How to Stay Focused in College (With a Social Life)

Posted by Charles Gregory on

When I was in college, I started each semester off strong. "This time, I'm not messing around. Straight A's here I come!" 

And for a week or two, it was easy. But then I started slipping - video games, nights out at parties, and hanging with friends is way more appealing than calculus. 

Upon realizing my grades were slipping, I'd search for something like "how to stay focused in college," hoping to find a helpful resource and get back on track.

But most of the articles sucked, and there is no magic bullet to stay focused in college. Coming from someone who's struggled with grades and staying focused, I want to share my tips with you to help you stay on track and get sh*t done. 

Here's the quick answer: 

If you want to stay focused in college, it's about forming good habits, not getting good grades. Your grades are a consequence of your habits, not the other way around. 

In this post, you're going to learn everything you need to know about staying focused in college, including the four laws of behavior change that you can use to start a bunch of healthy habits and end the bad ones. 

Let's jump in: 

Why is it Important to Stay Focused in College?

Focus is vital for all critical thinking - without it, you won't be able to solve problems effectively or make wise decisions. All aspects of your life will suffer, and you won't be able to think. 

This is especially bad for college students, who are paying five to six figures for their education, many of which going in debt to afford the cost of tuition. 

Without focus, it's easy to skip a class here and there, trade studying for partying, fail a few tests. Before you know it, you've wasted a semester - or an entire year - that you can't get back. Not only is it a waste of money, but it's also a waste of time (and time is money!)

Focusing on your goals and more importantly, what needs to be accomplished to achieve them, is crucial for both your short and long term success. When you're focused on studying/going to class, you'll feel a sense of accomplishment. 

That accomplishment will motivate you to continue working hard, studying regularly, and getting sh*t done. 

Conversely, ditching class, and failing tests are both great ways to stress you out, indirectly lowering your opinion of yourself. What better way to deal with stress and low self-esteem than partying, and ignoring the problem?

Here's the bottom line:

Taking small steps in one direction compound exponentially - both good and bad - so it's important to make the right decisions. 

If you start slipping up early in the semester, those habits will compound and you'll regret it by the end of the semester (been there, done that). 

On the flip side, studying, doing your homework, and going to class on a regular basis pretty much guarantee a good grade. College isn't about having the highest IQ in the room - like most things in life, it's about regularly showing up and doing the work. 

If you want to be successful in college, positive habits are the name of the game. 

Better Habits, Not Better Focus 

James Clear wrote an amazing book called Atomic Habits that I highly recommend, it's definitely a great read for anyone that wants to be the best version of themselves. 

But here's the long and short of the book: 

Most people say things like "I want to lose weight" or "I want good grades." Those are the end goals, but when attempting to reach them, most fail and give up prematurely. 

Rather than focusing on the goal, it's important to focus on the habit. Your habits define who you are, and who you are is defined by your habits.

For example, a healthy, fit person is in shape because they work out five times per week. Likewise, they work out five times per week because they're healthy and fit. 

Someone who wants to lose weight should not focus on losing weight - rather, all they should focus on is forming better eating habits. Stop drinking soda and fast food, start eating healthy meals. The weight will come off on its own. 

If you want to stay focused in college, it's about forming good habits. A good student goes to class, does their homework, and studies for tests. Likewise, someone who regularly attends class does their homework, and studies for tests is a good student. 

The big change comes from hundreds of small choices that compound over time, creating remarkable results. You don't get ripped after one day in the gym, but each day you show up and pump iron is a small step towards a larger goal. 

You won't be a genius after one day of studying, but going to class every day is a small step towards the larger goal of staying focused in college. 

James Clear talks about the 1% rule, also known as the power of compounding. Small, 1% improvements compound quickly overtime, while small, bad habits compounded over time will send you spiraling out of control. 

As James says in his book:

"Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement." 

It's hard to see the long term benefit of one study session, but compounded over time, consistently studying will help you out a lot. But since the benefits of good habits are hard to see in the short term, so are the drawbacks of bad habits.

That's why it's far too easy to skip class 'once in a while,' eat unhealthily, miss the gym, etc. Over time these habits will make you a fat, lazy college dropout. 

Good habits have a compounding effect over time - though you might not feel a sense of accomplishment right away, you'll break through the wall and feel like your progress is accelerating faster than before. 

James also makes a point to "screw goals, focus on systems instead." 

Here's why:

1) Winners and losers both have the same goals. Everyone wants the job, everyone wants to win the gold medal. But it's not the goal that separates people, it's their systems to achieve said goal. Even when they fail, they can keep running the system. 

2) Achieving a goal is only a momentary change. You may muster the energy to cram for a test the night before, but if you don't form good study habits, you'll end up having to cram for the next test as well. 

3) Goals also restrict our happiness. People think "once I reach my goal, I'll be happy." But that's not the case. You'll always want more and shouldn't delay happiness until the next goal is achieved. Love the journey more than the destination. 

4) Lastly, setting goals gets in the way of progress. Another great quote from the book: "The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game." 

James talks about identity change as an important way to form habits. Most people work from the outside in, starting with outcomes, trying to create some sort of process to get there, and letting their outcomes form their identity. In Atomic Habits, that's backward.

Instead, it's better to declare your identity - who you want to be - from the start, and allow your habits to become part of your identity. 

If you want good grades, tell yourself you're a good student. This also works when you quit bad habits as well.

For example, let's say two people are trying to quit smoking cigarettes. A third person opens a pack and offers them both a smoke. 

The first says, "no thank you, I'm trying to quit" while the other says "no thank you, I'm not a smoker." 

Which one will have more success? 

How to Form Good Study Habits and Stay Focused in College 

James Clear writes about the four laws of behavior change: cue, craving, response, and reward.

It's these four things that form any habit - good or bad - and when used properly, it becomes easy to form powerful habits and break bad ones. 


 Here's an example of how the laws work:

Your phone buzzes with a notification (the cue). You want to reach for your phone to check the notification (the craving). You reach in your pocket and pull out your phone to take a look (the response). Lastly, you get a hit of dopamine from the like on your Instagram post (the reward). 

The more this cycle repeats itself, the more cemented the habit becomes. That's why you check your phone immediately after notification. 

Let's start with the first law: the cue. Cues are everywhere, and if you want to form a good habit, Clear recommends something called environment design. You want to put fewer steps between you and the good behaviors, and more steps between you and the bad behaviors.  

Let's say you keep forgetting (or ignoring) your English class' assigned reading for the week, instead of playing video games all night.

Next time you are finished gaming, unplug your console from the wall and move it in another room. Now, instead of sitting down to game without any friction, you have to set up the console. 

That takes more work and means you're less likely to game instead of study.

You can combine environment design with something called 'habit stacking' to make your habits even easier. Habit stacking involves using the habits you already do every day to form new habits. 

Let's say you make your bed every morning. You can say to yourself "after I make my bed, I'll put my book on the pillow." Now, you're making it a habit to put your book on your pillow before bed, and it's easy because you've stacked the habit with something you already regularly do. 

Then, when it comes time for bed, you'll have your book waiting for you on the pillow, rather than buried away in your backpack. When the book is right in front of you, it becomes harder to ignore.  

By designing your environment for success, you're now far more likely to become a regular reader, and less likely to waste time playing video games. Imagine spending all of your time in an environment like this that encourages you to do good habits and prevents you from the bad ones. 

Or, if you want to wake up earlier in the morning, make it a habit to set your alarm across the room instead of next to your bed. That way, you have to get out of bed to turn it off, making it harder to go back to sleep.

Couple that with a glass of Early Bird in the morning, and you'll be ready to get sh*t done. 

Making your good habits attractive is a great way to optimize the second law of behavior change, the craving. This step takes advantage of what we know about dopamine.

We get excited from the anticipation of something good happening, rather than it actually occurring. The next time you go to the library to study, treat yourself to a nice meal or something else that you've been craving.

The third law of behavior change - response - can be optimized by making the habit easy to perform. There's a saying that "friction is the most powerful force in the universe." It's true - and that's why I recommended you unplug your console and move it to another room. 

Adding friction between you and a bad habit makes it less likely you'll perform the habit. 

If you make your habits easy, you're more likely to do them. Leaving your book on your pillow after making your bed makes it easy to pick it up again. 

You don't need to make it a habit to read an entire chapter a night either. I only make it a habit to read a single page of my book every night. Usually, I end up reading far more than that, but because it's only a single page, it doesn't feel like a huge hassle. 

Exercise is another example. Before I climb into bed, I lay my workout clothes and shoes by the door. When I wake up, they're waiting for me and it becomes easy to get dressed. Once I'm clothed and my shoes are laced, that's my habit. If I don't want to run that day afterward, I won't. 

But 99.9% of the time, putting my running shoes on is all it takes for me to go on the run. Getting started is the hardest part, so make your habits easy and your chance of success greatly increases. Likewise, if you want to stop a habit, make it hard.

Saving the best for last is rule number four: make it satisfying. Our brains have evolved to do what is immediately rewarded with dopamine. That's why it's way easier to scroll through Instagram than go to the gym, or stuff yourself with french fries rather than eating broccoli. 

What is immediately rewarded is repeated, and what is immediately punished is avoided.  

You can make studying more satisfying by setting up something fun - that will give you dopamine - after performing the habit. For example, after a study session, you and your friends can go out to eat. Or maybe you go home and play video games. Whatever floats your boat. 

Here's the point:

By combining your habit with something fun that comes after the habit, you're making the habit itself more immediately rewarding, which helps to lock in the habit over the long term. 


If you want to stay focused in college and form good habits, make them obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying. 

Conversely, if you want to break bad habits, make them invisible, unattractive, hard, and unsatisfying.