People actually remember whatever they're paying attention to pretty well. So when you're studying, you'll remember what you were focused on. The challenge for most people is that our attention and minds wander... a lot. The best way to study is to be aware of that wandering and bring our attention gently back to the study. Over and over again. Just be here now.
Most people have a lot of chatter in their minds. Sometimes they aren't aware of the babble, but it's common. “I'm hungry”, “it's almost 11 already”, “I could play that new game I got”, “the rent is due next week”, for example, on and on in what for most people is a nonstop stream. Plus everything a person might worry about plus whatever past regrets and grudges they're carrying around. People have written a lot about this chatter (and the bigger issues of anxiety, resentment, and stress). Some of it is really practical advice, some spiritual, and some mystical, sometimes all in the same book... maybe more about that later.
For now, though, there are two key insights. First, this chatter is rarely useful. Planning for the future or making a note in the calendar to pay the rent, for example, can be helpful. Remembering the past to learn from it can be helpful. But the vast majority is just the mind spinning its wheels. At best. At worst, people's negative self-talk and worry decreases their ability to function and succeed. Also, it makes them miserable.
The second insight is that we can redirect our attention to something more helpful, like what we're trying to learn right now. How do people redirect their attention? The simple part is that just by trying, people refocus. No magic, no advanced technique here. Just bring your attention back what you're studying. The part that takes more practice is being aware that our attention has wandered away in the first place. It will wander. It happens. How many times have you gotten to the bottom of the page and realized you don't know what you read? For me, many times. My memory was fine. My focus was not on what I was reading.
The way to focus better is to just be aware of what you're thinking about. When your attention wanders, and it will, just gently return your attention to the biology terms, history dates, or whatever you're trying to learn. Don't waste energy blaming yourself or judging yourself. Don't feel guilty for thinking of something else. Don't listen to any negative self-talk about it's hopeless or giving up. Just refocus your attention on what you're studying. Just be here now. Just do this one thing.
This definitely gets better with practice, too. At first, I thought I was mostly focused. Then I realized I was constantly distracted and blamed myself for it. Then I stopped wasting energy blaming myself (or anything else). Now I return my attention to the facts or steps I'm trying to learn, often, but without much stress or blame. My studying effectiveness has improved a lot. No extra memory, no super powers. More of my focus is on the studying and less on what's for dinner or when the rent's due. The same can work you.
At first, it may feel like you spend more time refocusing than actually studying. But just by trying, you're already focusing more on what you're trying to learn, and you will remember it better. A lovely bonus is that you may also find it easier to notice beauty in the world, like the flowers under the tree, instead of rushing past.
Technology is everywhere, and mostly, it's great. But the same technology can really distract us by constantly interrupting us. It's tough to concentrate or to get any work done while being interrupted. So one way to improve studying is to reduce the distractions from all those lovely phones, PC's, laptops, and other devices. Let's look at managing phone distractions from businesses, family and friends, and careers. Also, frequently games can be distracting (I'm really tempted to play instead of work.) Finally, there's some interesting biology that happens where the glare from screens may wake people up just as they're trying to sleep.
Part of managing attention is minimizing interruptions. People derail and then spend time and energy and attention retracing their steps and getting back to what they were working on. Think about the last time you kept re-reading the same paragraph or walked into a room and stopped because you couldn't remember what you trying to do. You probably just got interrupted.
Now maybe you're thinking that you multitask well. Maybe you do. But the vast majority of the people who think that they multitask well... don't. Researchers believe that what actually happens is that people switch attention very rapidly, as an NPR article shows. Travis Bradberry goes farther, citing research that shows that people who try to multitask do measurably, massively worse while juggling tasks. (Read his article here.) Even if it works (and yes, you might be in that 5% of the people who actually can make it work), it's exhausting. Exhausting. A marathon runner might also carry an extra 75 pounds of free weights strapped to his or her body, but that's not the way to win the race.
Fortunately, people can reduce their interruptions. One huge source of interruptions is technology. Don't get me wrong, I love technology. I believe it can and should make our lives easier, better, and more effective. When it does, it's awesome. I play computer games with my friends (currently a lot of Guild Wars 2), I can call my niece going to college in Boston way easier and more affordably than visiting her. Laundry was a snap today, and it's great that I don't have to walk seven miles to the store. But technology, especially smart phones, causes us so many interruptions that we need to take a look at how to limit them.
You probably already know most of the consumer methods to limit your interruptions, but let's briefly review them in this section. You can put your number on the National Do Not Call Registry (https://www.donotcall.gov/). There's an equivalent for paper mail (https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0262-stopping-unsolicited-mail-phone-calls-and-email). Some of the better, more legitimate, honest marketing calls include an option at the end to opt out. That's at least professional. You can block numbers, but a lot of spam cold calls are robo-dialed with number spoofing. In the last week, I've gotten at least three calls with the same stupid recording... from what my phone believes are three different numbers. I don't have the answer for this, although it seems like such a poor business model that it's bound to fail. Any ideas on how to reduce it in the meantime?
Not only are marketing calls (of varying levels of usefulness and honesty) interruptions, but so are calls from family and friends. I love my family and friends. I try hard not to take them for granted, to tell them that I love and appreciate them, and to spend time with them. (Quality time is definitely my love language). But texts and calls would be interruptions, if I let them disrupt my work.
So I often silence my phone while I work, and I usually leave it in another room where I can't see or hear it. This could seem cold, cause anger, or induce panic if I didn't instantly respond. It took some careful prep work and tactful conversations with friends and family to make sure I don't hurt anybody's feelings or worry them. My friends and family are good people. They understood.
Check out the main points of those conversations here. I appreciate you, and you're important to me. You're welcome to call or text me at any time, for any reason. But I just can't work if I get interrupted, or sleep if the phone wakes me up. So I often silence my phone, or put it in airplane mode, and it's not always in the same room as me. I might miss your text or call, but you don't ever have to worry about interrupting me. Call or text anytime, and I'll call you back as soon as I do get your message.
If you have teenagers, worrying about them not being able to reach you in an emergency may outweigh the distractions and interruptions from the phone. You do what seems best, of course. You might consider a compromise: changing their ring tone to be unique and then training yourself to ignore every other ring tone. Parents out there, what else could work?
The other insidious source of phone calls, texts, and emails is the career. The boss, the coworkers, and the office staff may never, ever stop emailing and clearly expect you to respond within five minutes all the time. This requires another delicate set of negotiations, this time with the boss. I'd prepare with details of your productivity, good flow high performance versus constant interruptions and poor sleep. Graham Allcott wrote a top-notch book called Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More, and Love What You Do. He makes a compelling case that it's attention, not time, that we need to manage, and then he shows lots of step by step ways to do it.
I'd do some things to increase your productivity. Entrepreneur John Rampton gives another good list of ideas here. Then ask for forgiveness instead of permission. Dial back the times you check email and answer your phone after your productivity increases. Then I'd speak in terms of increased productivity and effectiveness, and make the strongest case you can to limit the hours that you're expected to respond. People can email you at three a.m. all they want to, as long as it's OK for you to respond like a healthy, productive worker... mid-morning during the next business day. The amazing Tim Ferriss outlines a masterful description of how to do this in his book The Four Hour Workweek. The subtitle is Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, so that gives you some idea that his detailed plan can go all out for much more than reducing interruptions.
Clearly limiting work hours in a digital world is an ideal here, far from many people's reality, but it's something our society needs to get a handle on. Want to share your methods for negotiating tech-free times with your supervisor? Unofficial work arounds that give you quality time with less interruptions?
Another way that technology can interrupt work is with computer games. I use a computer a lot for work, and I like to play games too. The same is true of a smart phone -it's both a work tool and for socializing and games. Laptops, tablets, most of our high tech gadgets can be both productivity tool and source of distractions. How do we manage our attention while using them?
One obvious solution is to use separate devices, but this isn't very practical. That's like owning separate cars for work and fun. Possible, maybe, but a luxury many of us can't really budget or justify. Even if we owned two different computers, are we really going to take the space to set them both up? Carry two different phones? Ugh. Well, maybe if the boss wants you to have a phone or laptop and provides it, that could be effective. Mostly because you can turn it off whenever you're off duty (or as much of the time as you've been able to negotiate or quietly achieve).
Instead of redundant devices, a better solution is keep the entertainment as out of sight as you can. On the phone, the apps that are for fun or socializing can be moved away from the screen you always see. On the computer, I put productivity shortcuts on the desktop, conveniently visible. I hide shortcuts for games in folders, or just don't install a shortcut at all. I guarantee we can find our fun and games when it's time. But out of sight really is out of mind, and when I go to work on the computer, I don't think of the games nearly as much as when I used to see the icons all the time. It isn't perfect because some things can be both productivity and socializing/entertainment. Maybe Skype is for the business conference and chatting with out of state family. Also, when I'm tempted to procrastinate (as I was writing this post), I can surely think of the games. What other tips do can you share?
Finally, one last way that we can limit the distractions of technology is to keep it out of the bedroom. There are two reasons for this. First, the bed is for sleep and intimacy, and that's it. Much of anything besides that often causes people to have trouble sleeping because it's even harder to stop thinking. Start checking messages in bed, and it's natural to start worrying about the busy day tomorrow, or regret today's missed opportunities. Watch TV, and commercials or product placement make endless demands on what to buy. A Harvard Medical School study goes further, adding that it may also cause health problems.
Secondly, the bright blue light of the screens makes us alert. It's biological. That kind of light happens in good sunlight, and we're wired to be alert during the daytime. Daytime makes prime hunting, gathering, and predator-evasion times. These are circadian rhythms. There are some cool workarounds for this that dim screens and change the mix of light. But still, people can sleep better if they limit their tech use for awhile before bedtime, and keep it out of the bedroom as much as possible.
In conclusion, that covers most of the ways I can think of that we can manage our attention by minimizing the distractions from technology. Well-designed, well-used technology makes life so much better, and I don't want to do without it. But people have limited attention. We've looked at reducing interruptions, putting entertainment out of sight so it distracts us less, and mostly keeping distracting technology out of the bedroom and for awhile before sleeping. What have I missed? What other tech distracts you? What can you do about it?
Allcott, Graham. Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More, and Love What You Do. London:
Icon Books, 2014.
Bradberry, Travis. “Why Smart People Don't Multitask.” Entrepreneur. 7 Feb. 2017.
Ferriss, Timothy. The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.
New York: Crown Publishers, 2009.
Hamilton, Jon. “Think You're Multitasking? Think Again.” Morning Edition. 2 Oct. 2008. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794
“Light from laptops, TVs, electronics, and energy-efficient light bulbs may harm health, from the
Harvard Health Letter.” Harvard Health Letter. May 2012. https://www.health.harvard.edu/
Rampton, John. “15 Ways to Increase Productivity at Work.” 4 Feb 2015. https://www.inc.com/john-
Gregory Hanks has taught community college for upwards of 17 years. He's helped thousands of students achieve more of their potential, write better, and earn their degrees. In 2017, he left a traditional teaching role to help more people like you get better results, faster.
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