College 101: How To Get Motivated And Stay Focused

Last updated Mar 23, 2023 
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UPDATED FOR 2023

Mindy kept getting lost at college. She got lost in thought so often while her Journalism professor gave lectures that she had a go-to classmate to fill in the blanks of her notes. She got lost doing assignments, like that time she started shopping for new shoes instead of starting her Political Science paper, or when she kept reaching for her phone while trying to finish a job application. In short, Mindy was finding it increasingly difficult to stay focused and get things done. In high school, she was used to more interactive lessons and had her parents to keep her on track. Without them, and with so much more responsibility and temptation at college, Mindy’s freshman year was not getting off to a good start. She needed to find a better way soon.

Defining the Fundamentals of Focus

To get someone to focus, it’s common to yell, “Pay attention!” It’s such a simple phrase for something so complex and challenging. In his book, Train Your Brain for Success, Randy Kulman defines focus as “the thinking skill that helps you get started on a task and keep

your attention and effort to complete it.” Within that description are two key concepts: what gets you started on a task (initiative) and what gets the job done (attention). If you’re a procrastinator and have difficulty initiating tasks, it could be because you lack the knowledge and skills to determine what needs to be done or it could be because you lack the motivation to begin a task that doesn’t appeal to you. If you’re someone who has problems with paying attention, you may often stop tasks once you’ve started because you get easily distracted. If you have problems with initiative or attention (or both), then focus is something you need to fix.

Focus Strategies from Start to Finish

Let’s tackle issues with initiation first so you can stop staring at items on a To Do List and start doing your work.

  • See the Big Picture and Take Baby Steps. Make yourself more motivated by making things more manageable. Before starting anything, determine what you need to do (e.g. assignment goals, personal goals) and why you want to do it (e.g. benefits and consequences). Then, break down the task into smaller steps. 
  • Reward Yourself. Use breaks, snacks, or anything else you enjoy as rewards after you have successfully finished a step in a larger task or have productively worked for a set period of time. 
  • Play with Time. Once you’ve figured out the steps to complete something, consider doing some of the steps out of order (if possible). If you do the hard things first, you will be motivated by getting the worst over with and the comfort of being able to relax sooner. If you do easy things first, you won’t be as intimidated initially and will start to gain momentum and build a sense of accomplishment. 

For more information and advice to help with initiation and motivation, check out our article on procrastination!

So, let’s say you’ve finally begun your assignment when, five minutes in, all you can do is either hear too much (e.g. the familiar “ding!” notification sound from your phone, your stomach growling) or hear too little (e.g. just the sound of a clock ticking, triggering a crescendo of your own racing thoughts). Here’s how to deal with such distractions:

  • Get Physical. Fuel your focus with nourishing food, hydrating water, and energizing exercise. Just a little boost from a yummy banana, a glass of water, or 15 minutes of exercise (e.g. walking, dancing, stretching) before you start or at break times can do wonders.  
  • Experiment with Time and Space. Figure out if you’re more energized and focused in the morning, afternoon, or evening and plan on doing your most demanding work when you’re at your peak. Also, figure out where you work best. It’s not always the desk or bed in your room where the comfort and familiarity can make you complacent. The library, a shady spot under a tree, even a cafe can all be good spots under different circumstances.  
  • Take Breaks. You may want to take short breaks roughly every half hour or hour depending on your preferences and needs. Ideally, breaks would occur at natural stopping points in your work, such as the end of a section of reading or after a set number of math problems solved or paragraphs written. 
  • Go Silent. Turn off digital distractions on your phone and other devices. In addition, your mind can be noisy with daydreams and worries as well. To turn them off, so to speak, you can try setting them aside either by writing them down or “scheduling” a later time to dwell on them.

What To Do Next

Throughout the College 101 series, you’ll get tips on some of the most important executive function skills for college. As you follow along, keep a journal to record your thoughts and participate in some helpful exercises, like these!

  • Check it out: Explore AbilityNet’s list of helpful apps
  • Write it Down: (1) In your journal, create a table with two columns. Label the first column “Things I Want to Do in College” (e.g. go to parties, stay up late) and the second column “Things I Need to Do in College” (write papers, attend class). Once you have a list of at least 10 items, predict what you will find most distracting (e.g. socializing) and least motivating (e.g. reading textbooks) in college and brainstorm some solutions. OR (2) Try the Pomodoro Technique and write down your assessment of how well it worked and how willing you’d be to use it.

For more help, get an A+ Executive Function Coach or schedule a consultation with an A+ staff member.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Director Joelle Faucette can be reached at 215-886-9188.

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