One of the most important skills in learning is the ability to concentrate. If you could focus your attention on a specific task for long periods of time, you would be able to absorb more content, more quickly.
But concentrating is not easy. The reason is partly because we lack the ability to manage distraction. I have written before about focus, information overload and the problems with multi-tasking, but this is a large and fascinating subject.
The war in the brain
Improving concentration has a lot to do with attention, which in some ways is an invisible force, but as we have found before neuroscience can help us gain insight into the previously unknown. For example, most of us will have what is called a priority map, a map of the most visited places in our brain. Its value is that it can be used to identify how we prioritise incoming information and as such where we place our attention. It’s worth stating that attention is a limited resource so how we use it is important.
Take this attention test and find out your level of attention.
The problem is that these maps change based on how "relevant" the information is, and relevancy itself is dependent on three systems that continually compete with each other. I know this is getting complicated but stick with it, concentrate!
The executive system – Sitting in the frontal lobe, this is the main system and orients attention according to our current goals. For example, I need to learn about double entry bookkeeping, so I will place my attention on page 4 and start reading.
The reward system – As you might imagine this is the system that offers us rewards. A reward can be as simple as the dopamine rush you get when checking your mobile phone, the problem is, you should be reading page 4! And it's made worse by the fact that the brain’s attention naturally moves to flashing lights, which you often get when a text comes in.
The habit system – This system operates using fixed rules often built up over time by repetition, perhaps it’s the reason you keep looking at your phone just to check that you haven’t had a text even though you know you haven’t because you would have seen the flashing light….But most importantly the habit of checking, created by you has once again distracted your attention, when you should still be reading page 4!
Hence the term, war in the brain, these systems are in competition for your attention. The result is exhausting, you don’t finish reading page 4, and feel tired even though you have achieved very little.
How to improve concentration
Some of the methods below will seem obvious, and there is of course no magic bullet, however, because there is a scientific reason as to why these might work, I hope you will be more likely to give them a go.
- Reduce distraction – if you have to make a huge amount of effort to check your mobile phone, the reward you get from checking it will diminish. The simple advice is don’t have your phone with you when studying or anything else that might occupy your thoughts. Also have a space to study that is quiet, with simple surroundings and nothing interesting that might be a distraction. Finally, although there is mixed evidence on playing music or listening to white noise in the background, it may be worth a try.
- Set goals – this is to support your executive system, write down your goals and don’t make them too ambitious.
- Relax and stay calm – it’s hard to concentrate when you are feeling high levels of anxiety. Methods to help with relaxation include deep breathing (watch this video - it's very helpful) and of course exercise, which I have written about in the past, because of it being a natural antidote for stress.
- Avoid too much stimulation – novelty seeking behaviours, such as playing video games, can become imbedded in your reward system. They can make studying appear very dull and unrewarding, especially if you have played a game immediately before getting down to study. Keep it for afterwards, by way of a reward perhaps.
And if you would like to find out more watch these: