Even expert language learners with effective habits, dedication, and all the right motivations can struggle to stick to their learning.
Sometimes, the obstacle comes from within, in which case the best solution is often to take a break for a few days, meditate, and do some fun activities unrelated to languages before getting back to your study routine.
More often, the distractions come from outside. We are exposed to more information, and just pure noise than we have ever been, and this can make concentrating on your learning a genuine struggle.
Fortunately, there are lots of neat little tools that can alleviate some of these problems!
5 proven ways to focus when studying
1. The simple trick to stop eye strain after late-night study sessions
Of course, it’s best to go to sleep in your bed, not collapse on your keyboard, and getting enough sleep is crucial to keep you brain in prime condition for effective learning. But we all have studies, full time jobs, and families to attend to, so burning midnight oil can be the only option.
If your usual day involves staring at a computer screen from dawn till dawn, you’re likely no stranger to eye strain, headaches and blurry vision at the end of the day. Worse yet, all the blue light from your screen can make it a real challenge to fall asleep!
Fortunately, there’s a simple way to relieve your tired eyes. f.lux (Windows/OSX/Linux), Twilight (Android), and Night Shift (iOS) is simple software that automatically changes the brightness and colour temperature throughout the day, based on the sun outside.
When we stare into our computer screens, the blue light tricks our brains into thinking it’s still daylight, which messes up our internal circadian rhythms (our physiological response to light and darkness).
After you install f.lux, your screen will look something like this:
The orange hue can feel weird at first, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll get used to it in just a few days, and it eliminates all of the harmful effect like headaches and sleep deprivation!
(And if you ever decide to watch a movie, or do some photo retouching, the application makes it super easy to temporarily turn off the effect.)
2. One-click solution to stove unrelated tabs and applications in for undistracted learning
If you’re anything like me, you always keep at least a few applications running at all times, and countless tabs sit open in your browser.
If you’re anything like me, you also regularly find yourself forgetting what you meant to do next, and then mindlessly switching between said tabs and application until you end up back on Facebook or some other black hole for your time.
Fortunately, there’s a simple solution for this too, and this time it’s even built into your operating system!
Advanced Linux and Mac OSX users have sworn by ‘multiple desktops’ since forever, but those of us using Windows will need to update to the latest version, Windows 10, to get access this useful feature.
Simply create a second virtual desktop, and move over all that’s related to your language learning. Anki, dictionary apps, PDFs—they all should be on your brand new desktop.
For your favourite language learning websites (I hope LinguaLift’s on the list!), you can either separate the tabs into a new window (Ctrl + N) and move it to your language dekstop, or better yet, install a separate browser for your language learning needs.
3. Simple way to block social media and other time wasters during study sessions, and beyond
Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube... they’re all veritable black holes that can easily suck away hour of your time without you even noticing. Fortunately, there’s a nifty piece of software that lets you analyze how much time exactly you’ve killed on social media, and then rescue some of it by blocking the offending websites during work hours!
The free version of Rescue Time is a good first step to get a better picture of your browsing habits, but it’s the Premium edition is where things get really interesting.
You can log set up alerts to know when you spent a certain amount of time on an activity, get positive feedback when you’ve concentrated on your work successfully, and finally block websites at specific parts of the day, whether on your desktop or Android device.
A reverse approach, advocated by countless entrepreneurs and CEOs, including Google’s Eric Schmidt, is to actually schedule your email and social time on your calendar, then turn off all sounds & visual notifications (which you should do in either case!) and only deal with these websites once or twice per day.
4. Amazing technique that helps even the most distracted learners to success
Humans are naturally bad at keeping attention for long intervals of time. No matter how engaging the activity, our brains tend to start to wander after about twenty minutes. The answer to this is learning in short bursts, while taking frequent breaks to relax and get ready for the next hyper-focused study session.
This is the basis of the Pomodoro technique, invented in the early 90s by developer, entrepreneur, and author Francesco Cirillo, and named after the tomato-shaped timer Carillo used to track his work as a university student.
To make use of the system, simply break down your study time into 20-minute intervals, spaced out with short, 5-minute breaks. This trains your brain to focus for short periods, and gives you a regular injection of dopamine, brain’s pleasure chemical released when you bring something to completion.
Illustration from pomodorotechnique.com
Though you could start with any old kitchen timer, there’s now a plethora of simple, tomato-styled apps available for every platform, including It’s Focus Time! (Web), Tomighty (Win/OSX/Linux), Pomodoro Timer (iOS) and ClearFocus (Android). For a more robust, cross-platform solution I also highly recommend focus booster (Web/Windows/OSX).
The technique is of course also applicable outside of learning! At EduLift, when we notice that our team is getting a little distracted and jumping on every opportunity to talk about everything except work, we set a cartoonish tomato timer on the table for a 20 minute Pomodoro session to get everyone back on track. Whoever distracts the sprint must pay for others’ lunch. It’s never happened so far!
5. Unexpected way to learn through construction work or noisy neighbours
The shortest sound can break the flow of your learning. Given how noisy the world has become, it is often impossible to remain concentrated for longer than a few minutes before your alarm sets off, the jackhammer starts pounding on the street, or your neighbours decide to have make-up sex after a rousing quarrel.
If moving is not an option, a great way to deal with the distractions is to buy earplugs, or better yet, put on noise cancelling headphones with some ambient music to mask the more unpredictable sounds.
There is also a lot of positive research on how music relates to mood, productivity and learning. Most recently, a 2015 study found that ambient noise, whether deliberately created, such as white noise, or naturally occurring, such as waves at a beach, improved subjects’ ability to concentrate.
Though you could just turn on the fan, or relocate to the nearest Starbucks, there’s also a smörgåsbord of noise generation tools available online. Many people swear by generic white noise, but I personally prefer to get cozy with a combination of rain, fireplace cracking and Japanese cafe chatter.