Productive Learning (Pt 4 of 4): Focus and Reviewing


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This series is designed to help you or your children be productive learners. Having looked at mental clutter, goal-setting and to-do lists, the last in this series is about how to focus better, and the how to review to retain what you’ve learned.

First, a reminder about why multitasking is bad: Researchers at Stanford University have shown that people who regularly look at several streams of content at once don’t pay attention, memorize, or manage their tasks as well as those who focus on one thing at a time. (HBR, June 2015, “Conquering Digital Distraction”)

How to increase your focus

In Part 3 I emphasized writing down your goals and prioritizing tasks for your to-do list. When you know what’s essential, you can focus more easily on what needs to be done. For some, that’s all it takes to get focused. Others have additional challenges so here are some tips for increasing your focus:

•       Figure out the window of time in which it’s easiest for you to focus – plan your studying times for those windows as much as poss. My best times are before breakfast, mid-morning and before dinner. Put those times on your calendar and set reminders for 1-2 hours before (and the evening before if that helps) to get your brain in the right frame of mind (pun intended!). Make a rule – if you get a reminder, you have to do it.

•       Put your phone in airplane mode

•       Set a timer so you check email only after you’ve worked a set period of time. Or try The Pomodoro Technique:

1.     Choose a task or project.

2.     Set your timer for 25 minutes.

3.     Work until the timer goes off. If you're making headway and the timer goes off, it's okay to pause the timer, finish what you're doing.

4.     Take a 5-minute break.

5.     Every 4 Pomodoros, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes, whatever it takes to make you feel recharged and ready to start another set of Pomodoros.

•       Take regular breaks - although you may be proud of working 12 hrs/day solid, you’re depriving your brain of the rest it needs to stay sharp. Build “mental deep breathing” time into your day by doing simple things like going for a walk, dancing for 10 minutes, even doing housework!

•       Instead of multitasking, work on projects sequentially.

•       Work on smaller projects, which could be part of larger projects.

•       Avoid coffee (over-stimulating) and alcohol.


Reviewing is the glue that keeps what you learned in your head. This applies as equally to a seminar you attended as to notes you made while studying that day. Each time you review, your mind will focus on different things because it doesn’t need to spend time on what it already knows, so it looks for new information (remember the dopamine hit from new info, Part 2?)

If you want to retain what you learned for longer, follow this review schedule:

1) This is the most important step: review your notes before you go to bed. Why? Believe it or not, you continue learning in your sleep, so give your subconscious some food for thought before turning off the light.

2) Review the next day

3) Depending on your deadline for learning, e.g. if your learning goal is a week away, you may want to continue the night-next day sequence

4) If your goal is more about developing your learning over time, after the first night-next day sequence you could cut back to weekly reviews for a month, then transition to monthly reviews for six  months. After that, every six months is good for reaffirming what you’ve learned and finding new things to lock into your memory.

I hope you’ve found this series on Productive Learning useful! Here are some additional resources. And you can write to me with any questions at Ellia@MindfulOrganizing.NET .

Additional Resources

•       Sign up for the bi-weekly Mindful Organizing newsletter to continue receiving tips on being more productive, organized and flexible in solving problems.

•       “Master It Faster,” Colin Rose. Although written in 1999, this is a great book for visual learners to improve their learning. Good for kids and adults alike.

• has articles on productivity and learning

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