Learn How to Increase Concentration and Focus while Studying and Working

Learn How to Increase Concentration and Focus while Studying and Working
16-09-2020

Concentration, or sustained attention, is a matter of 5 very important psychological factors. Your concentration level for any task depends on these. IF you only want a few quick life-style hacks to improve concentration and focus, jump to point 5.

Psychological factors that can help you increase your concentration during studies and work

  1. Intrinsic motivation – Do you really want to concentrate?
  2. Distraction & stimulation – Can your brain manage your current balance of things that distract you and things that stimulate you?
  3. Your perceived ability to learn – Can you imagine yourself handling your study workload? Do you believe you can conquer it?
  4. Selecting what to focus on – Do you really know what you need to focus on? Do you know what you should concentrate on first?
  5. Mental and physical resources to concentrate – Is your body and brain in the right condition to pull off a focused study session?

Notice how all of these factors are within your control. Your concentration while studying (by yourself and during lectures) or working depends on how you manipulate these factors to make them favorable. But how do these factors become favorable? Follow the psychological context of learning and use the recommendations made in each section below. This article primarily discusses how to concentrate on academic content but you can apply the insights to improve concentration at work.

What is concentration in learning? Concentration is the ability to purposefully sustain and guide one’s attention to learn, comprehend, observe, monitor, and self-reflect in a given situation. Effective concentration suppresses distractions within our conscious and unconscious awareness. It is a part of our executive functioning. Concentrating involves narrow, razor-sharp focus as well as a broad, global focus. The goal of increasing concentration is to modify behavior, improve memory, and improve learning.

1. Intrinsic motivation: Ignite the self-motivation to study and the satisfaction to continue

The reality is that not all of us get to choose exactly what we want to concentrate on. We find it hard to concentrate if we dislike the content. But sometimes, we love what we are studying and we feel a strong desire to learn. This desire may come from pure love, curiosity, fascination, personal relevance, or external rewards like marks, ego-boost, praises, and desirable outcomes like professional independence, good college, better job prospects, respect in society, avoiding shame, etc.

A burning desire emerging from within you is called Intrinsic motivation. That motivation stems from the joy of learning what you love, the love of knowledge, the satisfaction of progressing, etc. Intrinsic motivation depends on your values & wishes. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation stems from external rewards like marks, praise, ego-boost, and outcomes like social respect.

Intrinsic motivation often wins in maintaining increased levels of concentration because your brain is ready to concentrate for its own sake. You increase focus because you want to focus. External rewards can also be powerful but they may change and once your attitude towards values changes, extrinsic motivation crumples. This is called “motivational crowding” – if you are fortunate to be intrinsically motivated to study, seeking external rewards can actually interfere and disrupt your motivation to study.

What if there is no intrinsic motivation and no desirable external reward? This is a common problem. It is the point where most people fail to concentrate and then procrastinate. When you have to study things that you are not motivated to study, it creates negative emotions. To avoid those negative emotions, people procrastinate and do something that they are intrinsically motivated to do because it is satisfying.

High motivational intensity such as a deep-seated desire narrows attention (razor-sharp), and low motivational intensity such as simple liking and pleasantness broadens attention (big picture) according to the motivational dimension model of affect. This allows us to strategically broaden and focus our concentration level by mixing 2 types of study/work sessions: those you love and those you can tolerate.

How do you increase your concentration while studying then? Start by finding intrinsic motivation. Whether your concentration power is good or bad, intrinsic motivation will improve it.

  • Find something in your study material that you can relate to. Really try to see how your studies fit your world-view, your past, your partner’s life, movies you like, etc. You will find something.
  • Find something within the material that will be relevant in the future. Think of active examples where you might need it. If you can’t think, google it, learn about applications. Use that to commit to it.
  • Find a way to attach positive emotional weight to your study material. You can do this by talking to an intrinsically motivated friend about the value of learning something. Or even smiling while you work.
  • Make a quick list of the (potential) sources of intrinsic motivation, external rewards, and desirable outcomes. Then focus on a few of those which are compatible with each other.

There is no study material which is impossible to fall in love with, it’s your perspective, attitude, and desire that enables or disables it. The goal of these tips is to create a relationship between you and your study material.

2. Distraction & stimulation: Feed your attention enough to increase concentration

Distraction is made up of everything that pulls your attention away from what you need to focus on. Stimulation is everything that arouses your brain to deliberately direct attention toward your thoughts and study material. There is a reason why a balance of stimulation & distraction is required to improve concentration while studying. We have two types of attention – endogenous & exogenous. Endogenous attention is goal-driven, deliberate, and can convert into concentration. Exogenous attention is stimuli-driven (whatever attracts you), automatic, and can convert into both – concentration (if it is useful to you) or distraction (if it is unrelated to your task). When you plan to study a graph, you mostly employ endogenous attention. When you lose focus because of a notification on your phone and start scrolling through Instagram, you are at the mercy of exogenous attention. High concentration study sessions are possible when we limit exogenous attention and maximize endogenous attention.

Attention is occupied while studying, ideally. When it isn’t occupied, exogenous attention has the opportunity to break your focus. Some people can concentrate without distractions while studying. Some need a small level of distraction while studying. Background music can occupy some portion of your attention and according to research, it does help people concentrate better. Generally, music with lyrics is a bad idea because lyrics & human voices capture our exogenous attention. Many can increase concentration while reading and writing, even calculations, by listening to background music or noise. Others require total silence. Some can only focus for a few minutes and then require a conversational or YouTube break. Many would prefer non-zero distraction and non-zero stimulation which occupies enough of your attention to allow the endogenous attention to focus on studies and work. Everyone’s capacity to concentrate is different because their need for stimulation/arousal & vulnerability to distraction is different.

The Cognitive Load & Construal Level theory explains when we perform at our best. Cognitive load is the total effort needed because of your environment, your study material (or task at hand), and your mental state. Construal level describes how deeply you process your work. More mental effort leads to more cognitive load and that occupies your endogenous attention. Since people have different thresholds for stimulation and vulnerabilities to distraction, how you occupy your attention is important to improve concentration.

Distractions from within the study/work material (noticing some important bit of information) also uses exogenous attention but those distractions are useful as they help you connect the dots and link related/highlighted concepts while learning. Stimulation/Arousal (or the lack thereof) emerges from enthusiasm, lethargy, exciting content, boring presentation, dull room lighting, background chit-chat, attending to other less important work, etc. All of these factors affect how your attention is occupied.

Tips to zero-in on your distraction/stimulation balance for a fully occupied attention span

  • Reflect on how you can focus with different sources such as books, YouTube, Audio lectures, Slideshows, forum-discussions, etc. Choose what’s most convenient and appropriate for you.
  • Reflect on how much background stimulation you need and make adjustments. Try different types of background sounds ranging from meditation music to metal. Music can help you if you find it difficult to concentrate.
  • Try combining different types of content with various forms of stimulation in a particular situation which has unique distractions. Some combination will increase concentration and some combination will decrease it, find your sweet-spot.
  • Read slide-based notes or watch YouTube videos to reduce the burden detailed books put on your brain. Reading increasingly complex/detailed explanations for the same concept over and over again reduces the level of new details you add to your studying. The difference in the previous level and new level reduces and makes focusing easier.

When you are fully involved, your endogenous attention is toward your task, distractions mean nothing, and the study task is slightly challenging and beyond your current skill level, you may experience the flow state which has the highest form of concentration. It’s a state of deep engagement with your work with a continuous feedback between your work and your brain which makes you one with the task. The flow state is known to be a highly productive focused state. Experience the flow state by meeting these background conditions: Intrinsic motivation, a sense of being challenged by the task, working at your limit, and sense of achieving something.

3. Your perceived ability to learn and study: Manage emotions & Beliefs to increase concentration

Just like distractions, your beliefs and attitudes can break your concentration. People have core beliefs such as I’m not smart enough, This is too much to study, I’ll never finish this in such little time, I don’t know how to start, I cannot focus without _____, If I study a lot I will change who I am, etc. These beliefs open the door for procrastination and even self-sabotage. Some of these beliefs are rigid, and we tend to affirm them because they are a part of who we are. Sometimes, these beliefs come from only a small portion of your real experiences, usually, the negative experiences. To counter those negative experiences, we engage in mood-improving distractions that make us feel good.

If you believe that you cannot study for long hours, you can direct yourself to study for only 15 minutes. Or instead of feeling overwhelmed by the entire workload, pick a tiny load, and study it thoroughly. The smaller the task gets, the more manageable it feels. And that is an easy way to overcome low concentration and negative beliefs about your ability to learn. Read more about managing emotions here and here.

The latitude of acceptance is a mental filter that accepts self-thoughts based on how easy it is to believe them. If you hold strong beliefs like “I am bad at numbers,” it will be hard to modify that belief into “I am good at numbers.” Instead, modify a self-belief just enough so you can accept it (ex: I am bad at numbers but can try and learn this short routine). Small positive changes can widen the holes in that filter and allow bigger changes in beliefs. These beliefs would determine your attitude, commitment, and confidence in focusing.

Breaking a task into its smallest sensible parts (chunking) is a good way to have short bursts of concentration, especially if your baseline concentration is poor. Taking breaks between study sessions and revising previous learning is another useful technique (spaced repetition). Both of these techniques reduce the actual & perceived burden of intense study sessions. 

Tips on how to change your beliefs about your capacity to focus, study and learn

  • Identify your beliefs and slightly modify them to fit your latitude of acceptance in a favorable way. For example, I can only study for `15 minutes. Modify this to I can only study for 10-20 minutes (latitude of acceptance) and choose 19 minutes. I can only study 1 section a day. Change that to “I can only study half a section to 1.5 sections a day so I can try studying 1 section and do a quick overview of the next section.
  • Modify your learning material in a way you can digest. Select smaller portions to study at a time. Commit to a smaller duration and then carry on.
  • Everyone’s capacity to improve concentration while learning is different. Some study techniques suit some people better because of their attitude, type of content, and determination. Explore different techniques. These evidence-based techniques are likely to work for most.
  • Change your approach increase your control and autonomy – tell yourself that you choose to focus on work.

4. Selecting what to focus on: Decide what to study/learn and guide your attention

Before we even begin to concentrate and sustain our attention, we have to make a decision on what to focus on. Not deciding what to begin with is a source of conflict and mental stress. To make things worse, you cannot begin with everything even if it is equally important. One of the hardest skills is to decide where to begin. After you know your options, choosing one is a subjective choice. Choosing a topic that is related to your previous study session is a good starting point. If your only option is to study new concepts or explore a new work-task, you can begin with a simple overview of a topic/task and incrementally dive in deeper – layer by layer.

Shuffling between a bird’s eye view and quick facts can be helpful. The facts and contexts strengthen each other – our memory improves. Some information acts as an anchor and helps you concentrate on a small specific area. New concepts that relate to existing anchors are less likely to become distractions. Knowledge builds bit by bit and it’s important to limit your focus to a balance of depth & breadth. That is, take a topic, draw a circle around it, learn a few things within that circle, learn things that are on its border, then repeat this for a new topic, and once in a while, do an overview of how multiple circles merge into each other. This engages a narrow, detailed form of attention as well as a global, abstract form of attention. Both narrow and broad attention is a part of “attentional control” which is a fancy term for concentration.

Tips on choosing what to focus on

  • Know what options you have and select a few. Maybe 2 or 3 subtopics within one option. Limiting your choices can help you increase concentration by reducing decision-making conflicts. The index page or a set of opening questions you want answers to or a few exciting facts are great anchors to keep you focused. Snowball around these anchors and broaden your scope of learning.
  • Switch between narrow and broad perspectives and use that to bind everything you are learning together. Study related concepts in parallel. Once you understand those, choose a few more for the next session.
  • Study at various levels of processing. Learn new concepts at the very basic level, then add more details, then learn the limits, and so on. By adding a little bit beyond your current comprehension, you can feel challenged by a task; which, in turn, makes you more likely to experience flow while studying.
  • Attention may waver, so use these points to keep things interesting. Use anchors to ground your total concentration in a few different areas which individually require smaller portions of your total concentration. That is, concentrate on a zone by focusing attention in a few related areas.

5. Mental and Physical resources to concentrate better: Hone your executive functions

Attention is an “executive function” which means it’s a fundamental cognitive process necessary to control behavior and thinking (like studying & focusing).

Other important executive functions underlying increased concentration are cognitive inhibition (ignoring irrelevant information & thinking), inhibitory control (stopping the impulse to procrastinate & ignoring distractions), cognitive flexibility (automatic & deliberate shifting of attention between different important tasks & concepts), and self-regulation (managing your behavior, thoughts, and emotions). Together, these executive functions define our concentration level. A healthy brain and body keep our executive functions tip-top. Because these involve automatic and deliberate brain functions, you can increase your capacity to concentrate by practicing and improving mental and physical health.
 
Contrary to popular belief, short distractions as well as switching tasks and paying attention to a small variety of information is good for maintaining focus for a long time. When we choose just one type of task and monotonously focus on it for a while, we get habituated (unresponsive) and attention to details (and changes) worsens. To counter this habituation, sporadically attend to something else for a short duration. These breaks refresh our executive functioning to perform at its peak.

Difficulty in concentrating and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are often linked together because both have a common feature – Executive Dysfunction. Those with ADHD demonstrate what looks like surplus attention as it takes a lot to occupy endogenous attention. In some cases, medicines in the category of stimulants help.

Tips to replenish your resources so executive functions perform at their best

  • Sleep well, sleep enough, and take breaks. Brain functions depend a lot on the quality and quantity of sleep and productivity-less breaks.
  • Stay hydrated, eat well, and do some co-ordination based exercise and aerobics. If you are dehydrated, lethargic, and haven’t consumed food, your concentration power will drop. The brain demands a lot of resources (glucose, oxygen, calcium, etc.) at the chemical level. Keep your body healthy to allow the brain to consume those resources.
  • Work on mental health, avoid boredom, and partake in some meaningful stimulating work that engages your brain and body. Emotional states affect overall attention, and they may decrease your ability to concentrate.
  • Take enough healthy breaks for your brain to digest past learning, replenish resources for a burst of concentration, and allow your brain to process what you are learning efficiently. A work break to watch cute photos of animals is a known way to boost concentration by increasing careful behavior and narrowing attention.
  • When you choose to concentrate, find a way to stay engaged, curious, and have fun because these mental states avail more cognitive resources that are specifically relevant to what you are processing. Gamify. Interact. Create. Be active, not passive.
  • Learn how to increase concentration by playing games that use your executive functions. Video games can improve concentration because games often demand it, and we end up practicing those executive functions.
  • Practice mindfulness, meditation, or yoga to improve cognitive functioning and baseline concentration level. Yoga may also improve overall cognitive functioning in children with ADHD and depressed people.
  • Coffee, as well as Green Tea & Matcha Tea, are great to enhance attention.
  • Go out into nature to improve overall well-being and work-life productivity. Doing so helps our brain reset the emotional chaos that disrupts attention. It’s also helpful for kids.

Address the 5 factors in this article to improve your concentration power while working and studying. You can also apply these to concentrate better on a hobby. Some of these will be useful while talking and listening too. Implement the tips based on your current context and needs. And remember – concentration is a skill, not a set limit.

 

Original post: Cognition Today

By: Aditya Shukla

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