GUEST POST: Focus Tips for Students: How to Effectively Ignore Irrelevant Information
By Erin Miller
Erin Miller is a Senior Psychology major and Spanish minor at St. Bonaventure University, from Long Island, New York. Her research interests include: mindfulness, its impact on memory and attention, and the exercise and health habits of children and college students. She is a member of Psi Chi, the Honors Program, and the cheerleading team. After she graduates in May 2018, she is going to graduate school for Occupational Therapy at Stony Brook University.
An earlier version of this blog appeared on sbucalm.blog
“I need to stop procrastinating and just focus” a sentence said by almost every student when under a time crunch studying for finals, writing a paper, or just doing math homework. The ability to “just focus,” is actually a lot harder than we think, specifically with your cell phone sitting right next to you, the people at the table two feet away, and the music blaring in your headphones. Focus, also known as selective attention, is “the process of focusing on a particular object in the environment for a certain period of time. Attention is a limited resource, so selective attention allows us to tune out unimportant details and focus on what really matters” (Cherry, 2017). Research has shown that there are ways to work on this ability and improve our focus. Here are some tips to help your brain focus a little harder on the task at hand:
1. Put the cell phone away.
First things first, humans are innately bad at multitasking. The basis of focus, or attention, is the ability to ignore distracting stimuli. Choosing to leave your cell phone in the other room while you study, is already a huge step towards improving your ability to focus. Moving your attention away from your school work to answer a text does not seem like a big deal, but is actually a huge detriment to the ability to get your attention back to the work you were doing. According to a study conducted in 2013, “students who were not using their cell phones wrote down 62 percent more information in their notes, took more detailed notes, were able to recall more detailed information from the lecture, and scored a full letter grade and a half higher on a multiple choice test than those students who were actively using their mobile phones” (Kuznekoff & Titsworth, 2013). Turn your phone off while you study, it is the most effective first step.
2. Close out tabs you are not using.
Similar to your cell phone buzzing on the table next to you, keeping tabs open on your computer that you are not using, are unnecessary distracters. Whether the tab is your Facebook profile, email inbox, or a full shopping cart on Amazon, keeping the tab open does not help your brain focus on the paper you are trying to write, or the formulas you are trying to memorize. Closing out tabs that you are not presently using, will allow you to get the work done faster, and then you can go back to shopping.
3. Take breaks, get fresh air.
If you are one of those people who says, “I am going to sit in this chair until I know everything I need to know for this test,” you might actually be hindering your studying ability! Decide before you start studying, when you will take a break, and when you will return to studying. Of course, the studying portion needs to be longer then the break portion, but the breaks are important. In her book, Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload, Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D., says a “quick walk outdoors” is an effective short break. Getting outside, taking some deep breaths, and thinking about anything besides the homework you are doing, can be very effective to sustain your focus (Tartakovsky, 2016).
4. Create a to-do list.
A lot of the stress we get from school, especially during finals week, comes from having several assignments that are all due on the same day. Before you begin to worry about when you will have time to get everything done, make a list of each of your assignments, when they are due, and plan out when you will complete them. Sometimes, even just writing down the assignments you have can help you relax, and realize that what you have to do is not as much as you think. Multitasking, has “a negative effect because of brain plasticity or “the way the brain changes in response to experience.” When you’re multitasking, “Your brain is changing itself to favor divided attention and fragmented thought, rather than concentration that resists distraction and rebounds from interruption” (Tartakovsky, 2016). Once you plan out when you will complete each task, you will not have to worry about all the other responsibilities, and can focus on them, one at a time.
Kendra Cherry | Reviewed by Steven Gans, MD. “What Is Selective Attention?” Verywell, www.verywell.com/what-is-selective-attention-2795022.
Kuznekoff, J., & Titsworth, S. (2013). The Impact of Mobile Phone Usage on Student Learning. Communication Education, 62(3). pp. 233-252.
Tartakovsky, Margarita. “12 Foolproof Tips for Finding Focus.” Psych Central, 17 July 2016, psychcentral.com/lib/12-foolproof-tips-for-finding-focus/.