6 simple strategies for improving students’ focus

Bored, distracted studentDo you ever wish you could ignore all of the distractions around you and just focusbut find that, no matter how hard you try to stay on task, you keep getting sidetracked?

If so, then you can relate to what students often experience on a daily basis when they sit down to work on their homework.

Students with ADHD can have an especially difficult time avoiding distractions and staying focused on their work.  However, this problem isn’t limited to students with diagnosed attention difficulties.  Many high school and college students struggle with maintaining focus – especially on assignments that require sustained attention, like writing papers or reading textbooks.

A recent study found that, on average, students were distracted every 6 minutes while studying, and were on task for only about 10 out of every 15 minutes (Rosen et al. 2013).   These students were also aware that someone was watching them study, so real-life distraction rates are likely to be even higher.

This lack of focus can have major costs for students.

Working while distracted can dramatically increase the amount of time students spend on their homework.  If a student has 2 hours of homework to complete, but only spends 10 out every 15 minutes actively working on his or her assignments, they will need at least 3 hours to complete the same amount of work.  (And, again, that’s an optimistic estimate!)  All this extra time spent on homework can cause students to stay up late and lose sleep…which makes it even more difficult for them to stay focused and avoid distractions the following day.

Frequent distractions also have a quantifiable effect on students’ grades.  Studies have shown that college students who spend more time on Facebook tend to spend less time studying, and have lower GPAs, than their peers.  Sending text messages while studying has also been associated with lower grades in college.

6 Simple strategies to increase students’ focus:

There are many reasons why students can have trouble focusing, including…

  • Physical factors (low energy, dehydration, etc.)
  • External distractions (phone, computer, siblings/parents, etc.)
  • Internal distractions (thoughts, worries, etc.)
  • Difficult or confusing task
  • Low motivation
  • Low urgency

Happily, there are a number of quick and simple solutions that students can use to reduce distractions and increase their ability to focus!  Here are some of my favorites:


  1. Nourish your body & refresh your brain 
  • Try working at a time of day when you naturally have more energy. For instance, if you normally do homework later in the evening, try starting it earlier in the afternoon and see how that affects your ability to stay focused and avoid distractions.
  • Try exercising before you study.  Just 15-20 minutes of aerobic exercise can provide an immediate boost in executive function, which helps students avoid distraction and maintain focus on their work.
  • Drink more water!  Studies have shown that even being slightly dehydrated can have a significant impact on attention and focus.
  • If you’re having trouble focusing while you sit, try standing or walking while you work. Some students – especially kinesthetic learners – can think and focus more effectively while they’re physically active.
  • Take short breaks after completing each assignment, or after 30-60 minutes of focused work.  Getting up to walk around, refill your water bottle, use the bathroom, pet your dog, etc. can help reset your focus & attention.
  1. Eliminate external distractions
  • Turn off or silence your electronic devices.  If you can’t turn them off, put them on silent and turn off all notifications. Block internet access for websites that tend to distract you.
  • Try changing your location to someplace less familiar, where there are fewer potential distractions in the environment.  High school students studying in their room could try working at the dining room table.  College students can study in a coffee shop or library rather than their dorm.
  • If you’re writing, try putting Word in ‘Focus’ view or writing in an app like ommwriter.com.
  • If studying in silence is distracting, try listening to ambient sounds or music that is designed to help focus & creativity, from sites like coffitivity.com, noisli.com, or focusatwill.com
  1. Minimize internal distractions
  • If your mind is racing in 100 different directions as you sit down to work, take a few minutes before you start to write down everything that’s on your mind so you can deal with it later, after your work is completed.
  • Keep a notepad (or a text file) nearby while you’re working, which you can use to record any ideas that come to mind while working but that are NOT related to the task you’re working on.
  • If you’re worried about something, schedule an appointment with yourself to worry about it at a specific future time.
  1. Make it easy to get started
  • Shrink the task down to something so simple that you’re 100% confident in your ability to complete it successfully.  For example, start out by committing to focus on your work for just 5 minutes, or to write just ONE sentence, and then give yourself a break.
  • Identify the first step you need to take in order to make progress with this work. Then, ignore everything else and just focus on taking this one step.
  1. Increase your motivation
  • Create a reward, or incentive, for yourself by planning a specific, fun activity you will do as soon as you finish your work.
  • Focus on the benefits of finishing this assignment. Think about how good you will feel as soon as you have completed it, or about how much better you will do on your next test.  (If that doesn’t work for you, try considering the negative consequences of not finishing it!  Does that feel more motivating?)
  • Increase your accountability, by working in a place where people can see what you’re doing, or making a public commitment (to a friend, roommate, parent, sibling, etc.) about what you will accomplish in this time period.
  1. Increase the time pressure 
  • Reduce the total amount of time you have available to do the work, by creating constraints that require you to finish your work at a particular time. For example, you might decide that you’ll watch a particular TV show that comes on at 8 pm, and tell yourself you have to finish your homework before you start the show.
  • Instead of setting aside 3 hours for homework, divide your work into shorter intervals and give yourself a deadline for each task.  For instance, rather than thinking “I have 3 hours to finish my homework”, think: “I have 25 minutes to do my math homework, 30 minutes to do my history reading…” etc. Use a timer to keep track of how much time you have left for each task.  (For students with an iphone or ipad, 30/30 is a great app for this)
  • If the task feels boring, challenge yourself to see how quickly you can finish it. Try setting an absurdly SHORT deadline (e.g. if it would normally take 30 minutes, can you manage to do it in 15 if you really focus?)

How you can help:

If your teen is having difficulty staying focused, offer to help brainstorm ideas for how to improve his or her focus.  You probably have lots of ideas, especially after reading this article!  But resist the urge to give your teen lots of ideas all at once, as this can create overwhelm and increase resistance to your ideas.  Instead, encourage your teen to come up with at least one idea of his or her own between each of your suggestions.  Trade off suggesting ideas until you have 4-5 options to choose from, and then ask your teen which ones seem like they would be most useful.

Alternatively, you’re welcome to forward this article to your teen, so he or she can read about the strategies themselves.

Or, if you think your teen could benefit from working through this information with a coach who can help identify the strategies that will be most helpful for increasing his or her focus while studying, you’re welcome to contact me for a free consultation.

If you have any questions about how to help your teen increase his or her focus, please email me at maggie@creatingpositivefutures.com, or leave a comment below.  I would love to hear from you!

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About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit http://creatingpositivefutures.com/contact or email support@creatingpositivefutures.com

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