trick. (n.d.). Www.youtube.com. Retrieved March 9, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTr12dK2Se0
  9. Pomofocus. (n.d.). Pomofocus.io. https://pomofocus.io/
  10. Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2019). The new science of learning: how to learn in harmony with your brain. Sterling, Virginia Stylus.
  11. Dawson (September 25, 2021). Ten Steps for Embedding Executive Skills into Daily Classroom Routines and Instruction [Webinar]. Learning & the Brain.
  12. Honos-Webb, L. (2018). Brain Hacks. Althea Press, Emeryville, California.
Additional recommended resources:

“Learning how to learn” TEDx Oakland University talk by Barbara Oakley https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O96fE1E-rf8&t=871s

By Christy Rotman
Christy Rotman College Life Skills Coach