I’ve written about a range of habits related to learning, but one I have not yet covered is concentration – perhaps because I find it among the hardest of habits to truly master.
I’m as apt as anybody to have my working memory hijacked by the temptations of multi-tasking,
….or simply to become distracted by the shiny new learning objects that I encounter on a daily basis,
…or to start writing about one thing and find myself wandering to other topics as new thoughts occur to me,
…or….uh, right – concentration. Here are some of the approaches to it that I find helpful:
I keep coming back to “consciousness” as the cornerstone of most effective learning habits. Before you are likely to be successful at concentrating you have to make a clear, conscious decision to focus your attention. Sounds simple enough, but more often than not we move from one experience to the next without any real consciousness, and certainly without a decision to concentrate.
I’ve lamented my own lack of goal setting before. To concentrate effectively, it really helps to have specific outcomes in mind. Break down longer term goals – like mastering a new language – into smaller chunks that are achievable in short bursts of concentration – like memorizing how an irregular verb is conjugated.
A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but a wise consistency is often essential to enlarging the mind. Great athletes, musicians, writers, and others who excel in their chosen field nearly always have set times and places for concentrated thinking and practice. Consistency of environment helps to normalize distractions and consistency of time helps establish a pattern and rhythm to support concentration. Pick a limited range of places where and times when you do your most focused learning. You can and should vary these over time to avoid falling into rote learning habits, but don’t be too fast or erratic in making changes.
Part of what sparked me to write about concentration this week is the ongoing debate about the impact of the Internet on our brains. (See, for example, Pinker and Carr on this.) I’m still undecided about the deeper, longer term impact, but I don’t have much doubt about the ability of the Internet – and countless other modern wonders – to distract us on a minute-to-minute basis and interfere with concentration. You may be able to train your mind to block out such distractions, but for me, the easiest path has always been simply to avoid cognitive overload by turning off the e-mail, the browser, the phone, the iPod, the [add your own distraction here], etc..
Similar to how the body has limits for focused physical activity and needs recovery time from exercise, the mind benefits from periodic short breaks during periods of concentration as well as longer breaks between periods of concentration to help consolidate learning. During shorter breaks, it is better not to turn to other tasks, but to truly take a break and let the mind rest. (For a scientific perspective on this – including a helpful video abstract – see a recent article on “awake rest” in Neuron.). Longer breaks should include essential activities like getting sufficient sleep at night.
Speaking of sleep – I’ve written before about the important role it plays in memory. And having sufficient sleep is also likely to positively impact your attitude towards concentrating and ability to concentrate in the first place. Likewise, a balanced diet and plenty of aerobic exercise are very important factors in promoting healthy brain activity and memory. (And activities like running can improve your mood as well as your overall health.) Really, being well rested, well fed, and in good physical shape is the foundation for being able to concentrate well.
Finally, few of us are able to will ourselves to concentrate and become effective at it over night. I wrote recently about the keys to deliberate practice and those keys apply here as much as they do anywhere else. Yes, that’s right – you have to focus and concentrate in order to learn to focus and concentrate. Here are a few simple techniques for improving concentration that might help you in your practice. I’m also a fan of breathing exercises as a way to help clear the mind and focus attention.
So, those are my tips. Got any you think should be added to the list?
I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.