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9 Tricks to Stay Focused While Studying - COVID Edition

Jewel Enrile
April 5, 2021
Illustrations by Yuxuan Wu

Goldfishes are notorious for having one of the shortest attention spans in the world. Give them nine seconds, and they’re onto something new. Great news: with digitalization creeping into our everyday lives, humans’ attention spans now rank lower than the goldfishes! Eight seconds and we’ve already lost our focus. 

If that isn’t enough cause for alarm, this data came from a 2015 study. With online classes and work-from-home set-ups replacing everything we know in 2021, let’s just cue our nervous laughter right here. 

Attention span - Lockcard meme
Me realizing how fast my attention span has been dwindling

And look, I don’t have that much of high ground on this. I struggle with focusing on tasks more than I actually succeed in completing them. But I’m going to turn the following sentences into a humble-brag. I’ve been chasing academic deadlines while somehow balancing work and personal life issues and have yet to fail to meet one.  I can blame my innate perfectionism, but I did pick up several strategies.

As we are all simply trying to cope with a fast-paced, disastrous world, I want to share them with you today! 

And oh, here’s a challenge: read to the very end of this article without opening up another tab or reaching for your phone. 


1. Take Away All Distraction 

Yes, this is the one thing every single guide mentions, but I’m repeating it for a reason. Whatever your preferred flavor of distraction is, it’s the one thing pulling your attention away.

I know I’m not alone with browsing social media while in class. It can be harmless until a few crucial sentences pass by, and I’m grasping for the last few words I’ve heard. Those little details that pass us by could have been essential deadlines, a pop quiz, or some vital section about a lecture the professor will never repeat again. 

With many professors never recording their emails or becoming unreachable via email, that moment where you were distracted could have been the only chance to take note of it. 

I promise you Twitter will welcome you with open arms after class or work. When temptation is too great, install app or site blockers like Freedom or Serene.

But honestly, it’s easy to circumvent app blockers. They’re nothing more than a minor inconvenience you could quickly get rid of with a few clicks. 

The solution? Make it even more of an inconvenience.

Focus Tip: Put your phone or gaming gadget in another room or somewhere you can put it under lock and key.  If you have someone in the house with you, entrust your extra gadgets with them. 

And yes, you can still access social media with the main gadget you use for class. I have tips for that later on. This is your chance to learn delayed gratification and focus on the whole article, so power through! 

2. Romanticize Everything 

You focus more when you’re doing something you love. Let studying court you back into having a passion for it. 

I came across the words dark academia in the form of a random playlist on YouTube. I searched it up after and found myself looking at leather journals, tweed shirts, mugs of coffee, and classical architecture.

Discovering dark academia actually led me back to Tumblr, my teen obsession

There were excerpts from poems and books I knew and loved - especially The Secret History by Donna Tartt. If you aren’t familiar with the book, let me say that academia doesn’t get any darker with Greek students committing murder.  

Focus Tip: Surround yourself with things that motivate you - mood boards of your goals, your favorite music, pictures of your achievements and loved ones.

Then, I found study communities that loved dark academia and its counterpart, light academia. There was passion around knowledge and self-discovery that brought me back to a time in my teens. I wore long maxi skirts, took my books near the river, and read by the reeds. On breaks, I made it seem like I had a class to go to and escaped to the local bookshop. I spent long hours in a corner and read the whole day. 

And though I still loved learning and reading today, the romantic aspect of it had waned. The tyranny of metrics and deadlines in education had stolen most of my indulgent illusions. 

Dark Academia - Youtube
One of my favorite uploads to play while studying!

But Internet communities have reawakened that romanticization - no matter how unreal. It was my chance to slip into another reality and fall in love with learning over again. With the help of a few playlists (I recommend olivialee) and mood boards on Tumblr, I got some of that groove back. 

3. Use Pomodoro Timers 

The Pomodoro technique has saved my attention span. I’m editing this blog right now with pomofocus.io running on another tab. 

If you’re not familiar with the Pomodoro technique, it’s pretty simple: 

  • Set a timer and start working for 25 minutes
  • Have a 5-minute break 
  • Jump back to work for another 25 minutes
  • Repeat - until you reach four 25-minute intervals! You can have a more extended, 15-minute break by then.

Basically, you work all you can with the time you’ve got. Dividing your tasks into small increments makes them more doable, while forced breaks stop you from going in too much and causing burnout. 

The 25-minute focus time is not a strict rule. There are times you don’t want to interrupt the flow of concentration you’ve got going. In this case, you can use the site I mentioned to extend your work and break times. You can customize it to your natural productivity flow. 

Pomodoro - Pomofocus App
90-minute focus times are ideal for productivity, try it out!

There are multiple Pomodoro apps for phones. I personally use Forest! You grow trees within 25 minutes - if you exit the app, your beautiful tree withers away. It’s also great for effectively eliminating phone-related distractions. 

4. Reward Yourself 

Sweet, sweet dopamine gets your brain going. However, it’s not the actual reward that triggers those hormones but the expectation of said reward. 

You want to expect this positive thing to come after hard work, motivating you to focus more on your tasks. Associating the act of concentrating and learning itself with something positive won’t hurt, either. 

Productivity Tip: Diversify your rewards: your favorite food, some time to game, or getting that dress you’ve been eyeing for months.

Ask your parents to help out - they can even add bonuses to your allowance if you meet a goal or two. (On the off-chance they suspiciously ask you where your negotiation skills come from, try not to point back to me!)

5. Gamify Your Tasks 

Make focusing and productivity more fun. You can download apps like Habitica and be brought back to your childhood roleplaying game.  Create a character, level up through tasks, and make guilds with your friends! 

SuperBetter is a good app, too - and you can use it on your laptop. Like Habitica, you get to finish quests and add friends. Anything counterproductive becomes a bad guy to defeat. You level up your physical, mental, social, and emotional resilience. 

Superbetter - More Productive

If you’re struggling to focus on writing work, Sprinto on Discord can help. I’ve been reliant on it for the past month. It essentially aids you to free-write more - just set up a sprint, set the time, and you and your friends can join. The person with the most words per minute in the end wins! 

Writing Tip: Aside from the rush you get when writing with people and a time limit with Sprinto, it also eliminates all the anxiety that comes with writing “properly.” You can focus on getting the contents down on paper and edit later.

6. Do Time-Blocking

Aka, plan everything ahead on a to-do list. You dedicate specific amounts of time to certain tasks and follow the schedule you set out. 

This is the best plan of action if you have a free day to focus on your tasks, and you know nothing is going to come up. That way, you wire your brain to think that you’re supposed to do a particular task at a set amount of time. 

Calendar - Notion for students
I already have a set routine I follow, so this is a very loose time-blocking technique I do on my Notion. I can expand each tab, set the time, and draft my work directly.

This is also ideal for managing your time with classes. I find myself scrambling to prepare for a class, or fit in a workout, studying, and household chores. Start planning your schedule around your lessons in the evening and make sure you have enough time for breaks. 

7. Have People to Keep You Company

I’m an extrovert suffering from the loss of socialization. It affects us more than we realize, especially if you're still a teen.

I’m one of the lucky few who can study and work with someone at home.

Working with someone makes it easier to focus. Plus, it inspires me to feel guilty when I slack off, and I see them leafing over another page.

I’ve also found more study communities with the power of the Internet. Aside from Discord servers with my friends, I’ve discovered study communities on all social media platforms! I usually stay within Discord with dedicated “study rooms” in the voice channels. You play music, study, and chat - and it’s a lot like being back in the library. I’ve looked up every now and then to see some people with their videos on yawn and sing along to the songs playing. 

When I’m not on Discord, I open up my social media and see people updating their task logs and how much they’ve finished. There are people encouraging others to keep going or comforting those who express that they’re too tired to do anything that day. Try joining us - it might just boost your productivity.

8. Take Notes During Classes

Can’t keep yourself from opening up Twitter on your laptop? Keep your hands busy. Scribble your notes during classes. I almost become a transcriber in some lectures where I don’t have to turn on my camera. Taking notes becomes second nature as I listen to the teacher - it makes sure you focus. You get all the pertinent information down on paper. 

“On paper” is a lie for me - I take digital notes with Notion. I find it easier to do, but note-taking on paper is also possible. It's also much better for retention.

Notion for Students - Digital Note taking
The best note taking app, hands-down: Notion
Note-Taking Tip: Play around with colors, designs and even go all-in with washi tape, stickers, and stamps. It becomes something enjoyable and turns into art! 

9. Reduce All-Nighters 

While we may like to think we finish more with all-nighters, we actually slow down and don’t absorb anything. Our focus dips drastically. I’ve had instances where I pull an all-nighter and spend at least three hours the next day fast asleep.

If you’re buried under deadlines, losing those few hours during the day is enough to give you a heart attack. 

As much as it goes against your plans, take naps every now and then. Twenty minutes is enough to give you energy.

Productivity Tip: Try not to sleep after midnight. And if you are going to do an all-nighter - I’m the last person to stop you - don’t overdo it. Rest the next day. Don’t be too hard on yourself. 

These strategies work for me, and I hope they work for you, too! Let our generation be the one that beats goldfishes with our focus. 

And hey - did you read this blog without straying to another tab or your phone? If you did, congratulations are in order. 

Charlotte Chen, Designer @Duolingo

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