Easily distracted? Ways to increase concentration

Dear All

The next discussion group will take place on
Tuesday 5 November, between 2pm-3pm. At Old Whiteknights House,
room G12.
Topic: Increasing concentration.
There is no need to book and you can drop in at any time during the hour.
Join in the discussion and meet other doctoral researchers.


Do you find that, having made the effort to sit down to do some work on your research, you soon notice that your mind starts to wander onto other things? If so, you are not alone.

At times you may feel it is necessary to continue working until you finish what you started. However, persevering for hours will lead to tiredness and reduced productivity.

Most of us are challenged by the increasing amount of information available through the internet and digital media. When researching, you may notice that it is easy to spend time searching for material online and finding interesting content. However, what you discover is often not related to your research.

As social beings we like to be in contact with others to socialise and for mutual support. Undertaking research requires spending time focused on the task, often needing to be alone to be able to concentrate. This type of work is very challenging, particularly if you are away from your family and friends.

If they are in another part of the country or abroad, you may feel the need to be in contact using technology. And if you live with your family, it can also be difficult to work on your research as you may feel the need to engage with them, limiting your progress.

Other distractions come from within our body – it is difficult to focus on the task when we you feel hungry, sleepy, tired, or have a cold. Having these physical sensations will limit your capacity to concentrate, and they will require attention before you can focus on your work again. It is better to take care of yourself promptly so that you do not become overly tired as this could have a detrimental effect on your health.

Once we are distracted it is hard to return to the task, particularly when we find it difficult or we are feeling stuck. As you notice that the time is going by without you having made progress it can be very distracting too. You may notice distracting thoughts such as “I cannot do this, now I won’t finish by the deadline”, “it is not good enough“, and other self-critical thoughts which can bring down your mood.

This is a frequent experience in academic life; it happens to most of us because we care about doing things well.

So, what can you do to increase your concentration?
We can train our ability to concentrate through practice. At times, we may not be able to change the environment; we can, however, choose to view the distractions differently and develop the skill to focus on what is important to us.

Here are a few strategies with which you may be familiar, although they may be challenging to apply consistently. Experiment and find out what works best for you.

1.Become aware
First, we need to be aware of something for us to pay attention to it. Once we have noticed it, we then evaluate it to decide whether we should pay attention to it or if it is safe to ignore it.

It is common for people to feel they are good at multi-tasking, although this is more a reflection of being skilled at moving quickly from one task to the other. Research shows that our brain can only focus on one thing at a time. And every time we switch from one task to another we need to refocus, which takes time and energy (Alter, 2017).

Therefore, we need energy to control our impulse to check something else instead of continuing with the task at hand. By practising bringing our attention back to the present moment we can increase our capacity to focus for a longer period so that we can complete the task.

2.Practise paying attention
Notice when your attention wanders to other things. Then, bring your attention back to the task, without self-criticism which depletes energy and erodes the capacity to persevere.

Be kind to yourself when you notice that you are distracted. Mindfulness is a useful way of taking care of yourself and managing distracting thoughts. It can also help to reduce tension.

3.Have a digital break
It is hard to focus when we see notifications appearing on our phones, or we see emails coming into our inbox. They trigger the urge to check. We are curious beings and we want to know what is happening so that we “don’t miss out”. As a result, it can reduce our motivation to continue with our task (Alter, 2017).

Another reason to take a break from phones and tablets is to limit the exposure to the blue light that interferes with our brain’s production of melatonin, the hormone that helps us to get to sleep.

4.Be curious
We can benefit from our natural curiosity. We like to explore and discover new things. Our concentration improves when we are open to new ideas, and when we are willing to consider other perspectives and possibilities.

Experiment playing with ideas. Look for what you can learn from the text you are reading and imagine how you might apply it. Engage with the text by asking yourself questions: “What is the author’s perspective? What factors could be influencing their point of view? Are there other factors that you think should be considered?
(for more information check the Study Advice website).

5.View mistakes as part of the learning process
In order to learn we need to challenge ourselves by going outside of our comfort zone. When learning we explore and test out ideas, and we can question ourselves about which direction to take or wonder whether we are on the right track. When doing academic work, it is normal to have doubts about how well we are doing. Often, the idea of making mistakes can trigger fear of failure , which can in turn trigger distracting thoughts.

Instead, take a different view on doubts, mistakes and failure – view them as part of the learning process. When things do not work out as you expect them to, focus on what you can learn from the situation. Reflect on what needs to be improved and use the insights to guide your next steps.

6.Use positive self-talk
Language is very powerful, it can help us to boost our motivation and enable us to shift our attention to problem-solving (Arden, 2010). If you are finding it difficult to make progress, instead of thinking “I can’t do this”, practise thinking “How can I do this?“.

In order to concentrate effectively we need energy to manage distractions. If you find that you cannot concentrate, get up, move and stretch your muscles.

Going for a walk can be a good idea, it will clear your mind, boost your motivation and you will be able start afresh when you return to your task.

“Focus more on the desire than on your doubt, and the dream will take care of itself.” (Mark Twain)


Alter, A. (2017) Irresistible. Why you are addicted to technology and how to set yourself free. London: Vintage.

Arden, J. (2010). Rewire Your Brain. Think your way to a better life. New Jersey: John Wyley & Sons, Inc.