How to Stay Focused When Learning on the Internet

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In this article, we cover our favorite tips for staying focused and finding flow, including:

  • The pomodoro method
  • Finding your best focus times
  • Incrementally building focus
  • Installing social media feed blockers
  • Setting social media time limits on your phone
  • Setting goals around your learning

I’ve had countless conversations over the years with people trying to figure out how to focus better.

It’s been a consistent issue for me, too. I’m someone who reads tens of books a year (last year I read over 60!), writes and publishes tens of thousands of words, juggles multiple projects -- and I still feel like I often have trouble being as focused as I’d like.

You know the feeling -- “I’m doing all these things, but I could do so much more if I could only better figure out how to focus when studying, learning, working, creating (insert goal here).”

We’ve all been there -- you go online to learn about something new, and you quickly find yourself bombarded with distractions. We live in a world full of them. 

Everybody wants your attention -- advertising companies, social media platforms, individual accounts on social media, people selling new products, people sending emails to your inbox … the whole internet is a mess of people trying to steal your focus.

The more we get used to scrolling through social media and clicking through links, the harder it gets. Our focus fragments, and our attention span shrinks.

Sound familiar?

When you’re learning online, you need to be able to maintain your focus -- so all these distractions can be a problem. Luckily, there are a large number of tools and tricks you can use to help you focus better. In this article, we’ll be breaking down our favorites -- and sharing tips and tricks for applying each one.

Try the pomodoro method

Pomodoro is one of the most often-referenced strategies to help increase your focus and productivity -- and one of the best starting places when you’re trying to figure out how to focus when studying. The way it works is simple; when you sit down and start working, you do 25 minutes of focused work, or deep work, followed by a 5 minute break.

During your 25 minutes of focused work, you set a timer, and until the timer goes off you turn off all distractions. You don’t check social media, you don’t respond to messages, and you don’t go down googling rabbit holes.

Anything you need to check later can be jotted down as a note to help you remember, but the goal is to accomplish as much as possible with your 25 minutes of focused work.

There are a couple reasons Pomodoro works so well. It helps you stay focused and avoid distractions, because you’re checking all relevant communications (or tempting distractions!) at a regular interval. But while you’re focused, everything gets turned off -- so you can get as much done as possible.

The ticking clock also turns whatever you’re working on into a game, because you’re incentivized to get as much done as you can “before the buzzer.”

Challenge:

Next time you sit down to work, try using a pomodoro timer (this one is a great place to start). Focus for 25 minutes, take a break for 5, and repeat the process until you finish the task at hand. You’ll likely find you complete whatever you’re working on far more efficiently.

It’s worth noting that time blocks don’t have to be 25 minutes! Some of our team (including our CEO Shireen) find 20 minutes too short, and prefer 55 minute time blocks with a 5 minute break afterward. The length of the time blocks isn’t strict. Choose what works for you!

Figure out the best time of day for you to focus

We all have ebbs and flows of energy throughout the day. Some of us focus better first thing in the morning, before life has started to fragment their focus, while others focus better later in the day after their tasks have been completed.

Are you an early bird or a night owl? A lunchtime learner, or an evening explorer? 

Even though we often go through life assuming we’re always “on,” and we always have to be, we actually have ebbs and flows of energy all the time. And usually, those times of day are consistent -- meaning you’ll be at your highest energy levels at the same time every single day. 

Figure out the times of day you’re typically most focused, and schedule those times as your time for learning. Make it a part of your daily routine -- or even schedule time on your calendar if you need to (for example, a study time on your calendar right after lunch).

The goal here is to use your natural proclivities to help make learning as easy and efficient as possible. 

Challenge:

To put this in practice, notice your energy flows throughout the day. When is it easiest for you to sit and read a book for 30 minutes, or write a blog post, or research something you’re curious about? Block that time on your calendar for the next week, and commit to spending that focused time learning. Notice how much easier it is to get things done when you’re learning into your natural ability to focus.

Build focus incrementally

If you decided tomorrow to go to the gym and become a weightlifter, you wouldn’t be able to walk into the room and lift the heaviest weights right away. You’d start out at a moderate weight, and you’d be exhausted by the time you finished lifting.

But you’d keep practicing. In a week, with steady practice, you’d likely be able to lift something a little heavier than you could the first week. In a month, you’d start to see real progress. And the more you practiced, the more your strength would increase.

In the same way going from 0 to 200 when weightlifting is hard, so too is it hard to go from 0 to 60 on your focus. But just like a muscle, your ability to focus can be built through slow practice over time. 

Start by focusing 15 or 20 minutes at a time. More importantly, focus consistently, preferably every day. Slowly increase the time periods of your focused work -- until focusing for 60 minutes or more feels natural.

Additionally, think about your activities as short-form focus and long-form focus. Short-form focus activities are things that only take a few seconds -- to a couple minutes at most -- to complete or consume. As an example, social media is built on short-form focus -- quick pieces of information that only take a few seconds to absorb.

Things like reading longer articles, books, listening to long-form podcasts, etc. are all forms of long-form focus. 

Whenever you can, do long-form focus activities instead of short-form focus activities. When you have 10 minutes to spare, read a book instead of scrolling through social media. The more you practice, the easier the focus activities will get. 

Challenge:

Carry a book around with you for the next week. Every time you have a few minutes to spare -- waiting for lunch to heat up, waiting in a drive-through line, or killing downtime in between meetings -- open your book and read for a bit. See if you notice a difference in your focus stamina between the start of the week and the end of the week (you likely will!).

Use feed blockers

The greatest enemies of focus are the things that break it. Anything that distracts your attention starts to fragment your focus.

Think about it: you’re sitting at your computer working on writing an email. You want to reference something you saw on Twitter earlier in the week, so you pull up the site with the intention of searching for the account or keyword you’re remembering. When you pull up Twitter, your feed comes with it, and you notice a tweet that seems interesting right at the top.

You scroll for a moment or two before you search, see a couple other ideas that seem interesting -- and even if you remember what you were doing and go back to the search bar, and then on to finish your email, you’re still distracted.

Your focus has been fragmented. You’ve been pulled in multiple directions -- each tweet was a new fork in your attention.

Worse, scrolling can be a tempting distraction when you need a break from your work, and it’s easy to get lost down a social media rabbit hole.

With all these distractions at your fingertips, somehow you have to figure out how to focus when studying, how to focus when working, or how to focus when learning.

Feed blockers (like this one!) allow you to turn off the feed function on social media, so you don’t get lost scrolling. That way you can still use social media for work and productivity, without running the risk of getting too distracted.

Challenge:

Install a feed blocker on social media. For the next week, keep the blocker on and use it to help maintain your focus. See if you notice a difference when you’re not scrolling through social media. Do you get more done in a day? How much time do you think you were wasting mindlessly scrolling?

Set up social media time limits on your phone

Feed blockers are a great way to limit your social media use on your desktop, but they don’t eradicate the issue altogether. Social media -- with its short-form focus -- is one of the biggest enemies of getting things done..

There are a few different things you can do to to help lessen the impact of social media on your productivity:

  1. Put all your social media apps in a folder on the back page of your phone. The less accessible social media apps are, the less likely you are to get distracted by them. Keep your social media apps out of sight, so they aren’t the first thing you see when you open your phone -- and aren’t an immediate source of distraction.
  2. Set up social media time limits on your phone. Time limits help catch your bad habits, and can be a more definitive way of cutting out a tendency towards scrolling on social media.  You can find instructions here for setting up limits in iOS.
  3. Keep your social media accounts logged in on one browser. I keep an entirely different type of browser for my social media accounts (I work on Chrome, but I keep my social media accounts on Firefox) so I can’t be tempted to scroll through social media while I’m working. My Netflix account lives on Firefox, too. I like having a separate space for work vs. pleasure. If you use social media for work, this is harder to do, but it can still be a way to separate your personal accounts from your workspace.

When you cut down your social media use, you may be surprised by how much time opens up in your day! 

Challenge:

Try one of the above methods for a week (hiding your social media apps, setting a time limit on your phone, and/or logging out of your accounts), and see if you notice a difference in your focus. When social media isn’t there to distract you, is it easier to get things done? Does cutting out social media seem to be an effective way of increasing your productivity?

No matter which method you try, set goals around your learning

Having clear goals is a great way to maintain your focus, because goals give you a sense of purpose. How to focus when studying becomes much easier when there’s a clear reason why you’re doing what you’re doing.

More importantly, when you have goals, it’s easy to measure the value of all your activities. My favorite way to check the value of what I’m doing:

  1. Does this activity move me closer to my goals? If the answer is no, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and move on to something that does move me towards my goals. If the answer is yes, my next question is:
  2. How effectively does this activity move me closer to my goals? Is there something more effective I could be doing with my time?

Challenge:

Take five minutes to sit down and set some goals around your learning (here’s a blog post to get you started!). For the next week, learn according to those goals -- focusing on things that move you closer to your goals, and ignoring the things that don’t. At the end of the week, assess -- does this help you move towards your goals more effectively?

Putting all this into practice

How to focus when studying (or working, or creating, or anything else) is a problem many people struggle with, but the best solution varies from person to person. For most, the best strategy is to choose a couple different options, and mix and match until you find a combination that works for you. And really, the key to figuring out what works for you is experimentation.

We recommend setting goals around your learning first, then choosing one of the other strategies to begin.

Choose one of these strategies to use for the next week (or a combination of multiple, if you’d like!). See if you notice a difference in your productivity, and adjust accordingly until you find the combination that works best for you.


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