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How to keep focussed while studying online

What can you do to stay focussed and avoid distractions when learning from home? Here are some tips to improve concentration when it comes to online study.

Online study is on the rise. In fact, over 15% of tertiary students now complete their qualifications exclusively online – usually from home.  

Unfortunately a rise in online learning also means a rise in online distractions. Concentrating in a busy lecture theatre is hard enough, but focussing your mental energy for extended periods of time while surrounded by technology, friends, dinner and all the comforts of home is almost impossible. Researchers at Kent State recently found that online learners are 25% more likely to multi-task with non-academic work than their on-campus peers.  

So what can you do to stay focussed? Here are some tips to improve concentration when it comes to online study.   

Block out distractions 

Let’s start with the obvious – technological distractions. Unplugging your modem is obviously not an option when it comes to online learning, but there are several apps and programs that can help limit distractions and improve concentration. Forest is one of them. For every minute you don’t exit the Forest app on your phone, Forest will plant a small digital tree. The longer you resist temptation, the healthier your forest will be. Freedom works in a similar way – you can set up a dashboard to block certain websites (say, Instagram) and even schedule ‘Freedom sessions’ for certain times of the day, cutting off your distraction supply at its source.  

Create a good study environment 

What constitutes a ‘good study environment’ will be different for everybody. Some people work well in crowded cafes (research shows that ambient noise can help improve mental performance), while others prefer the home office. If you’re studying at home, take some time to create a work-friendly space. This usually means a large, flat surface with plenty of room, good natural light (it’s a proven mood stimulant) and a comfy, supportive chair. In fact, some studies suggest that simply improving your posture can increase energy levels and confidence. If you’re studying after dark, check out programs like f.lux, too. They can tweak your screen’s light temperature to make things easier on the eyes.   

Try the ‘Five More’ rule 

Think of online study like a marathon. There will always be a point where your brain, fatigued by the constant barrage of information, tries to nudge you into distraction. Like a runner’s aching leg muscles, it wants a break. But just like a muscle, you can train your brain to push through this pain barrier. It’s called the ‘Five More’ rule. Next time you want to stop studying and browse the web, try and push through five more pages, five more topics, five more minutes. That little extra effort can sometimes unlock a ‘second wind’. Psychologists believe that continued concentration, especially when your brain is tired, is the key to stretching your overall attention span. You can actually make your mind stronger over time.  

Get some green time 

It sounds weird, but there’s evidence to suggest that surrounding yourself with greenery can boost concentration (not to mention making your home much more stylish). Other studies have shown that adding plants to a bare, fluorescent office increases productivity by 15%. It also improves your overall mood and job satisfaction. This doesn’t mean necessarily filling your study room with monsteras and fiddle-leaf figs (although there’s nothing wrong with that). Going for a walk in the park should have a similar effect. It’s something about the human condition: we work better around plants.  

Take a microbreak  

You might have heard of ‘microbreaks’ before. The concept is simple: small, intermittent work breaks can improve our overall focus and concentration. There’s some solid science to back this up. It revolves around the psychological effect known as Troxler Fading, which is when continual attention to a non-moving object causes that object to simply disappear. (You can try it yourself over here.) Some scientists believe our minds do the same thing when we work – too long staring at a single task causes our energy levels to dip and our brains to block out information. The mind wants stimulus. It wants movement and change. The length of the microbreak isn’t too important: it can range from 30 seconds stretching at your desk to simply making a coffee.  

Try the Pomodoro Technique  

So how do you know when to break and when to work? That’s the real secret of procrastination, isn’t it. Well there’s something called the Pomodoro Technique that experts believe can really help. Here’s how to do it: select one task to work on, set a timer, then work until it rings and take a short break. How long to set the timer is up to you, but to get the full benefit, it generally needs to be more than 25 minutes. Repeat this cycle three to four times, taking short three-to-five minute breaks in between, then step away from your desk for 25 to 30 minutes. This constant cycle of concentration and coffee-fuelled release will keep your brain limber and focussed.  


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This article was originally published on 26 November 2019