Girl Focused on Studying
Productivity Secrets

How to Stay Focused While Studying

Staying focused can be so hard especially when you are studying something you don’t think is interesting, UGH! I’m going to teach you tricks I know work because I have had success. I’m not a genius, but I have considerable experience and success in staying focused while studying. 

I graduated with a 4.0 GPA and have received numerous academic achievement awards. I’m not trying to brag. I just want to establish that I know how to focus when I study. I will teach you the methods that work best.


Best Strategies To Improve Your Focus Now


Have a study plan organized and broken into small steps.

The first secret to staying focused is to have a complete study plan so you know what you need to do every day. You need to be organized to focus better. Having a plan helps you focus better because you don’t need to worry about trying to figure out what to do next.

Make Your Plan for the Semester

  • The first thing I do is look at the syllabus and deadlines for assignments.
  • Next, I estimate how much time it will take to do each assignment and study for each test.
  • Then, I get a calendar and fill in the information for when all assignments are due and when all tests are scheduled.
  • After that, I reference the calendar every day to prioritize based on due dates and how much time I need to study or finish assignments.

This initial plan will be flexible because you will decide every day about what to study the next day and plan at the end of the week what to study the following week. The main thing is to know when things have to be completed and how much time they will take to do.

Plan Your Day

You can decide each day what to do first. Every evening, decide what tasks to do the next day. Some people prefer to do this first thing in the morning. Either way is fine. Choose the most important tasks and only work on those first.

The priorities are based on due dates in this order 1) study for tests 2) doing graded assignments 3) doing other study assignments.

  • Break assignments into smaller tasks like: “read the first chapter or read 3 pages” or some other smaller portion of the whole assignment.
  • Schedule test preparation based on study time of 1-2 hours every day 1 or 2 weeks before the scheduled test date.

When I have multiple courses I am taking at once, I usually study and do assignments for each class on the days the classes meet. As a generic example, if Monday and Wednesday are math and science class days, I attend the classes and I study math and science on those same days.

Also, I set aside time on the weekend to catch up on studies because I’m usually behind schedule.

Now I want to cover some of the learning techniques I use to focus and retain material better. These are very well established ways to study more effectively.


Use smart learning techniques to study better.

Educational researchers have tested many study techniques. They’ve found the ones that work best to focus and learn study materials.

Self-testing

Make questions about the material you are studying and then quiz yourself to answer the questions. It is confirmed by research as a great way to learn and remember.

  • You make questions from your notes as you go along studying and put the questions on the front of flashcards.
  • You put the answers on the back of the flashcards …
  • … and then you practice answering the questions.

flash cards

Here is a search that lists many online flashcard sources if you prefer digital study cards.

Spaced Practice

Spaced or “distributed practice” is studying for a test for weeks beforehand, at spaced intervals, instead of cramming the days before.

When we almost forget something, our brains work harder to recall that information. Studying at spaced intervals allows your mind to build connections between ideas and expand the knowledge that can be recalled more easily.

To implement this method, review your study materials in spaced intervals like the schedule below:

  • Day 1: Take notes in class for the subject and make study flashcards with questions on front and answers on back.
  • Day 2: Revisit and review the notes and quiz yourself with flashcards.
  • Day 3: Again, review the notes and quiz yourself with flashcards.
  • After one week: Once again review the notes and quiz yourself with flashcards.
  • After two weeks: Finally, review the notes and quiz yourself with flashcards.


Make a plan to study at the beginning of each quarter or semester. Set aside some time each day for studying and reviewing the material. If you do this bit by bit, your exams will be a breeze. You need to begin no later than 2 weeks before any test.

Leitner System

The Leitner System is a method of “Spaced Practice.” It organizes the way you study your flashcards in 5 boxes using spaced learning principles. I use a modified system because I think 5 boxes is too complicated to fool with.

Modified Leitner System with only 3 groups or boxes.

  • You keep your cards in 3 different groups to track when you need to study each set.
  • Every card starts in group 1. If you get a card right, you move it to the next group.
  • If you get a card wrong, you either move it down a group or keep it in group 1 (if it’s already there).
Leitner Box illustration

Each group (box) determines how frequently you will study each set of cards, similar to the following schedule:

Box 1: Study every day.
Box 2: Study every two days.
Box 3: Study every 5 days.

I don’t use actual boxes. Instead, I bind cards together with a rubber band and use 1 blank card to identify the group as 1, 2 or 3. You can also use the blank cards to keep track of when you studied by marking down the dates.

The image below shows how to annotate the group (1) and a study date ( 8/5). Then you can use a rubber band or clip to keep the cards together.

Index Card Illustration

Cornell Note Taking Method

The video explains well how to use the Cornell Note Taking Method.

Briefly, you divide your notes page about ⅓ for a left-handed column (CUE) and ⅔ for the right-hand column (NOTES) on your page.

You also reserve about 2” at the bottom to make a brief summary of the notes on the page.

You take notes on the right-hand side while reading or from a lecture.

Then soon after you finish notetaking, you formulate questions and cues about the notes. You put these in the left-hand column.

Cornell Notes Infographic

You also summarize the notes on the bottom of the page after you finish taking notes.

You can then study later by covering the notes on the right-hand side and reading the cues or questions on the left-hand side. You recall the notes from looking at the cues and questions.

If you’re a fan of Evernote, they have a template for Cornell Note Taking.

  • Evernote Sign up Free Account
  • After you sign up, go to the link below and click “Use Template” in the upper right corner.
  • Evernote Cornell Notes Template
  • The Evernote smartphone app is also available, but a little small. It works OK on an Android tablet or iPad though.

The Feynman Technique

Richard Feynman was a Nobel-Prize-winning Physicist who was also famous for being a great teacher and explainer. The steps below are designed from his widely acclaimed study method.

  • Step 1: Write the name of the concept you are learning at the top of a page.
  • Step 2: Explain the concept using your own words as if you were explaining it to someone else. Use plain, simple language. Don’t limit your explanation to a short definition or an overview. Include examples and even analogies, metaphors or similes if that works for your concept.Step
  • 3: Review your explanation and highlight areas where you don’t know something or where you think your explanation is poor. Once you’ve identified them, review your sources, your notes, or any information you can find to better your understanding.
  • Step 4: Re-write technical terms or complex language in simpler terms. Make sure someone without your knowledge could understand your explanation.

Here is another explanation of the Feynman method.

Elaborative Learning.

This is a method of asking questions about your subject that cause you to think about it in many different ways.

  • Make a list of the things you need to learn from your class materials. Ask yourself questions about how these ideas work and why. As you ask yourself questions, search your study materials and look for the answers to the questions.
  • Continue to elaborate on the ideas you are learning. Make connections between the different parts of your subject and explain how they work together. A good way to do this is to compare two ideas and think of how they are similar and how they are different.
  • Think about how the different ideas you are studying fit in your own life experiences and memories. Also, as you go through your day, pay attention to things happening around you and make connections with things you are learning in class.

Eliminate distractions by organizing your environment.

Clean Desktop

Keep your workspace clear. Only keep items in your work area that you need for the task at hand. I learned as a young manager to completely clear my desk at the end of each day before leaving work. I put away everything except an organized folder with a list of tasks that I left on the desk. I would always start the next day with a nice clean workspace and my list of tasks and plans.

Reduce noise distractions. If you are bothered by sounds, use noise-cancelling headphones when you need to. Or, you could use a white noise device. White noise provides a consistent, calming sound to focus on while you work. 

Turn off notifications for emails, social media and news. Save checking your messages and emails for break times or you can schedule time for responding to messages. 


Dedicate time to study and use time management tools.

  • Schedule specific times to focus on studying. Use your plan to decide what to study. It’s best to either plan the night before or first thing in the morning what you will study. 
  • Night before. Before you go to sleep, spend a few minutes planning what you’ll study the next day and organize your materials.
  • Or, first thing in the morning, take time to plan and organize. Remember your priorities: tests, graded materials and other materials.

Here is an article with fantastic techniques for managing your time wisely.


Have a buddy or group to help you stay accountable.

A buddy or group is a good way to stay accountable for your study plans. 

  • Choose a partner based on your shared interests or similar study goals so you can keep each other accountable. You can remind each other about your plans and encourage one another. 
  • Begin by making your study plans and goals. Then, share them with this person. Set up weekly progress reports to stay accountable to your partner.
  • Set up weekly progress reports to stay accountable to your partner. Don’t skip the weekly reports. Your success depends upon doing progress checks weekly to stay focused on your objectives.

Use motivational techniques to stay focused on your study goals.

Momentum Trick

I call this the Isaac Newton momentum trick.  Once you get in motion you tend to remain in motion.

  • Begin with studying a piece of information that is a small commitment. Getting started puts you in motion and you’re very likely to remain in motion and continue working beyond the small part of the task because of momentum. But, you always begin by allowing yourself to stop after you finish the small commitment. You don’t have to keep going.
Sir Isaac Newton
  • To make this work, break your notes or materials into very small parts. So for example, if you need to study the first chapter of a book, break it down to the first page or first concept in the chapter.
  • Then just get started on that small part.

5 Minute Trick

A variation of the momentum trick is the 5-minute trick. Here, you  commit to studying for 5 minutes.

  • Set a timer for 5 minutes and get started. When the timer completes, you’re free to stop studying.
  • You will find that working on the task is not as bad as you thought and you’ll often continue for more than 5 minutes.

Seinfeld Calendar

The Seinfeld calendar is a way for you to see when you’re not following your study plans. It’s easier to get off track if you’re not paying attention.

  • Daily Goals: Break down your study materials and set a daily goal to complete parts of your assignments and study material. You can choose a time period like 60 minutes as an objective to study or you can choose a number of pages or items to finish. Having daily goals will help to motivate you to finish them. 
  • Put the calendar in a place where you will always see it everyday. Set milestones for completing assignments and studying.
Seinfeld Calendar Infographic
  • Get a marker and a calendar. Mark the days on the calendar when you plan to finish your study objectives with a big circle. As the deadline approaches, the big circle on your calendar date will remind you and motivate you to work harder. 
  • Every day that you meet your objective, mark the calendar with a big X. Soon, you‘ll have a series of X’s. Your goal is to have that string of Xs going without breaking the series. Seeing that string of Xs get longer is very satisfying and motivational. Now your motivation is to keep the Xs going.

Conclusion: How to Stay Focused While Studying

You don’t have to use every strategy covered here. I achieved success using mainly flash cards to quiz myself to prepare for tests. At the same time, I haven’t needed a buddy to help me stay accountable.

These methods have all been confirmed to improve study focus and academic performance. So, choose the ones that fit your personal style and go.

Action Tips

1. Organize your due dates for assignments and tests so you know what to do first.

2. Estimate how much time assignments and study will take so you know the latest to start working on something.

3. Plan your day every day so you stay focused on your most important objectives.

Best wishes in your efforts to focus while studying.

References

Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology – John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, Daniel T. Willingham, 2013. (2020). Psychological Science In The Public Interest. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1529100612453266 https://pcl.sitehost.iu.edu/rgoldsto/courses/dunloskyimprovinglearning.pdf

Weinstein, C. (1982). Training students to use elaboration learning strategies. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 7(4), 301-311. doi: 10.1016/0361-476x(82)90013-3 https://doi.org/10.1016/0361-476X(82)90013-3

Levin, J. (1988). Elaboration-based learning strategies: Powerful theory = powerful application. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 13(3), 191-205. doi: 10.1016/0361-476x(88)90020-3 https://doi.org/10.1016/0361-476X(88)90020-3

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