Focus like a Ninja, Study like a Boss.
Seminary reading and writing projects demand a kind of intellectual focus that can be hard to achieve. Even getting started on major projects can be a struggle. The best productivity comes when we get into a zone, a state of mental flow where focus is strong and ideas come easily. Here are some practices to help you find your best mental focus.
Pick the right time of day
When are you the sharpest, mentally? I’m a morning person, at my very best from 7am to 11am. In the afternoon, my brain turns to mush. My friend Alex, by contrast, is just waking up at dinner time, and focuses like a freak after the sun goes down. Know your own rhythm, and to the degree that you can, plan to study during your mental prime time.
See the chapter Planning Your Week in The Complete Seminary Survival Guide for more details on managing your time in a way that fits you.
Set aside enough time
In order to drop into a focus zone when studying, you need to allot a fair amount of time.
Shorter study times (15-30 minutes) can be useful for reading a single chapter, working on Greek vocabulary, or reviewing class notes. These can be squeezed in between classes, on the train or during breaks. In fact, you should always have something to study or read with you, in case you unexpectedly find yourself with time (like in line at the DMV).
For deeper study or writing projects, longer blocks of time are best. I recommend a minimum of 90 minutes, but two or three hours is even better.
Your schedule should include planned, protected study time every week. Early in the semester when the study load is lighter, use the time to read ahead to lessen your burden when midterms come or papers are due.
Ignore your feelings.
“I don’t feel like studying today.” We’ve all been there, that’s for sure. What you do when you don’t feel like working determines your success. Amateurs work based on their feelings; they need inspiration and motivation burning in their bones before they do anything. Professionals, however, know that those magic moments of inspiration will come as they work. Professionals get down to work because of their commitments, not their feelings.
Ignore your feelings and get to work. Start studying, or start writing. Focus, ideas, and inspiration come as we work, not before.
All of us have an inner voice that attempts to derail us when we have important or challenging work to do. The sluggard within wants to sit on the couch, eat bonbons and binge Netflix. Crucify that lazy traitor, and get to work. I promise that the feeling of accomplishment you get when you produce something worthwhile is way better than the false payoff of procrastination.
See the fantastic book The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield on how to overcome your inner resistance.
See the chapter “Procrastination” in The Complete Seminary Survival Guide for more on this topic.
Set the right environment
Your mind will focus best in a clean, uncluttered environment. At home, my desk is a mess, so though I can study there, I try not to. I found the best choice was to go to a study room in the library. It had an empty table with no distractions—perfect. I plugged in my computer, put my books on the counter, and went right to work.
The right sonic environment matters, too. As I write, the floor underneath me is under construction. The hammering and drilling constantly interrupts my train of thought.
Find out what kind of sonic environment helps you focus. Some people study better with music. One friend I know listens to Hans Zimmer films scores, which, he says, makes everything he’s doing feel epic. If it works for you, do it.
I can’t study with music playing, because I start thinking about the music. What works best for me was some sort of environmental white noise. I discovered a website (soundrown.com) that plays environmental sounds like waves, thunderstorm, train, coffee shop, playground, etc. I found with that on, I drop right into a concentration zone and churn out the work.
Leave your phone in the car
Our phones allow the entire world to interrupt us with calls, texts, and notifications galore. Even if those are silenced, a phone within reach will drain your mental energy. That little itch in the back of your mind will nag you to check social media, sports scores, weather, etc.
Leave your phone in the car. Let your family or close friends know what you’re doing, so they won’t be frustrated when they try to reach you. For true emergencies (which are rare) try to find a workaround, like giving your family the phone number for the library or coffee shop where you study.
Take regular breaks
Marathon runners who take planned walking breaks often finish their 26.2 mile course faster than those who never stop running. Unexpected, right? Your brain, like your body, gets fatigued, and needs a break to “catch its breath” and get back to the hard work of seminary. Taking regular breaks will increase your overall productivity.
By using the Pomodoro method, I found I could sustain hard dissertation research and writing focus for up to six hours. The method is simple:
- Study for 25 minutes. (Set a timer)
- Take a 5-minute break.
Every fourth break, i.e. every two hours, take a 10 minute break.
The Pomodoro (Italian for “tomato”) Method was developed in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, who used a kitchen timer that looked like a tomato. Each 25 minute study segment is called a pomodoro.
A few success tips on using this method:
- Stop when the timer goes off. If you’re in the zone and the ideas are flowing, you won’t want to stop, but you need to. Finish your thought, and obey the tomato.
- On your breaks, do not switch to social media or reading news or blog posts. The purpose is to give your brain a break. It’s best to leave the desk or table where you are working, walk and stretch. I used to leave my study area and walk one or two laps around the library, stretching and rolling my shoulders back to fight against the head-forward study slump. Correcting my posture made me feel more vigorous and alert, and letting my brain idle helped me come back fresh for my next half hour.
I found that my best focus came starting with the third Pomodoro (after the first hour of studying). After that, the time seemed to fly by.
This may seem unconnected, but it’s true: people who exercise regularly can achieve much greater levels of mental focus and productivity than couch potatoes. Make regular exercise part of your commitment to seminary. You can do almost anything. Run, swim, bike, lift weights, basketball, martial arts, circuit training… even vigorous walking can help.
If you aren’t physically active and don’t know where to start, let me suggest a very accessible but results-producing method: rucking, or walking with a weighted backpack. Fill a backpack full of heavy books (aim for 10% of your body weight to start), and go for a nice long walk. I do this all the time. My backpack cost me $20 at Wal-Mart. I wrapped a 20 pound dumbbell in a pair of old jeans, put it in the backpack, and I was ready. Put your earphones in and listen to music, podcasts, or audio books. Take the dog with you! Make phone calls if you need a distraction—your Mom would love it if you called her more, anyway.
Physical discipline will pay you back in mental concentration.
Experiment and Find What Works
Ultimately, each person must find the study habits that work for them. Give yourself permission to experiment: try longer vs. shorter study times, morning vs. evening, library vs. coffee shop, music vs. silence. Pay attention to which practices enable you to drop into the most productive mental zone, and then press into those habits.
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