• Laura Vater

53+7: How to focus when you study

We live in a world with increasing distraction. Sometimes it feels hard to focus on one thing (especially when that thing is something that is hard to do: studying).


Here are some tips that have helped me study during medical school and for board exams like the USMLE Steps 1, 2, and 3.


To improve my focus, I set a timer for 53 minutes, with an audible alarm. During this time, I do not let myself look at my phone, emails, or even take a break. For 53 straight minutes, I read, take notes, or do a block of questions on my computer.


Nothing happens in that 53 minute period other than focused energy on learning material. If I become distracted by a thought, I write it down on a piece of paper, but I do not let myself act on it. (This takes discipline, but you can train yourself to do it, too.)


When the timer goes off, I have seven minutes to do whatever I want. Sometimes that means getting a cup of coffee or tea, eating, checking my phone, going for a short walk, stretching, closing my eyes, or attending to whatever distracted me during that focused period.


When the seven minutes are up, I set another timer for 53 minutes, and repeat the process.


After four blocks of this (53+7), I give myself a longer break, usually 30-45 minutes. I use this time to exercise, prepare food, connect with loved ones, or watch tv.


If I am taking the whole day to study, I then complete another four to five blocks of the 53+7 method, with another longer break in the evening.


If you really struggle with being distracted by your phone, consider using the Forest app (free, and this is not an ad), which "kills" all the trees in your forest if you open other apps during that time. You can play in community, so if you get distracted you "kill" your friends' trees too.


I also find it helpful to create a Run chart to track my progress, whether that be with questions completed, pages read, or focused time studying (more on this to come).


Lastly, don't forget to take care of your health. Sleep and exercise are essential tools for learning. Sleep consolidates learning, and you need at least seven hours each night. Exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supports neurons and helps them proliferate.


Medical education and training can be grueling at times. A career in medicine can also be deeply meaningful. Mastering the skill of deep focus will help you during all levels of training, and in life. Best of luck to you!

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© 2020 by Laura Vater. All rights reserved.