Concentration – how to improve your ability to concentrate
Concentration is defined as ‘the ability to direct your thinking in whichever direction you intend and to hold it for as long as you choose’.
Sometimes you may appear to be reading or focussing on your work, but if your concentration is wandering, you probably won’t retain the information sufficiently nor be able to process it effectively to produce anything coherent.
The ability to concentrate may be impaired if you feel the material seems ‘boring’, you’re too tired/hungry, you’ve too much else to do, you lack the motivation of a goal – long or short term, or you’re too anxious or worried and easily distracted.
Moving out of poor concentration
To improve your ability to concentrate, firstly check the basics:
- Your environment – make sure your place of study is organised, comfortable, uncluttered, the right temperature, free from interruptions (from people or noise) and that you have all the equipment to hand that you need to study effectively.
- Your physical state – ensure you are not too hungry (bananas are thought to aid concentration) nor too full (give yourself at least 15 minutes time to digest food before you start to try to concentrate); make sure you’ve had some fresh air and exercise in the last 24 hours (go for a brisk walk for 10 minutes till you get slightly out of breath); ensure you are not too tired (aim for a sleeping pattern of, on average, 8 hours per night).
- Your psychological state – try to start your concentrated study time by being calm and relaxed (do a relaxation exercise with a guided visualisation where you affirm that you can concentrate well); tune in to a positive state of mind (banish negative thoughts); remind yourself of your positives (eg ‘I can write a good essay because I have done so before’; ‘I can concentrate on this subject because at least parts of it are interesting’); commit to put the effort in to the task and take it seriously.
Tips to encourage good concentration:
Plan your schedule thoroughly, interspersing difficult tasks with tasks that you find easier and more accessible. Tackle the stuff that needs the most intense concentration early in your day or when you feel at your peak of performance.
Begin with concentrating for short periods of time, maybe 10 minutes, or make a note of how long it is before your concentration goes then have a mini break. (jump up and down, run around the block for 3 minutes – anything physical). Expand your concentration time to your personal optimum.
Match the task to the amount of time you can hold your attention eg you might be able to concentrate on reading for 15 minutes but on writing for 30 minutes.
Get mentally active while you concentrate eg make written notes, use spider diagrams, question where and how the information on which you are concentrating will be used because reading on its own is passive and means you do not have to engage with the material.
Focus on your end goal, and plan a reward for yourself e.g. ‘I am going to concentrate on getting this work finished so that I can get a good enough grade and relax with friends at the weekend’
Discover your personal concentration preference: does it help you to concentrate if you are around other people, eg in the library, or around just one or two people who are working to a similar timetable, or working alone, with meeting times with others, so you don’t get too isolated?
Try to generate a thirst or curiosity for knowledge and recognise any acquisition of knowledge. Consider what 5 facts you might know in an hour’s time that you don’t know now.
Consider what might get in the way of you concentrating to your optimum (and make some changes):
Drifting off to sleep – check you’ve had sufficient actual sleep; walk around whilst you read; reduce your concentration time bouts and build them up gradually; experiment with power naps/visualisations to energise.
Day dreaming – As soon as you notice your attention wandering off, imagine the shout of STOP!, shake your head, choose to take your attention back to your task. Repeat as required. (stick with this technique – eventually you will find you can focus for longer).
Worrying – set aside a specific period of time each day (20 minutes) as ‘worry time’ where you write out all the worries you can think of, then categorise them in to worries that you can realistically tackle and draw up a timed action plan. You can imagine putting all your other worries in a big container until you have the head space to tackle them – put a date on the imaginary container. Acknowledge any worries that interrupt your concentration, but wait to give them your attention in your worry time.
Fear of Failure – adopt a positive mental attitude; remind yourself of what you have achieved in the past; visualise yourself being successful in your task; choose to be optimistic; remember to enjoy your subject
Getting distracted – apply self discipline to adopt a tunnel vision approach for the allocated concentration time; ensure you minimise the possibility of distractions (put a ‘do not disturb’ sign on your door; log out of facebook/emails/etc;)
Not understanding – if what you’re concentrating on seems just too complicated, don’t dip into self doubt, but talk to others who can explain the concepts to you, or go briefly back to basics (so you don’t get too overwhelmed); break the task down to small, bite-sized chunks.