It is the time of year when you are likely to have a number of assignments to work on and deadlines are approaching. So you decide to start with an assignment, but it is difficult to choose which question to answer. Finally, you decide on a question and get ready to start. After a short while you notice that your attention goes to your phone or tablet. Once distracted it feels quite hard to get back to the essay (could be a report or dissertation, depending on the module/course you are doing). You may then notice that you are hungry and it is close to lunch so you decide to prepare lunch instead, as there only about twenty minutes to go. You may feel that there is sufficient time to continue working in the afternoon.
But somehow it gets to the end of the day and you realise you didn’t make as much as progress as you had hoped. Then you may notice some thoughts such as “I should have started earlier, now I won’t finish by the deadline”, “it is no good enough“, and other self-critical thoughts that just bring your mood down and a create a sense of self-doubt. This is a frequent experience in academic life, and can happen to most of us who care about doing things well. However, despite our intentions we find that we delay getting started, and when we do it is difficult to maintain our focus on the task.
When there are a variety of things demanding our attention, such as wanting to check social media to keep updated, or you would rather talk with your friends it is hard to make progress with work. We are social beings and we like to be in contact with others. Studying requires us to be alone for a while so that we can concentrate on a task. This may be hard to do especially when tired and when the task does not appear to be motivating.
So what can you do?
Practices to increase concentration and get things done:
First, we need to be aware of something for us to pay attention to it, and once we have noticed it we then evaluate it to decide what to do about it. This takes time, in fact we can only focus on one thing at a time. Some people may be skilled at moving quickly from one task to the other and so they may have the feeling that they can multitask. However, every time we switch from one task to the other we need to refocus. This requires time and energy to control our impulse to do something different, and refocus again. Although this is demanding for the brain, with practice we can improve our ability to focus and maintain our attention on one task for a period of time. The more we are able to pay attention the better we can understand and remember the information.
Have a break from your phone and PC or tablet
It is hard to focus when we see notifications appearing on our phones, they trigger the urge to check what it is. The phone reminds us that others are elsewhere and we may feel we are missing out. It can therefore reduce our motivation to continue with our task (Alter, 2017). In addition, you may know that the screens of digital devices can prevent us from sleeping as the light interferes with the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps us to get to sleep.
Our concentration improves when we are curious, open to new ideas and when we are willing to consider other perspectives and possibilities. Experiment with playing with ideas as this stimulates our curiosity: identify what you can learn from the text you are reading, and imagine how you might apply it.
View mistakes as part of the learning process
Fear of failure prevents us from learning and from trying things out, which then can trigger a lot of worry thoughts about our ability to cope with tasks and can reduce confidence. Sometimes we find ourselves remembering some past experience back in school for example, when we may have experienced similar feelings triggered by something related to the present situation (eg. having to make a presentation and remembering reading out loud in front of the class). We may then feel unsure and have doubt about our ability to do the task. In academic work it is normal to have doubts because we are learning new things, we are testing out ideas, and in many cases there isn’t one right answer. Doubt makes us stop and reflect to consider the information objectively, and evaluate the facts from different perspectives to understand the topic. By reviewing and considering the feedback we receive we can learn, correct and improve our work.
Use feedback as a learning tool
When writing your assignments or taking exams, focus on communicating what you have learned rather than thinking about the grades you are expecting as this causes tension and distract you from the task you are working on. The main objective is to submit what you have done by the deadline. Consider the feedback you receive as information that is intended to help you learn from the assignments, and then use it to correct and improve your work.
Use positive self-talk
If you are finding it difficult to make progress, instead of thinking “I can’t do this” practise thinking “How can I do this?” Language is very powerful and it can help us to stimulate our motivation by directing our energy to problem-solving, and taking action.
Tips to get things done:
- Notice when you get distracted and your attention wanders to other things.
- Bring your attention back to the task, without self-criticism. The inner critic depletes our energy and erodes our capacity to persevere. Instead, ask yourself “Are these thoughts helpful?” Probably not. Instead, they are just using your valuable time. Bring your attention back to the task… gently… and focus on the task again, without self-criticism
- Be kind to yourself when you notice that you are distracted: identify the triggers, it could be that your tired, or that you remembered something important that needed to be done soon.
- Make a list of things before you focus on your assignment, and plan when you will do those tasks.
- Tolerate frustration: learning something new takes time. If the task is difficult it’s not an indication of intellectual limitation (or that you cannot do it). The brain requires time to understand and assimilate new material. If you are feeling tired it is more difficult to manage these feelings, so if you notice you are experiencing frustration or disappointment progress is slow, take a short break – pause, stretch and move. This will help to regulate your breathing and reduce tension allowing you to regulate your mood.
- Maintain your energy level: our brain requires energy and nutrients to function optimally. If you find that you cannot concentrate because you are feeling tired get up, stretch your muscles and move. This will help to stimulate your blood to circulate and reach your brain bringing oxygen and nutrients so that it can function well. This action will restore your ability to focus as you become more alert, and feel energised. Exercise will help to release the tension in your muscles. Why not go for a short walk to have some fresh air and enjoy viewing nature? These activities are known to improve our mood and restore energy (Ratey & Hagerman, 2009).
- Be creative: If you’re feeling stuck do something creative for a few minutes to stimulate your brain, and your imagination.
- Use the IF-THEN technique: Pre-plan what you will do when you get distracted (Steel, 2012). For example, if you know you tend to check the notifications you receive on your phone then decide to put your phone on silent, in a drawer (when in view it will be distracting and difficult to not pick it up). Or if you get interrupted by others decide in advance what you will say. For example, you may say you will join them in half an hour (or any specific time afterwards), or explain that you need to prioritise your assignment/revision. The hope is that your friends will understand that this is important t you, and agree to meet/go out at another time.
- Practice mindfulness techniques: these help to train our ability to concentrate by focusing on our breathing. This allows us to be in the present moment and letting thoughts go by.
- Persevere with your efforts, keep in mind that our brains are malleable and it is shaped by our experiences. This means that when you learn new things you are in effect strengthening your cognitive capacity (Arden, 2010).
“It always seems impossible until it is done.” (Nelson Mandela)
Even if the task seems endless, practise the strategies above and maintain your efforts. Although you may not be sure that progress is happening keep going, and eventually you will get it done.
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.
Ratey,J.J. & Hagerman, E. (2008) Spark. How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London: Quercus.
Steel, P. (2012) The Procrastination Equation. How to stop putting things off and star getting things done. London: Pearson.