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Distracted? How to Develop a Focused Study Plan

Written by Stephanie Ingraham | Tue, Oct 31, 2017 @ 01:43 PM

So you want to learn how to study better and use your time wisely and effectively? You’ve got your books, pen, paper, computer, and mind to dig in for a solid chunk of time and maximize your study period? Well, think of it like exercise. Have you ever gone for a run? The first ten to fifteen minutes can be a real pain, can’t they? But once you get into the rhythm of it and your lungs and muscles are warmed up, it starts to flow. It starts to feel great. It even starts to be fun! And the payoffs are numerous.

Below are some excellent tips for most effectively utilizing your study period while also taking care of your stress levels and well-being.

Minimize Distractions

First things first, folks. You’ve got to put the phone away. You know this. How can we really focus if we are distracted with reading texts, scrolling Instagram, and sending funny Snaps to our friends? Think of it like taking an hour to go for a jog or choosing a side salad instead of french fries once in a while - we make sacrifices because they are ultimately good for us and help us feel better. So know that when you go into a study period, whether it’s twenty minutes or ninety, that you are going to turn the phone off (or leave it downstairs), and view checking it when you’re finished as a nice little reward. (More on rewards in a bit.) If you need technology to study, I recommend using a laptop and disengaging text and email dings and logging off Facebook and other social media sites. The best of both worlds is to be able to have the temptation of technological distraction but not giving in! This really builds up strength in the brain.


Make a time-management plan and reward yourself

Focus on time-management. If you are a truly squirmy individual who can barely study for half an hour, I recommend breaking your study chunk into three or four segments - you can set a timer if you like, and every fifteen or twenty minutes take a stretch or drink some water or give yourself two minutes to goof off. And those rewards are essential. Yes, we are sophisticated human beings, but we are also animals, and much like Pavlov’s dogs we can train ourselves pretty quickly - in this case with rewards and self-soothing. Let’s say you put in a solid thirty minutes reviewing ACT questions or AP Composition rules. When that timer dings and you take a stretch, give yourself a reward that you find soothing and nurturing. It might be a little snack or warm drink, or perhaps a promise to yourself that you’ll get a massage or a do a relaxing meditation or buy that shirt you’ve been eyeing. I recommend small rewards for increments like twenty, thirty, and forty minutes and larger rewards when you’ve completed a practice test, essay, or done well on an exam.


Know yourself

Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner discovered and nurtured the idea of multiple intelligences and how most individuals tend to perform at a higher level in two or three categories (i.e. verbal, visual, logical, etc.), and a bit lower in one or two. This is, of course, not fool proof or set in stone, but it might help give you a better understanding of your natural strengths and areas where you can grow. (To learn more, click here.)

Bottom line? Know yourself as a student. Know your strength as a studier. Do you benefit from flash cards? Online programs like Quizlet? Do you study better alone or with a partner? Does it help to talk out loud? Are you more of a verbal or visual person? All of these factors are important when it comes to studying and essential when it comes to overall learning. I am usually someone who works better alone, but I found in college that when I studied for larger exams with a partner from a class (not a close friend with whom I would just end up gabbing) I was more successful. The motivation and accountability of a study partner was a positive factor for me. I also knew that taking notes and using tools like flash cards were beneficial for me, whereas viewing clips and videos didn’t support my memorization process as much.

You might find that forty minutes of studying each night is the sweet spot for you, or perhaps you have one of those very focused minds and can pull off a solid ninety minutes to two hours before needing a break. Maybe you prefer standing to sitting. Music to silence. Libraries to your desk at home. See what works for you and nurture that.


Warm up to the tricky material

Attempt at times to go for the jugular. It’s easy to focus when we study on the areas we like or know really well, but this can end up being a waste of time. Be willing to get uncomfortable and study the trickier concepts and shakier methods. Practice those. Then do it again.

If, however, a concept is really stumping you or you are growing inconsolably frustrated, move on. Make a note that you’ll talk to the teacher or a classmate and gain more insight and clarity to what is confusing you. Don’t get discouraged - we all get overwhelmed and confused! (Here’s a great TED talk on growth mindset, which can often help motivate and inspire us when we are feeling stuck.)


Take care of yourself!

Most of all, take care of yourself. Don’t study when you are exhausted, hungry, or angry - studying will only make you feel worse, and you likely won’t retain the information as well. Make sure to get plenty of rest and drink lots of water, and study when you’ve had a snack and are in a relatively balanced mood. And cramming is so nineties, so don’t do it! Always keep a good balanced perspective and work on that growth mindset, and nothing can stop you from growing and succeeding as a student!


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About the Author

Stephanie Ingraham is a former English teacher turned writer and tutor with a BA in English from UCLA and a Masters in Education from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. She is deeply passionate about education, psychology, child and adolescent development, literature, and writing. She believes the education world can benefit greatly from the meditation world - mindfulness and self-compassion are key! In her free time she loves reading and writing, music, baking, yoga, dance, animals, and exploring new cities. She currently lives in Chicago, Illinois.