Finding it difficult to avoid distractions and stay focused when memorising the Qur'ān can be a real struggle for many people. If you're reading this, the chances are that you have also experienced some type of distraction.
What I'm speaking about here is attention management. Distractions can be detrimental to our time and focus. Distractions cost more time than just the activity. It costs us mental space and time to refocus afterwards.
When a person doesn't truly commit, they get distracted by everything. Success is 99% not being distracted by the internet and whatever you desire. Closing the doors to distraction will open the doors to the Qur'ān.
There are ways to beat distractions. You just need to give them more attention.
Why do you become distracted when memorising the Qur'ān?
To answer how to stop getting distracted, we need to first recognise why we're not focused in the first place. Why is it that we're so easily distracted? There are a number of reasons.
Screen time, mobile devices and technology
A major force behind our difficulties with focus and becoming easily distracted today is our screen time. Why is this the case?
We become a product of what we do on a daily basis. Using these devices for many years we become used to constantly being fed with distractions at high speeds. We get instant gratification and we begin to seek more and more. We constantly scroll and get fed with constant streams of content (social media). This in return trains us to behave in certain ways. We become impatient, we struggle to concentrate and we become easily distracted. This in return impacts us when we sit to memorise the Qur'ān. We feel impatient and have an urge to return to our screens.
In fact, a study at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden measured the effects of smartphone usage on people in their 20s over the course of a year. The study showed that high mobile phone use was directly correlated to increased reports of depression in both men and women.
This is another knock-on effect of the internet. We're so used to YouTube and watching whatever we want and at whatever speed we want. So when you turn the TV on you get bored and impatient because you have no control over what you can watch, the speed and you can't bypass the adverts. When you're on your devices, you can access anything to fill the void of boredom. In return, this impacts us when we sit to memorise the Qur'ān. You begin to feel bored. It's not filling you up with the stimulus of information and entertainment.
Boredom has its place in life. It should provide you with the space for reflection and deep positive thinking. Sometimes doing nothing can be productive if you use it for generating ideas, happiness and mental clarity. Your brain needs moments of rest.
In fact, for memorisation and long-term retention, it is important to give the brain moments of rest to process new information for long-term memory. We require this space for learning. We do the opposite. We do one brain-consuming activity after another. As a result, we impair learning and memory.
If you're going to memorise the Qur'ān then you must realise it's going to take time and effort.
Underlying health conditions
Another reason for getting distracted can be any lifestyle, physical or psychological health-related matters. These include:
- a lack of sleep
- a lack of movement or exercise
- addictions and withdrawals
- a deficiency and lack of nutrients
- unhealthy relationships
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- another disorder (depressive, bipolar, chronic fatigue etc)
If there are matters like this that are causing you to become distracted and have low levels of focus, you need to seek medical help - whether that is modern, conventional or traditional. Typically you need to do this if you experience:
- memory problems that are worse than usual
- decreased performance in work or school
- difficulty sleeping
- unusual feelings of tiredness
A lack of direction and discipline
Another reason for getting distracted is when you lack a sense of direction and discipline. This is often where you do things based on how you feel and whenever you want to. You don't have a clear plan or strategy to do things you want to. This makes you easily give in to distractions because you have no routine, clarity or goals in life. If you memorise the Qur'ān by yourself you can be more prone to distraction because you have no accountability.
It's a hard task
When we find something to be difficult or when we hit a roadblock, it becomes easy to entertain distractions. We love to avoid the task. Success comes from doing the hard part. When the hard part is all you've got, you're more likely to do it. This is why it's difficult to focus. To focus would mean acknowledging that you have signed up for the hard part.
With shortcuts, there aren't many actual shortcuts. There are merely direct oaths. Stalling takes many forms, and one of them looks like a shortcut.
Think about your most productive day. The chances are that you weren't giving in to a new distraction every 40 seconds. Maybe you were on a deadline. When distractions come your way you eschewed them in favour of paying attention to what was actually important. On these days, you entered a mode of hyperfocus. This is where you gave full, deliberate attention to one important thing, which let you accomplish in an hour what might normally take an afternoon. On days such as these, you are a master of your attention.
Why every distraction must be controlled
The state of attention determines the state of our lives. Moments of distraction accumulate - day by day, week by week, year by year - to create a life that feels distracted and overwhelming.
On the other hand, when we focus for longer periods on what's productive and meaningful - important conversations, work or experiences with loved ones - our lives improve by virtually every measure. We get more done, dive deeper into our experiences and notice more meaning around us because we process the world with greater intention.
Distraction has a cost. It impacts performance, reduces our ability for deep thought and can even weaken relationships. Distractions though are part of life and so it's important that we control them.
A recent survey from the app RescueTime found that most people check their phones 58 times a day, spending over a minute each time. Research suggests that an average person spends 2 hours and 51 minutes per day on their mobile device. Simply put, we're distracted a lot. At the same time, we rarely choose where we direct our attention - the world decides for us.
Distraction impacts our performance levels
When we’re interrupted, it takes time away from the task at hand. As a result, a study found, interruptions cause us to speed up the task in order to make up for lost time, increasing our stress levels and frustration. A study from Michigan State University found that students were twice as likely to make an error when they were interrupted — even though the interruption took less than three seconds.
Distraction weakens your focus when learning
In a study of how social media impacts students, researchers found that students who spent time on Facebook more frequently had a much harder time focusing on their academic work.
David Rock mentions in his book, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, that:
Distractions are everywhere. And with the always-on technologies of today, they take a heavy toll on productivity. One study found that office distractions eat an average 2.1 hours a day. Another study, published in October 2005, found that employees spent an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption it takes them 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all. People switch activities every three minutes, either making a call, speaking with someone in their cubicle, or working on a document.
Distractions are not just frustrating; they can be exhausting. By the time you get back to where you were, your ability to stay focused goes down even further as you have even less glucose available now. Change focus ten times an hour (one study showed people in offices did so as much as 20 times an hour), and your productive thinking time is only a fraction of what’s possible. Less energy equals less capacity to understand, decide, recall, memorize, and inhibit. The result could be mistakes on important tasks. Or distractions can cause you to forget good ideas and lose valuable insights. Having a great idea and not being able to remember it can be frustrating, like an itch you can’t scratch, yet another distraction to manage.
How do you stop getting distracted?
What we understand from the above is that there are two types of distractions that we need to remove to become productive:
- External - Smartphone, notifications, social media, news, email, environment and the world around us.
- Internal - Health, thoughts, stress, and a racing-mind.
The key is to control or remove these distractions, doing so will allow you to focus and have a more meaningful memorisation session without getting distracted every few minutes.
Step 1: Identify your external distractions
The first step is to identify the biggest sources of external distractions that hijack your attention. The most common forms of external distractions are:
- Social media
- Netflix / YouTube
- Video games
- Instant messaging apps
Either remove these distractions from your environment or remove yourself from them. The harder it is to access distractions, the less likely you’ll get distracted. So you should memorise in an environment that is free from these things. If the distractions are easily accessible, you will get distracted.
So you should:
- use a Mus'haf to memorise instead of a phone, tablet or laptop
- clear the environment around you, make it disciplined and you'll become disciplined
- put your smartphone on flight mode and place it in a different room
- download a website blocker (like Freedom or StayFocusd) to stop yourself from checking news websites, social media, YouTube, etc.
- turn off the notifications from social media, email, and instant messaging
- memorise in a quiet space where you can’t get distracted by noise, conversations, and external distractions
- change location - the best place is a prayer room or the masjid
- put on noise-cancelling earbuds
Environment plays a big part in forming a good Hifz habit.
If you want to recite more, build the environment. The more disciplined the environment, the more disciplined you will be. So the environment you memorise in is super important. Changing it builds habits.
You should design things in a way that allows you to become as productive as possible. We all build our environments - whether that's for our home office to make work easier or a prayer room to focus on prayer. You build a living room with comfort in mind. You know when sitting there, you will do certain things. The culture you live in determines your habits due to the context you have built. When that context or environment changes, your behaviour does too.
Likewise, if you're at home, you might have a goal of reciting more Qur'ān. Instead of keeping a Mus'haf in one room, you can place copies in different rooms that are strategically placed to make it easier for you to pick up and recite. Make it easier to reach the Qur'ān, almost like you're forced to make wudū' to pick it up and start.
Changing your home screen on your phone is another environment. You can move all the apps from the home screen and leave only your Qur'ān apps so it's the first thing you see on your phone. You're trying to prime your environment to make a good Hifz habit easier. When I was in Egypt, when alone, I would have the Mus'haf placed next to me everywhere I would sit to make it easier to establish. So it was next to my bed and next to my chair in the living room.
Make distractions invisible and make your goals visible. Good habits need less friction, bad habits need more friction. Cut out the noise.
Step 2: Clearing the mind and limiting internal distractions
We are always thinking and sometimes we fall prey to them. We face mental and physical fatigue. Meditation and daily journaling are habits that can limit these distractions. Write down everything (journaling) and let go of everything (meditation).
One study at the University of North Carolina, for example, revealed that students who meditated for just 20 minutes a day for four days performed better on certain cognitive tests. While meditation is scientifically proven to improve your focus, decrease inner chatter, and improve your happiness - it must be rooted in Islamic principles. Much of what creates internal distraction is a result of whispers and influences from the shayātīn. For us, meditation is making the remembrance of Allāh (dhikr) by taking out some time each morning and evening to make dhikr and adhkār. When you make dhikr, you practice focusing the mind on Allāh or any means that you can imagine that gives you focus. This overtime begins to not just teach you how to focus but also how to bring more presence and nearness of Allāh into your life.
When you're using social media, you are a subject of an algorithm that's designed to show you more of what you engage with. Likewise, the shayātīn and our nafs (lower-self) have an algorithm that when engaged with begins to show us more and more of the things that we desire. While on social media, you can reset what you are shown by constantly removing certain types of posts from your feed, with the shayātīn and our nafs, we have to remove the algorithmic shifts by returning to Allāh.
Step 3: Consider all the other factors
At times, there are things that make us more prone to external and internal distractions that we must consider.
Training your brain to focus
The brain can be trained to focus more and this begins with starting your day in the best way. You should start the day by spending time with Allāh, improving yourself, working towards your goals and preparing for a successful day.
What we do instead is dive into a world of distraction. A study from IDC Research showed that about 80% of smartphone users check their mobile devices within 15 minutes of waking up each morning. Your thoughts, ideas, and focus are immediately hijacked by the new messages, emails, and notifications that you’ve received.
By starting the day distracted, you set the tone for a distracted day. As your brain has already released a lot of dopamine, it only craves more and more. It will only become much harder to fight distractions throughout the day as your brain wants more and more stimulation.
Checking your phone right after waking up also tends to increase stress. Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi says“Immediately turning to your phone when you wake up can start your day off in a way that is more likely to increase stress and leave you feeling overwhelmed.”
Train your brain with lesser stimulating — yet more beneficial — activities such as reading, dhikr, adhkār, journaling, prioritising your tasks, scheduling your day, or taking the time to make a healthy breakfast.
To help you avoid your phone first thing in the mornings, follow these tips:
- Put your phone on flight mode before you go to sleep. This way, when you wake up, you’re not immediately sucked into new messages and notifications.
- Don’t charge your phone in the bedroom overnight.
- Keep your phone out of the bedroom. Taking your phone to bed is one of the biggest reasons why most people have trouble sleeping well. Sleep should always be a priority over random stimulation.
- Buy an analogue alarm clock so you don’t have to use your phone as an alarm clock. While you’re at it, you could even get a wake-up light, which helps you wake up more naturally.
- Have replacement activities. If you don’t have anything to replace your smartphone habit with, you’ll quickly feel bored and be pulled towards checking social media or email again. Read some Qur'ān, make dhikr or read a book.
Another thing connected to the phone is to stop keeping it with you all the time. The more you can train yourself to be without the phone, and become present with the world around you, the greater you will feel. You will feel less nervous ticks, impulsiveness, and frustration.
Another way to train the brain to focus is to practice focusing itself. We've spoken about dhikr or meditation already as a way to do this but there are other ways too. Practice staring at a distant object for a few minutes with total focus. This not only makes your eyesight better but also removes eye strain. Another is to do some activities that involve brain training. Your brain is a mental muscle, and some studies have found that people who are easily distracted will benefit from "brain training" exercises, like those promoted by Lumosity or Cogmed. Breathing exercises also help create focus like box breathing or other methods.
If you're above 45 years old
Ageing shrinks the brain by about 5 per cent between age 45 and age 60, says brain researcher Ted Zanto, associate professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco. It's important for those in their 40s, 50s, and 60s to make sure they move regularly. Exercise improves brain function. It is also important to get sleep, seek balance with dhikr, manage medication or hormonal shifts, and remove multi-tasking.
According to a 2009 Stanford study. In a sample of 100 Stanford students, about half identified themselves as media multitaskers. The other half did not. The test examined attention spans, memory capacity, and ability to switch from one task to the next — and the multitaskers performed more poorly on each test.
Have a schedule or routine in place
Having a schedule or routine is important and will allow you to limit multi-tasking. Instead, you can create focus by blocking time for your Hifz. Researchers explored something called the Zeigarnik effect in a 2011 study which found that participants who could plan their work and complete tasks one by one were more likely to stay focused than those participants who were made to go from task to task without completing them.
It is known that the Prophet (ﷺ) taught us to take up swimming, archery, spinning, and engaged in horse-riding, wrestling, and swordsmanship. Exercise promotes brain health, too, which is important for memory capacity and concentration, according to John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. In particular, scientists think regular exercise may help stimulate the release of a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which some research suggests helps rewire memory circuits to improve their functioning.
Getting good sleep
Having a good diet
I remember a student once told me that he was advised to stop eating takeaways and how he found them to be of great benefit to his Qur'ān memorisation. The idea is that this food has an impact on our behaviour. It lacks barakah and is made by someone who is not in a state of love and remembrance.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf when speaking about The Critical Importance of al-Ghazali in Our Times, said:
People used to be present when they cooked food. They cooked with love. I had one teacher 'Umar Malahji; His wife would cook her food doing prayer on the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) the entire time, with Niyat-ush-Shifā'. That God would make that food a healing for the people that ate it and make the energy that they derive from it, used for worshipping Allāh. They would only buy from grocers in Medina that they knew prayed 5 time in the Masjid. They would go out and pick their own animals and sacrifice them, because they did not want to buy meat from these butchers, because they didn't know how they were treating the animals. This is a real family, and it is a fact, and I guarantee you, many people have experienced this. If you go and have eaten a full meal, and you go there, and they serve you food in the house of 'Umar Malahji, you will not get indigestion by eating a second meal immediatly after that at his house, and they will force you to eat. They will Say, "KUL, KUL, KUL!" [eat, eat, eat] That food was made with presence. People don't have energy anymore. How is your food being grown? How is it being cooked? Because this is where energy comes from.
- foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, such as oily fish and flaxseed
- foods containing vitamins B1, B6, B9, and B12, such as salmon, leafy greens, eggs, and milk
- foods containing iron, such as shellfish, spinach, liver, and legumes
- foods that provide vitamin D, for instance, fortified dairy products and eggs.
Whether it's taking a walk, or a brief nap, it is critical to take the occasional break from focused work.
In one study, 84 subjects were asked to perform a simple computer task for one hour. Those who were allowed two brief breaks during that hour performed consistently for the entire time whereas those who weren't offered a break performed worse over time.
Another widely-noted 2011 study analysed the decision-making process of 1,112 judges and found that more "favourable rulings" were made by judges during the beginning of the day and after they took periodic food breaks. Essentially, this study explored how "decision fatigue" (i.e. how fast and accurately we make decisions) was alleviated by semi-frequent breaks.
Try the Pomodoro method
The Pomodoro method is a time-blocking technique that can help compartmentalise your tasks into manageable 25-minute intervals. To use this method, you can memorise or recite for 25 minutes, taking five-minute breaks in between 25-minute intervals. After four of these intervals, you can take a longer 15-30 minute break.
This method of time blocking gives you the needed break in between sessions to help you maintain focus longer and more sustainably.
Ambient noise, like cars honking or kids screaming, can stimulate the release of the stress hormone cortisol, Mark A.W. Andrews, former director of the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine at Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, told Scientific American. Too much cortisol can impair function and hinder focus. And, unfortunately, the more we're exposed to ambient noise, the worse our bodies respond, according to Andrews.
Break the task down into smaller tasks across the day
You can and should try to break down the task of memorisation and revision by having multiple sessions across the day. This can be spaced repetition or any method that includes an element of memorising across different slots of time.
Fidget toys and tools
What is the difference between a fidget tool and a fidget toy? The tool, like the squeeze toy, allows quiet activity that doesn’t bring your focus toward it. Manipulating such an item can happen in the background of your activity. A toy, though, ends up capturing your attention because you either need to watch it to maintain control or you are actively trying to do neat tricks with it. [Fidget Toys and ADHD]
Fidget toys are often used to provide sensory input so people can improve concentration and attention to tasks by allowing the brain to filter out the extra sensory information (e.g. listening to a lesson). This is especially a consideration for those that have ADHD, autism, or anxiety.
Several research studies have confirmed what many people have experienced through fidgeting: Their ability to pay attention, their memory recall, and their problem-solving improves. Another study concluded that the fidgety behaviour displayed by children and adults with ADHD may be an effort to increase their attention and alertness. The amount of improvement varies by the person and the fidgeting activity can also become a distraction if it’s too intense. [Fidget Toys and ADHD]
Final tips to beat distractions when doing Hifz
When speaking to Hifz students, it is common to find the following tips to beat any distractions:
- memorise in a class
- memorise in a peaceful room (masjid or prayer room)
- memorise in the presence of a teacher
- memorise imagining you're in a mosque (Makkah or Madina) or that it's your last time sitting with the Qur'ān
- journal your thoughts down on paper
- go for a walk (either indoors or outdoors) and recite looking at the Mus'haf (or the floor without it)
- if you can't control your environment, control your vision - one student wore a hat at home that covered his vision in a way where he couldn't see the things around him. He'd just focus on the Mus'haf.
These are many things to think about and try and implement in your life to beat those distractions. May Allāh make it easier for you.
If you want to share your own experiences with me or have any questions or thoughts, you are welcome to share them with me. Just get in touch.3 - Like and share!