Explore a better way to work – one that promises more calm, clarity, and creativity.

The Grade Whisperer: Ron’s Feeble Focus

The Grade Whisperer is an occasional feature in which I use the Study Hacks philosophy of do less, do better, and know why, to help students overcome their academic problems.

Feeble FocusAdvice

A student who I’ll call Ron recently sent me an e-mail with an ominous title: Loss of Focus.

“I really enjoy most of my courses,” he started. “And I’m definitely not in the wrong major…But there are some courses that I find extremely difficult and uninteresting.”

There’s nothing surprising about this observation. As I’ve said before, you have to expect that not every course is going to incite scholastic reverie — some subjects you just have to grin and bear en route to becoming “educated.”

Ron, as it turned out, was having trouble with the “grin and bear” part of this equation.

“I sit down, stare at the books, and nothing happens,” he told me.  “After reading and solving problems for 15 minutes I get bored and distracted, start surfing the web, checking email or such.”

He concluded with a key question that I receive often:

You mention that hard focus is necessary. I agree, but my question is: How can I focus on difficult, unenjoyable, painful tasks?

It sounds like a job for the grade whisperer…

The Scatter Shot Attack

As I explained in my original post on hard focus, learning to concentrate when you don’t want to is a practiced art. A lot of students, however, are so turned off by hard work that they can’t even muster the small blocks of hard focus needed to start building toward something more substantial.

I have time-tested solution to this issue. I call it the scatter shot attack because it’s comprised of a large number of small tactics — not one magic bullet.

For example, here was my advice to Ron:

  • Use Your Autopilot: Make sure your dreaded work is tackled within a trusted autopilot schedule. Having to decide each week when to do this work is an extra hurdle that you want to avoid.
  • Use Location: Identify a unique isolated location for each type of dreaded work. When in that location all you’re allowed to do is work. Absolutely no Internet will be tolerated. If you want to go online, or otherwise change mental gears, you have to physically leave the location. No exceptions.
  • Be Reasonable: Make sure that you’re scheduling more than enough time for each dreaded task. If your schedule is unreasonably tight your mind will recognize this reality and summon intense resistance.
  • Embrace Specificity: Throw out your vague plans to “do reading” or “work on a problem set.” If you want your mind to cooperate, you need to reduce your work to a set of unambiguous and specific actions that will clearly fit into the time set aside.
  • (Wo)Man Up: Finally, you need to recognize that throughout life you’re going to have to do work that you don’t want to do. This is perhaps the defining trait of being an adult. College is as good a time as any to recognize this fact, man up (or woman up, as the case may be), and just do it, even if you don’t want to. You’re not sixteen and living at home anymore…

I haven’t yet heard back from Ron, but I’ve recommended this same scatter shot approach to dozens of students who suffered from similar issues. If you know what you’re supposed to be doing, but just can’t make it happen, don’t seek a magic bullet that will make things instantly better. Instead attack the problem from multiple angles until your mind has no option but to submit.

19 thoughts on “The Grade Whisperer: Ron’s Feeble Focus”

  1. Being reasonable is, for me, the single most important aspect of this. I’m currently massively overestimating how long it will take for me to, say, read a couple of chapters. Time pressure just makes it seem worse.

  2. Any hints for those whose homework is completely digital? 🙂

    Mastering chemistry courses are currently wreaking havoc on my scholastic life, as the beautiful shiny inter tubes is simply one click away at all times…

  3. Hello,

    Found your blog with some searching. I have a college blog as well. We need to stick together. Let’s exchange links. Let me know if this is possible.


  4. Being reasonable is, for me, the single most important aspect of this.

    I really agree. It feels good during the height of scheduling to envision getting everything done in a short amount of time, but when that fails to happen it creates all sorts of havoc.

    Mastering chemistry courses are currently wreaking havoc on my scholastic life, as the beautiful shiny inter tubes is simply one click away at all times

    Maintain the location rule. Go somewhere that is set aside entirely for chemistry work and follow the rule that in that location there is no random web surfing.

  5. Just wanted to make the suggestion that these same techniques are great for any type of work that needs to be done. When I started working from home, I followed the location rule and set up multiple accounts on my computer, restricting one from games and such because I knew my willpower was lacking. 😉 (This worked well until Vista came out and I got a new laptop, because then I had to make both accounts admins just so I could FUNCTION on the work account, so I have slid a bit with my ‘no surfing/facebooking’ rule.)

  6. I like the idea of having more specific work tasks, but what about computer science courses that require a lot of programming? how can you account for last minute bugs? sometimes I’m able to finish very fast, and sometimes it just takes forever.

  7. I read in your read book that if you’re working hard, then you’re doing something wrong. Doesn’t that apply all the time? I guess hard work is sometimes necessary after all.

  8. Hi there Cal,

    Thanks a lot for this post. This was exactly the same problem I was having, I can continue at times but mostly it is difficult to continue or even begin. I will set into motion some of these ideas right away.

  9. I recently discovered the beauty of printing out my WebAssign homeworks and doing them on paper before I entered them in online. I found that I had plenty of room to do my work on paper, got distracted less, and got more of the problems right the first time. The same goes for any online readings or research articles. I get much more understanding from being able to take them off-line, highlight them, make comments, etc. all away from an electronic device!

  10. Great approach you have given us for focusing better in our studies (and send my regard to Ron, too. I’m sure he is grateful for your help). I particularly agree with you on also taking note of the location a person should be studying or taking care of any part of their coursework to keep in focus. This is sadly one of the reasons why people seem to lose focus. Most of us have this misconception that to focus is to stick one’s nose on anything and that’s just it. They fail to realise that in focusing, your have to take care of other aspects, like defining what makes you focus, avoiding distractions and to take each task one at a time, and not gobble it all as a whole, which only causes more stress. If you are in a distraction-prone venue, of course you can’t focus.

    -Focus Study Tips

  11. Rock and hard spot: while this may seem extreme, sometimes when I have online homework, I make use of a grease monkey script, called invisibility cloak that disables browsing to any website but my homework, more info can be found here,

  12. I haven’t searched your entire site yet, however do you have any tips on non-standard students? Such as parents. I have two boys and my wife works. So when I am not at school I am home watching my boys while doing my homework, talk about distracting. Plus its not like I can go hide because they are both under 5, dangerous if left alone.


Leave a Comment