The Secret to Staying Focused

September 27th, 2014 No Comments Features

how to stay focused

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Let’s face it. Eliminating all distractions in order to focus is poor advice. It just doesn’t work, in the same way that most abstinence campaigns never work. Distraction isn’t the problem; in many cases, it aids the creative process. The problem is one of motivation.

“Like everyone else, I’ve nodded along with the prohibition sermons imploring me to limit my information diet,” writes David Brooks in a recent New York Times column. “Stop multitasking! Turn off the devices at least once a week! And, like everyone else, these sermons have had no effect.”

Children are better than adults at focusing, he says, because they still experience wonder. Natural curiosity is the best remedy for distraction. It’s the self-censoring and anesthetisation that make our condition worse.

The lesson from childhood, Brooks concludes, is saying “yes” to the trivial distractions, and “yes” to the moments of deep concentration. This is not to say we should let ourselves drift around social media until the deadline for our essay has passed; what it means is that we respond best to positive self-guidance, not stifling self-discipline.

The overwhelming majority of self-help resources out there will tell you to lock yourself in a closet, log out of Twitter and Facebook, meditate, take breaks, reward yourself with an ice cream cone for an hour of close reading. But all these techniques accomplish is to draw more attention away from your studies and back to the fact that you are having trouble focusing.

What we all need–whether we’ve got a mild problem or a serious one–is the genuine motivation to do whatever it is we should be doing. It’s the only way to pull distraction up by the roots without harbouring the fear that it will grow back.

Why Do We Have Trouble Focusing?

It’s a good question, and one that remains largely unanswered. With so much advice out there from experts and non-experts alike, you’d think that someone would have bothered to start at the beginning. Some people can read War and Peace cover to cover in a roomful of rowdy people; others couldn’t read a page if they locked themselves in a windowless cell. Determining why this is should be our first step in solving the attention problem.

Commonly cited reasons include fatigue, stress, multi-tasking, boredom or disinterest, inappropriate level of difficulty (too hard or too easy), and easy distraction. But almost all of these have fairly simple fixes: get more sleep, practice stress management, don’t check your e-mail, eliminate distractions.

The one factor that eludes remediation is disinterest. If you’re not interested in your studies, you’re going to have a very hard time staying focused. Even the most dedicated students can’t possibly be interested in every topic they are asked to study. Still, they are required to familiarise themselves with every topic as part of the instructor’s course goals and in preparation for exams.

If you are having trouble focusing now and then, it’s completely natural, and there are simple things you can do to get through it. But if you find yourself frequently unengaged–which, to be honest, is also quite common–the solution is going to take a bit more thought.

Staying Focused With Genuine Interest

If you have trouble focusing on a regular basis, ask yourself a few questions:

1. Why are you studying? What’s the ultimate goal?

Whether your educational motives stem from an interest in academia or an interest in affluence, you should remind yourself of them frequently if you want to stay focused. If you have to spend a moment visualising yourself receiving your PhD, go right ahead. Whatever it takes to get you excited about your studies is worth the time you spend away from them.

2. What are you interested in, if not the topic at hand?

When you daydream, what do you daydream about? Those of us who like to create goals more than we like to work towards them might spend a great deal of time imagining all the wonderful things we are going to achieve, but we do have to come back down to Earth if we actually want to make that dream a reality. Still, it helps to monitor our own musings in case we find that our distraction can easily be put to rest.

Thinking about the new Hobbit film? Go see it, so you can finally get some work done.

3. Can you change the learning delivery mode?

Would you be more interested if you could talk about the material with a friend, watch a documentary or movie, listen to an audio book? You don’t have to receive information in the mode that it was assigned to you. We all have different learning preferences for different subjects and in different contexts–so why not choose the method that best suits your needs? Nowadays you can find a documentary on just about anything, and audio books are a great way to study if you learn well by listening.

4. Can you make the learning/studying process more efficient for yourself?

If you’re copying a textbook page into your notebook word-for-word, you’re going to burn out faster than if you created an outline or concept map. If you don’t spread out your studying, you’re going to struggle when it comes time to cram. There are countless ways you can make the process more efficient for yourself. The brain responds well to economy, and you respond well to having more free time. [Read more about how to study effectively.]

5. What immediate rewards will you receive from mastering the topic?

Maybe you have always wanted to be an expert on existential philosophy. Getting through that volume of Neitzsche is going to help you achieve that goal. Maybe you need a good grade in biology in order to apply for med school. Keep that goal in your sights when the terminology gets exhausting. Maybe you just want to be able to speak broadly on Gender Studies and back up your own opinions on Middle Eastern politics.

Don’t forget that the work is directly related to the goal.

6. What’s the hardest part about what you’re doing?

If you’re writing an essay, what trips you up the most? If you’re doing a problem set, what concept do you not fully understand? Identifying specific barriers to your concentration will help you to eliminate them. Instead of losing focus altogether, you will realise it’s just one part of the task that needs a little extra work.

7. How can you make the topic more relevant to what you are interested in?

Personal relevance is a huge motivator. If you’re into physics but you have to fulfil an English requirement, consider how language skills will help you publish better research one day. If you’re an English major taking geology, think about how you might work your new knowledge into a short story or essay.

Staying Focused With Distraction

A 2011 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.

In the study, psychology professor Alejandro Lleras and postdoctoral fellow Atsunori Ariga tested participants’ ability to focus on a repetitive computerised task for about an hour under various conditions. The 84 study subjects were divided into four groups: the control group performed the 50-minute task without breaks or diversions; the “switch” group and the “no-switch” group, who memorised four digits prior to performing the task, and were told to respond if they saw one of the digits on the screen during the task; and the “digit-ignored” group, which was shown the same digits presented to the switch group during the task, but was told to ignore them.

As expected, most participants’ performance declined significantly over the course of the task. But most critically, Lleras said, those in the switch group saw no drop in their performance over time. Simply having them take two brief breaks from their main task (to respond to the digits) allowed them to stay focused during the entire experiment.

“It was amazing that performance seemed to be unimpaired by time, while for the other groups performance was so clearly dropping off,” Lleras said.

This study is consistent with the idea that the brain is built to detect and respond to change, Lleras said, and suggests that prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance.

“We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” he said. “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”

Again, distraction is not the enemy.

Staying Focused When the Task Is Too Hard

You might be genuinely interested in a topic, but if you encounter a concept or problem you don’t understand, it can completely throw off your concentration. How many times have you been on a roll with an assignment and noticed that the point at which you got distracted was the point at which you hit a speed bump in your understanding?

The best way to combat this is to be aware of what’s going on. If you notice yourself slipping because you can’t easily grasp a concept, it will help to acknowledge that what’s coming next is going to require hard work and will be mentally taxing. If you recognise and prepare for this, it will be easier to dive in and keep focused until you’ve mastered the concept. Or, if you decide you need a break before you dive in, take a break.

Either way, consciously recognising what your brain is going through can prevent you from simply giving in to a feeling of exhaustion and checking your Facebook.

Staying Focused With Small Goals

It might help to remind yourself that you want to get good grades, become a doctor, or make a good income. But when it comes to completing the task at hand, these far-off goals aren’t going to cut it. You need concrete, bite-sized goals to get you through an essay or assignment. Just as some professional distance runners mentally divide their race up into shorter, consecutive distances in order to stay focused, students can achieve one small goal at a time to optimise concentration.

Another way of making concrete goals is to schedule your studies for certain days and times. Decide you will do the research for an essay on Monday, then start writing on Tuesday. Plan to read three chapters of your textbook Wednesday morning, then do your chemistry assignment in the afternoon. Being able to cross tasks off a list helps with motivation, too.

Staying Focused With Facebook

One of the main distractions we encounter every day is Facebook. So why not use it to your advantage? Create a study group page or a page for your class, and use it to post questions, comments, and thoughts. You can do similar things with Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, and Vines.

Many classes now have discussion forums like Blackboard, designed to let students interact in an online setting, but the “interactive” element can be limited. In any case, social media is one of the most powerful educational tools available today, and we shouldn’t be depriving ourselves of it simply because we don’t understand this connection.

Eating Dessert First

Some people might tell you to get the hardest tasks done first so that you don’t waste all your energy on the easy ones. But engagement and creativity create energy. If there’s an assignment or reading you’re especially excited about, do it first. Get those creative juices flowing and warm up your mind so that, when you do have to turn to less enjoyable tasks, you’ll still be on that roll from your first few assignments.

You won’t become better at focusing by saying “no” to all distractions. The answer lies in confronting your own personal attitude and finding the inspiration you need to stay on task.

Pursue what interests you and real concentration will follow.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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