How to focus in class and stay resilient under pressure

Image of fog covered peaks taken from high altitude between two cliffs

 Staying focused in class isn’t always easy, especially if you’re bored with the subject or your teacher has the stage presence of a paper clip. And if a class doesn’t connect with your interests or future career, it can take lots of willpower to keep your motivation alive. 

If you’re wondering how to improve your focus in class, know this: You don’t have to be fascinated by a subject to learn it, concentrate on it, or retain information about it. Knowing a few fundamentals about focus can take you even farther than interest alone. 

When you combine tactical approaches with an understanding of how stress, nutrition, and other factors affect your concentration, you can set the foundation for a resilient mindset that can help you learn and master any subject you want to pursue. 

How to focus in class (no matter how much you care about the subject)

Use this simple principle to keep your body nourished and your mind sharp

Do you eat before class? If you usually skip breakfast—or eat a small piece of fruit, a bagel, or other processed carbs before class—you could end up shaking your fists to the sky in frustration, wondering why you can’t focus.

When you eat sugar-rich foods, blood sugar rises rapidly. In response, the adrenals produce cortisol and other stress hormones, leading to irritability, stress, and other states unfriendly to focus. 

You can set the foundation for focus by eating foods that help to stabilize blood sugar and support learning and memory. These are often foods containing natural fats.

Fat comprises about 60% of the brain [source]. Fatty fish like trout, mackerel, salmon and others are high in omega-3 fatty acids. These fats support brain and nerve cell growth [source], making them beneficial for focus, learning, and memory. 

Other brain-supporting foods include:

  • Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables
  • Egg yolks
  • Extra virgin oil
  • Turmeric 
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Red bell peppers
  • Nuts (especially walnuts)

There are many ways to take notes: Only one saves you time and frustration

Your note-taking approach can make or break your focus: If you take too many notes, it can interfere with your absorption of the material. But passively listening without any note taking can be understimulating, making it easy to lose concentration. 

When you take notes, only keep track of the essential information. Not only will this make your notes more valuable, but it will boost your focus. It requires concentration to even tell the difference between the essential from the inessential. 

Also, remember that the way you take notes can also determine how well you comprehend the material. A study published in Psychological Science showed that writing notes by hand helped participants more efficiently retain information compared to when they took notes electronically [source]. Writing by hand frees up working memory. In this way, our brains can process more complex information (like the specific details of whatever we’re learning). 

These strategies can help you take effective notes: 

  • In class, ignore the urge to make your notes perfect. As long as you can read them, you can abbreviate liberally and even leave out words that aren’t fundamental to the meaning of the text. 
  • When you review your notes after class, re-copy them within a separate notebook, focusing on making them neater and more aesthetically pleasing. By rewriting your notes, you’re reviewing the material in an engaging way, which will make it easier for you to stay alert and intrigued while you review. Re-copying your notes can also help you make connections or find insights you might not have noticed during class. 

Remember the secret to sustainable motivation 

Most people motivate themselves by thinking about extrinsic rewards: the possibility of getting good grades, getting a high-paying job, or being otherwise rewarded for their work. These goals matter, but they aren’t always sustainable sources of motivation. 

Instead, make a habit of asking yourself, “What’s in it for me?” When you ask this question, step away from things like money or academic success, and go a few layers deeper. Could staying focused in a boring class reawaken your enthusiasm for other, less dull subjects? Might it help you be more resilient to future challenges? As 20th-century self-development writer Napoleon Hill wrote: “Every adversity carries with it the seed of an equivalent advantage.”

Remember that nearly every skill you’d want to learn—playing an instrument, learning to surf, whatever it is—usually involves a period where the boredom and difficulty of the process outweigh its pleasures and rewards. If you can learn to stay focused despite boredom and tedium, then you can make it past that test period and build any skill you care about.

Create the neurochemistry of focus

To prime your mind for deeper focus, you might experiment with listening to 40 Hertz (Hz) binaural beats. You can find them for free on Youtube or through the Brain Wave App. 

As pointed out by neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman, many peer-reviewed studies have shown that 40 Hz binaural beats increase focus and concentration by raising levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and acetylcholine in the brain [source]. For best results, listen to binaural beats with headphones: the focus-improving effects of binaural beats are due to the combination of playing two slightly different frequencies in each ear.

Listening to 40 Hz binaural beats for just five to ten minutes on your way to class can be enough to prime your mind for focus. On days when you feel especially prone to distraction, you can also use them while you work. 

Anchor yourself to the present moment 

Have you ever noticed that when you’re stressed, focus becomes nearly impossible? Focus and stress don’t mix because we didn’t evolve to face the kind of stress that runs rampant in our modern world. Our nervous systems evolved to handle occasional and severe stressors like food shortages, the pursuit of human-eating predators, and so on. 

Now, we’re physically safe most of the time, but we face looming deadlines, dread-inducing news headlines, and other subtle but ongoing stressors. Consciously, we recognize these things can’t kill us, the body responds as if our lives were under threat. Our nervous systems function as if our survival were at stake, devoting resources to keeping us alive. As a result, parasympathetic functions like focus, digestion, and creativity can fall to the wayside. 

You can send your nervous system a signal of safety with any exercise that helps anchor your awareness into the present moment: mindfulness meditation, exercise, breath work, or yoga. 

For an easy, low-pressure way to relieve stress and improve your focus and concentration, you can also try the Apollo Wearable. The Apollo is a wearable device that uses gentle vibrations to improve the body’s resilience to stress. It originated from a large body of research into biofeedback, which showed that specific patterns of vibrations could reliably relieve stress.

The research behind Apollo and cognitive performance

We’ve studied whether the Apollo could help improve focus in a placebo-controlled trial published in Biological Psychiatry [source]

In the study, 38 healthy subjects took a test that measured how stress influences their cognitive performance. One group received the Apollo vibrations, one had placebo vibrations, and one had no vibrations. The placebo and no-vibration groups reported feeling stressed while taking the test, and their performance declined. But the group who received the Apollo vibrations reported feeling calmer. They completed the test with more accuracy and efficiency.

The participants’ heart rate variability (HRV), a biomarker that measures stress resilience, went up 2-3 times their average within three minutes. Since HRV usually decreases under stress, the Apollo helped participants recover from stress and improve their focus in real-time. 

To use Apollo for cognitive performance, we’d recommend starting at a 35% intensity for 60 minutes, extending the time as needed for your goals. 

Why your brain enjoys the journey more than the destination 

It’s human nature to believe we’ll finally feel fulfilled once we reach our goals: when we graduate, when we get our dream job or the perfect relationship. Yet from a neurophysiological perspective, we experience more good-feeling hormones when we’re pursuing goals, not after we accomplish them [source].

The neurotransmitter dopamine drives us to pursue goals that will aid our survival. Whenever we take a step toward a goal, we get a pleasurable release of dopamine. The myth is that we’re going to feel our best when we’ve finally crossed the finish line, but in actuality, dopamine levels drop when we reach our goals [source]. This accounts for why top musicians, athletes, and other high performers often report feelings of emptiness when they finally achieve the height of success.

This isn’t to dissuade you from pursuing big things. Instead, it can make it easier to stay focused and motivated when you remember that the rewards come when you move in a meaningful direction, not when you finally ace the test or graduate. Counterintuitively, so much of our fulfillment comes from the journey, not the destination. 

Simply knowing that the brain thrives on pursuit, not reward, can help center you in the present moment. It can help you connect with the value of staying focused in class no matter where it ultimately leads you, which itself can serve as a doorway into focus.