What is concentration?

Concentration can be described as the intentional act of focusing your attention on the task or activity at hand. It means being mentally present and attentive to the specific goal you are trying to complete. The moment you change your attention to a different task you lose concentration and the moment this happens your learning is compromised.

This is the simplest way I can explain one of the biggest challenges of effective learning: lack of focus. Focus is defined as the action or power of concentrating one’s attention or mental effort on a specific thing or activity; and the quality of having a clear visual definition. Notice how both definitions of focus and concentration are intertwined. You can’t have one without the other.

Multiple studies confirm that the human brain is not wired to multitask; at least not when one task requires undivided attention, like learning. When you’re trying to learn something new the brain must be free of distractions if you want to obtain a good return-on-investment on your study time. What we typically call multitasking is really task switching. We move swiftly from one task to the other and create the illusion of multitasking.

Different levels of concentration

According to Van Blerkom, there are three levels of concentration: light, moderate, and deep. During a study cycle, your brain moves through these three levels and achieving the deepest one takes a significant amount of time and effort. The following diagram explains how we move through this cycle:

Arrows moving around a circle describing the concentration cycle; light concentration (5 minutes); moderate concentration (about 4 minutes); deep concentration (about 40 minutes).
Concentration Cycle

Any type of distraction that interferes with your focus and concentration forces the brain to move from deep to light concentration, assuming that you ever reached that deeper level. When you allow distractions to get in the way, regaining deep concentration will require a significant amount of time and effort which will make your learning more difficult and frustrating.

There are three types of concentration problems:

  1. Focusing at will: turning your attention to the task at hand right away
  2. Sustaining your focus: maintaining concentration during a period of time
  3. Limiting your focus: focusing on only one task at a time

And there are three main sources of poor concentration:

  1. Lack fo attention
  2. Lack of interest
  3. Lack of motivation

5 Strategies to improve concentration

1. Motivational and organizational strategies

  • Develop a positive attitude toward your work•Identify relevance, value, and importance•Believe you can accomplish the task
  • Create interest in the task•Make material more interesting to you•Change how you approach the task•Break into smaller pieces
  • Use goal-setting strategies
    • What specifically will you be doing?
    • What do you hope to learn?What are the requirements of the assignment?
  • Use time-management strategies
    • To-do lists
    • Organized/scheduled study time•Plan backward to give self enough time

2. Create a positive learning environment

  • Control, reduce time in, or eliminate external distractions – do so by creating a good study environment
  • Find a Better Location
    • Change where you sit in class, where you study, etc.
  • Reduce Multitasking
    • Constantly shifting attention interferes with concentration
    • Complete bite-size, specific tasks one at a time
  • Minimize Distractions that you can’t eliminate•Only give distractions a few seconds of your time, not minutes

3. Deal with internal distraction

  • Deal with Competing Activities or Thoughts
    • Note the distraction/thought, then plan to deal with it later
  • Deal with Academic or Personal Problems
    • Don’t worry – DO (take action)
    • Build confidence by meeting with tutor, TA, prof, etc.

4. Use active learning strategies

  • When in lecture:
    • Take notes
    • Ask/answer questions
    • Predict what’s next
    • Sit in professor’s line of site
  • When reading:
    • Preview
    • Take notes
    • Create flash cards
    • Predict test questions
  • When studying:
    • Write
    • Recite key info
    • Self-test
    • Remind your self of goals
    • Set deadlines

5. Monitor your concentration

  • Develop a tracking system to monitor and evaluate distractions
  • Create a plan to address those distraction when they happen

Video resources

In the following Ted Talk, Peter Doolittle explains some common challenges of concentration and memory. He also provides some strategies to overcome them. We’ll have a deeper discussion of concentration and memory in our next unit.

On this other video, Cal Newport explains how to attain focus and succeed in a distracted world by applying three simple strategies: 1. embrace boredom, 2. productive meditation, and 3. interval training.