Most students would agree with the fact that some level of focus is required in order to study, absorb material, and perform well in school. However, most students don’t look at their ability to focus as something to, well, focus on. If they do, they probably think it correlates with how much they’ve slept, whether they’re hungry, or if they’ve hit their capacity of studying for the day. So, they aim to sleep more, strive to be healthier, and take care in noting when they’ve reached their limits. All of this is true and pursuing these habits will help with your ability to focus. But what if I told you that your ability to focus is also a skill and that whether or not you’re aware of it, you’re doing things every day to either strengthen or weaken that skill?
It turns out, focus is in fact a skill that we can either strengthen or weaken. This fact is examined extensively in Deep Work, a book by Cal Newport that seeks to answer important questions about our ability to focus and the impacts this ability can have on our careers in the modern workforce. In this book, Newport also posits that our world is becoming an increasingly distracted place. While this might seem concerning, it also presents an opportunity to those who become aware of it and start to work on their focus.
Before we get into techniques that we can employ to strengthen our focus, let’s look at the aspects of modern life that end up eroding our focus. This can serve as a helpful starting point to understand what’s causing distraction in many of us. We can break these up into three key categories:
- The internet. This is particularly relevant in this age of online learning. The internet provides you with a variety of tasty distractions that are only a few clicks away. If you’re already on your web browser to access Canvas, the temptation to watch videos on YouTube is high.
- Social media. The pull from social media exists in the urge to be connected and see what your friends are up to. In the time following a post, this can be amplified as individuals will typically monitor a given social media platform more to see how many “likes” they’re receiving.
- Notifications are one of the most direct ways that technology attempts to steal your attention from the task at hand. It’s difficult to immerse yourself in a study session when that group chat with your friends is making your phone buzz every few minutes.
Now, let’s dive into some techniques that can help cultivate the ability to focus. I’ll present three of my favourites here, but you can refer to the two books I’ve noted at the end of this post for more techniques.
- Silence notifications when engaging in a task that requires concentration, such as studying. This helps to keep you immersed in a state of focus.
- Schedule blocks of time to surf your phone and clear your notifications rather than doing it continuously. If you know that your next time to check your phone is in an hour, it can be easier to resist the urge to check your phone while you’re studying.
- Ensure you aren’t distracting yourself while learning online by utilizing website blockers that block specific websites such as Reddit or YouTube. There are many options when it comes to website blockers but one of my favorites is a Chrome extension called StayFocused, which allows you to give yourself a maximum amount of time you can spend on certain websites in a given day.
Once you start to become aware of your propensity to focus, you’ll get a better sense of what pulls you into distraction and what settles you into a rhythm of focus. For instance, as I began making some of these changes in my own life, I started to lose the desire to indulge in my scheduled internet blocks and instead felt compelled to read, go on long walks, or call a friend or family member to relax.
As previously mentioned, many of the ideas and some of the techniques in this post come from the book Deep Work by Cal Newport (Access through the UBC Library). Another excellent read to dive deeper into this topic is The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (Access through the UBC Library). If this subject interests you, I would highly recommend reading these books. I wish you the best of luck on your quest to get focused!