Concentration is a bedrock of success in complex academic pursuits.
Whether it’s writing a paper, studying for a standardized test, completing a problem set, or finishing a dissertation, better concentration leads to better performance. Here are some tips from the trenches to help you learn to concentrate more effectively:
Know what distracts you
Poor concentration can often be traced to a few major distractions. If you’re having trouble concentrating, keep a log of what distracts you. When you sit down to work, what takes you away? Facebook? Your phone? Buzzfeed? Your friends? Keep track of these distractions for a week. Don’t judge yourself, just observe. Once you identify the biggest culprits, plan your study time so that you can avoid them completely.
Explore why you get distracted
If you find yourself unable to concentrate effectively, dig into why. Very often, people will attribute an inability to concentrate to some innate mental weakness. However, the problem may actually stem from things like lack of clarity on what needs to be done, uncertainty about one’s ability to do well, or pure boredom with the subject matter. Exploring why you get distracted can give you some perspective on how to troubleshoot your situation.
Have a clear plan
Having a clear plan almost certainly increases your ability to concentrate. Knowing what you have to do and when, in addition to approximately how long it should take, will make it easier to put your head down and complete your work. If you find yourself getting distracted, step back and try to make a clear, actionable list of things you need to do, boiling down your tasks to their simplest components (e.g., rather than “write paper,” try “outline the introduction”). Then schedule those tasks for specific amounts of time.
In general, it’s difficult to concentrate effectively for more than 45–50 minutes in one stretch. Take short, structured breaks to prolong your ability to concentrate over a full day.
Use a timer
Pick an item from your to-do list and commit to working on it for a specific amount of time, say 20 or 30 minutes. Set a timer (on your phone, computer, or an actual clock) and get to work. When your timer goes off, take a short break before repeating the process. This is a simple yet very powerful technique to stay focused.
Take a day off
If you usually don’t have trouble concentrating but are feeling fatigued of late, it may be the byproduct of being overwhelmed or overworked. If you’re feeling rundown, close the books and take a day off. Sometimes there’s no better antidote to distraction than a little indulgence. Relax and renew yourself, and then get back to work stronger the next day.
Of course, every person is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to increase concentration. If you’re feeling distracted, try some of the strategies above over the course of a few weeks. If none of those work, consider speaking with a qualified academic coach or healthcare professional to try to build a comprehensive approach to help you stay focused.