How can I bring myself to study when I want to but I just can't focus?
October 24, 2010 10:02 AM   Subscribe

I want to study and do well, really, I do. I have full intentions of spending the whole day reading my materials but when I sit down I just can't bring myself to do it. Help me!

So even though I have a test on Tuesday and this is particularly troubling me now, this has always been a problem for me. I just can't focus on my materials. My mind wanders and I just find myself wanting to do other things even though I plan to study the entire day and I really, really want to do well on my evaluations.

How can I study better?

Am I in the wrong field? I'm fourth year biology major and I'm 1.5 years from graduating. I'm going to pursue dentistry but I don't think my marks are good enough to get in. So I'm really trying to bring it up this year, but I was really discouraged when I tried studying for one test and it came back a 65%.

How can I get it together? I guess this is more than a 'how to study better' question and more of a 'what am i doing with my life' thing. I don't know. I'm a confused 21 year old. Help me!
posted by cruncheweesy to Education (24 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Re: the studying question, often the hardest thing is simply starting, especially if you find the material interesting. Try setting a timer for fifteen minutes (you can do anything for fifteen minutes no matter how onerous), giving yourself permission to stop when the bell rings; you may find you're into it and just keep going. Another way is to plan breaks. Study for x minutes, then surf/snack/putz around for y minutes. Repeat. Or relate the break times to goals, like finishing a problem set or reading a chapter.

Re: what to do with your life. I don't know, but I bet worrying about it today is just the procrastination talking.
posted by carmicha at 10:12 AM on October 24, 2010

Have some coffee (or other caffeine heavy drink of your choice).

Set a timer (phone alarm, microwave, what have you) for 16 minutes. Sit down and study for 18 minutes. When the timer goes off, get up and move around for four minutes. At the end of four minutes, reset the timer for 16 minutes and proceed as before.

This will help your short term issue (ie: I have a test on Tuesday and I need to study today).

I don't think I can help with your longer-term questions.
posted by anastasiav at 10:12 AM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Er, that should be "especially if you find the material uninteresting," obviously.
posted by carmicha at 10:13 AM on October 24, 2010

When I was in grad school, I would sometimes have trouble concentrating on particularly dense readings. It helped me a lot to read the material out loud - I found I was less likely to space out that way. Not sure if it helps with studying the sciences, though.

Another big help for me is to try to study after exercise. Go for a run, take a shower, get a snack, then sit down and hit the books. I was always capable of greater concentration if I went through that routine.
posted by richyoung at 10:30 AM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As a fellow sufferer of "all or nothing" syndrome I am nthing the timer idea. You are setting yourself up for failure when you set impossible goals, such as "I am going to study non-stop for an entire day." Yes some people are that self-disciplined but I don't know many. Some of my most successful friends use variations of the methods described above. Indeed one of my friends finished her dissertation well ahead of her peers while working full-time. She knew she was a morning person, so instead of trying to stay up late or say that she was going to write non-stop for 16 hours on the weekend, she got up early every morning, went to her favorite coffee shop and wrote for 1.5 hours, every morning before work.

Also one friend who was having trouble getting stuff done went to a therapist who also recommended the timer method. However she recommended that you set it for 1 hour and then stop. Her reasoning was that if you kept going after that, you wouldn't believe yourself the next time that you set the timer and said "I can stop after 1 hour" and therefore wouldn't fall for it a second time. Using the manner she prescribed, one would gradually build up the time. However if you have a test on Tuesday, the stop, take a break, and restart plan might work better for you. But the idea is that you gradually train yourself to be able to focus on a single task be it studying, writing or even doing housework for longer periods of time. Consistency is key. If you can train yourself to focus and study more effectively every day, you may find that you won't have to worry about cramming so much before a big test. And learning how to settle yourself down and focus for longer periods of time will serve you well when you enter the world of 8 hour work days.
posted by kaybdc at 10:37 AM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you been evaluated for ADHD? Even if it turns out you just have some ADHD tendencies (as everybody does) it's worth checking out. For a person that actually has ADHD, getting treated is a life-changing event.
posted by TungstenChef at 10:37 AM on October 24, 2010

I struggle with similar questions too. Two sources that might help:

The Now Habit: schedule time for things you really enjoy, don't study more than five hours a day, try just starting (working for only 15 minutes).

The Study Hacks blog: keep a manageable schedule with only things you really care about, work to be the best in the 1-2 things you do, have a more detailed plan than just "studying", study in several 2-hour high-focus segments separated by other things, check if ADD or depression treatment might help you.
posted by sninctown at 10:39 AM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hello, and welcome to Anxiety Procrastinators Anonymous. We're delighted you could join us, even if you arrived late.

Two things I will tell you. One, starting is the hardest part. Things I use to help me start: timers. Food as a reward (no lunch or coffee until I have done X). Outcome comparison (it is more important to me to pass the test than it is to play WoW even though I like WoW more.) Reading this comic, and then putting on my Motherfucking Grown Up hat.

Two, even though studying or working or whatever can be hard to start, it is a habit that is easy and rewarding to acquire. I have to do it every day or I lose momentum. I bet you do too. So study today, study tomorrow, take your test on Tuesday, and then study on Tuesday for whatever else is coming up. Do it every single day so that you keep doing it, because that's what you need to do anyway.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:40 AM on October 24, 2010 [11 favorites]

Forgive me if this offering of an NPR story on how to/how not to study just gives you one more excuse to procrastinate or undermines your good intentions--as someone who did a fair share of studying back in the day, I found it interesting. Good luck.
posted by emhutchinson at 10:41 AM on October 24, 2010

A couple things that help me: change location. I go to a library and leave my wifi-enabled devices at home or keep my phone in airplane mode so I won't be tempted. Anywhere you can go where your distractions are defacto limited is great. There's a library near me where my cell reception is crap and their wifi is protected. It's great.

I also do the timer thing. But I do it more like 45 min to an hour for reading blocks. 15 minutes is good for chores but I don't think really let's you get in the groove of reading. I also take notes while reading, make an outline or whatever. I find this helps me concentrate more than just reading or reading and highlighting though I do some of that as well.

Have water and some good snacks like granola bars or nuts and dried fruit for the ten minute stretch break you give yourself every hour.

It's really tough but you just need to gut through it. Good luck!
posted by amanda at 11:04 AM on October 24, 2010

Turn off the internet. Turn off your phone.

Seriously, just unplug the router and hide it somewhere. What works for me is removing EVERYTHING to be distracted by until I'm bored enough that the material I'm trying to slog through becomes the most entertaining thing within reach.
posted by JimmyJames at 11:12 AM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

The trick is learning to learn (for its own sake), not learning to study (a means to an ulterior end).

I'm in the anxiety procrastination camp, too. If I'm anxious about the test or assignment, I feel that I have waited too long to do well. Then I waste time by fretting or sitting in front of my laptop.

I don't do any of the things others mention: timers, reading aloud, changing location, etc. I've found that the only thing that works for me is managing my anxiety so I can feel good about the material.

If I don't feel like there's a test looming on the horizon, I'm genuinely interested in what I'm learning. I pre-read it before class, or I flip through the book, or I look up relevant blog posts by people in the field. Then, when the test rolls around, I'm comfortable with the material and the test doesn't seem like an insurmountable obstacle.

If the class feels like an obligation, or a duty that I'm not carrying out well enough, then I feel anxious, and guilty, and I avoid studying until it's too late, and do poorly as a result.
posted by Nomyte at 11:15 AM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try changing your study environment. I need to move around a lot, because I'm just a twitchy person. I go to the library, set up, and read for maybe an hour. Then I get up and find another table on another floor. Or I move from home, to the park, to a cafe, etc. I also have noise canceling headphones and my ipod.

Also, don't feel like you have to read a certain amount in one go. If you start reading the same sentence 10,000 times, its time for a break.

Someone had a good point above regarding what time of the day you're most alert. I do my best work after 5, and try to plan my studying around that.

Last point, don't stress about grades. I'm in grad school, but for my own sanity I just say 'screw this' when I start stressing. If I'm rushing, I'm no good. If I sort of approach reading and papers sloth-like, I do better. (Meaning I give myself permission to do things as slow as I please, as long as I get them done by the deadline)
posted by shinyshiny at 11:32 AM on October 24, 2010

I made it through a degree in physics with pretty serious undiagnosed ADD by harnessing the scatterbrain. I'd set out all my class materials, even the ones with no deadlines anywhere close. I'd work on each one for 20 minutes, with an occasional 20 minute break to do something else--basically I focused for as long as I could on any one topic, and then moved on (and my ADD is so bad that I can't even focus on breaktime for too terribly long, so I didn't ever use a timer. timer sounds like a good idea, though).

I could go through a LOT of material that way, and still not get too overwhelmed by the studying. I stayed up to date in all my classes, without too much last-minute panic. This worked really, really well for my first few years.

It unfortunately didn't work so well in my last year; when the individual problems are expected to take 2-3 hours, 20 minutes at a time isn't enough to get a good start on the problem and pick it back up where I left off. I'd be starting the problems over each time I came back to them. So I stopped trying to do them in segments, and tried to do each problem in a single session. I got the most amazing headaches and accomplished a whole lot of gibberish.

I really, really should have gone and gotten diagnosed at that point--but I'd only even heard of ADD the year before, and just didn't know. But knowing now what ADD meds do to my scatterbrain, I am sure I'd have been able to do so much more if I'd just pursued ADD diagnosis and treatment. Instead, my GPA took a dunking. I still graduated with honors, but not because of anything I did well in my last year.
posted by galadriel at 11:33 AM on October 24, 2010

Best answer: Am I in the wrong field?

I don't know about you, and your interest level in your field. But I do know about me.

I've worked in a few different fields, and studied quite a variety of subjects. How much I love the subject, how deeply I am interested in the field, how strongly I desire to reach the goal... well none of those things makes a lot of difference for me with the kind of issues you have mentioned.

So basically the idea that changing field is going to transform everything doesn't apply to me at all, and I wouldn't count on it working out for you either. (Of course if you never really wanted to be in your field anyway, and always wanted to do something else, there might be a case for changing anyway.)

As for what might help you work better, apart from the good ideas everyone's mentioned already, one thing to look at is whether you are getting in a bind with the standards you set yourself. It sounds like you could be one of those people that gets in a vicious circle where every bit of work you do feels not good enough, and then to avoid that unpleasant not-good-enough feeling you start avoiding the work altogether.

In your position, get that it's a major victory to get the work done at all. Maybe you'll hit the standards to make dental school, maybe you won't. But you will have a far more successful and happy life if you're getting work done regularly. So see that as an achievement in itself, quite apart from what grades you get.

Last point, people work differently and get energized by different situations. I personally work infinitely better in groups than when stuck in a quiet room with a book. If that could be you too, find ways to make studying more interactive. Find people to study with, swap ideas with, talk over assignments with etc.
posted by philipy at 11:47 AM on October 24, 2010 [5 favorites]

One thing I wish I had done in university was find a good group of people to study with.

I studied like a loner but it would have been great to have a bunch of friends to bounce ideas off of and clarify things and just have more fun.

They always got better grades than me.

Not sure if that is applicable in your case but I would recommend it and maybe you'll make lifelong friends.
posted by simpleton at 12:00 PM on October 24, 2010

I find the timer thing works well for me. Set the timer for perhaps 15 minutes, study for 15 minutes; then set it for 5 minutes and do 5 minutes of something else. Repeat. Eventually you will just be studying. I do this when I have to do something I don't like to do. I reward myself with 5 minutes of something I like to do. Of course, if you decide to reward yourself with participating in WOW 25-man instance, this will not really work. It has to be a small reward that fits into increments of 5 minutes.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 12:38 PM on October 24, 2010

Nthing suggestions for timers, study groups, and moving around.

I'd also suggest setting a specific goal for your studying for each session. I'm in the humanities, but I find it much easier to sit down and study if I have a clear goal that I want to accomplish. For instance, I'll say, "Today I'm going to focus on these two concepts, and at the end of the day I'll be able to take any example argument, identify if those concepts are present, and [some sort of application/analysis skill]." Having a clear goal makes it easier to keep yourself on task, because you're doing something far less nebulous than "just studying."
posted by philosophygeek at 1:27 PM on October 24, 2010

I really like what I study and I've always done very well, but when it comes to preparing for tests and exams, the procrastination anxiety has led me to two things:

1. Four hours of real studying a day is plenty of studying. Seriously, if you can actually do that, you'll get loads done. I know a couple of people who can do a full day but far more smart and academically successful people lagging back with me, and it works and if you do it you can mark it off the list and feel satisfied.

2. Breaking it down into small tasks, and leaving a note for myself with the next instruction when I have to take a break, is the only way any of it happens. The ambition to study all weekend is satisfying but the difficulty of actually taking that on as a task isn't fair to yourself - break it down.

(3. Bonus round. Sleep is more important than cramming all night unless you have set yourself up to fail and are making a last-ditch effort to scrape by on adrenaline and bullshit. Studying's exhausting and sleep dep makes for poor recall.)
posted by carbide at 4:03 PM on October 24, 2010

Find a more "active" way to study. Instead of just reading, underline, take notes, draw diagrams, make flashcards, etc. Physically do something other than just look at the paper.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:29 PM on October 24, 2010

Best answer: I spent several years studying very hard in pharmacy school. I don't like studying very much, but when I need to study I can study very very hard and remember almost everything. Here are some techniques I developed:

1. The "must" sheet

This is an adaptation of the "anti-do-nothing" sheet created by Dr. Burns in his book "Feeling Good" on the topic of cognitive therapy. You write down what you want to do, then beside it an excuse for why you can't, then a rebuttal, then another excuse. Repeat until you have run out of excuses. Then do it.

You may be feeling anxiety over good performance. Find a way to deal with that. Cognitive therapy helps. I used to think I had to be the best at everything. What I learned is that I don't have to be. I strive to be average, and usually I end up doing much better that way.

2. The question technique

Instead of taking notes on the material you are learning, why not just ask questions about it? This technique can be a lot of fun. Just read your material and whenever a question about something pops up in your head write it down. Sometimes I write thirty questions or more for a single page of material. The act of questioning and the mindframe of constant questioning really cements concepts and leads to true understanding.

3. The isolation chamber

I built a heated isolation chamber just big enough for one person to sit in for the purposes of studying. Having a separate place can really help sometimes. However, the improvements in my test scores were modest with this technique ~5% increase in the average score.

4. The studying spy technique

Get an induction earpiece off ebay, an mp3 player, and a text to mp3 program (the automator in mac is capable of doing this), and turn all of your text into a huge mp3 file. Then, listen to it all day - while at work, at play or whenever. Listen to it constantly and you may never have to study at a desk.

Alternatively (if you commute) listen to lectures and computer-read notes in your car.

Bottom line: School is not fun, but it can pay off. The less fun your school is and the more difficult your education is the more likely you are to be a stable earner.
posted by candasartan at 7:45 PM on October 24, 2010 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you guys for the suggestions! I used the timer method and was able to focus a little bit more. I will consider going to the doctor for ADHD.

I'm about to write my test today so yes, this is procrastinating but you guys have helped a lot. Thanks!

PS: I found the best way for me to read something (actually read) is if I read it out loud and in a foreign accent. I don't know why, but it makes me pay attention to what I'm saying more than if I were to just read it out loud. :)
posted by cruncheweesy at 4:23 AM on October 26, 2010

Schedule yourself in shorter chunks than "study all day", and if the schedule doesn't work, change up the next day's worth of scheduling.

So, "study for an hour, dick around for ten minutes" might not work. Try two hours of studying, or thirty minutes, or whatever works, then stretch the envelope. If you *know* that writing yourself down for "study all day" never works... 'committing' to that again isn't going to work next time, either.
posted by talldean at 7:30 PM on October 26, 2010

Previously I wrote:

So basically the idea that changing field is going to transform everything doesn't apply to me at all

I just want to add a qualification to that. What may make a difference is not so much whether you love the field as the kind of work environment it typically involves. In principle I loved academia more than business, but it's easier for me to work productively in business which is generally a faster paced and more social environment.

Now that I come to think of it, being a college student must be one of the least helpful environments possible when it comes to being productive.
posted by philipy at 11:33 AM on November 1, 2010

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