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Willpower: How to Stay Focused While Studying

Staying focused and productive throughout the entire day is something we’d all kill to do as students, but it’s often the ONE thing that’s most difficult for us to do.

Want to know how to do it, and why willpower is the key to staying focused while studying? We’ll cover that in this video.

Click here to download the free “Stay Focused While Studying” PDF Quick Reference Guide you can take with you

Tareen writes…


If you’re like Tareen and you have trouble staying focused throughout the day, you’re definitely not alone. This is something that all of us deal with, especially when we’re trying to get difficult work done.

Because studying is so mentally taxing and learning something new uses up our mental resources, we get to the point where we’re fatigued quickly and it’s harder to stay on task for a long time. It may be tempting to think that we can simply tell ourselves to work harder and push through, but the reality is once you get to the point where you’re tapped out, your progress is going to slow down to a crawl.

What’s the solution here? Are we just limited to the amount of work that we can do in each day?

The truth is if we manage our mental resources more wisely, we can extend the amount of focus we have throughout the day, get more done, rest and recover so we’re ready to do it again the next day.


Let’s start off by just understanding what’s going on here. A popular concept that gets thrown a lot around now in cognitive psychology is the idea of willpower. Really this is just a more accurate way to describe what we typically refer to as self discipline or resolve. The American Psychological Association describes willpower as, “The ability to delay gratification resisting short term temptations in order to meet long term goals. The capacity to override an unwanted though, feeling or impulse. Conscious effortful regulation of the self by the self.”

Image from apa.org

These are all things that we need in order to focus when we’re trying to get our work done. Now the problem is that willpower gets depleted as you use throughout the day and can only be replenished through rest and recovery. Once you use it you lose it for the day until you call it quits and start fresh again the next day.

Think about it like muscle strength. If you’re lifting weights and you lift a lot of heavy weight in one particular session, and then you go and try to lift more heavy weight an hour of two later, you’re going to get even more fatigued. You’re not going to be able to lift that weight as effectively. You’re going to have to take time off to let your muscles rebuild themselves before you can do that type of work again.

The same thing goes for willpower, and here’s what that practically means for us when it comes to studying…

First: Schedule your most difficult work early in the day

First off, this means that you should schedule your most intense study sessions at the beginning of the day when your willpower reserves are topped off and you’re most focused. For a lot of you this may mean just going to class first thing in the morning but even if you don’t have class you should set this time aside for your most difficult work for the day.

Make sure that once you’ve set this time aside for working on your most difficult work for the day, that you protect it at all costs. You don’t want to waste your mental resources on setting your fantasy football lineup or figuring out what to eat for the day or getting caught up in a FIFA soccer tournament with your roommate on PlayStation.

Original photo via Dennis Hill


Then, once you have your most important work out of the way for the day, you can feel a little bit better about not being at your full potential when you’re taking care of the rest of the tasks that you have to get done. You can be pretty mentally tapped out and still do the dishes, laundry, make dinner pretty effectively.

Second: Rest and recover consistently

The other thing that you can do to combat this problem is to make sure that you rest and recover consistently not only throughout the day but also day to day. I’ve talked a lot before about using the Pomodoro Technique to engineer short breaks into your day so that you can extend your productivity longer than you would if you were to just work straight through.

The other thing that you’ll need to do, and this is not a popular topic especially when it comes to getting more stuff done, is make sure that you’re getting good sleep each night.

Finally! A Happy Gilmore reference… via quickmeme.com


Sleep is where that willpower muscle gets recharges each night and it’s also where you consolidate all of the learning gains that you’ve made through all of your hard work that you’ve put in during the day. It’s much easier to stay focused and stay on task longer if you have a full night of sleep under your belt and your mental resources are fully topped off from the night before.

4 Steps for focus while studying for exams

Try these things the next time you’re preparing for an exam and you’re struggling to stay on task throughout the day.

  1. First, get recharged on your sleep so you’re ready to go right off the bat.
  2. Then, spend some time prioritizing your work that you have to and schedule your most intense study sessions or most difficult work for early on in the day so that you can utilize your full mental potential while you’re doing that.
  3. Third, take short breaks throughout the day between your most intense work sessions. The best way to accomplish this is using the Pomodoro technique.
  4. Finally save your less important tasks for later on in the day, when it doesn’t matter as much if you stay fully focused or not. If you’ve gotten your most important work done already earlier in the day, it’s not going to be that big of a deal if you are supposed to be doing the dishes but you end up spending 30 minutes commenting on Facebook.

Click here to download the free “Stay Focused While Studying” PDF Quick Reference Guide you can take with you


Tareen, that’s my take on it. I hope that’s helpful for you and hopefully you can apply some of these strategies, stay on task longer throughout the day and that will help you with your exam preparation.

You can also view the video above on Youtube.

  • Lilian Isabela November 19, 2015, 7:00 pm

    Very nice post! I’ve been into hacking willpower for studying more effectively quite a while, and and I’ve read some very good stuff on that matter too. If I may suggest, the book “the willpower instinct” by Kelly McGonigal is excellent, and she gives also some tips on how to exercise and improve the willpower resource, such as meditation.
    Congrats for the site and the project!

    • Tom November 19, 2015, 7:03 pm

      Thanks Lilian! Big fan of that book as well 🙂

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