Category Archives: Cognitive Skills

Take a Break

With Summative Assessment season upon us, it’s important to remember to  keep things balanced and to take regular breaks.

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It may sound counter-intuitive when you have submission dates piling up and exams to study for, but studies show that when we work / study for hours on end on the same task, with no breaks, our brain slowly starts to switch off  and no longer registers what we are doing. Taking regular breaks from studying, or working on an assignment, allows your mind to refocus and improves attention. The trick however, lies in selecting the correct type of activity for your study / work break so that you return to your task focused and refreshed.

How Long Should You Be Studying / Working For?

The general consensus appears to be:

  • Study / work for 50 – 90 minutes with a 10 minute break in between sessions.

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  • And to take a slightly longer break after every 2 to 3 sessions.

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“Good” Study / Work Breaks

Different activities work for different people. The point is to decide on an activity that will help refresh you and that makes the transition back to work / studying easy.  Also, a “good” break is one that isn’t able to morph into a procrastination tactic.

The simplest way to manage your breaks (and even your study / work sessions) is by setting a timer – when the timer goes, the break is over.

Good, reinvigorating breaks include:

  • Moving away from the screen / book / desk – sitting in the same position for hours on end is no good for you, especially if you are hunched up with tension and anxious about what you are working on. Get up and stretch, move around, get your blood flowing and your eyes moving and focusing on different things. Even better, go for a 10 minute walk outside – the fresh air will help clear your mind and re-energize you for your next session.
  • Chitter-chatter – you’ve been “in the zone” for the past 50 – 90 minutes, phone a friend or find someone to have a quick (emphasis on “quick“) chat with. It will help you change your focus and feel connected again.
  • Dance, draw, doodle – do something creative and fun for 10 minutes. Dancing can boost your energy and lift your mood. Colouring in (yes, with crayons or pencils) is a wonderfully relaxing way to clear your mind and get your focus back.
  • Eat – whether it’s a quick snack (during your 10 minute break) or a light lunch (during your 30 minute break), the low efficiency activity of putting together a light and healthy snack or meal not only allows your mind to focus on something else, but refuels your body and improves your mindset.

What Not to Do

Just like the right type of break can energize you, the wrong type of break can result in unplanned detours and distractions that make it hard to get back to work and full focus.

Things to avoid include:

  • TV / Computer Games / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Snapchat / WhatsApp / E-mail – Rule of thumb: if it has a screen, avoid it. None of these activities boost productivity or focus; what they do is leave you feeling more tired, wound up and distracted than before. Unless you are done studying or working for the day, or self-discipline is your secret super power, don’t use any of these as your downtime break activity.
  • Catch some Zzzzz’s – Taking a nap can actually be counter-productive to your work / study schedule; more often than not it leaves you feeling more tired and less inclined to want to get back to work. Instead, aim for a solid 8 – 9 hours uninterrupted sleep a night and if you absolutely have to take a nap during the day, ensure that it is not longer than 20 minutes.
  • Quick fix – A take-away pizza (junk food) and super sized energy drink (caffeine) may make for a quick meal break and energy boost, but that is exactly what they are…quick. Neither offer sustained energy or benefit, instead resulting in your blood sugar spiking and then crashing, leaving you feeling flat and tired.

References:

How to Take a Study Break. (2015).  Retrieved from: https://www.brainscape.com/blog/2011/06/study-break/ [Accessed on: 14 October 2016].

Hoyt, E. (2016). Energizing Study Break Ideas & What to Avoid. Retrieved from: http://www.fastweb.com/student-life/articles/energizing-study-break-ideas-what-to-avoid [Accessed on: 14 October 2016].

Nauert, R. (2011). Taking Breaks Found to Improve Attention. Retrieved from: https://psychcentral.com/news/2011/02/09/taking-breaks-found-to-improve-attention/23329.html [Accessed on: 14 October 2016].

You’ve Been Taking Breaks All Wrong. Here’s How To Do It Right. (2013). Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/19/youve-been-taking-breaks-_n_4453448.html [Accessed on: 14 October 2016].

 

Autumn & Procrastination

The weather is getting cooler and the crispness of autumn is in the air, making it that bit more difficult to find the motivation to get out of bed and attend lectures or work on assignments…right?

This may be true, but:

  • Attending lectures is still important. Formative Assessment 2 (for year subjects) and Summative Assessments are still coming, don’t waste opportunities to pick up useful hits and tips on how to tackle your assessments because staying home watching netflix seemed like a better idea at the time.

 

  • You’ve paid good money to be here – or your parents / sponsors have. Don’t put pleasure before business, get your money’s worth, attend lectures and seize every opportunity to make what is left of the semester count.

If these two pearls of wisdom are not helping to motivation you, perhaps some ideas on how to deal with procrastination will.

Tips for Beating Autumn Procrastination

Definition: Procrastination - To irrationally put off important tasks.

1. What’s it worth to you?

A major motivator in life, and for students, is how much you value a set goal or task. If you don’t care that much about it, chances are your motivation will be low and the risk of procrastination high.

By “value” we are not only talking about the importance of the goal or task, but also the enjoyment value. Goals  or tasks that are daunting, unpleasant or boring easily demotivate us, and increase the possibility of procrastination setting in.

How can you overcome this particular obstacle?

  • Determine why the goal / task is important. This will require you to be very honest with yourself; is this the assessment that could save a failing grade, even though you hate the subject? By increasing the value of a goal / task in your mind, you may be able to increase your motivation.
  • Determine the cost of the goal / task. What will it cost you in additional time and money if you don’t get a particular task done or don’t achieve your goal? Think in terms of the financial cost of having to pay for a supp. or repeat a subject, or the additional months or years it will add to your time at college.
  • Reward and Punishment.  Or you could keep it simple by rewarding yourself for doing the right thing and punishing yourself for procrastinating.

2. It’s my personality

For some people procrastination is a personality trait they are born with and have little control over – these people are easily distracted, impulsive and tend to have low self-esteem. Does this sound at all familiar?

You may not be able to change your personality, but you can make it work for you by adjusting your surroundings – by creating an environment that supports work and discourages avoidance.

Things you can do to create a work-friendly environment include:

  • Eliminate distractions. Switch off your cell phone; remove the X-box, Playstation, or whatever gaming device you use from the room; switch off the tv; disconnect the WiFi / internet.
  • Don’t stop to think. Procrastination has a sneaky way of disguising itself as a thought process. Don’t be that guy who stops to think about the best way to illustrate a marketing idea and ends up planning the sandwich you want to make for lunch instead.
  • Be prepared. Make sure you have everything you need to hand when you sit down to work, that way you cannot be distracted by searching for your favourite pen or stopping to think about where you saw that quote that perfectly summed up your argument.

3. How do you and eat an elephant?

According to the proverb…one bite at a time.

What does this even mean?! When faced with a really big task or assignment, the big picture can be overwhelming and can reinforce procrastination. Rather than focusing on the huge end result, break the task / assignment up into smaller, manageable, achievable parts.

Another way of dealing with a daunting task is by alternating it with something you enjoy doing. If you work steadily throughout the day, focusing for a good 30 – 60 minutes on the task you don’t enjoy and alternating it with 20 – 30 minutes of something you do enjoy, you will not only make steady progress, but you’ll also have a positive motivator (the task you enjoy doing) to help you keep on track.

4. In search of perfection

Procrastination is some times best friends with another personality trait that goes by the name of “Perfectionist“. For some people every task / assignment has to be perfect – this is not only unrealistic, it is unnecessary and merely feeds the procrastination monster.

When struggling with feelings of procrastination linked to perfectionism, remind yourself that it is more important to complete a task / assignment, than it is for it to be perfect.

5. Time Management and Concentration

These are two skills you can consciously work on to improve and even beat procrastination. To find out more on how to improve your time management and / or concentration, visit these topics on the blog.


References:

Chambers, A. (2015). Seven Steps to Help Conquer Procrastination: A Different Kind of Spring Cleaning (Part 1). Retrieved from: http://www.mobar.org/media-center/news-blog/seven-steps-to-help-conquer-procrastination-part-1/  [Accessed on: 12 September 2016].

Dean, J. (2014). 10 Foolproof Tips for Overcoming Procrastination. Retrieved from:  http://www.spring.org.uk/2014/03/10-foolproof-tips-for-overcoming-procrastination.php  [Accessed on: 12 September 2016].

Dean, J. (2011). How to Fight the Four Pillars of Procrastination. Retrieved from:  http://www.spring.org.uk/2011/09/how-to-fight-the-four-pillars-of-procrastination.php  [Accessed on: 12 September 2016].

Todd, D. (2012). Overcoming Procrastination: Tips for Overcoming the Bane of all College Students. Retrieved from:  http://www.collegeview.com/articles/article/overcoming-procrastination [Accessed on: 12 September 2016].

Strategies & Exercises to Help Improve Your Concentration

Concentration is not an instinctive ability, rather it is a skill that can be learned and, with practice, improved on.

Improving and maintaining a healthy concentration level is dependent on a combination of four inter-related elements – if any of these four elements is missing or ignored, concentration will be effected:

  • mental challenges
  • emotional involvement
  • physical exercise
  • healthy eating

Mental Challenges

Below are two exercises you can practice to help improve your concentration:

1. Sustained concentration on a simple task
  • Start with a simple relaxation exercise – breathe in for a count of four and exhale for a count of four, whilst doing this relax your body starting with your feet and slowly working your way up to your jaw muscles and eyes.
  • With your eyes closed, picture a flower (or any simple object you can concentrate on) – examine the flower in detail, look at it up close and then from far away – continue this focused concentration on your chosen object for 2 – 3 minutes. When the time is up, open your eyes and reflect on how you concentrated: what did it feel like? Was it easy or did you struggle to stay focused on your object? Why?

  • The aim is for you to include a sustained concentration exercise in your daily schedule. Just 5 minutes of practice a day will make a difference in your ability to concentrate at will and sustain your focus over increasingly longer periods of time.

For more sustained concentration exercises, visit the Mindfulness Exercises post available on this blog.

2. Challenging your current intellectual level
  • If you get bored when studying it is possible that the material you are studying is too easy and you need to start incorporating challenges by learning and reading beyond what has been prescribed to you for a particular subject. Go to the library or surf the web for books, articles and sites on the subject that will provide you with broader, more challenging information.
  • If you get stressed when studying it is possible that the material may be too difficult, and this makes you shut down. Draw up a set of specific study goals for your study sessions, they could include: reading one chapter of a prescribed textbook, or answering a set number of questions, or brainstorming ideas for an upcoming assignment.

 

Emotional Involvement

You cannot concentrate on your studies unless you have personal commitment or interest in the subject. External motivators, such as the money you hope to make in the future or graduating with distinction, are not viable forms of commitment and motivation. Rather focus on learning about and enjoying the subject. Find out how a particular topic is personally relevant to you and what it is that you aim to do with your studies once you are done.

Negative emotions, especially stress, detract from concentration. Stress management strategies will help with this and may include things such as: mental relaxation exercises, physical exercise and hobbies.

The environment you study in greatly effects your ability to concentrate. You need to find a study time and place that allows you to fully concentrate on the topic at hand, rather than the distraction of what is going on around you.

Physical Exercise

A fundamental way of enhancing concentration is to get enough exercise every day. Find physical activities that fit with your lifestyle: walking instead of driving to the shops, jogging with a friend, taking the dog for a walk. Exercise brings variety into your life and enhances your mind’s ability to sustain focus.

Active learning is also a great concentration enhancer. Rather than just sitting passively at a desk, walk around the room whilst testing yourself, talk out loud about a section you’ve just covered, write something about the topic you’ve just read, place a cushion or stuffed toy in the corner of the room and teach it what you’ve just covered in a particular chapter.

Healthy Eating

A healthy diet is linked to improved concentration, academic ability, better sleep and general health and well-being.

Avoid:

  • artificial colourants
  • artificial flavourants
  • antioxidant preservatives

These are all found in processed foods, such as: pies, fish fingers, packet soup, 2 minute noodle flavour packets, processed meats (e.g. polony), potato crisps and fizzy drinks.

A single protein (e.g. a boiled egg or a slice of cheese the size of your index finger) and complex carbohydrates (e.g. an apple, a pear, a serving of oats, a serving of low fat yoghurt) breakfast will boost your concentration for up to three hours.

Regular, healthy snacks every two to three hours e.g. sugar free peanut butter, a tuna sandwich, home made unsalted popcorn, plain biltong, cheese or unsalted nuts help to maintain concentration.

Supplements can be taken to raise Essential Fatty Acid (EFA) levels, which are linked to concentration and brain function:

  • Omega 3 and 6  – fatty fish oil found in unflavoured cod liver oil, cold pressed salmon oil capsules and flaxseed oil, contain Omega 3 and 6.
  • Multivitamin and mineral supplements – assist with the metabolism of the fatty acids but must be free of synthetic colourants and flavourants. Some multivitamins include EFAs but usually not enough and so must be supplemented.  Supplements and vitamins can be expensive, however an increasing number of supermarkets and pharmacy chains are producing and selling their own brand of quality supplements and multivitamins at affordable prices.

 


References:

Improve Your Concentration. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_78.htm. [Accessed on: 14 March 2017].

Patterson, B. (n.d.). How Tutors Can Help Tutees Improve their Concentration. Retrieved from: https://hawaii.hawaii.edu/node/487. [Accessed on: 20 March 2017].

Concentration: Misconceptions & Tips for Improvement

We’ve all experienced difficulty concentrating at some point or another, but when it becomes a daily struggle, it’s time to start looking at things a little closer.

Misconceptions About Concentration

There are two main misconceptions about concentration:

1. “Good” students can concentrate for hours at a time.

Not true. The average concentration span for a student reading a textbook is around 20 minutes. This means that as a student you should be aiming for a 20 – 30 minute study  / work session before taking a 5 minute break in order to refresh and refocus.

There is the misconception that long hours of sustained concentration result in high productivity. Instead studies have shown that extended time at a desk or with a textbook reduces productivity, and regular short breaks are needed to re-energize and regain focus.

2.  Some people naturally concentrate better than others. 

Again, not true. Concentration is not an instinctive ability, but rather it is a skill that can be learned and with practice student can get better at it.

Attention vs. Distractions

Attention (or concentration) and distraction are opposite ends of the same continuum. Studies show that it can take between 15 to 20 minutes for a person to regain their full attention on a task after having been distracted.

Anthony Funnell, in his article on distraction in an “attention economy” (2016), writes that there are five ways for dealing with distractions:

  1. Getting distracted isn’t the issue. You can’t avoid distraction. Rather, what matters is how you respond to the distraction. Do you get caught up in it and neglect what you were originally focused on; or do you acknowledge the distraction with the intention of addressing it only once you are done with what you are currently doing?
  2. Avoid multi-tasking. By working on a variety of tasks simultaneously, you are in fact doing each poorly than if you were focused on one at a time. Even if you are focused on a single task but you stop to check your phone every few minutes, your concentration and focus are poor, making productivity low.
  3. Don’t think of paying attention as a battle or a negative task. A negative attitude about concentration will not help in improving it. As soon as something is viewed in a negative light, it is difficult to change one’s opinion of it. The same with distractions, by asking yourself “what is important at this moment?” and bringing your attention back to the primary focus, a different type of effort is engaged compared to pushing and fighting with one’s attention and distractions.
  4. Analyse your personal online behaviour. Be aware of the instinctive need for gratification. Cell phones and social media provide us with instant gratification and so easily distract us. The reward of reading a message, swiping left or right boarders on addictive and wins over other tasks almost every time.

How to Improve Concentration

How often have you found yourself reading and re-reading the same section of a textbook, simply because your mind keeps wandering off? Below you’ll find a variety of strategies to help improve your concentration and reduce distractions.

Nutrition & Exercise
  • Drink water – It may sound odd but what many people don’t realize is dehydration causes you to feel tired, sluggish and irritable – all things that impact on your ability to concentrate. Staying hydrated is a simple way of improving your concentration.
  • Move around – Sitting at a desk for hours on end is counter-productive especially for one’s concentration. Take regular, short breaks, getting up and moving around to help refresh your mind and focus. Why not go to the kitchen to get a glass of water?
  • Eat – It’s difficult to concentrate when you’re hungry. Eating regular meals, with healthy snacks in between, can boost your ability to concentrate.
Environment

The environment in which you work or study plays a role in your ability to focus and concentrate. By creating a comfortable environment the more likely you are to remain in it and stay focused.

  • Desk and chair – Your bed and couch are associated with relaxation and leisure, they are not conducive to a focused, work orientated state of mind. Find yourself a desk (or table) and comfortable chair in a quiet, low traffic area.
  • Distractions – Shut out noise and distractions as much as possible. This may mean putting your phone on silent, switching off all apps, or even leaving it in another room. Listening to instrumental music may also be helpful – avoid listening to your favourite band and being distracted by singing along to the songs.
  • Traffic – Try not to set up your study area in a high traffic environment – somewhere where people are always walking past, stopping to talk, or where others gather to socialize, like the lounge.
Mind Set
  • Don’t multi-task – Focus on one task at a time. By changing your focus every few minutes to check your phone, send a message etc. you are lowering both your focus and productivity.
  • Prioritize – Having too much to do results in distraction which in turn causes procrastination. If you find you have a number of tasks due but you aren’t sure where to start or what to focus on, take a few minutes to draw up a To-Do List and then prioritize the tasks on that list in order of importance. You can find more information on Time Management and To-Do Lists here.
  • Switch between high and low attention tasks – After an extended period of concentration, such as working on a particularly intricate design, give your brain a break by doing something less intense for a good 10 – 15 minutes, such as filing your lecture notes, or revising your To-Do List. This allows you to recharge your energy and refresh your focus.
  • Distracting thoughts and worry – You may find that your concentration is disrupted by constant worrying or distracting thoughts – an approaching submission date, for example. One way of dealing with this is to keep a pen and notepad handy, write down what it is that is worrying or distracting you and then schedule in time to address it. This way you are no longer holding the thought in your mind, instead it is sitting on the notepad waiting to be attended to when you are ready.
  • Reward yourself – If you’ve been working steadily for 50 minutes on a single task, reward yourself with a 5 minute break, a cup of coffee, something that motivates you but won’t distract you.
  • Take short breaks – You need to refocus and re-energise at least every hour. Try dividing your work / study sessions up into hour long periods, with a 5 – 10 minute break between tasks. You should take a longer break, 20 – 30 minutes, every 2 – 3 hours.

References:

Funnell, A. (2016). How to Deal with Distraction in an “Attention Economy”. Retrieved from: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/futuretense/how-to-deal-with-distraction-in-an-attention-economy/7497196. [Accessed on: 14 March 2017].

Improve Your Concentration. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_78.htm. [Accessed on: 14 March 2017].

Murray, B. (2016). Distractions: Are They an Addiction? Retrieved from: https://www.mindtools.com/blog/distractions-addiction/. [Accessed on: 14 March 2017].

 

How to Reduce Worrying: Part 4

Today is the final installment in our series on How to Reduce Worrying. We finish off with looking at additional strategies to help you get your worrying under control.

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Use Your Worry Period for Problem Solving

When you start your worry period (refer to Part 3 for an explanation of what a “Worry Period” is) there are several strategies that can be used to make it particularly helpful. Just the fact of having a worry period will make it possible to postpone worries during other times.

The worry period can be used to start reducing the strength of your worrying habit. Use the worry period to list the worries you have and then to distinguish between those worries which you can do something about and those that are out of your control.

For those worries that you can do something about, use the worry period for problem solving and decision making:

  • What steps can you take to reduce the likelihood of the bad event happening?
  • Is there information you can find that will give you a better understanding of the chances of such an event happening or information that can help you come up with a solution or alternative?

Talk to someone about your concerns and get their perspective on the reasonableness of the worry or possible solutions. Decide on possible actions you can implement over the next few days that may reduce the likelihood of the bad event happening.

Cognitive Restructuring

You can also use the worry period to work on cognitive restructuring – this involves several steps:

  1. Identify the specific thoughts that you have when you worry. What is it, exactly, that you are saying to yourself when you are worrying? Write these thoughts down. Your observation of those worries during the day should provide you with the information you need for this exercise.
  2. Take each thought and logically analyse it. That is, what is the evidence for that thought? What is the probability of it actually happening? Has the event happened before? Is it reasonable or logical to predict that the event will happen, based on the evidence you have?
  3. Even if the event does happen, will you be able to handle it? What actions can you take to minimise the effects? Have you handled similar situations in the past without terrible consequences? A year after the event, should it  happen, what difference will it make by then?
  4. As you answer these questions, find those that indicate that the likelihood of things working out all right is good and that you would have ways of coping with the event should it happen. Create new thoughts from these and write them down next to the relevant worrisome thoughts you wrote down previously.

Use these new, more adaptive and reasonable thoughts whenever you catch one of the worrisome thoughts intruding during the day. At first the new thoughts may not ring true in comparison to the old worrisome thoughts. Remind yourself that they are true, based on your logical evidence based analysis. They will, with repeated practice, start to feel truer as you use them to replace the worrisome thoughts and as you catch them earlier and earlier.

For some worries, it may be useful during your worry period to ask yourself: “What is the worst thing that can happen?” Sometimes it turns out not to be so terrible, that you would survive it, that you would be able to handle it and then move on with your life. The future is sometimes scary because it is unknown. By looking at known and likely possible outcomes, the future becomes less scary.

Track the Outcome of Your Worries

There is another useful piece of information that you can gather during your worry period each day:

  • Write down every event that you’re worried about and list next to it the possible outcome (good and bad) that may happen
  • Keep that list until the event actually happens and see what outcome occurred
  • Do this for every outcome that comes along and keep track of how often things actually turned out good, bad or indifferent, and whether you handled the outcome well or not

Over time you will be able to collect your own evidence about your worries and your ability to cope with events that you are worried about.

It is very likely that you find that few things really turn out badly or that, even when they do, you are capable of handling them quite well. Such evidence will increase your confidence in yourself and your trust that, whatever the future holds, you will be ready for it.

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Reference:

California State University. (n.d.). How to Reduce Worrying. Retrieved from:  http://www.csun.edu/sites/default/files/how-to-reduce-worrying.pdf [Accessed on: 13 October 2014].