Feeling tired, hard to concentrate, or just simply sleepy when it comes to studying? You’re definitely not alone.
We all have had those days where our brains feels numb and drained, only to remember that we still have more studying to do. Joy.
So here are 14 tried-and-tested, practical yet sustainable ways on how to focus when studying, no matter how tired you feel.
- 1. Study in a brightly lit room
- 2. Don’t get too comfortable
- 3. Remove all distractions before studying
- 4. Study with other like-minded people
- 5. Drink enough water
- 6. Have a balanced diet and avoid heavy meals
- 7. Study consistently and keep optimizing your routine
- 8. Go for a walk (or just get up and move)
- 9. Chew some gum
- 10. Limit caffeine beverages. Avoid energy drinks and alcohol
- 11. Still tired? Try switching topics or tasks (temporarily)
- 12. Take a 20-30 minute power nap
- 13. Don’t ever do an all nighter
- 14. Finally, do you have enough sleep?
1. Study in a brightly lit room
Setting up the right environment is your first step to effective study sessions.
The type of light matters. Studying in a room with natural light sources (e.g. near a window) does wonders on keeping you focused and alert, even in the afternoon. Studies have shown that people that had exposure to day light (vs. artificial light) in the day tend to stay alert for longer in the evening.
For night time studying, make sure your environment is sufficiently bright, and don’t just rely on one lone light source, if possible.
2. Don’t get too comfortable
Getting too comfortable is a recipe for drowsiness, not something you want when learning new concepts!
Here are a couple of easy ways to minimize that:
- Wear “work clothes”, not pajamas for studying: Dressing for success matters. While it isn’t necessary to wear suits or office clothing, it is harder to fall asleep in them vs. your comfy sleeping attires.
- Try standing occasionally while studying: In a 2011 study conducted over 7 weeks on participants who alternated between sitting and standing during work:
- 87% of them reported higher energy levels,
- 87% of them felt more energized,
- 75% felt healthier,
- 71% felt more focused,
- 66% felt more productive,
- 62% felt happier, and
- 33% felt less stressed
- Study in an ideal room temperature of 22C (72F): A 2017 study shown that excessive heat negatively impacts exam performances and likely to disrupt the learning process in the long term. Make sure you factor this in when setting up your ideal study environment for maximum efficiency.
3. Remove all distractions before studying
Eliminate digital distractions:
- Switch your phone to silent, especially with no social media notifications.
- If you need to study with a computer, make sure you close all your tabs relating to other websites and social media. The only web browser you are allowed to open is the one related to chapter you’re learning about now.
Remove yourself from potential family-related distractions, if you can:
- This may entail putting a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your (closed) door, and/or wearing headphones (music is optional). Anecdotally, I’ve found that wearing headphones without any music on has the effect of forcing me to focus better, while at the same time allows me to hear some (loud) noise, which could be crucial if it is an emergency.
4. Study with other like-minded people
Studying in a group can be a double-edged sword, as it can quickly descend into a chatting session with zero productivity.
That said, studying with another person with the same goal could be useful for motivation and keeping each other going, just like a gym buddy.
It can be tough to find the right study partner, but if you do find one, it can work wonders on your concentration to see someone else working as hard to achieve their goals. Make sure you continue to evaluate your ability to focus if you decide to join a group.
5. Drink enough water
A common mistake people make is to think that drinking coffee helps perk them up to keep working. It doesn’t.
It gives you that very short term one-off boost and sends your productivity crashing later: not a great long term solution. Water is what your body really needs when you’re tired, as dehydration forces your body to work harder, gives you pounding headaches and increases your mental exhaustion.
So drink up! You’d be surprised how little you drink only when you try to match up to the daily 1.5-2 litre recommendation. I find the easiest way to implement this is to have a large bottle near me full of water that I sip as the day goes along whenever I feel like a break for a minute or two.
While you’re at it, washing your face, brushing your teeth or having a quick shower will work wonders in refreshing you from your sleepy state, so you can keep going. Plus they are completely natural and good for you too!
6. Have a balanced diet and avoid heavy meals
By now you’d have known that we’re huge proponents of eating proper food for best performance.
Avoid highly processed food such as sugary cereals, sodas and instant noodles. Remember not to have heavy meals before studying, it’s a recipe for sleepiness!
Fuel your body and mind with natural, nutritious food balanced with protein, carbohydrates, vegetables and healthy fats for sustained energy throughout the day. You are what you eat.
Pro tip: remember to bring along revision friendly healthy snacks (e.g. apple, granola bar, unsalted nuts, water etc) so you can keep your brain energy levels steady and maintain focus.
7. Study consistently and keep optimizing your routine
Study when you’re most alert: Our bodies run on roughly a 24-hour internal clock called circadian rhythm, which regulates feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness over a 24-hour period. On average, most of us show the following pattern in energy levels (with a few exceptions):
- Mid morning – peak alertness and energy,
- A “post lunch slump” up to 3pm,
- An increase in alertness up to around 6pm,
- A gradual decline in alertness for the rest of the evening and up to the early hours of 330AM
- Then a gradual increase in energy levels up to mid morning, and the cycle repeats.
Therefore, for most of us, if you’re studying in weekdays with a full time job, it may makes sense to get up earlier to get 1-2 hours of studying done before heading to work.
For night time study, exercise moderately for 10 min beforehand: This refreshes the body and mind so you can stay focused for the next few hours. Yet, it doesn’t over stimulate you such that it affects your night time sleep. Time to whip out those dusty kettle bells, perhaps? Or simple jumping jacks will do. Not a 30 min run though.
Remember to take regular study breaks: Specifically a 10-15 min break after a 45-50 min study cycle. Many studies have shown that productivity increases when students take frequent breaks. It keeps you motivated and have something to look forward to, while giving your brain a quick rest. Go for a walk (see #8), do some chores, have a snack, or just to chill out and listen to music for a bit – take your pick.
8. Go for a walk (or just get up and move)
Getting some fresh air and sunlight outside will make you feel more energetic and less moody.
The benefits of a walk goes beyond simply being more effective at studying. Walking for 30 minutes a day is equivalent to taking a “magic pill” that combats ageing, relieves depression and prevents early death.
It also improves the ability to think and reason, increases energy levels and reduces fatigue.
It sounds counterintuitive, but exercising actually boosts energy and focus. Instead of sitting there forcing yourself to work/study more when you know your focus isn’t there, take a little break by during some stretching and light exercises by your desk for 10 minutes – it’s all about studying efficiently anyway. A great plus about exercise is that they help you sleep better too.
9. Chew some gum
Studies have shown that chewing gum while studying or during exam improves your memory and concentration.
Now that’s way better than using stimulants like coffee, with no negative impact on your sleep quality and keeps your internal body clock in check (see #7). And mind you, I’m saying this as someone who enjoys coffee, a lot (see #8).
10. Limit caffeine beverages. Avoid energy drinks and alcohol
Too much caffeine has long term negative impacts: More than 400mg, or 4 cups of brewed coffee a day is likely to cause insomnia, inability to focus, increased anxiety, headaches and fatigue that can disrupt your body’s natural circadian rhythm (see #7).
Limit caffeine to mornings only, if you must have them daily: This ensures that the caffeine has sufficient time to go through your body and not impact your sleep quality at night.
Avoid energy drinks (and alcohol) for studying: Energy drinks have increasingly become a source of caffeine overdoses. Too much of these stimulants and chemicals can cause dependence, dehydration, insomnia, heart palpitations and/or an increased heart rate. I think the reasons for alcohol are more obvious 🙂
11. Still tired? Try switching topics or tasks (temporarily)
When you’re feeling tired, and nothing has been entering your brain for the last 15 minutes, it may be worth switching to an easier task or topic to keep the studying momentum going.
With an easier topic to absorb, this maintain your productivity and keeps you on track with your study plan. Save the trickier chapter for next morning, when you should naturally be at your peak level of concentration.
12. Take a 20-30 minute power nap
I am a big advocate of power napping, specifically 20-30 minutes at maximum. It is my secret productivity weapon. I used this technique frequently after lunch when studying for the CFA exams on the weekend, in addition to a full time job. I feel completely refreshed and ready to go for a minimum time investment – much better than caffeine, in my view.
This observation is supported by many studies that have found that power naps boost memory, cognitive skills, creativity, and energy level. You’ll need to practice this, as you may find yourself a little groggy and wanting more sleep the first few times.
13. Don’t ever do an all nighter
It’s not worth it. No matter what.
Studies have shown that the effects of lack of sleep have been compared to being as dangerous as drinking alcohol. Sleep deprivation is just bad for you and definitely not sustainable.
Nor is it effective in the long run, as it will take you at least more than 1 day to feel normal again (messing up your internal body clock, remember?). That math alone tells you it’s a bad decision.
14. Finally, do you have enough sleep?
The amount of sleep each of us needs varies, but age is a big factor. As a general guide, adults aged 18-64 generally need 7-9 hours according to National Sleep Foundation.
If you’ve tried out all the previous 13 tips and strategies in vain to improve your study focus and stay awake, it may be time to question whether you have had enough sleep in the first place. If you do have 7 hours sleep and still feel exhausted, it’s time to audit your sleep quality and how you can sleep better.
Like good diet and exercise (see #6 and #8), sleep is a critical component to overall health. It’s worth evaluating the bigger picture and craft a sustainable long term approach to your studies to improve your chances of success.
And that starts by taking care of yourself.
Which strategy do you find most effective in increasing your study focus? Do you have more tips to add? Share with us in the comments below!
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