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 an intentional decision to concentrate.
This point is worth a pause and some reflection. In my experience, we have to continually remind ourselves of our own mindlessness and distraction if we hope to make better focus and concentration a part of our lives.
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.
Doing this, of course, requires a certain amount of planning, and that often works best with the sort of pause and reflection that I suggest above. Make time periodically for review, reflection, and planning aimed at longer term goals, but make more regular check-ins a part of your weekly, or even daily schedule.
Finally, be aware of and acknowledge – perhaps even reward yourself for – achieving your goals or important milestones along the way. Motivation is an important component of attention, and it’s difficult to remain motivated if we don’t clearly see that we are making progress.
Part of what sparked me to write about concentration is the long – and ongoing – debate about the impact of digital media on our brains. Pinker and Carr debated this years ago, for example. More recently, see The Erosion of Deep Literacy by Adam Garfinkle or the continuing work of Cal Newport.
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 shutting the door, turning off the e-mail, the browser, the phone, the [add your own distraction here], etc..
Keep in mind, too, that eliminating multi-tasking is an essential part of minimizing distractions. Not only does not multi-tasking not make you more product (or more focused), some studies suggest it can actually shrink your brain. So do yourself a favor and tackle only one task at a time.
Similar to how the body has limits for focused physical activity and needs recovery time from exercise, the mind also benefits from periodic short breaks during periods of concentration as well as longer breaks between periods of concentration to help consolidate learning. Indeed, research suggests that short breaks are highly beneficial to learning. We need to develop our un-focus network as part of our work to improve focus.
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 neuroscience perspective on this – including a helpful video abstract – see this article on “awake rest” in Neuron.). Given that there is plenty of research to suggest that sleep deprivation negatively impacts attention, 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 as well as the deep connection between sleep and learning. Having sufficient sleep is also likely to positively impact your attitude towards concentrating and ability to concentrate in the first place.
Likewise, a healthy diet and plenty of aerobic exercise are very important factors in promoting healthy brain activity and memory.When it comes to focus, just a brief amount of aerobic activity can improve concentration significantly. (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.
(By the way, in addition to other beneficial effects it may have, there is evidence that caffeine can enhance attention significantly.)
Finally, few of us are able to will ourselves to concentrate and become effective at it over night.
I’ve written 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 12 techniques for improving concentration that you can work on putting into practice, some of which overlap with what I have already covered here.
I’m also a fan of simple breathing exercises as a way to help clear the mind and focus attention. These can often be easier to make a part of daily life than a full-on meditation practice.
So, those are my tips. Got any you think should be added to the list?