How to Stop Unwanted Thoughts While Studying (For Better Focus) (2023)

What reduces focus and concentration whilst doing work?Distractions. What is a notable source of distractions? Your own thoughts.

In this article, I’m going to show you how to stop theseunwanted thoughts (while studying) from. How? By getting them out of your headthen onto paper or whatever other storagemedium is most convenient.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here; I haven’t exactlyspecified what these distracting, unwanted thoughts are.

insert_linkWhat is Mind Wandering and Distracting Thoughts?

I like to think of the concept of “pop-up” ideas, which areessentially spontaneous thoughts. To clarify, these are the random thoughts that popinto your mind throughout the day.

And it’s distracting.

Whether it’s a task for later, a revolutionary new idea, orwhat you’re having for dinner tonight, a thought can come from anywhere.Anytime.

Also, because these thoughts are seldom relevant to thecurrent context, they are often unwanted. (Heart-breaking, no?)

As a consequence of an unpredictable and uncontrollable flowof ideas to your head, “mind wandering” enters the scene.

For you see, whileyou desperately try to maintain focus whilst studying, your mind keepswandering off. Although, from a rational perspective, you don’t really wantto be thinking about dinner as you calculate 2+2.

So, the consequence: why must productive people stopunwanted thoughts while studying (or doing other things)?

How to Stop Unwanted Thoughts While Studying (For Better Focus) (1)

insert_linkThe Impact of Unwanted Thoughts on Your Studying Mind

The aforementioned “pop-up” ideas are detrimental innumerous ways.

Tips on willpower and meditation: 9 Self Control and Discipline Strategies: Break Free Now!

insert_linkYou Can’t Stop Unwanted Thoughts; You Can’t Stop Mind Wandering

Granted, the title may seem to imply that you can stophaving unwanted thought, albeit this is not true.

If you’ve delved into the practice of meditation, you wouldhave come across the concept of a “monkey mind”. In other words, our minds wander off totally naturally—andyou can’t do anything stop it.

Nonetheless, I do recommend a mindfulness meditationpractice; it does, in fact, help you focus, meanwhile, avoiding distractions.Additionally, it will lend you more control over your mind, hence yourthoughts.

With this in mind, how badly can unwanted thoughts distractyou whilst studying?

insert_linkWith No Way Out, Thoughts Repeat, Over and Over…

Well, the problem is, once a thought gets into your head, itmight be hard to get it out of your head.

For example, let’s say you’ve just remembered that you needto clean the dishes after your work session. It needs to get done, no question.Accordingly, your mind is going to clingonto this idea due to its perceived importance.

Thus, your mind—distracted from the true purpose of yoursession—wanders off.

What is more, since there’s no outlet, repeating thoughts willdistract you over and over again. With nothing to let them out, your ownthoughts and ideas will rob you of your mental concentration.

After all, would you want to stop thinking about somethingimportant even if you could? But even the most trivial of ideas can have thepotential to keep your mind out of focus.

So, the first thing you must accept: you can’t stop havingthese distracting thoughts.

However, you can stop these thoughts from distractingyou.

insert_linkBut Spontaneous Thoughts Are Good

How to Stop Unwanted Thoughts While Studying (For Better Focus) (2)

At this point, you might have the conception that you needto stop your mind wandering and clear your mind of thoughts. Wrong!

As I briefly alluded to earlier, most thoughts are actuallyvaluable in some way or another. Therefore, it rarely serves any advantage toclear your mind of them completely. (Evenif you could.)

Why is this so? It is becauseyour wandering mind—alongside itsspontaneous ideas—is a result of yourcreativity.

As such, many of your thoughts and ideas are, in some way oranother, useful for the context they relate to. Cleverly disguised as murderersof productivity, you actually wouldn’t want to forget them.

So, not only can you not stop your mind from wandering off, but you shouldn’t want to either!

That being said, my following piece of advice will bring youback to your work (studying etc).

Breaks—the formula for success: Is It Possible for You to Be Productive All the Time? (Hint: Yes!)

insert_linkThe Solution: Get Unwanted Thoughts Out of Your Head

Next, the bit where we truly get to clear your mind of “unwanted” thoughts. However, they’re only unwanted in the current context but still wanted for future use.

The best way to avoiddistractions as a result of your own thoughts is to record them: get themout of your head!

Whether it’s on a paper notepad, in a to-do list, or on asticky note—that doesn’t matter. Conversely, what does matter is that that oncedistracting thought is out of your head.

For you see, as soon as it is out of your head, you havecleared your mind; you have avoided mind wandering because you can think aboutwhatever it is later, not now.

If you stop unwanted thoughts whilst studying by physicallyrecording them, you’ll keep your mind focused. Now you can direct 100% of yourattention towards what really matters at the time.

Also, done properly, this technique reduces that risk that you will accidentally fall into the trap ofdoing a completely different task altogether!

This often happens when a pop-up task comes to mind thatseems small, but it’s really not. Alternatively, a small immediate task candraw you into a whole new roller-coaster of other useless tasks.

Not to mention the simple fact that this distraction breaksup your attention hence begets inefficiency.

You can alwayscomplete a task later—delay it!

Stop the bad momentum: How to Stop Getting Carried Away in a Task and Delay It

insert_linkTake Note of Your Ideas in a Safe, Trusted Place

How to Stop Unwanted Thoughts While Studying (For Better Focus) (3)

Note the use of the word, “trusted”.

To confidently allow yourself to temporarily forget aboutthe spontaneous idea, you must have faith. In other words, if you do not believe you will pick the thought back up later, you willcontinue to be distracted by it.

The effect of clearing your mind comes from relief andself-assurance, knowing that you’re notgoing to forget the idea. Then—and only then—can you embrace a sense ofcalmness.

In order to prove to yourself that noting down an idea iseffective, it is essential that you forma new habit.

Above all, you don’t want to go from thinking about dirtydishes to thinking about where you’ve recorded a to-do; the latter part shouldbe sufficiently obvious such that your mind can truly stop thinking about it.

Note: in the followingsections I will use the cleverly chosen terminology used by Graham Allcott in ProductivityNinja.

insert_linkImplement a Capture Habit and Trust Your Collection Points

So, make way for the capturehabit: a system designed to capture all of your unwanted thoughts during any activity throughout the day.

Moreover, thisentails storing your ideas in a single, safe, unified place (or a few thereof).Let’s call these collection points.

Carefully designed to avoid confusion and maximisesimplicity, these should be well-determined and scarce. In addition, you’ll need to be able to access a collectionpoint at any time of the day to ensure the system’s robustness.

Seeing that the purpose of the capture habit is to clearyour head as quickly as possible, capturing should be as frictionless aspossible:

  • Firstly, the system should be swift andsimple. So, sometimes the good taste of pen and paper beats tech whenit comes down to sheer speed.
  • Secondly, you should account for alllocations. For example, at home,you could keep an omnipresent notebook, conveniently adjacent to a pen. Whilstout and about, you could appropriately configure a to-do or notetaking app onyour smartphone. Don’t be afraid to mix and match paper and technology.
  • Thirdly, maintain as few collection pointsas possible. If you have over fifty places to note down yourspontaneous ideas, you will fail: due to an unnecessary excess of lists, youwill be overwhelmed, and processing them will steal your time like an armedlooter.

insert_linkMy (Current) Implementation of the Capture Habit

Even though my current productivity system is due anoverhaul, you may still be interested as to how I capture my thoughts.

At my workstation, I keep a notepad and pen, since I can useit regardless of whether my computer is switched on. As far as the outsideworld goes, I have a rather interesting contraption consisting of anothernotepad and pen.

Also, I rarely use my phone, and doing so is quiteimpractical.

My implementation of a phone: 7 Things I Liked About Windows 10 Mobile (Before it Died)

insert_linkImplement an Organise Habit for Processing Your Collection Points

How to Stop Unwanted Thoughts While Studying (For Better Focus) (4)

The second step in stopping unwanted thoughts while studyinginvolves periodically getting on top of your collection points. This is the part which creates trust, thusallowing you to get your thoughts out of your head effectively.

While the capture habit is triggered by spontaneous, new,distraction-causing ideas, the organisinghabit is a routine.

Take a look at your typical day and see if, at the end ofit, there’s any time to implement the habit. If not, find the time. Once you do, commit to your organisehabit (or routine)—every day.

This involves checkingall of your collection points for ideas you’ve had during the day.Subsequently, you will transfer yourideas from this temporary place to where the idea/task really belongs.Finally, tick it off if you usesomething like a notepad for a collection point.

For example, a particular random insight might betransferred to Evernote whilst a to-do is put into your project managementsystem.

insert_linkThe 2-Minute Rule

David Allen, author of the infamous productivity book, GettingThings Done, formulated the “2-minute rule”. Furthermore, this can beapplied to the organise-habit describedhere

Essentially, if a task takes less than two minutes tocomplete, you might as well complete it here and now; especially if organisingsaid task in your productivity system exceeds two minutes.

However, be careful that the task doesn’t spiral out ofcontrol, either leading to additional unwanted tasks or by taking longer thanexpected to complete. So, be vigilant!

insert_linkMy implementation

At the end of my working hours, when I come to relax a bitmore, I have a “shutdown” routine. As a part of it, I “load” up my spontaneousto-dos to wherever they must be.

insert_linkBut What About Random Daydreaming?

How to Stop Unwanted Thoughts While Studying (For Better Focus) (5)

“While that seems finefor specific ideas or actionable tasks, what about random daydreaming?”

Perhaps your mind keeps wandering off because you can’t stopgetting distracted by more abstract thoughts.

For instance, I know the temptation of fantasising aboutrockets to colonise Mars. You may get distracted during studying to think about the eye-piercingly beautiful edge of theMacBook Air’s durable aluminium body.

(Just me?)

You, too, can change the world: Future of the Space Industry: Why Should You Be Excited?

Regardless, how do you deal with these situations? Youcould, maybe, describe your obsession for Tesla’s cars in a few succinctparagraphs. Though, that seems counterproductive.

Sketch a few blueprints of a few methane-powered, aerospikerockets? Perhaps not.

This illustrates how, occasionally,note-taking doesn’t do it all, and other methods will better stop your mindwandering. Therefore, I recommend a full lifestyle change (outside thescope of this article) to help keep your mind focused at all times. Forinstance:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Get more, higher quality sleep
  • Optimise your diet (e.g. eat low GI foods)
  • Get ample physical exercise
  • Don’t forget to allocate long periods of rest aswell as frequent breaks

If I end up making (or have made) articles on these topics,use the search bar on the Cryptic Butter website.


So, in order to keep mentally focused and avoid distracting,unwanted thoughts, be sure not to forget them: take them out of your head, thusallowing you to give 100% focused attention to your work.

Although, remember that this capture method is only effective when it involves minimal friction. Make it quick!

As a result of stopping your mind from wandering away, you will also save time. For instance, youmight have a thought or idea that, with time, you realise is worthless and nouse following up.

Furthermore, it is imperative that this strategy is used whilststudying, but the capture habit prevails throughout the day!

Especially whentrying to get to bed, you might want to note down all your thoughts in abed-side notepad to clear your mind forsleep. Equally, you could try this tactic when you wake up in the middle ofthe night, thinking about life problems andtomorrow’s agenda.

Therefore, capturing ideas is an invaluable time management strategyto, firstly, get more done in less timeand, secondly, help stick to the schedule.

And with this in mind, let’s not forget that mediation, the rightdiet, exercise, as well as ample sleep are equally significant in takingcontrol of your thoughts. (If not more important!)

Related goodness: How to Organise Your Time for Studying (with Compartmentalisation)

insert_linkRecommended Book of The Week

In this article, we discussed the capture habit and the organisehabit, which you can also read about in this useful book:

How to Stop Unwanted Thoughts While Studying (For Better Focus) (6)

Howto Be a Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More and Love What You Do

(Also, if you do like thelook of it, I recommend the Audible audiobook.)

Then, please share your answer to the following question inthe comments:

What techniques havebeen useful for you in preventing mind-wandering and maintaining concentration?

I would love to hear your thoughts!

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