Find focus in your language learning sessions

Soundtrack: Study playlist – instrumental music for focus and concentration

The sky is lead grey. A dull, persistent thin rain damps all sounds. Even the unstoppable Swedish children gave up on playing on the swings today. Inside, I’m wrapped in my blue blanket, my feet safely burrowed in my fluffy house shoes. I’m home alone.

It sounds like the perfect time to start a satisfying study session. If only…

If only my thoughts would stop with the rumpus inside my head. They go in circles, stumble on each other, start a quarrel, stand still for a moment before running around again.

Anxiety isn’t just being nervous all the time. It has countless ways to scramble your brain and mess with your learning. Sometimes it’s the constant trail of worries, preoccupations and rumination that crowd into our heads. When they start to gather and jump around, finding our focus for language learning seems like a hopeless challenge.

During my end of year reflections, I didn’t set goals for 2019, nor choose my resolutions. Instead, one kanji popped up in my mind as if by magic and I decided to let it guide me through the year. 今 /ima/ means “now” and it condensates a lot of the things I need (and those I want to say no to) this year. Being more present, finding focus, avoiding the distractions that suck my time, trying to let go of my ever-growing to-do lists and of the ruminations about the past. Be here now.

I have spent countless hours wishing for thoughts constantly buzzing in my head to just shut up. They don’t quite obey me, but I’m finding better ways to cope.

So before you start hurling your textbooks around the room in desperation, take a big breath. Let’s have a look at a few strategies that can help you find some focus for your study sessions.

For me, too, this is still a work in progress. If you have your own magic tricks to quiet a loud mind, tell me in a comment. šŸ™‚


Keep your study space clean and uncluttered…

On a tense day, an untidy pile of old notes, random chargers, books and messy stationery can make me snap. Or it can become the perfect excuse for procrastination. I mean, how can I keep still and study when my desk is in such a state?

Having one dedicated study space helps to get into study-mode easily. Having a tidy, clutter-free area is even better for concentration. It doesn’t have to be maniacally neat, as long as it’s “your own” kind of order.

Put the things that you don’t need away from your sight, in a drawer or on a shelf. Reduce the possible distractions and give yourself plenty of space to move your notebooks and textbooks around.

… and have everything you need at hand

Before sitting at your desk for your study session, go through a mini-checklist to make sure you have all you need at hand. Trying not to fidget is already hard enough, so let’s not give ourselves an excuse to “just go and grab a glass of water”.

To give you an idea, here are some of the things that I get ready: a glass of water (or juice, or a cup of tea), some tissues, lip balm, a hair tie, headphones, pen, pencil and eraser, blanket, some extra paper to write on.

Think about what you might need and get it ready next to you, so you won’t have to leave your desk every 2 minutes.

Instrumental music or calming sounds

A noise somewhere in the house is quite likely to distract me from what I’m doing. Oh, did I hear the post being delivered? I must go and check what it is right away. Wait, was that a fork falling on the floor? I can’t possibly let my boyfriend deal with such hardship by himself.

My number one choice to keep the sounds of the world out of my study sessions is to play some instrumental music in the background. Sometimes, when my highly sensitive self can’t take listening to music any longer, I simply put my headphones on, without playing anything.

I wouldn’t recommend listening to your favourite songs or to something that makes you want to sing along. That way, your mind would be on a nostalgic trip down memory lane in no time. As a less demanding alternative to music, try an app or a video that plays the sounds of nature. Listening to the rain falling, the wind blowing or the ocean waves can help quell your mind.

Turn off your notifications

The way in which smartphones, social media and notifications add up to our anxiety would require a whole article. For now, let’s keep it simple and make sure that we don’t get interrupted while we’re studying. Set your phone to silent mode or to flight mode. Even better, leave it in a different room or someplace where you can’t see it. Close all irrelevant windows in your browser and if you don’t trust your self-control, install a plugin that stops you from sneaking to check Twitter.

Offline activities that allow you to turn off your computer altogether are the best choice to stay focused. Time to dust off that old dictionary of yours?

Take a big breath and practice mindfulness

Before starting or while you’re studying, if you feel like you’re losing focus, pause and take a big, deep breath. You can close your eyes for a minute and just breathe, setting your attention to the sensations in your body and listening to the sound of your breath. It will help you feel more grounded, calm and present.

Standing and stretching shortly before you begin to study is another way to tell the body to leave behind whatever you were doing before.

Getting into the habit of carving five minutes a day to sit still, breathe and be in the present moment can be of help with all symptoms of anxiety.

Block time and set an alarm

When I started to work from home, I would tackle tasks as they came to mind, in a confused and unorganised way. As you can imagine, it didn’t work out so well.

That’s why I started to implement time blocks or periods in the day dedicated to a specific activity. I usually plan at the end of the day for the next, or on Sunday for the following week. Language learning also gets its own time block – and so does time off. Carve out time in your day and stick to the plan.

Time blocks go hand in hand with the Pomodoro technique: 25 minutes of focused work or study followed by a 5-minute break, then repeat. Set an alarm and, when your language learning time block ends, move on to the next activity. And don’t skip on the breaks! Your brain needs them.

Write down your ideas and your to-do list

Without fail, the best ideas and the most urgent tasks pop up in my mind when I’m trying to concentrate on something unrelated. When it happens, procrastination is there, ready to sneak on me.

A simple, yet effective solution is to have some scrap paper by your side. There you can note down the idea in a few words, to be sure you won’t forget it, and go back to it later. Most things can easily wait until the end of your study session.

Take a break

After a long work day and some more time dedicated to language learning, it’s only natural that your mind might start to wander. Get to know your limits and to understand when it’s time to put the textbooks aside and rest. A tired mind won’t do you a great service, so take a break whenever you need one to be able to start afresh later.

It’s also essential to break longer sessions and give yourself at least 5-10 minutes to pause for every hour of study. After a while, your brain would shut down in protest and stop taking in new information anyway.

While being all over the place with loud thoughts rushing through your head can be a hindrance, don’t feel like you need to cut out all distractions all the time either. Let yourself look out of the window to follow a bird’s flight, get lost in a beautiful melody or doodle some shapes on your notebook. You need and deserve some healthy ways to let your mind wanderand your creativity will also benefit from it.  

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Iā€™m Elena Gabrielli, introvert, grammar geek & proud Ravenclaw :)
I’m on a journey to help introverts and other quiet learners make language learning into a tool for self-care (and keep anxiety out of it).