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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].