Learning how to focus and get something done is about more than just good grades — it's the foundation for success in life. Mastering the skills of getting organized, staying focused, and seeing work through to the end will help in just about everything you do.
You probably know the basics by now, but here's a helpful refresher.
Organization is the first step. It makes everything else a little easier.
Keep your assignments and class information together in binders, notebooks, or folders that are organized by subject. You might want to set up a file drawer at home to keep track of research, returned assignments, and other things you want to hold on to.
If you find yourself stuffing loose papers in your bag or grabbing different notebooks for the same class just because they're close at hand, it's time to stop and regroup. Take an evening to get things organized again.
Maybe you can't carry different spiral-bounds for every class. One solution is to carry a binder that has separate sections. Another idea is to take notes in one notebook and at the end of each day rewrite them in a separate binder. This takes more time, but it is a great study skill because it allows you to read, write, and hopefully summarize all that was important during the schoolday. The more you review material, the more likely you are to remember it.
Whatever you choose, your system has to work for you. If it doesn't, change it until you find what does. It's a great way to learn about yourself and what works for your unique needs.
Most likely, you're on your own when it comes to progress and work on assignments. It can feel great to be your own boss, especially if you're a good one. Don't leave things until the last minute, though — you'll only end up working twice as hard to do half as well. Nerves and anxiety make it hard to stay focused and do a good job.
Set deadlines. At the beginning of each semester, make a calendar of due dates. Be sure you know what the main assignments are (if the teacher doesn't mention them at the start of the semester, ask) and what format they will take (a report, presentation, group project, etc.). Set clear goals.
Keep these questions in mind when organizing your calendar: What's the final product? When do certain components need to be completed? Answering these questions allows you to prioritize assignments by due dates, level of difficulty, and completion time.
Include nonacademic commitments on your calendar, such as team practices, drama rehearsals, etc. This will help you see when things might hit crunch time later in the semester.
Give yourself mini-deadlines for the stages of each project — planning, research, drafting, revising, and creating a final product.
Enforce deadlines. Decide how you'll enforce your deadlines. For example, will you reward yourself for meeting them? Ask your friends or parents to check in with you about your mini-deadlines so that you don't put them off. (Watch out if you ask parents to help, though. When they do, remember that they're not nagging you — you asked them to check in!)
If you have difficulty meeting deadlines but are attempting to improve your study skills and organization, talk with your teacher. He or she can help you to create reasonable short-term goals for a particular project or test.
Oh, no! That's due in 2 days! If something slips by and you find yourself surprised by a due date or stuck with very little turnaround time, try not to freak out. Do a breathing exercise to feel calm and focused. Then outline an approach to tackling the work. You can make an hourly or daily calendar of deadlines if that helps you structure your time.
If you're a perfectionist, it helps to remember that everyone can lose track of something once in a while. If this happens a lot, though, you need to get more organized.
Set Your Space
You need a good workspace — someplace clean and orderly and quiet enough to focus. (If you can, avoid trying to study in places that are the center of activity, like the kitchen.) It helps to have a specific place that's set aside for homework so that when you sit down, your mind knows you're there to work and can help you focus more quickly.
Your bedroom, a study, or any other room where you can get away from noise and distractions is an ideal place to focus. It's best to study at a desk or table where you can spread your work out. You'll also need a chair that's comfortable: It should support your lower back and allow you to keep both feet on the floor in front of you. To make studying less of a strain on your eyes, be sure you have enough light.
Finally, make sure the room you're in is comfortable. This sounds basic, but if you're too hot, too cold, or distracted by your pet hamster spinning on his wheel, you won't be able to concentrate as effectively.
Have resources handy. What do you need in your work area in order to avoid interruptions? Books, supplies, notes, research sources? Keep these in one place so you don't have to go off in search of printer paper, a stapler, or a book you know you just saw around here somewhere.
Be sure you have what you need before you head to the library or elsewhere to work on projects and papers. And each night, check that you've packed everything you need for class the next day — including assignments to turn in.
Think multitasking is a useful skill? Think again! A March 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly a third of students ages 8 to 18 don't concentrate on their homework alone. Instead, they "multitask" by talking on the phone, listening to music, watching TV, and IMing friends.
Studies show that when people do lots of things at once they tend to do a worse job on all of them than if they'd focused on just one thing at a time. So when you multitask as you study, you're less likely to absorb and retain the information you need to do well on that test.
This doesn't mean you have to study in total silence. Things like TV are bad distractions that you'll want to avoid. But listening to music can actually help some people concentrate — especially if they have to study in a noisy environment.
Just be sure that you tune in to good study music that isn't going to sidetrack you into singing the lyrics and dancing all over your room when you're supposed to be focused on the French Revolution. If you find yourself reading the same page over and over or fixing mistakes that you made as you worked, these are clues that the music isn't helping.
Chances are, you'll use the computer for papers and the Web for research while you're doing homework. This makes it hard to avoid temptations like IM and surfing. Set aside separate time just for IM and email so that when it's work time, you can shut them down and focus. (It's hard, but there's nothing like the little ding of a new message to take the focus off of what you're trying to do — especially if it's not your favorite subject!)
Stay focused. One way to keep your concentration is to take breaks — but make sure they're scheduled ones. Building a 15-minute break in after 45 minutes of studying can help your mind stay fresh and focused.
Get a change of scenery by leaving the room you've been working in. Exercise is a great way to clear your head and allow the mind to absorb what you've just studied. So now's the time to put on that song that makes you dance and sing! Do some stretches, walk the dog around the block, kick a ball in the backyard, or call a friend. Just make sure you get back to your studies when your 15 minutes are up.
It's normal for the mind to wander occasionally. If you find yourself getting distracted and thinking about other things, pull your attention back into a study groove as soon as possible. If daydreaming and fantasizing seem to take up too much of your work time, set aside a separate time to write in your journal or write fiction. That'll give you another incentive to get your homework done.
Get It Done!
In summary, here's a quick checklist of things that can help you focus:
- DO know your deadlines.
- DO make a calendar of stages and final due dates.
- DO include social events on this calendar for time management.
- DO understand the assignment and expectations.
- DO give yourself a quiet place to study with all the materials you need.
- DO give yourself brief breaks.
- DON'T put work off until the last minute; you'll be too frantic to focus.
- DON'T do your homework late at night or in bed.
- DON'T let yourself be bored; find the aspect of the project or paper that interests you — if you're dying of boredom, something's not right.
If you need more tips on staying focused, ask a teacher, school counselor, or a parent for help. It's their job to assist in your learning.
Reviewed by: Chris Cortellessa, M.Ed, NCC
Date reviewed: January 2012