Ah, the age-old problem.
Yes, I know I’m meant to study.
Yes, I know I should be able to do it for a long time.
Is it just me?
A lot of people worry that they just don’t have good concentration skills, that it’s something inherent in them which makes it impossible for them to keep focus without giving in to distractions. The good news is that that isn’t quite true. The bad news is that it also sort of is.
The Lizard Brain
Let me explain. There is something inherent in you that makes it impossible to keep your focus without giving in to distractions. But there’s also something in every person you admire who manages to get around this problem and get their sh*t done. I am pretty certain that there are days when Cristiano Ronaldo would rather be chilling on the sofa than starting an intense, focused training session. I’m sure Barack Obama used to sit down at his computer at 2am to write up a report for the National Security Services and his finger would hover over the Facebook tab. I’m sure that while he was writing A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking thought at least once “I just can’t be arsed with this.”
But that thing in humans which resists focus is a real thing, and it goes back to basic survival instinct. When I had this concept explained to me, the framing device was that of the humble lizard, way back in prehistoric times. Do you think the lizard who was capable of intense hour-long periods of focus on a leaf was admired by all the other lizards? Christ no! That lizard was dead, dude. Ask any lizard worth their salt and they’ll tap their scaly little noses and say “Constant vigilance, my friend, constant vigilance. Eyes everywhere. Never rest from scanning the world around you for PREDATORS WHO WILL MAIM AND EAT YOU.”
And we all have a Lizard Brain. Look it up, I swear, it’s even called that. The Lizard Brain is the one that is constantly in fight or flight mode, always on edge for any potential threat, always looking for an escape route. But, the problem is, we aren’t actually Lizards any more. We live in a society which, for the most part, is pretty stress-free compared to the life of the Lizard. Yes, yes, I know, we’re all wildly stressed out, what with family and friends and homework and the constant low-level threat of Nuclear Armageddon from that damned Little Red Button- but the truth is that really, when you think about it, we’re not.
We have roofs over our heads. We can mostly buy any food we want to at any time. People very rarely come at us with massive jaws and threaten to eat us whole. Whereas that lizard, every time he leaves his den, is facing World War III his entire life. Now that, my friends, is stress.
But what does this have to do with keeping focus when studying?
You’re probably wondering why I’m so hung up on Lizards and Fight Or Flight. What we’re doing here is learning to acknowledge and understand the destructive capacities of our own brains. We need to be able to see the problem before we can fix it, and in order to see the problem we need to put it into real-life context.
This is the point: our Lizard Brain hasn’t really evolved past that state of Constant Vigilance.
There is a part of your brain- maybe small, maybe large- that is always looking around for possible dangers. This means that there is a part of your brain that is in a state of high panic all the time about an impending threat to your life which, in all probability, will not come. So that bit of your brain looks for other things it can control, and check, and complete. This is why we all need to scroll Insta forever, or facebook, or BBC News, or whatever it is that distracts you. You are giving into your paranoid Lizard Brain’s completion addiction, which requires you to continue checking on all of your notifications in case this is the one about the End Of The World. You probably don’t know it, you just think it really really matters that you see what your best friend wrote in that text, even though you’re going to see her tomorrow morning at school, but in reality what is happening is ol’ Lizard Brain is whispering in your ear “Alert. Alert. Message. Message from Outside. Message might be important. Maybe message about Doom.”
This is why you struggle to focus when you try to sit down to work. Because we live in a world where there is very rarely a threat to our lives, but there is a constant sense of low-level danger and anxiety going on in the most ancient part of every human’s brain which makes you subconsciously need to keep breaking off your work (not threatening to your life) to check The Messages (possible threat to your life). You are the modern-day equivalent of the cavewoman pausing cooking over the fire to go and check out a noise outside which could be a Wooly Mammoth (or whatever they had then). You are the shepherd on the hills in the Bible pausing his learning of astronomy to go and see what that suspicious rustling is amongst his sheep. Hell, you are that 80s teen in the horror film who puts down their book to go and check on the noise in the basement, even though the whole world is screaming DON’T GO INTO THE BASEMENT.
People, when you come to study, please, for the love of God, don’t go into the basement.
People with Focus
People with focus are not any different. They have a Lizard Brain, and it also shouts at them to check their phone. It shouts at them to check the noise from the kitchen. It shouts at them to see what’s going on on Insta.
The change is in the response to that shout. People with focus are just Very Bloody Stubborn. Some of them actually use their inborn completion addiction to their advantage, unable to tear their eyes away from the screen or the book until the job is done. But this is very rare. God, what I would give to be one of those people. Addicted to study. What a dream, eh?
People with focus, when that brain shouts, say no. Very firmly, perhaps with a little mental finger wag, a bit like you would if you were talking to a dog trying to eat off the table. No. And, really, that’s the only skill you have to master to keep your focus. The skill of no. People call this self-discipline, people talk about mental strength, people talk about willpower, but to be honest those make is sound like a superpower that you have to spend years building up. Mental strength? Shut uppp. Strength is conditioned in a gym, or in physical labour, or in toting around a bloody huge backpack of textbooks all day long. Mental strength? Dude, all you have to do is say no.
Everything hard takes practice. You didn’t think I’d leave you on your own with something as hard as saying no to Lizard Brain, do you? Practice it with me now. Imagine Lizard Brain is a whining puppy.
LIZARD BRAIN: *gives you the eyes* Facebook time now must check facebook been ten minutes maybe something happened come on gotta check it gotta check it gotta che-
I am very sorry, Puppy-Dog-Lizard-Brain, but I am busy right now. With something that is important to me. We will play later. Goodbye.
Ok, now ol’ Lizzy is a toddler who will not get out of your hair.
LIZARD BRAIN: PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE CAN WE GO INSTA PLEASE I WANT INSTA PLEASE YOU SAID I COULD IT’S NOT FAIR EVERYONE ELSE GOT TO GO INSTA PLEEEAA-
I RAISED YOU BETTER THAN THIS, LIZARD BRAIN. YOU ARE SPOILT AND YOU ARE BEING A BRAT. GO TO YOUR ROOM.
You see? All you have to do is say no. And just like with a dog, or with a toddler, the more you say no the easier it will be to do.
The problem with “Just This Once”
Everyone who’s had a dog or a little sibling knows that you cannot give in to them, not even just this once. If you let that puppy on the sofa just this once, it will think it’s ok to get on the sofa and it will always get on the sofa and it will take a lot of training to undo the time you gave in.
Same with your little brother. If he is not allowed in your room, he has to always be not allowed in your room.
Remember that time your mum let him in your room when you were out? And she said “Oh, but he’s only little, and he really wanted a chance to be like you” and you were FUMING because you knew it was the WRONG CHOICE and would have BAD CONSEQUENCEs but your mum had already done the damage. Maybe you said something like “But now he’ll think he’s allowed in my room!” and your mum was like “No, he knows it was Just This Once” and you were like “Oho momma you have been played for a FOOL” and then you stomped off to Your Room and had to spend the next three weeks retraining him that no, really, the rule still stood, and he is really genuinely not allowed in your room..
That’s the problem with just saying yes to Lizard Brain just this once. Just like your annoying little brother, Lizard Brain starts to get excited. Starts to think that really it’s the one in control. Starts to suggest you say yes more and more often. And then you’re basically its slave. You never get your work done because you are always at the mercy of Ole Lizzy and you go round in circles where you work for two minutes and then check your texts. Three minutes and then Insta. Five and then Facebook. And then you watch a Youtube video, for educational purposes, and you’re down a Love Island rabbit hole for the next hour and a half.
Imagine being the slave of your little brother. Having to do colouring with him all day and laugh at rocks. Having to eat the broccoli he didn’t like and then allow him to mush the remainder into your hair. Dude, that is not your job. That’s your mum’s job (sorry Mum!). That’s essentially what you’re doing if you give in to the Lizard Brain. You are allowing a toddler or a spoilt puppy to run your life. It genuinely has about the same amount of basic intelligence as child or an animal. And you know what they say- never work with children or animals.
So, next time you sit down to work, I want you to wait for your Lizard Brain to chime in. You might have to listen quite hard, because you’re so used to giving in to it now that you think it’s just your Brain, but then two minutes later you’ll be scrolling through the ASOS website. Stop. Rewind. You already missed the teeny tiny shout. Go back to studying. Next time it’ll be easier to identify. You’ll go to open the Facebook tab, for some reason that a moment ago did genuinely seem incredibly compelling- and you’ll catch yourself. You’ll go… ah. That’s how it happens.
You’ll think back over why it was you opened Facebook, and you’ll remember that it was because you just had the thought that it actually might be your cousin’s birthday tomorrow and you should check so you can text him happy birthday and yes of course that’s a nice and kind thing to do but you don’t need to do it now. You’ll think- huh. That probably could wait until later. And then you’ll start to be in control. It’ll probably take you a few days or weeks to get there, but you’ll get there. Of course you will; it’s just forming a new habit. Every time your Lizard Brain says “Jump”, instead of automatically jumping, you’ll go “No thanks. No time for jumping now. Later.”
If you’re looking for a practical way to build later into your work schedule, you should genuinely give Study Rocket a try. Using the proven productivity hack of the Pomodoro technique, you can set work time targets of 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes or 25 minutes. We’ll block all distractions while you work, and tell you when it’s time to take a break!