Description: Student quite enthusiastic and focused during class, but can't recreate the same enthusiasm and concentration when studying alone in home. Motivation is unable to reduce the level of procrastination.

Result: Poor performance.

Is there a reason why a different environment may affect one's attention to studying? Is it possible for someone to be unable to focus on study despite desperately trying to?

  • $\begingroup$ I was just reading on the subject of Autotelic activities and study, so I will toss in something I learned from it. The definition of Flow requires that the activity you wish to focus on have rules, feedback, a goal, and be neither too simple (boring) nor to difficult (overwhelming). The classroom is a structured environment: you can see what to do, information is coming to you, and your task is to integrate it. When studying perhaps you don't have a clear goal, no proper feedback, and not enough present skill or knowledge to get really engaged with it. Perhaps get some tutoring for a while? $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Commented May 15, 2016 at 16:16
  • $\begingroup$ Another thought: I studied engineering, both in programming and electronics, but I did not do well with Math. It might be good to consider career choices where the math is less demanding, and other, more creative areas are used more. I was a professional programmer for over a decade, and electronics is my hobby. Perhaps you are trying to climb a ladder that is leaning against the wrong wall? In that case, it would be natural to not want to work at it. I chose to get all C's in math in college, because the courses were required, but they contributed nothing to a degree or work as a programmer. $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Commented May 15, 2016 at 16:21
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think tutors can help with practice and revisions. They don't have the time to deal with an individual's ADHD. This is a preparation for a common competitive exam that is required to qualify for master's. There is no choice. $\endgroup$
    – Spero
    Commented May 15, 2016 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ I am concluding from your claim that you don't believe that this is ADHD. Your comments on the structured environment of classroom is spot-on. But can a structured environment create artificial/temporary interest on a subject that the student does not like in reality? In that case, do you consider this to be a fault of teaching? Even if it is, isn't ts undesirable for a master's aspirant to depend so much on teachers? That student will have no hope at all during PhD if they do not have the skill to learn by themselves. $\endgroup$
    – Spero
    Commented May 15, 2016 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ Some people take longer than others to get good at self-motivated study habits. Some people can be motivated to do things they do not like and are bad at by a situation in which "there is no choice" and some cannot. If it is not working, then change the goal. Anything else would not be sensible. I don't know anything about ADHD. I know about what I commented on, so if it does not help, then try something else. $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Commented May 16, 2016 at 2:20

2 Answers 2


The answer to this question could be found in the mind-wandering literature (see this for a review). Figure 1 in the paper really nicely depicts the possible situations possible when looking at task engagement and self-generated thought. I'll summarize them here:

  • You are engaged in the task, i.e. attention is focused outwards, and the stimuli you perceive are task-related. You are focused.
  • You are generating thoughts about the task you are working on, i.e. attention is focused internally, but regarding the task. This is not a harmful state, since contemplating about something relevant may be very useful.
  • You are engaged in the task, but a non-relevant stimulus is perceived (e.g. phone ringing, seeing your dirty dishes on the kitchen counter). You get distracted.
  • You are generating thoughts about something completely irrelevant (e.g. your upcoming holiday. This is the most harmful state, and will only stop until you realize your mind is wandering. (I will not go into the meta-cognitive processes of this. For that, see the referenced paper).

There are thus two reasons why you fail to focus on the task at hand. (1) there are external stimuli that distract you, or (2) you distract yourself.

Task Interruptions and Multi-tasking

When the problem is that too many distracting stimuli are present, we should look at the multitasking literature. Salvucci and Bogunovic (2010) for instance, showed that workload determines how easily a distracting task/stimuli may grab your attention. The lower workload is, the more "opportunities" there are to switch to the other task. With more opportunities I mean that you use little cognitive resources on the primary task, which allows a secondary task to be attended at. This is also shown by Katidioti and Taatgen (2014) by showing that people tend to switch tasks when the time to load a webpage is rather long (3000 ms in the paper). During this period of time, a person has to wait before he can continue his task, therefore decreasing workload at the time. On the other hand, when workload is high and you are focused on the task, less opportunities exist for switching tasks. This may also be explained by "attentional narrowing", i.e. having a higher focus on one task/stimulus and, therefore, being unable to actually perceive distracting stimuli.

However, when you do get interrupted during a high-workload period, the costs of task-switching is a lot higher. It takes considerable more time to "reset" your goals and, sometimes (when you had to remember a particular fact e.g.), you must again search for that information (Salvucci & Bogunovic, 2010). This may greatly affect productivity, even more so if you consider people are interrupted every six minutes (Reference in Katidioti et al., 2010).

Self-generated Thought (SGT)

Being distracted by SGTs is also greatly affected by workload, as described in the review (as are all other statements). Again, if workload is low, there are more opportunities to "reset" your goals, i.e. to focus attention internally. On the other hand, if workload is high, you are less likely to create SGT. This effect is especially easy to see during vigilance tasks (such as studying or monitoring).

Getting distracted by yourself, i.e. focusing on SGT, is not always a bad thing though, so do not immediately try to diagnose ADHD or something. It has been shown that people that create more SGT are more creative than people who are in general more focused. Moreover, as stated earlier, SGT may be about task-relevant issues.


There are thus two reasons why one may get distracted when studying alone. There are external stimuli that grab your attentions or you just have difficulties with vigilance tasks and you distract yourself. Let me give you some tips that may help focusing your attention.

  • Clean up your house before you start studying. If there is nothing to do around you, you won't have a reason to get distracted by another task. You could also try to study in a library. You definitely won't start vacuuming over there.
  • Study with a fellow student. The "social pressure" (this is how I experience it) prevents me from doing other things, because I know it will also distract the other. Another benefit is that you can ask each other thing you do not understand. The downside of studying together is that the other may in fact be the distractor.
  • Staying vigilant is difficult for a longer period of time. Switch between studying and walking for instance may help focusing your attention for the briefer periods of time.
  • Make the material more interactive. Reading a book requires vigilance and is a really passive way of studying. Make flash cards, write a summary, create a game; anything that may help you study in a more interactive way is good.

I really hope this will help.

  • $\begingroup$ This helped a lot. All the cases I have studied so far can be explained with this theory. While discussing this issue with other people, I was introduced to the concept of learning centers. Learning centers are said to be helpful for some students who have difficulty concentrating while studying alone. This feedback confirms the theory you presented. Unfortunately learning center is not a thing in my nation. At least now I know where to begin. $\endgroup$
    – Spero
    Commented May 20, 2016 at 1:28
  • $\begingroup$ I am sorry about having to withdraw this as accepted answer. It was really the question that was at fault. I was looking at a case of stress-induced procrastination, a.k.a. self-handicapping. I was unable to grasp the fact that a student who is trying to study with all his/her heart can fall to procrastination. Apparently that is a thing. Do you think the question needs editing? Any suggestion? $\endgroup$
    – Spero
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 15:46

The question is unclear. It does not properly list the symptoms. This is because back then I did not know what to look for. The symptoms I was observing were actually effects of stress/anxiety. Naturally, the students get more stressed when they are studying alone. Fortunately, I have been able to correctly match all the symptoms with one disorder: Self-Handicapping.

Not an officially accepted disease:

Self-handicapping (formally called self-defeating personality disorder) has not been added to DSM yet for some reason. Therefore, psychologists cannot diagnose someone with it. Apparently social anxiety is a thing but academic avoidance is not, even though research suggests that both are forms of self-handicapping [ 1,2 ]. Hopefully SDPD can still be diagnosed as PDNOS (301.9).

My observation:

I determined that the students in question are not getting distracted due to OCD or ADHD. Instead, they are choosing to get distracted, but not out of their free will. They are procrastinating almost compulsively. That is why initially I (and a therapist as well) mistook it as OCD.


We all know that students often procrastinate or do not like to study. We generally identify these students as bad students. However, when this behavior comes coupled with genuine intention to learn and score good ranks, most teachers get confused.

Here is a quote from this study:

In student populations, self-handicapping has been associated with poor adjustment and academic underachievement (Zuckerman, Kieffer, & Knee, 1998) and lower achievement (Garcia, 1995). Procrastination has been linked with higher levels of depression and anxiety and reduced self-esteem in both clinical and non-clinical populations (Lay & Silverman, 1996; Martin et al., 1996; Saddler & Sacks, 1993). Zuckerman et al. (1998) found that self-handicappers displayed worse performance, poorer study habits and lower self-esteem than those who didn’t self-handicap. Garcia (1995) found that self handicappers had low levels of intrinsic goals, poor rehearsal strategies and poor time management practices.

More studies on this topic:

  1. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0361476X00910415
  2. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959475297000157

I have some points to add to these studies:

  • The link between self-handicapping and low intrinsic motivation as claimed in these studies suggests that students are move vulnerable to self-handicapping when placed in a competitive environment (driven by extrinsic motivation).

  • Good students can fall in the grasp of self-handicapping due to their perfectionism, but underachieving students are also bound to get tired of their lack of excellence at some point. The bar does not always need to be unrealistically high. (This is supported by Hugh Kearns's new model).

  • Be extra cautious about students with performance-avoidance goals. Students pursuing performance-avoidance goals strive not to perform worse than the others. These students have been found to be vulnerable to self-handicapping.

  • It has been observed that:

    Goal progress and goal inspiration build on each-other to create an upward spiral. (Source)

    Another study documents Loss of intrinsic motivation in cases of self-handicapping.

    From the data we are able to identify two extremes: one is an upwards spiral, the other is downwards.

Note: I have noticed that students with self-handicapping tend to be socially awkward. I don't have enough data to confirm anything, but theory suggests such a link so maybe it is good idea to check shy students for this disorder.


There are several ways to deal with self-handicapping.

  • The first solution is to never let it occur in the first place. Do not ignore your underachieving students. Conventionally, only intellectually gifted students are given challenging tasks. However, students who are performing poorly (but have acceptable IQ) also need tasks that will exercise their fluid intelligence.

  • Try to inspire intrinsic motivation. This will also help with reducing the effect of self-handicapping.

  • Be careful about students who ask a lot of questions. More effort suggests less ability. Encourage them to find solutions on their own. (Source: personal experience and citation no. 8)

  • Cognitive reorientation techniques can help. Hugh has developed a cognitive behavioural coaching technique that attempt to jump start the upwards spiral in a student by giving him/her achievable goals and monitoring the success.

  • The worst thing you can do to an under-performing student is giving them generic canned advise and motivation without verifying whether the student has symptoms of self-handicapping. You should not further motivate already motivated students. It does not work. Ironically enough, people are more likely to self-handicap if they view a task as important.

  • This disorder often comes with depression (check 1st quote). Depressed people have difficulties with pursuit of motivational stimuli and exertion of effort (The Psychological Construction of Emotion -Barrett Ch: 11). Cognitive Behavioural coaching will likely be difficult until depression is lifted. Therefore, treatment of depression is first priority.

I am still testing the effectiveness of available treatments. I will update the text if I find anything new.

  • $\begingroup$ Wow. You've done quite a bit of research. Really hope this will get some new attention in research. I do not mind the "unaccept" at all, and a +1 for you! $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 15:54
  • $\begingroup$ Great stuff. Your point about over-motivation leading to stress reminds me of Daniel Pink's work on motivation, and the video about Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. When you said: "They are procrastinating almost compulsively" I thought: I call that "employment" :) $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 17:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.