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Learn How to Focus (on Homework and Everything Else)

Multitasking may be in your DNA, but deep learning requires your undivided attention. Here are the habits you should develop to strengthen your focus.

If you’re a college student, chances are you’ve been multitasking since birth. You were welcomed into an Internet-connected world where information battles for your attention; smartphone notifications have dinged in the background your entire life. And odds are, you’re super comfortable shifting your focus back and forth. It’s hard to imagine Netflixing a show without keeping up at least one text conversation (maybe while enjoying a slice of pizza).

Having “multitask” as your default setting is a mixed blessing. Sure, it’s good being able to switch gears on a dime, especially when there’s a lot going on. But unless you learn how to direct your attention to a single task, your life will be busy without much to show for it.

Don’t believe me? Then consider this: Studies show that multitasking college students spend more time studying but earn lower grades. That’s because multitasking is deceptively inefficient. Our brains aren’t designed to bounce from task to task. When we transition our attention from the thing we’re doing to something else, some of our attention remains on the original task—researchers call the effect attention residue. As a result, shifting focus puts our brains under stress.

So while you might be used to juggling a lot of balls, it will never be as effective as staying on a single task to completion.

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While there are people who are superstar multitaskers, you’re almost certainly not one of them. They make up a small and vanishing percentage of the human race. Meanwhile, most people who think they’re great multitaskers are kidding themselves.

People do their best work during periods of intense concentration. But while our attention is powerful, it’s also fragile, continually fighting off the distractions that come up. “If we don’t consciously choose where we want to direct our attention, there will always be something in our path to misdirect it,” wrote former Microsoft and Apple executive Linda Stone. Intense concentration doesn’t come naturally, or easily. But there are habits we can cultivate to help strengthen our focus.

Researching his book How to Become a Straight-A Student, Georgetown University professor Cal Newport (who also wrote Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, which probably explains why he doesn’t have an email, isn’t on social media, and admits he’s harder to reach than most authors and academics) realized something surprising about top-tier college students: They had lives away from the library! Rather than pulling 19-hour days cramming course materials, they made efficient use of their energy and willpower. They were well rested and had lots of time for dates, parties, and other fun things.

Here’s how they pulled that off.

They timed the hard work to their highest energy levels

Mark Twain said that if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day. This is not merely a colorful metaphor; it’s an essential deep-work concept. When you begin working, you’re at the peak of your power, primed for accomplishing difficult, focus-intensive tasks. From that moment forward, your energy level is like sand draining through an hourglass.

Not all work is created equal. If you’re starting your study session with, for example, rote memorization exercises or other time-consuming but less productive tasks, you’re wasting an opportunity to write complex lines of code, draft an ambitious essay, or wrestle with particularly impenetrable organic chemistry concepts. It’s like doing low-intensity cardio when your body is ready to power lift.

Avoid what Cal Newport terms time-intensive “pseudo-work,” or at least hold off doing it until later. Think of it as a cool down after a hard-core workout.

Productivity hacks like the Pomodoro technique can help you take peak advantage of your peak energy. With Pomodoro, you simply set a timer for the length of your work sessions. Newport recommends working in 50-minute bursts of intense focus broken up by 10-minute breaks.

They created concentration-friendly schedules

No matter how intensely you focus on your work, your laundry won’t fold itself. You still have to put your socks in the drawer, and pay your phone bill, and make plans for Saturday night. And while you don’t want to fall behind on daily chores, spending your peak energy hours on shallow tasks (those that don’t require deep thought) will leave you depleted and unable to tackle the heavy hitters. Think of that energy hourglass.

Making a schedule sounds unpleasant, even daunting. But planning ahead will be easier and far more rewarding once you give it a KISS—that favorite acronym of economists, which stands for “keep it simple, stupid.” It will be your magic bullet for putting your life in order.

When you know what your day looks like, you can slot in time for low-focus tasks and reserve time for intense concentration. For instance, a 30-minute break between classes won’t be long enough for a deep dive into the physics of electricity and magnetism, but it’s enough for simple tasks like grabbing a quick lunch or responding to texts and emails.

There’s no one-size-fits all solution for scheduling. The best system is the one that makes sense for you, and that you’ll stick to. You might be comfortable scribbling a to-do list in a notebook or prefer typing them into an app. Either is fine. After all, scheduling tasks is meant to alleviate stress, not cause it.

In How to Be a Straight-A Student, Newport noted that high-performing students spent only about 5 minutes on their schedule, but this small investment paid off big time.

They chose a distraction-free work environment

Our physical surroundings influence our ability to work. While taking your books to the quad on a beautiful, sunny day sounds great, there will be too much activity going on for you to truly concentrate.

When you work, you need to be free from distractions that tug at your focus. This means physically removing yourself from unnecessary electronics (video games, shopping sites, social media feeds), noise, and—the tough one—other people. It means keeping your work session sacred.

But being alone isn’t enough. Your surroundings should reflect the importance of your work and also provide gentle reminders that you’re doing something you care about. This setting will be different for everyone. In the documentary American Movie, a low-budget filmmaker drives to airport parking lots to write film scripts in a place with no distractions, which also informs his personal filmmaking vision of “rust and decay.” It sounds crazy, but you can’t argue with the results—the charmingly deranged horror movie Coven.

Find your own airport parking lot. And if one spot stops working, find another one. Speaking of airplanes …

They put the world on airplane mode

In 1975, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the concept of flow, the blissful state of mind where creativity and productivity are so easy and enjoyable that you lose track of time. There’s a good reason it’s the same word we use to describe skillful freestyle rappers: Flow is a state of inspiration that, from the outside, seems effortless.

So let’s say you’ve found a solitary workspace for your flow. Something about it speaks to you. You’re ready to settle in and find the perfect words to explain how Marx’s concept of surplus value relates to Thomas Malthus’s population theory. But, moments after sitting down, your descent into deep thought gets interrupted. Maybe it’s a text, a friend passing by to say hello, a call from Mom, or an email about an amazing sale on Amazon. Whatever it is, your flow is gone. Not exactly game over, but your system’s definitely compromised.

During intense concentration, you need to declare war on notifications, phone calls, chatty friends, and everything else that might disrupt your flow. Even when they’re momentary, distractions can completely derail your train of thought. While you’re working, starve potential distractions of oxygen. If you’re in a room with a door, shut it. Log out of social media. Wear headphones to deter people looking to chat. Download browser extensions to block time-sucking websites.

They created and maintained rituals and routines

Does the secret to composing music as rich as “Ode to Joy” lie in a precise count of coffee beans? Ludwig van Beethoven started his workday by counting out the 60 beans he needed for his perfect cup of coffee. While the great composer wanted to be assured his coffee would suit his exacting tastes, there’s a secondary conclusion we can draw from his actions: Counting coffee beans was a daily ritual. It was how Beethoven told himself it was time to work.

Deep concentration isn’t a mental state you can flick on and off like a switch. But holding to a consistent ritual makes the transition easier. The signal you give yourself that it’s time to settle in can be as obvious as drinking your first cup of coffee. It can be starting a playlist or saying a phrase like “time to get to work” out loud.

Think of your ritual like Dumbo’s feather. In the Disney cartoon, the big-eared elephant eventually discovers that he doesn’t need the feather to fly, but without the feather, he wouldn’t have tried to fly in the first place. In your case, you don’t really need a ritual to summon your focus, but somehow it works like a charm.

When your ritual becomes a routine—in other words, a habit— the magic becomes more powerful. And you become more certain of its effect.

They set goals and recorded their progress

That state of flow you’re looking to access can be unpredictable, and it may not always work to your advantage. For instance, if you find yourself in flow while playing a Call of Duty marathon, you’ll waste a lot of soldiers and a lot of time. Same goes for a work session: You can end up mired in details that are ultimately inconsequential or have only a glancing relationship to the work you really need to do.

Tumbling down the rabbit hole becomes less likely when you lay out guidelines and set a clearly defined, accomplishable goal. In Deep Work, Newport advises people to “focus on the wildly important.” That means you should set your priorities for your work sessions as precisely as possible. If you finish the work in less time, great; feel free to do more. Paradoxical as it may seem, the more conscribed your goals, the more you’ll accomplish.

Knowing what you’ve accomplished is as important as knowing what you need to do next. So once you’re clear about what you’re working toward, track your progress. As with creating a schedule, the best way to track progress is usually the simplest. If keeping a detailed record of your work is tedious, try recording major benchmarks on a phone app or a whiteboard.

They rested and refueled

Many students assume that attending college means you automatically become part of a cruel experiment in sleep deprivation and improper nutrition. See if this sounds familiar: When deadlines loom and exam time rolls around, you pull all-nighters fueled by coffee, energy drinks, junk food, and nervous energy. Almost inevitably, you’re disappointed when the results don’t match the investment of time and the lost sleep accrued.

The idea that crappy lifestyle choices go hand in hand with being a college student is a widespread, and destructive, misconception. When you turn to sugar, fat, caffeine, and simple carbs for short bursts of energy during a marathon study session, you’re setting the stage for a big crash and a long stretch of low energy.

The truth is, if you don’t sleep, you can’t learn. More than 50 years of scientific research shows that sleep plays a critical role in the formation of new memories. Cramming course materials in the wee hours of the morning the night before an exam does more harm than good. Your focus and energy will be too depleted to retain information, plus you’ll have deprived yourself of the rest you’ll need to do quality work later.

Almost anyone pulling an all-nighter would be served by a night of sleep.

The good news is that intense concentration and self-care are great dance partners, supporting each other at every step. Intense concentration allows you do more in less time—freeing you up to exercise, eat healthy meals, and get your sleep. Which in turn will improve your focus.

Creating habits that help supercharge your attention is one of the most valuable skills you’ll learn throughout your academic and professional life. But putting aside the promise of better grades or a higher salary, let’s talk about something that’ll feel more immediate and real: having more fun! Once you’ve cultivated habits to help you build focus, your quality of life will improve. Working more effectively leaves you more time to do things you truly enjoy.

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