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Learning to learn 02: Focus

“In the realm of great intellectual accomplishments an ability to focus quickly and deeply is nearly ubiquitous.” – Scott Young (Ultralearning)

Why do we need to focus?

Focusing is about being able to concentrate intensively on a single task for long periods of time, avoiding distractions so that you can master skills quickly. When we’re able to focus intensely, we’re capable to doing sufficiently challenging work that we can master skills and knowledge.

Deep work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit e.g. synthesising information from multiple sources, solving complex problems.

Shallow work: Not cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted e.g. email, formatting notes, underlining text.

Information consumes attention. The more incoming information you have to attend to, the less attention you have for each source. If you want to have more focused attention, you need to cut down on incoming information. We’ll discuss the importance of removing sources of distraction (i.e. incoming information) later in the post.

What is flow?

Flow is a state of focused attention that is characterised by being completely absorbed in the task at hand. We enter states of flow (sometimes called being in “the zone” when tasks are challenging but not so difficult that you can’t complete them.

You probably shouldn’t aim to achieve a flow state while learning but you should notice when you’re in one, as this may be sign that you need to increase the challenge. Note that some researchers suggest that learning difficult subjects requires a level of difficulty that makes achieving a flow state impossible. In other words, the level of difficulty is sufficiently high that the learner cannot move through it automatically.

How to improve your ability to focus (i.e. to direct your attention)

  • Mindfulness is a meditation practice that helps to improve your ability to focus.
  • Delayed gratification (or cognitive control) is the ability to put off until later, something that you really want to do now.
  • Get comfortable with the period of discomfort that precedes distraction. It usually only lasts about 10 minutes.
  • Start small. Aim to focus for 25 minutes initially using the Pomodoro technique.
  1. Timed “focus” sessions of 25 minutes (a pomodoro);
  2. Followed by a 5 minute break;
  3. Then another 25 minutes focused session (another pomodoro);
  4. Four times in succession (i.e. four 25 minute sessions);
  5. With a 25 minute break after 4 pomodoros.

Challenges with focusing your attention

  • Failing to start (i.e. procrastinating). Recognise when you’re procrastinating. “I just need to check […] quickly.”
  • Sustaining your focus (i.e. avoiding distraction). Quality and duration of the session.
  • Failing to create the right kind of focus. Arousal and task complexity.
  • There are too many Things. See the Pareto principle.

Sources of distraction

  • Your environment: How many tabs do you have open? Are you online? Are your phone notifications turned off (even better: Is your phone in the other room)? Do you have everything you need to complete the task?
  • Your task: What format is more distracting for you? Do you have to re-read the same paragraph multiple times? Solve problems or make notes?
  • Your mind: Are you dealing with relationship issues? Are feeling restless (go for a walk)? Are you angry about something? Let it rise, notice it, let it go.

Environmental changes to encourage focus

  • Disable all phone and computer notifications. It really can wait.
  • Become hard to reach.
  • Quit social media. See Continuous partial attention.
  • Work in a quiet place. Library or private space.
  • Work at a quiet time. Early morning is better than late at night.
  • Limit internet access. Start with everything you need.

Tips for avoiding distraction

  • How you spend the first 10 seconds will determine how you spend the next hour. Get a good start.
  • Make it hard to be distracted.
  • Recognise when you’re getting distracted (it’s usually preceded by a feeling of discomfort). Aim to get through the initial feeling of discomfort.
  • Use time blocking e.g. “For the next 1 hour I’m going to focus on […].” But this is meaningless if you don’t actually do the work.
  • Structure your working environment to make it easier to focus.
  • Avoid multitasking.

Set a time to stop working

  • Don’t take breaks from distraction; take breaks from focus.
  • Downtime gives you space for new insights.
  • Downtime helps to recharge your ability to focus.
  • Evening work tends not to be high quality.

Mobile apps you may find useful

  • Pomodoro timer (focused concentration)
  • Headspace, Waking up, 10% happier (meditation)
  • Forest (avoiding your phone)
  • Airplane mode (no notifications)


You can download a summary of these notes as a slideshow presentation in English or Portuguese.*

Slideshow presentation from classroom seminar (PDF and PowerPoint)

Additional readings


If you found this module on Focus useful and haven’t yet signed up for Learning to learn, consider subscribing to the weekly newsletter here. The newsletters include reminders and short readings on the topic for the month. You can unsubscribe at any time.

If you haven’t gone through the module on Creating new habits you may want to check that out as well as this one. Each module can stand alone but the idea is that together, they make up a system for improving learning.

* Thank you to João Paulo Venâncio (Professor Adjunto Principal) at the Curso de Licenciatura em Fisioterapia, a physiotherapy programme at CESPU (ESSVA) in Vila Nova de Famalicão, Portugal. We are extremely grateful for his contribution to this project.