7 ideas to improve your focus in college during the pandemic

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  • Disruption of typical routines can make it hard for students to keep their focus in college. Here are 7 ideas to help.

Several months ago, college students experienced a number of sudden changes to their education and social lives, as classes moved to remote delivery and many students sheltered in place away from friends.

While many students may have had some exposure to remote courses prior to the pandemic, the coming academic year will bring its own set of challenges and considerations, particularly for incoming freshmen.

At some colleges, students are returning to campus to attend classes. Others are mandating remote learning, and still others are providing some combination of each. Given these unique circumstances, it is understandable if students occasionally struggle with adjusting to new expectations.

Who among us hasn’t started our day with the best of intentions to work on a paper – only to go on social media for “just a minute”, and then wonder why we’re still staring at a blank Word document several hours later?

Because students will be in an unfamiliar learning environment and may feel isolated from friends, these urges for distraction may only increase.

Here are some tips to consider if you need help with staying focused:

Maintain a consistent routine

While many students may not have to get dressed or walk to class this fall, maintaining a disciplined daily routine is important for priming yourself to be alert and engaged. Routines have also been associated with various health benefits, including stress reduction.

Be sure that part of your routine involves regular, balanced eating and sufficient sleep (7-9 hours/night). If you’re struggling to fall or stay asleep, consider applying some sleep hygiene practices.

Dedicate a specific environment for academics

When possible, try to carve out space in your house or bedroom just for schoolwork. Being in a spot associated with schoolwork can help you focus and stay on task. Here are some recommendations for qualities in an ideal study space.

Minimize distractions from devices

The same devices that allow us to engage in remote learning and research information for assignments are the very ones that can pull our focus away. While brief breaks are healthy, it can be difficult to stay within those parameters. If you are needing additional help, consider putting your phone on airplane mode during class or when working on an assignment that requires more intense focus.

If you need more help than that, the StayFocusd Google Chrome extension allows you to block access to distracting websites while giving you access to pages relevant to your studies.

Set up virtual study sessions with friends

You don’t have to carry all the weight of your academics on your own. Particularly as students are encouraged to maintain physical distancing, staying socially engaged becomes even more important.

Consider working with a friend virtually – set up a consistent time for a Zoom session to work on projects separately, but together. Some data suggests that having an ‘accountability partner’ when working on goals is associated with greater success at achieving these goals.

Take regular breaks

While you may have a long list of tasks to complete each day, and are tempted to power through without stopping, taking regular breaks throughout the day is associated with greater levels of productivity and well-being. If you notice yourself feeling run down and needing more breaks despite not attending class in-person, try not to judge yourself. Recent research has shed light on possible reasons for increased fatigue among frequent users of Zoom.

Use your college’s academic resources

Many colleges have “academic success” offices staffed with people to help students who might be struggling with their coursework. Additionally, if you have been diagnosed with a physical or mental health condition, or suspect that you might have one, you can reach out to your college’s disability resources office for additional assistance. They may be able to help you apply for specific accommodations, which will help your academic performance reflect your capabilities.

Practice self-compassion

Using all of the above techniques will still not shield you from occasionally falling short of your goals. We are all human! Yet we often criticize ourselves when we do not meet our own expectations.

While this might seem counter-intuitive, research has actually shown self-compassion (NOT self-criticism) to be associated with increased motivation and productivity. If you’re needing some help with how to practice self-compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the leading psychologists in this area, has some helpful practices at her website.

Given the stressful and unpredictable nature of this time, it is normal to be struggling with managing strong emotions. If you are needing additional support, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. You may contact your college’s counseling center, or a therapy practice in the community, such as CEBTOhio, to speak with a mental health professional.

At CEBTOhio, we will be offering a weekly Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills group specifically for young adults and college students. This group teaches a variety of evidence-based skills designed to help people with developing mindfulness, resilience, emotion regulation and interpersonal skills. It meets virtually on Thursdays from 10-11:30am, beginning on Oct. 1. For more information, please call 216.544.1321.

Wishing everyone a healthy, successful semester!

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


About the Author:

Dean Malec, therapist and Director of Training at CEBTOhio, received his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Cleveland State University. He trained in various university counseling settings during his doctoral education and completed his internship at Case Western Reserve University’s Health & Counseling Services. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Center for Evidence Based Treatment- Ohio, where he is supporting the development of an adherent DBT skills group exclusively for the young adult/college population.