We've all been there. Some unpleasant exam is coming or an essay deadline is looming. There is a lot of pressure on you to get it done but somehow concentration and drive alludes you. In those circumstances, the most surprising things become urgent. You suddenly need to tidy your desk, or go out to get paper for the printing machine. Your pencil needs sharpening, or you need to do something you meant to do months ago. You find that almost anything can distract you. Your mind wanders to any topic except what you need to do. We have all been there and experienced the wandering mind. So what is happening? Why is it so hard to study when you have to? And why is it that even when make several hours free to study, you find it becomes very difficult to keep at it? Follow some of the tips on this page to help you work at the best level you can.
You might actually be spending too long studying at one time. The length of time a person can concentrate well is shorter than people generally think. Attention and concentration wane over time. One way to harness the power of attention is to study in shorter bursts. Surprisingly, taking a planned break between those bursts will be more effective than keeping going. Even in the break, your mind will be committing to memory what you have just studied so long as the study block itself has not been too long. It is hard to give general guidelines as to what would suit you but the longest time without a break should be 50 minutes and ideally there should be at least a 10 mintue break after each block.
TIP: Even a short study block of 10 minutes on focussed work will allow you achieve more than spending 2 hours in which your mind wanders and concentration is poor. Those 2 hours will also only leave you with low morale and make it hard to start again.
Dont underestimate the importance of organising your work. It is easy to become disheartened by the sheer volume of what you have to study. It can feel overwhelming. Before you study anything, organise your task by breaking it into sections, and then breaking those into smaller sections again. Then organise your time so that you assign different blocks of time to different topics (remembering to put in breaks into your timetable). If you do these two things, you will be in a good position to learn even before you start. This may all seem self-evident but it is amazing how often we do not do it. It is not always necessary, but when you feel overwhelmed it helps you to concentrate if you are clear about what you should be studying at any particular time.
Assign some blocks of time to summarise what you have learnt. You will feel less stressed and more in control if you do this. You will also learn more in a shorter period of time. You can call it "thinking time" on your timetable. Just before you take a break, or maybe at the end of each morning, afternoon or evening, summarise in your head anything you have learnt. This structured approach avoids chaotic, unstructured learning and improves the efficiency of any study time.
Another reason for poor study ability is a lack of interest in the topic or in studying in general. This has been true for everyone at some time. We have all had to learn material we were not particularly interested in. There are times when it just has to be done for reasons of a later bigger gain. Check the page on motivation for some tips on how to deal with this problem.
When you have something tough or unpleasant to do, it can help if you plan some reward for yourself at the end. There's nothing as bad as the thought of a relentless pursuit of some goal that is extremely hard and unrewarding. In these circumstances, even the smallest reward can make a difference and planning it in advance so that you have it to look forward to makes it even more effective. The size of the reward doesn't matter, it is the thought of it ahead that helps to motivate you.
TIP: Plan something nice for the end of each block of time. What will yours be?