How to Study When You Can’t Focus – College Students


It’s a common problem for college students: you have to study, but you can’t concentrate or focus on the material. These 8 tips on how to study when you can’t focus are kicked off by a college student. Jess is studying engineering, and has learned how to manage the stress that accompanies exams.

“My solution to dealing with the end of semester stress, especially if you’re worried that you can’t concentrate or focus, is to start early,” says Jess on How to Cope When You Feel Too Stressed to Study. “Procrastination is a killer in engineering colleges. I would even buy textbooks in advance and study on my own during the summer and winter breaks to get a head start on the classes for the next semester. I would also download the freebie or 30-day trial licensed versions of the software that was going to be used in the next semester’s classes and run through some beginner tutorials. I even bought a couple of books on how to use some software to help me scale the learning curve.”

Jess’ tips on how to study when you’re having trouble concentrating are focused on advance planning. It’s smart to buy your textbooks early and start reading them so you get a head start on the material. Downloading the study or academic software is brilliant – especially if you learn how to use the software before you actually start using it.





Those study tips require organization and discipline, as well as advance planning. However, you probably need something more immediate and practical if you’re searching for tips on how to study when you can’t focus! You need help now.

My tips below are a combination of practical strategies you can use immediately, plus more of Jess’ advice on how to study for a college program such as electrical engineering.

8 Tips for Studying When You Can’t Concentrate

When you feel too stressed or distracted to study, the first thing to do is take a deep breath. Trust me. You have time to take a slow, deep breath. And it will help calm you down.

Your feelings of panic and anxiety will make it even more difficult to study – and you need to recognize every obstacle that is preventing you from learning how to study when you can’t focus.

How to Study When You Cant Concentrate Focus

How to Study When You Can’t Focus

The second thing you should do is find a way to laugh. Laughter is a huge stress reliever because it increases the blood and oxygen flow to your brain. Laughter also increases endorphins (positive feel-good hormones), which will calm you down and open your brain to receiving new information.

When you’re studying, it is very important to give yourself breaks from the material. Let your brain process what you’ve learned while you watch a funny movie or TV clip. Do NOT surf Facebook, looking for funny cat or talking dog videos! That increases your stress and leads to more problems focusing and concentrating. Taking regular study breaks that focus on increasing oxygen to your brain and blood flow to your muscles will help you remember the material you need to know for the exam.

These tips on how to study when you can’t focus are written for college students, but high school students will find them helpful too.

1. Identify the source of your stress

Here are several possible reasons you can’t focus on your studies:

  • Your environment (eg, roommates, sounds, smells, uncomfortable study desks, etc) are distracting you.
  • Your brain is running a mile a minute, not allowing you to focus on the textbook or notes in front of you.
  • You can’t stop playing CandyCrush or MindCraft.
  • You feel physically sick, tired, or completely exhausted.
  • You’re anxious because you skipped too many classes, you don’t understand the class notes, or you’re too far behind and the exam is tomorrow.
  • You don’t understand the material.
  • You are physiologically experiencing the effects of a health condition such as Attention Deficit Disorder or ADHD.
  • You’re hungry or thirsty.

One of the best tips on how to study when you can’t concentrate is to isolate the cause of your stress. Even if your exam is tomorrow, you need to take time to figure out what is preventing you from focusing on your work.

2. Contain or permanently deal with the reason you can’t focus

Dealing with your stress will empower you. Your feelings of empowerment will spill over into your study habits and help you learn the material. This, in turn, will build your confidence so you walk into the exam feeling strong, smart, and prepared.

The more power you have in your life (even perceived power), the less stress you’ll feel. Research shows that the amount of control you have in your life directly affects the amount of stress and anxiety you feel. It’s important for you to realize that the reason you’re searching for tips on how to study when you can’t focus is because you don’t have power in your life.

Are you overwhelmed by your class schedule, work responsibilities, or family obligations? Are you shy and nervous – do you need help overcoming anxiety about being in college? Find ways to take action. Take time to deal with the reasons you can’t concentrate enough to study.

3. Create a schedule that suits your personality, priorities, and lifestyle

I have two undergraduate degrees (Psychology and Education) and one graduate degree (Social Work), all from Canadian universities.

How to Study When You Can't Concentrate College Students

How to Study When You Can’t Focus – College Students

During my first degree, I dealt with stress by not studying. I didn’t care if I got average grades. During my second degree, I actually wanted to learn the material (I was getting my Education degree to be a teacher, so I had to learn how to study even when I was too stressed to focus or concentrate!). So I created a detailed daily schedule that gave me time to work at my outside job, time to study, and time to exercise.

When I was studying, I only focused on the material for 30 or 45 minutes. I found that breaking my study schedule into short chunks of time worked best – with 10 minute rest/exercise/dog play breaks. Even if I really really really didn’t want to study for a particular course, I knew I could do it for that amount of time. Creating a schedule filled with short chunks of time is one of the best ways to focus on studying because it gives you structure and control….and plenty of 10 minute rest breaks.

If your schedule is consumed by a low-paying job, read 10 Highest Paying Jobs for College Students.

4. Learn how to study effectively

Here’s what Jess says about learning course material for his electrical engineering exam:

“I’ll admit, I am probably not the fastest learner. That’s why I had to adopt the pro-active ‘pre-study’ strategy. This is how I reduced the stress of studying: I learned most of the basic material before the semester even began, then focused my energy on the projects during the semester. So many students short-change themselves when it comes to actually learning and understanding the course material. They do it because there isn’t enough time to learn the subject well. That kind of strategy is unacceptable to me. If I need to slow down a little bit instead of glossing over the details, so be it. Slow does not equate to dumb. I received the high score on the fundamentals of engineering exam the year I took it. I didn’t even study that much for it. I was able to remember most of the material from the classes I had taken.”

Learning how to study effectively even when you feel like you can’t focus will help you concentrate. How? By giving showing you that you CAN learn the material. This will give you confidence, which will relax you. If you can relax when you study, you’ll learn and retain more course material. It’s an upward spiral.

When I was studying for my MSW (Master of Social Work) exams, I used Cal Newport’s StudyHacks blog. A LOT. Newport is a computer science professor who has written many posts about Study Tips for College Students. The only negative with his blog is that it takes time and thoughtful effort to read his posts and learn his tips on how to study when you can’t concentrate.

5. Practice better time management skills

If you’re stressed and anxious because you can’t keep up with everything (your coursework, labs, extracurricular activities, work schedule, family obligations, etc) then you need to focus on managing your time better. College students who don’t manage their time well tend to procrastinate, underestimate the time it takes to study for exams or write essays, and spend a lot of time on details that don’t matter.

Go see a college advisor or guidance counselor. Take a workshop on time management. Learn how to study. These are long-term skills that are crucial not only to your success as a college student during exam time, but also for your future career.

6. Get immediate help with the reason you can’t concentrate on studying

Are you distracted by external noise, such as people talking or music playing? Are you physically uncomfortable? Or, are you distracted by internal noise, such as anxiety, depression, or fear? It’s possible that you know how to study, but you can’t focus because you’re worried or anxious. Maybe it’s not study skills you need; maybe you need to deal with whatever is bothering you.

One way to immediately relieve stress and anxiety is to write your feelings in a private journal or somewhere you feel safe. You might even share your thoughts below. Getting your fears and anxieties out of you will help you focus on studying.

Another way to get immediate help if you’re overwhelmed with panic or anxiety is to call a distress line. Don’t struggle with these feelings alone! Take a deep breath, and reach out for help. The reason you’re struggling may need more attention than simply creating a schedule. You wouldn’t apply a bandaid to a gushing wound, would you? Maybe you don’t need to learn how to study when you can’t focus…maybe you need to concentrate on the source of the problem.

7. Learn how to be a successful college student

How to Study Can’t Focus or ConcentrateRead How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students by Cal Newport. Based on interviews with star students at universities nationwide – from Harvard to the University of Arizona – this book shares 75 simple rules that will help you get to the top of the class.

These college-tested strategies include:

  • Don’t do all your reading (!)
  • Drop classes every term
  • Become a club president
  • Care about your grades, but ignore your GPA
  • Never pull an all-nighter
  • Take three days to write a paper
  • Always be working on a “grand project”
  • Do one thing better than anyone else you know

College success isn’t about becoming a genius workaholic who knows how to study and can focus on learning anything. Rather, being a successful student is about learning how to play the game. How to Win at College will help you make the most of those important years at university or in college – and continue your career and life after graduation.

For example, here’s a success tip for college students: spend the first 30 minutes of your day writing in a journal, planning your day and week, expressing your fears, frustrations, and achievements, and setting your intentions for school. Journaling clears your head so you can focus on what matters. Taking time to think keeps you in tune with yourself, which is one of the best ways to manage stress and anxiety in college.

8. Guard against random unplanned study breaks

Not only did I have a study schedule in university, I have a work schedule now (I’m a full-time freelance writer and blogger). Before I created my current work schedule, I kept Twitter, email, my blogs, and various forums open on my laptop. If I got stuck for an idea or phrase, I’d surf through all those applications, which made me less productive and more stressed. Now, I only check Facebook, email, Twitter, etc, at set times of the day.

One way to protect yourself against the unplanned problems that stop you from studying is to prepare in advance. Good study habits always come back to advance preparation!

“A stress survival tactic I used in college was to try to prepare for classes in advance as much as possible,” says Jess. “In many electrical engineering classes, large projects are due at the end of the semester. I found it extremely frustrating and stressful to have to simultaneously learn the course material, learn how to use the design software (tools), and to complete a good design. Learning by doing is a good thing, but jumping into a project before you really understand the design flow, or even the basic principles involved, is a very stressful and frustrating way to learn. The stress, time pressure, and mental exhaustion make an already difficult situation worse. High workloads at the end of the semesters cause a significant portion of engineering students to burn out and switch majors.”

Study Help for College Students Who Can’t Focus

how to focus on studying college examIn Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport describes how to do “deep work.” This is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time – whether you’re a college student learning how to study or a cognitive science professor who is juggling a full course load, research, and writing books (Cal Newport).

Deep work will make you better at studying when you can’t concentrate, and give you the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy.

It takes time to learn how to study – especially when you can’t focus. Start by applying one or two of my study tips. Don’t forget Jess’ advice for learning your course material in advance, to make studying for exams easier when the time comes.

“Nothing interferes with my concentration. You could put an orgy in my office and I wouldn’t look up. Well, maybe once.” ~ Isaac Asimov.

What say you? I welcome your thoughts on how to study when you can’t concentrate or focus – but only when you’re done studying. 🙂  And, make it a priority to learn how to study effectively and do deep work so you don’t have to spend all your time studying!



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6 thoughts on “How to Study When You Can’t Focus – College Students

  • Anjy

    Dear Laurie,

    I can’t seem to concentrate on studying because i am too stressed about having to write my exams. I have my finals in a month and haven’t covered almost anything. The thought of covering a whole text book (or two) in such a short period of time gets me stressed and i tend to procrastinate more.I keep thinking about the consequences of not studying but still can’t focus. Even though i’ve tried moving, installing things to keep me from getting distracted i can’t focus. Please help!

  • Laurie Post author

    A million things can stop college students from studying, even seemingly trivial things! Sometimes it seems like a frivolous or dumb thing to be stressed or worried about, but it really does stop you from concentrating.

    Luckily, these tips on how to study when you can’t concentrate will help with any problem. Most of them are long-term solutions to help college students focus, but some might work right away.

  • Sally

    It may sounds silly but trust me these silly things may really ruine your entire focus and studying plans
    I can’t focus because I can’t stop thinking about my over plucked eyebrows I’m so sad for them they were full thick and beautiful about 6months from now the lady in the salon got them so thin and made one straight and the other arched where it shouldn’t
    Since that day I never plucked them again at all I only do the unibrow
    I have to study hard because I’m a med student but I’m always so sad embarrassed depressed and confused because of them it may seems so pathetic and dramatic but this is the truth I can do better at school if only this problem goes away 🙁

  • Laurie

    Dear Krisha,

    I am so sorry for your loss. What a painful, unexpected tragedy for you and everyone who knew your boyfriend.

    It is totally understandable that you’re too upset and stressed to study! Have you considered talking to your professors or a school counselor? I’d ask for a leave of absence so I could grief my boyfriend’s death without having to study.

    I realize that taking time off from school will you behind. But, continuing as you are won’t be effective, either! Your mind, body, and soul needs time to grieve your loss. You won’t be able to study effectively unless you give yourself time to process your emotions.

    What do you think of taking time off school?

    In sympathy,
    Laurie

  • Krisha

    Dear friend, I’ve lost my boyfriend in train accident unexpectedly a month ago. I could not study even though I need to study a lot as I’m a medical student. Please help me