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How to combat your scatterbrain to focus on study

Competing responsibilities and a never-ending to-do list can make it feel almost impossible to concentrate on your studies. No matter how meticulously you arrange your stationary, or how good your intentions are, you just can’t seem to get started. Welcome to scatterbrain.

Glenn Melvin, Associate Professor of Psychology at Deakin University, explains the reasons behind a scatterbrain, and how to focus on study more effectively.

What causes us to feel ‘scatterbrained’?

Information overload, stress, and anxiety are common causes for feeling like you’re unable to gather the flurry of thoughts running through your head. Add in a global pandemic and the associated challenges that come with frequent change, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for lowered concentration levels. Assoc. Prof. Melvin explains.

‘We see a variety of effects when people are feeling stressed, and one of those is around concentration and being able to focus and keep up a good output of work. We can see sleep problems start to emerge when people are experiencing more stress. You feel sort of tense and perhaps feel less like connecting with others.’

Other symptoms include re-reading the same line repeatedly without absorbing any information and opting for a fourth cup of coffee before you really get started. No matter what kind of ‘study personality’ you may have, we’ve all felt scatterbrained at some point.

So, what can you do to fix it? Assoc. Prof. Melvin gives us his tips and tricks on how to concentrate on studies and conquer a scatterbrain.

How to focus on study more effectively

1. Establish a routine

Whether you’re studying on campus or at home, Assoc. Prof. Melvin recommends planning each day to include time for study, work, socialising, exercise, and self-care.

‘With a plan, think about what time to get up and where to fit in exercise during the day. Where are my study breaks? Where’s my social time? When am I going to dedicate time to catching up with someone on FaceTime, Google Hangouts, or on the phone?’ Assoc. Prof. Melvin says.

2. Minimise the noise

‘We have a limit to the amount of information we can take in and what we can focus on at one time. So, if all our bandwidth is taken up by concerning messages around pandemics and impending danger, that takes up all of our attention,’ Assoc. Prof. Melvin says.

While studying, Assoc. Prof. Melvin suggests keeping your phone on silent, closing your email and social feeds, and limiting the number of times you check the news to once a day.

'We can see sleep problems start to emerge when people are experiencing more stress. You feel sort of tense and perhaps feel less like connecting with others.'

Associate Professor Glenn Melvin,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

3. Start with the easy tasks

Ease your way in by starting with the easy tasks first, to build up your momentum before tackling the harder ones.

For example, Assoc. Prof. Melvin suggests starting with unit readings, note-taking, or reviewing a lecture, before getting stuck into your more intensive tasks such as structuring an argument or problem-solving.

‘You’ve often just got to start, and you can get going from there.’

4. Take regular breaks

The Pomodoro Technique is a tried and tested study method that involves studying in 25-minute blocks followed by a five-minute break.

‘Set the timer and say, for example, these 25 minutes I’m going to very much focus on my economics or my psychology study, and I’m going to have my phone on silent,’ Assoc. Prof. Melvin says.

Allowing yourself short and regular intervals to break away from your study space can give you some time to prepare some study snacks, practice mindfulness or meditation, or spend time outside.

5. Get enough sleep

We hear all the time how important it is to get enough sleep – but it really is.

‘When people are feeling elevated levels of stress or anxiety in their lives, sleep can be something that suffers. None of us are at our best when we’ve had a poor night’s sleep.’ Assoc. Prof. Melvin says.

Avoid too much caffeine and alcohol into the evening, designate some screen-free time to relax before bedtime, then hop into bed when you start to feel signs of tiredness.

6. Reach out to your support networks

Whether it’s a friend, family member, teacher, co-worker, or peer, find someone you trust and feel comfortable to speak to.

If you don’t feel comfortable reaching out to someone you know, Assoc. Prof. Melvin suggests contacting support and counselling services at your school or university, or a public service such as headspace.

If you’re having trouble keeping up with your studies, reach out to your teacher or unit coordinator sooner rather than later, and address the problem head-on.

7. Be kind to yourself

In the end, being hard on yourself won’t make things any easier.

‘It’s important to note that it’s somewhat expected that our concentration and our focus isn’t perhaps as good as it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s taken our attention and that will likely have an impact, so it’s to be expected,’ Assoc. Prof. Melvin says.

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Associate Professor Glenn Melvin
Associate Professor Glenn Melvin

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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