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How to Study When You Can’t Focus

It’s a common problem for college students: you have to study for the exam, but you’re stressed and distracted. Here are six tips on how to study when you can’t focus, to get you through exams.

How to Study When You Can’t FocusRead How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less by Cal Newport – and his Study Hacks is my favorite blog on how to learn. Sign up for his emails. They’re awesome.

When you’re too stressed or distracted to study, the first thing to do is take a deep breath. You may feel panicked and anxious, and that is an obstacle to learning how to study when you can’t focus. The second thing to do is try to find a way to laugh. Laughter is a huge stress reliever, and it’s important to make time to watch funny movies and TV shows. Give yourself a break and forget about school for awhile. After you’ve taken a break, you’ll be in a better frame of mind to apply these study tips for students who can’t focus…

How to Study When You Can’t Focus

These tips are geared towards college students, but high school students will find them helpful, too.

A stress survival tactic I used in college was to try to prepare for classes in advance as much as possible. In many electrical engineering classes, large projects due at the end of the semester. I found it extremely frustrating and stressful to have to simultaneously learn the course material, learn how to use the design software (tools), and to complete a good design. Learning by doing is a good thing, but jumping into a project before you really understand the design flow, or even the basic principles involved is a very stressful and frustrating way to learn. The stress, time-pressure, and mental exhaustion make an already difficult situation worse. High workloads at the end of the semesters cause a significant portion of engineering majors to burn-out and switch majors.

My solution to dealing with the end of semester stress? Start early. Procrastination is a killer in engineering colleges. I would go so-far as to buy textbooks in advance and study on my own during the summer and winter breaks to get a head-start on the classes for the next semester. I would also download the freebie or 30-day trial licensed versions of the software that was going to be used in the next semester’s classes and run through some beginner tutorials. I even bought a couple of books on how to use some software to help me scale the learning curve.

I’ll admit, I am probably not the fastest learner. That’s why I had to adopt the pro-active “pre-study” strategy. That was a way I was able to reduce the stress of learning; Learn most of the basic material before the semester even begins on my own, then focus my energy on the projects during the semester. So many students short-change themselves when it comes to actually learning and understanding the course material. They do it because there isn’t enough time to learn the subject well. That kind of strategy is unacceptable to me. If I need to slow down a little bit instead of glossing over the details, so be it. Slow does not equate to dumb. I received the high score on the fundamentals of engineering exam the year I took it. I didn’t even study that much for it. I was able to remember most of the material from the classes I had taken.

Take control – learn how to stop being too stressed to study

What is causing stress in your life, and how do you manage stress? The key is to empower yourself.

The more power you have in your life (even perceived power), the less stress you’ll feel. Research shows that the amount of control you have in your life directly affects the amount of stress and anxiety you feel. Why are you here, trying to learn how to study because you can’t focus? Are you overwhelmed by your class schedule, work responsibilities, or family obligations? Are you shy and nervous — do you need help overcoming anxiety about being in college? Find ways to take action.

If you can’t study because you’re worried about money, read 10 Highest Paying Jobs for College Students.

Create a schedule that suits your personality, schedule, and lifestyle

When I was too stressed to study in university, I created a schedule that gave me time to work at my outside job, time to study, and time to play. I found that breaking my schedule into 30 or 60 minute chunks of time worked best — because even if I really really really didn’t want to study for a particular course, I knew I could study for just 30 or 60 minutes. And I wouldn’t stop if the studying was going well, which helped me get good grades in college. Creating a schedule is one of the best ways to focus on studying because it gives you structure and control.

If you can’t focus on your studying, you need to make time to solve your problem, otherwise you’ll never get out of the cycle.

Think about your time management skills

If you’re stressed and anxious because you can’t keep up with your coursework, labs, extracurricular activities, work, and family obligations, then you need to focus on managing your time better. Students who don’t manage their time well tend to procrastinate, underestimate the time it takes to study for exams or write essays, and spend a lot of time on details that don’t matter.

This tip on how to study when you can’t focus is a long-term skill that takes time to learn, but it will help when you’re too stressed to study.

Figure out the reason you’re too stressed to study

This really should be the first tip on how to study when you can’t focus.

too stressed to study

How to Study When You Can’t Focus

Are you distracted by external noise, such as people talking or music playing? Are you physically uncomfortable? Or, are you distracted by internal noise, such as anxiety, depression, or fear? It’s possible that you know how to study, but you can’t focus because you’re worried or anxious. Maybe it’s not study skills you need; maybe you need to deal with whatever is bothering you.

One way to do this is to write out your feelings in a private journal or somewhere you feel safe – I welcome you to do that below. Get all your fears and anxieties out, so they don’t continue to stop you from focusing and studying.

Take 30 or 60 minutes a day to PowerJournal

This is a good stress management tip for college students, from The Other 8 Hours: Maximize Your Free Time to Create New Wealth and Purpose. In it, Robert Pagliarini recommends spending the first hour of your day writing in a journal, planning your day and week, expressing your fears, frustrations, and achievements, and setting your intentions for school. PowerJournaling clears your head so you can focus on what matters. Taking time to think keeps you in tune with yourself, which is one of the best ways to manage stress and anxiety in college.

Protect yourself from unplanned study breaks

Not only did I have a study schedule in college, I have a work schedule now (I’m a full-time freelance writer and blogger). Before I created my current work schedule, I kept Twitter, email, my blogs, and various forums open on my laptop. If I got “stuck” for an idea or phrase, I’d surf through all those applications, which made me less productive and more stressed. Now I check email, Twitter, etc, at set times of the day.

One of the best tips on how to study when you can’t focus is to stop surfing the internet, answering the phone, answering the door, or doing anything while you’re studying. Focusing on what you’re doing will help you get good grades in college.

It takes time to learn how to study – especially when you can’t focus! But, it doesn’t take long. Even if you learn a few study skills from the internet or the resources below, you’ll have come farther than where you are now.

Your thoughts on being too stressed to study are welcome below, but only when you’re done studying. You might want to read 8 Easy Ways to Stay Healthy at College – From A’s to ZZZs first.

May you learn how to study smart so you don’t have to study long.

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3 thoughts on “How to Study When You Can’t Focus”

  1. It may sounds silly but trust me these silly things may really ruine your entire focus and studying plans
    I can’t focus because I can’t stop thinking about my over plucked eyebrows I’m so sad for them they were full thick and beautiful about 6months from now the lady in the salon got them so thin and made one straight and the other arched where it shouldn’t
    Since that day I never plucked them again at all I only do the unibrow
    I have to study hard because I’m a med student but I’m always so sad embarrassed depressed and confused because of them it may seems so pathetic and dramatic but this is the truth I can do better at school if only this problem goes away :(

  2. Dear Krisha,

    I am so sorry for your loss. What a painful, unexpected tragedy for you and everyone who knew your boyfriend.

    It is totally understandable that you’re too upset and stressed to study! Have you considered talking to your professors or a school counselor? I’d ask for a leave of absence so I could grief my boyfriend’s death without having to study.

    I realize that taking time off from school will you behind. But, continuing as you are won’t be effective, either! Your mind, body, and soul needs time to grieve your loss. You won’t be able to study effectively unless you give yourself time to process your emotions.

    What do you think of taking time off school?

    In sympathy,

  3. Dear friend, I’ve lost my boyfriend in train accident unexpectedly a month ago. I could not study even though I need to study a lot as I’m a medical student. Please help me