Ways to improve your focus

February 22, 2020

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Despite so much advancement in different study aids, such as better textbooks, online material, improved teaching methods and what not, studying has never been as hard as it is today. Probably many of you

also agree with this, but let me make it clear that I am not referring to studies and courses being very tough today. What I am talking about is that it is tougher to study these days than it was in the past, because students today are involved in more activities and distractions, taking up their attention, focus and time, than they were previously.

Multi-tasking, multi-skills and technology-based activities and distractions fill up the life of a child since he or she learns to walk and talk, sometimes even before that. It’s a common sight to see babies having a TV or another digital screen acting as their babysitter. And when they grow just a little older, they have playschools, Kindergarten, swimming classes, music lessons, etc., to attend. Things only get added up with age, both in terms of extra-curricular activities and studies, as parents feel the societal pressure to make sure their children have learnt every skill there is, to be better than their peers.

And then there is the added demand for everyone to be techno-savvy and have a social media presence, consuming whatever time one is left with. So how can a person, especially a student, meet all these demands and yet remain focused, particularly on their studies.

The findings of a research conducted at Stanford University show that multitasking makes one lose focus, be less productive and switch tasks without completing them. There will be a lack of concentration if one is constantly thinking about something else they want or have to do, which can be anything from practicing piano lessons to playing an online game with friends or writing the speech you have to give in the next morning school presentation. And then there is the constant urge to check messages and chats on the phone and you get up and become distracted from what you are doing, especially when you are studying.

The lack or inability to focus is the biggest problem facing students and adults alike. Our time and attention is being consumed by so many things, a lot of it unnecessary, that we are unable to focus and give enough time to those things that are important and meaningful. Studies are one such thing.

In such a scenario, it is important that we make a conscious effort to improve our focus and give enough time to studies, removing all distractions from our mind and surroundings. And the next few months are very crucial for all students, whatever the grade they study in, as tests, mocks and final exams are just around the corner.

So let us look at a few ways in which we can strive to improve our concentration and focus if we want to make some progress in learning.

Limit or avoid distractions

When sitting down to studying, distractions simply spell disaster. We need to consciously and firmly remove all things from our surroundings (which is basically the study area) and mind, which are likely to distract us.

Make sure that your study area is not too noisy because background noise has been found to be one of the main culprits in reducing learning efficiency and concentration. A study published in Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that reading needed more effort when participants of the study read texts while made to listen to irrelevant background speech because they inadvertently ended up listening and trying to process the meaning of what they were hearing.

Music also hampers concentration though many students chose to listen to it when studying. Evidence suggests that listening to music also reduces reading efficiency in the same way that irrelevant speech does. Again our brain unconsciously ends up processing the lyrics. On the other hand, it is seen that there is little negative effect on a student’s concentration when listening to instrumental music without lyrics.

Put the phone away

Keeping the phone within easy reach and picking it up every now and then to check for messages and updates is detrimental to studying. We all know this, yet it is something that we all do.

Give your phone to your mum. Or switch it off. Set specific times at which you will pick up the phone or log on to the computer and for how long you will use it and stick to that. But make sure it is not after just half an hour as breaking your concentration that often so quickly will not get you anywhere.

Know your biological clock

Our bodies follow a circadian cycle which controls our bodily functions, such as body temperature, heart rate, hormone secretion and sleep pattern. Thus there are different times of the day when we function at our best and when we just can’t do any mental or challenging work.

So determine how your body clock runs and see at what time you can get the best out of your brain. Some people are more alert in the morning and some people study best at night when the world is asleep, while some people can’t keep their eyes open after a good meal.

So know your best time to study when your cognitive functioning, such as decision-making and memory, are at their peak and utilise it for studying, particularly memorising and learning. For most people, this optimal time is in the morning.

Stay hydrated

Eating well during exams is something that is talked about a lot, but not much focus is given to the need to drink water to stay hydrated when studying.

A study published in the Journal of Nutrition found a link between “mild dehydration, so subtle that you don’t really feel it,” and lack of concentration. According to the study co-author Dr Harris Lieberman, a psychologist, “When the brain detects even the smallest changes in physiology, it may begin operating at a suboptimal level to get your attention. Thirst is not the best measure of hydration, so a decrease in your ability to focus is an early warning signal that it’s time to drink up.”

With summer fast approaching and all the important exams usually falling during the hot summer months here, keeping ourselves hydrated with the right kind of drinks, such as fresh juices and water, not carbonated drinks, is very important. It is a good idea to keep a water bottle on your study table and take sips every now and then.

Take measured breaks

A study conducted at the University of Illinois actually advocates for scheduled study breaks to improve focus and attention. It is no secret that after doing something for a long time, a person loses interest and their performance declines. This has been described as “vigilance decrement” by experts and they suggest taking a short break in the middle of a long task to re-energises the brain.

University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, who is behind the study suggests, “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!”

Exercise for concentration

Being physically active and fit has a good effect on the brain and so many experts suggest that those who are in good physical condition performed better on tasks that required sustained attention.

So while many students are tempted to avoid all sports and outdoor activities during exam time, it is actually beneficial that they indulge in some kind of physical activity and exercise regularly to improve their energy levels and brain function.

According to Dr John Ratey, author of Spark — The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, “Exercise improves your brain in the short-term by raising your focus for two to three hours afterwards.”

Exercise also releases endorphins, known as “nature’s mood elevator”, which in turn improves memory.

Before and during exams, all students try to study and deliver their best, but those who plan well and chose to study in a way that is more productive are able to attain the results they desire. These tips are simple and something everyone can follow easily, you just have to discipline yourself. Good luck!

Published in Dawn, Young World, February 22nd, 2020