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

By Luis Thiam-Nye on 8 April 2019
If your mind keeps wandering off while studying (and doing other work), how do you concentrate and focus your mind? Simply taking notes: this technique is how you can stop unwanted thoughts from distracting you whilst studying.

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 these unwanted thoughts (while studying) from. How? By getting them out of your head then onto paper or whatever other storage medium is most convenient.

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

What is Mind Wandering and Distracting Thoughts?

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

And it’s distracting.

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

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

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

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

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

Stop unwanted thoughts whilst studying: A thinking person distracted by ideas

The Impact of Unwanted Thoughts on Your Studying Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, you can stop these thoughts from distracting you.

But Spontaneous Thoughts Are Good

Lightbulb of an urgent thought or idea which can cause your mind to wander off

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

As I briefly alluded to earlier, most thoughts are actually valuable in some way or another. Therefore, it rarely serves any advantage to clear your mind of them completely. (Even if you could.)

Why is this so? It is because your wandering mind—alongside its spontaneous ideas—is a result of your creativity.

As such, many of your thoughts and ideas are, in some way or another, useful for the context they relate to. Cleverly disguised as murderers of 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 you back to your work (studying etc).

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

The 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 avoid distractions as a result of your own thoughts is to record them: get them out of your head!

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can always complete a task later—delay it!

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

Take Note of Your Ideas in a Safe, Trusted Place

Get your thoughts out of your head by noting them on a notepad or computer to avoid distractions when studying

Note the use of the word, “trusted”.

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

The effect of clearing your mind comes from relief and self-assurance, knowing that you’re not going to forget the idea. Then—and only then—can you embrace a sense of calmness.

In order to prove to yourself that noting down an idea is effective, it is essential that you form a new habit.

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

Note: in the following sections I will use the cleverly chosen terminology used by Graham Allcott in Productivity Ninja.

Implement a Capture Habit and Trust Your Collection Points

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

Moreover, this entails 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 maximise simplicity, these should be well-determined and scarce. In addition, you’ll need to be able to access a collection point at any time of the day to ensure the system’s robustness.

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

  • Firstly, the system should be swift and simple. So, sometimes the good taste of pen and paper beats tech when it comes down to sheer speed.
  • Secondly, you should account for all locations. For example, at home, you could keep an omnipresent notebook, conveniently adjacent to a pen. Whilst out and about, you could appropriately configure a to-do or notetaking app on your smartphone. Don’t be afraid to mix and match paper and technology.
  • Thirdly, maintain as few collection points as possible. If you have over fifty places to note down your spontaneous ideas, you will fail: due to an unnecessary excess of lists, you will be overwhelmed, and processing them will steal your time like an armed looter.

My (Current) Implementation of the Capture Habit

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

At my workstation, I keep a notepad and pen, since I can use it regardless of whether my computer is switched on. As far as the outside world goes, I have a rather interesting contraption consisting of another notepad and pen.

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

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

Implement an Organise Habit for Processing Your Collection Points

A filing cabinet. Get your thoughts organised and tidy so you can get to them later.

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

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

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

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

For example, a particular random insight might be transferred to Evernote whilst a to-do is put into your project management system.

The 2-Minute Rule

David Allen, author of the infamous productivity book, Getting Things Done, formulated the “2-minute rule”. Furthermore, this can be applied to the organise-habit described here

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

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

My implementation

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

But What About Random Daydreaming?

Daydreaming of a SpaceX rocket launch during the night

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

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

For instance, I know the temptation of fantasising about rockets to colonise Mars. You may get distracted during studying to think about the eye-piercingly beautiful edge of the MacBook 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? You could, maybe, describe your obsession for Tesla’s cars in a few succinct paragraphs. Though, that seems counterproductive.

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

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

  • 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 as well 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, thus allowing 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, you might have a thought or idea that, with time, you realise is worthless and no use following up.

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

Especially when trying to get to bed, you might want to note down all your thoughts in a bed-side notepad to clear your mind for sleep. Equally, you could try this tactic when you wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about life problems and tomorrow’s agenda.

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

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

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

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

How to Be a Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott teaches the capture habit to stop unwanted thoughts distracting you.

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

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

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

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

I would love to hear your thoughts!

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About the author

My name is Luis Thiam-Nye and I own this place.