Struggling to study: causes and solutions


You’ve got your books, your laptop, pens, paper and highlighters. You’ve got your imminent deadline, and steadily growing worry to hone it. But you just can’t seem to get in the zone and start working. What is the missing piece of this productivity puzzle? … By Laura Primiceri

We’ve all been there. Sitting down at a desk, thinking that we were ready to start work, and then drawing a complete blank. There are a number of different things that could be stifling your good intentions, so try checking your symptoms against the six most common problems we’ve picked out below.

Fear of missing out

FOMO, in its more severe cases, means that you don’t even arrive at the staring at your books stage; rather than simply listening to your housemates loudly enjoy Joan Jett’s music on Rock Band in the next room resentfully, you’re already in there with them, wilfully ignoring your studies. Even if you have the willpower to take yourself to the Library, and theoretically out of temptation’s path, Facebook makes you rethink the decision by providing helpful commentary to everyone else’s evening. You fancy you can still hear strains of ‘Bad Reputation’ all the way from here.

To combat FOMO, try scheduling your study and relaxation times for points when you know everyone else is busy; wake up early, work while they’re at lectures or jobs. Or just sit down and collude with your friends to organise everyone studying at the same time, and meeting up for something fun after.


This is similar to the problematic FOMO, but is more about distraction than a compulsion to be elsewhere. You might have a sudden impulse to text a friend you haven’t spoken to in years, or spend a quick hour on Reddit, or find yourself uncharacteristically willing to listen to a friend ramble about a TV show you don’t even watch.

The normal advice applies here: block your most frequented websites, and switch off your phone. If you know you’re likely to just undo these steps, place your distractions in to someone else’s hands. Tell your housemate to put a password on the blocked sites, and give them your phone till you’ve done a few hours work.

The Grump

If you’re feeling inexplicitly grouchy, slow and irritable, possibly it’s because you’re not taking care of your body. Consider if you’ve had enough sleep, and when (and what) you last ate. Tea, coffee, sugar and energy drinks will only provide a temporary plaster for your negative mood, and you’ll probably feel worse once you run down from the high.

Try to plan your study time so that you’ve had a good night’s sleep before. If that’s not possible, try a power nap rather than a caffeine dose in your breaks. In terms of food, think healthy and in light quantities; fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit and nuts. If you can, spend a little more than you would normally to buy something you’ll look forward to eating.

Plant instincts

Did you know you have plant instincts? Well you do; plant desires for water, light and ventilation all apply double when you’re studying.

When you’re working, particularly in rainy England, it’s easy to forget the recommendation to drink between two and three litres of water a day and become dehydrated. It’s easy to neglect proper lighting too, but studying in a dimly lit room can both strain on your eyes and make you sleepy.

So, fill up water bottle to sip at, invest in a desk lamp, and open the window for a breath of fresh air to help get your brain moving.


Back aches, squinty eyes, teeth grinding—there are a lot of little things that can build up the more you work. When your body starts to protest it’ll probably be a form of repetitive strain, so listen to any discomfort that grows up while you’re working so that you can take steps to prevent or deal with it.

Find some cushions, change your position regularly, and rotate between looking your computer and your books where you can. Make sure you’re wearing comfortable clothes that allow freedom of movement, but also that it’s something you wouldn’t mind going out in. At the risk of sounding like someone’s mother, don’t just stay in your pyjamas; slovenly clothes will lead to slovenly studying.

Non-strategic breaks

The only thing worse than not taking any breaks when you’re struggling to concentrate is taking them non-strategically. One example of the latter would be forcing yourself to work exactly 45 minutes before taking a fifteen minute break, rather than setting a minimum stretch of studying and letting yourself go over it if you’re on a roll. Another could be spending your break reading BuzzFeed articles on your laptop, when you’ve just spent the past hour reading JStor articles on your laptop.

Try and do something different with your breaks; if you’re clever, you’ll incorporate it into overcoming the other studying obstacles. Go chat to a friend to combat FOMO, drag them outside on a quick walk to work on your discomfort and plant instincts, and so on. Whatever you do, make sure it’s different from how you’ve been working, or your break won’t feel like a break at all.

Image: time is ephemeral/Stefano Mortellaro/CC BY-ND 2.0

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