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How to improve your focus for postgraduate study

James Davis

The world we inhabit contains a multitude of distractions. Fortunately, there are some easy things you can do to stay productive.

What a time to be alive. We’re constantly connected with friends and loved ones on a scale never before seen in human history. Breakthrough after breakthrough is completely changing the way humans interact. For a busy postgraduate student with numerous deadlines, work and family commitments, it can also be a curse. Microsoft recently underwent a survey of 2,000 Canadian social media users, which found average attention span has dropped from 12 to 8 seconds. This is less than a goldfish. Additionally, 77% of people between the ages of 18-24 admitted that when nothing is currently occupying their attention, they instinctively reach for their phones to occupy them.

This doesn’t mean people have gotten intellectually lazier or inattentive, however. It’s entirely possible that this behavioural adaptation is a response to the scattered requirements of the modern world. Attention to multiple screens, emails and messages is almost a necessity for staying in touch not only with personal acquaintances, but with clients. Customers expect service day and night while they themselves could be on the move in a train, bus or car.

Even if claims of limited attention span are unfounded, it is very much the case that multitasking can be a strain on the focus required for postgraduate study. Knowing the root of the issue however, there are several ways of counteracting it.

1. Turn off your phone and close all extraneous tabs while studying.

Checking a message here or tending to an email there might seem harmless, but it can break the flow of concentration every time it’s indulged. Active, concerted learning has been found to be one of the keys to effectively retaining and utilising information; breaking from the task at hand to do other things is counterproductive to this end.

2. Catch yourself when you attempt to do something other than study

This requires some self-discipline, but being cognisant of when you’re feeling distracted and preventing yourself from engaging in that activity is a step on the path to higher self-control. Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds are designed to be addictive in the same manner as gambling or drugs; they thrive on having users continually check in for hits of dopamine. Breaking away from this cycle is difficult, but it’s also a powerful way to become a more effective student and gain a great deal of additional focus that can be applied to study.

3. Study with other people

Studying with others is an excellent way to encourage one another to stick to a single task rather than wander into distractions. Even if you’re studying part time, it’s worth it to set aside some time to meet with classmates and work toward a common goal. It not only allows for the exchange of differing ideas, which is inherently positive, but improves every participant’s focus along the way.

Ultimately, knowing the nature of the media platforms you engage with is one of the most important ways for retaining focus throughout postgraduate study. If you understand how and why they’re designed and why you feel compelled to use them, it becomes far easier to reflect on the futility of engaging with them so frequently. It’s not easy to break away for extended periods given their ubiquity, but doing so can help unlock your academic potential.