What can I do to stay concentrated while I study?

1) Dear Alice,

My problem is this: whenever I have to study late at night, or do anything late at night, I usually have trouble (a lot of trouble) concentrating on whatever it is that I have to do. I'm not going to try anything like No-Doz, but when I drink coffee or anything with caffeine, it just knocks me out even faster. I can't believe it — it's like caffeine's some kind of sleeping potion for me. Some of my friends say eating while you work can help you stay up. I tried that, too. Didn't work. Any suggestions? Or am I just better off sleeping and leaving the work 'till the next day?

— Sleepy

2) Hey Alice,

I am a junior in college. I am pre-med which means I study all the time. However, I can really only focus when I study at night. When I study during the day, it seems that I cannot recall as much information as opposed to studying late at night. How come I can't stay focused during the day? What should I do to help me concentrate during the day?

— Night Owl

Dear Sleepy and Night Owl, 

Whether it’s waking up in the early hours of the morning or staying up late into the night, finding a productive time to study can be difficult. Luckily, you already have a biological clock called the circadian rhythm that dictates where your 24-hour cycle begins and ends. Your circadian rhythm operates on a 24-hour cycle by managing various mental and physical processes throughout the day, including the sleep-wake cycle. Paying attention to your body and understanding your biological clock can help you identify your most productive times. Sleepy and Night Owl, it seems that you may already have a sense of when you’re most productive. If you’re feeling groggy during late-night study sessions or in the early morning, working with your circadian rhythm and scheduling your work when you’re well-rested can be helpful. Read on to learn more. 

The sleep-wake cycle typically relies on how your body reacts to light. Exposure to light prompts your body's internal clock to signal alertness, while darkness triggers the release of melatonin (those feelings of sleepiness). When your circadian rhythm gets thrown off, the body’s systems may not perform at their peak efficiency. That said everyone's body has a different rhythm, which is why Sleepy, you may be more productive during the day and Night Owl, you at night. Caffeine, for instance, is an example of an addition to everyday routine that could contribute to an inconsistent circadian rhythm. Sleepy, you also mentioned that caffeine doesn’t seem to help you stay awake. Studies suggest that it’s possible to be immune to the effects of caffeine, especially if you’re already lacking sleep. Understanding how much sleep you might need could help you determine the rest of your 24-hour cycle. Consider checking out Are short sleeps and long naps healthy? in the Go Ask Alice! archives for more information. 

Have you considered adjusting your studying style when you feel yourself entering a study slump? If you haven't, you may want to try out some of these study strategies: 

  • Identifying study spaces. Having a dedicated study space (that’s not your bed or somewhere that reminds you of sleep) may help get you more focused. Studies show that studying in a brightly lit room can help you be more alert and therefore focused, especially when you’re already tired. Additionally, if you designate one spot for studying, your mind may begin to associate that place with a mental “study mode.” If you decide to have a study spot outside of your home, you might consider visiting your local library or working in designed study rooms in campus buildings or residence halls. 
  • Blocking study times. Not only have dedicated study spaces proven to increase focus, but dedicated study times can also be helpful! Research shows that studying consistently at the same time every day can improve memory. 
  • Removing or limiting distractions. Decreasing the number of distractions near you, like cell phones, roommates, computers, or anything else that might steal your attention, can help increase your focus while studying. You may choose to do so by silencing your cell phone or committing to a space that's free of distraction and noise. 
  • Prioritizing your tasks. It can be helpful to try to tackle the most difficult things first since the beginning of your study session is when you’ll likely have the most energy. When planning your time, it can be helpful to know how long you can usually stay focused. Using a calendar helps you visualize your schedule so that you can leave ample time for completing your tasks. 
  • Taking a break. Incorporating a five-to-ten-minute break every hour can provide you with a brief rest time to recharge your energy. Going for a walk to get your body moving and heart pumping may also be helpful since physical movement increases oxygen circulation to your brain. 
  • Incorporating self-care. Maintaining or implementing a consistent sleep schedule of seven to nine hours of sleep per night, incorporating physical activity, staying hydrated, and eating a variety of whole foods may play a role in energy levels, in turn, affecting your concentration. You may also choose to avoid alcohol and other drugs as they can deplete your energy. 

Keep in mind that these strategies aren't one size fits all. Some of them might work better for you, and some might not work at all. In addition to the study strategies, you may also consider additional time management strategies. While these techniques could help, there may be other considerations. If your studies are causing you stress or anxiety, there may be other ways to address this issue, like speaking with a mental health care provider. They may explore with you what else might be contributing to difficulties concentrating and provide you with further information and resources. 

Wishing you balance, efficiency, and z’s, 

Last updated Dec 01, 2023
Originally published Mar 19, 1994