How to Really, Truly Focus While Studying for the GMAT

Here at Merchant GMAT we’re all about figuring out how to hack your brain to get the best results. We’ve written about training for the GMAT as an athlete would train for the Olympics and what happens when you don’t know as much as you think you know. Today I’m going to focus on one of the most important parts of your plan for GMAT domination: how to study. 

“But wait,” you say, “I already know how to study. I was in school for 16+ years!” Okay, then take this short quiz about your typical GMAT study environment:

  1. Is your phone within reach or within earshot?

  2. Do you have one or more non-GMAT related tabs open on your computer?

  3. Do you pause in the middle of studying to check your email or fulfill some other random task? 

  4. Are you ever interrupted by someone in your physical environment?

If you answered “Yes” to any of the above questions, your GMAT studying doesn’t count as what Cal Newport calls “deep work,” or true focus with no distractions on a cognitively demanding task. Don’t feel bad if you failed the quiz; I’d guess that the vast majority of modern workers never achieve deep work in their day-to-day lives. But for a task as demanding as studying for the GMAT, achieving deep study is key to success. 

Deep Study

When you’re really, truly focusing on studying, you’re able to make the cognitive connections that reinforce crucial skills and build long-term memory. In contrast, when you’re studying with distractions (engaging in “shallow work”) your performance is reduced. Switching back and forth between tasks causes attention residue. When you go from a GMAT practice problem to answering a message from a friend back to the GMAT problem, part of your attention is left behind with your phone conversation and therefore can’t be applied to your studying. 

The attention residue phenomenon is backed by scientific studies on work productivity. As Sophie Leroy discovered, “People need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.” If you’re studying for the GMAT with distractions, you’re really only studying at 50%. For a test this important, 50% isn’t going to be enough. 

So how do we really, truly focus on studying?

1. Schedule your deep study time

First of all, it’s important to recognize that a “deep” study environment won’t come about on its own. You need to make a concentrated effort to find a time when you can study without distractions. Newport recommends that you schedule your deep work time as you would schedule an important meeting. Stick to that commitment. 

2. Build resistance to boredom

It also helps to build habits around deep study, so you’re not constantly fighting to maintain willpower. One way to do this is to embrace boredom. Thanks to smartphones, we live in a society in which we never have to be bored. Unfortunately, our inability to embrace boredom has killed our concentration skills. When we start a less-than-interesting task, our brains search out novel stimuli, and we have to fight to stick to the task at hand. (We’re not saying that the GMAT isn’t interesting…. But it’s usually less interesting than Instagram). Practice resisting the urge to reach for your phone during every second of boredom, and you may find that your concentration during studying improves as well. 

3. Embrace the hard work

Finally, recognize that studying for the GMAT is hard work. It should feel like work. The first couple of times that you engage in deep study, you may find that you get tired way faster than you normally do while studying. If you think about it, this makes sense. During all your previous study sessions, you were inadvertently giving yourself a major break. Deep study, by contrast, forces you to really, truly focus and learn. You should feel tired but accomplished at the end of each deep study session. 

We know that you have limited time to study for the GMAT, so you must study as efficiently as possible. You can do this by engaging in deep study. It takes time and effort to cultivate this practice, but if you achieve it you can expect to see results. You may even find that you want to introduce “deep work” habits in the rest of your life as well!

Have you tried deep study? What are your biggest barriers and distractors? Let us know in the comments below. 

 1. http://calnewport.com/books/deep-work/

2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749597809000399