This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Ultralearning" by Scott Young. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Do you want to know how to stay focused while studying? Are you trying to start an ultralearning project but struggle with procrastination?
Learning how to stay focused while studying is a skill in itself. Many of us struggle with procrastination and distraction, but there are ways to overcome those obstacles.
In this article, we will discuss some tips on how to stay focused while studying and explore some methods for optimizing your concentration ability.
How to Stay Focused While Studying: Overcoming Obstacles
Once you’ve determined how you’re going to conduct your ultra learning project, it’s time to actually start. This requires focus. Ultralearners generally need to confront three main obstacles to concentration.
Obstacle #1: Procrastination
Often the hardest part of focus is starting the process. Instead of getting to work, we find something else to do, or simply refuse to do anything at all. This can manifest in acute procrastination (avoiding specific tasks) or chronic procrastination (general avoidance).
Why Do So Many of Us Procrastinate?
On a conscious level, the desire to do another task feels rational. The rest of your impulse to procrastinate is unconscious. In truth, you either prefer to do something else, or you’re simply avoiding the original task.
Tip to Overcome Procrastination: Crutches
After you become aware of the pattern, use mental strategies (called crutches) to fight the impulse to procrastinate. For example, notice when you want to avoid your tasks, set a timer for five minutes, and push yourself to work at least until it goes off. It’s possible feelings of discomfort will only last a few minutes and you might find you want to keep working beyond the time stamp. If you find yourself using the five-minute “out” too much, increase your time mark to twenty five minutes, then allot yourself a timed five-minute break. As you master each period of productivity, upgrade to longer periods of time. Eventually, you’ll be able to turn your productivity on and off at will, regardless of impulses for procrastination or environments that pull your attention.
Obstacle #2: Distraction
If you don’t procrastinate, you may still struggle with long-term focus. Sustained concentration is just as critical as initial concentration, as you can’t master difficult skills without intense focus.
There are three common reasons concentration is interrupted or impeded.
Reason #1: Distracting Environment
Many people struggle to focus because their environment is distracting. For example, there may be music playing or loud roommates in the background. The solution is to determine your optimal learning environment. Do you work best with music in the background? Do you need total silence? Make note of what does or does not support your concentration. Create an environment you will thrive in.
Reason #2: Task Difficulty
Some tasks are more difficult to concentrate on than others. For example, you might have an easier time focusing on a YouTube video than on a book. Address this by doing your best to tailor your learning materials and strategies for optimal concentration. For learning tasks that require a specific approach that you can’t modify to best fit you, brainstorm creative solutions. For example, let’s say you’re a kinesthetic learner, but you need to read a book. Try taking notes as you read to support your kinesthetic needs.
Reason #3: Mental Blocks
You are most focused when your mind is clear. If your mind is anxious, concentration suffers. To the extent that you can, prioritize addressing negative thoughts or feelings before learning. When this isn’t possible, use mindfulness. Mindfulness research shows that avoiding negative thoughts or feelings is a common reaction to them, but being present with them and allowing them to pass is more valuable for both mental health and learning. Be present with them, then kindly redirect your attention back to your learning task. When you work with intense emotions instead of letting them derail your focus, you develop better discipline for future concentration.
Tip: Work in 50-Minute Intervals
Studies suggest that 50 minutes to an hour is an optimal time frame for concentration and retention. If you need to work for longer periods of time, take a very short break after preset periods of study or switch tasks. The optimal time period will vary from person to person. Some will find that 20-minute periods are best, while some will have the ability to sustain focus for a full day. Do what works best for you.
Obstacle #3: Poor Optimization
Focus is heavily influenced by arousal. Arousal is your “feeling of energy and alertness” and is determined by your nervous system. When arousal is high, your blood pressure rises, you sweat more, your pupils dilate, and your heart rate increases. In other words, you’re more alert. When arousal is low, you’re less alert. High arousal is good for simple tasks that require a lot of energy or alertness (like sports). High arousal environments include coffee bars or parks. However, too much arousal makes you distractible (like when you drink a lot of caffeine and develop anxiety).
Tip: Work in a Quiet Environment
Research shows the best environments for complex tasks are environments that induce low arousal, like working in silence or listening to quiet, soothing music. Low arousal is most effective for complex tasks because mental relaxation expands your space of concentration to accommodate new or different ideas. For example, many people have incredible creative ideas while in the shower.
It’s critical for ultralearning to develop concentration skills, but especially so if you lead a busy, overwhelming life that leaves only small chunks of time to focus on learning. Identify your optimal focus conditions and construct your study environment accordingly.
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- How a formal education doesn’t open the doors it once could
- The 9 core principles that can help you master any skill
- How to create a self-directed learning project to help you advance in your field