Distracted? Tips to increase concentration

We live in a world with a continuous stream of information from various channels demanding our attention. In addition, social media can be engaging – we scroll through photos and messages and find it hard to stop to get back to our work. Without realising it, hours can go by, leaving less time available to progress our goals. 

Studying requires focused time and effort. We need to be on our own to concentrate on our work, so it can be hard to do as we also want to connect with family and friends.

Academic work requires reading lengthy and more complex texts. It can be challenging to focus on one task for a set period when we are used to scanning websites and reading content online presented in a bite-sized format. 

What to do when distracted?

Notice when you are not paying attention to the page you are studying. Pause, then, without self-judgement, gently bring your attention back to focus on the task again.

Do one task at a time:  we like to think we can multitask, moving quickly from one

task to another. However, every time we switch from one task to another, we

need to refocus (Goleman, 2014).


It requires time and energy to control our impulse to do 
something different and refocus again. It is best to focus on one task to engage with it and learn the content. It will save energy and help get things done. 

Be patient: learning requires time and effort. We can feel impatient when we are dealing with a difficult task. Practise tolerating frustration and view the task as a manageable.


Persevere with your efforts
: being consistent and maintaining a routine helps develop our skills and gradually strengthen our capacity to do more complex tasks. And when things do not work out as you hoped, reflect on what you can learn from mistakes and apply the knowledge to improve your work.

Identify distractions: Before starting to study, identify what things distract you. Then, plan what you will do to manage the distraction and continue your revision. Having the phone in view makes it harder to ignore the notifications. One strategy is to keep the phone silent and out of sight to prevent being interrupted when studying. It will help reduce being distracted to check social media and increase your capacity to focus on a task.  

Take short breaks: it is essential to take breaks to restore energy: pause, practice mindful breathing, to help focus on what is happening now. Letting our mind wander for a bit allows our brain to connect different contents nurturing our creativity to develop our work (Baird, et al, 2012).

Disconnect from digital devices:  Our eyes need a break from screens, and we need to move after sitting for a while. It will restore energy and our ability to manage distractions when we get back to our task. Repeated practice will help to increase our capacity to concentrate on a task. In addition, turn off all digital devices about an hour before bedtime as part of your sleep routine.

Be curious: Our concentration improves when we are interested and adopt a flexible attitude. When we are open to new ideas and are willing to consider other possibilities, it improves our concentration and motivation.


Pause and be kind:
 When distracted by external events or negative thoughts, acknowledge these, and then bring your attention back to the task you are working on, without self-criticism.

Look after yourself: When we are tired, it is more challenging to manage our emotions and maintain our focus. Maintain healthy habits to keep well and have the energy to persevere with your work.

References:

Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J. W. Y., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation. Psychological Science23(10), 1117–1122. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23355504.

Goleman, D. (2014) Focus. The hidden driver of excellence. London: Bloomsbury publishing.

Hari, J. (2022) Stolen focus. Why you can’t pay attention. London: Bloomsbury publishing.

Styles, E. (2006) The psychology of attention (2nd edition). London: Routledge.

Introduction to Mindfulness: Part 1

Introduction to Mindfulness: Part 1

By Lizzie Stevenson (Mental Health Advisor)

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a topic which has become very popular over recent years, and which you may already be somewhat familiar with.

Understanding the theory behind mindfulness can be helpful, however it is the doing of the practices themselves that will show you the benefits.
Therefore, after you finish reading this you can listen to a recorded mindfulness practice that you can find on the Life Tools Blackboard course.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of what mindfulness is, briefly put, mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness: it is about an awareness of what’s going on, both outside in your environment and inside through your internal experience.

Research has demonstrated that regular mindfulness practice has many benefits including managing stress, thinking more clearly, improving memory and helping with emotional resilience.  So, you can see how this technique can be particularly useful to do well in your studies.

Definitions of Mindfulness

The Oxford Dictionary (2015) describes mindfulness as:

A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is a professor of Medicine in the USA. He founded an 8-week course called ‘Mindfulness Based Stress reduction’ in the 1970s. A metaphor he used to describe mindfulness which I find sums it up well is:

The thoughts in your mind are like a waterfall filled mostly with thoughts of ‘me, me, me’. In this metaphor mindfulness allows you to step away from the current of the gushing waterfall and observe the contents of your thoughts in the waterfall non-judgmentally, from a distance.

It is not trying to stop or change the water as it flows, nor is it getting swept away by the torrent of water caught up in our thoughts. It is being aware of the water, watching and observing it from a distance.

What mindfulness is not

Despite many proven benefits of mindfulness, people are often wary when they hear that term. Therefore it is helpful to talk about what mindfulness is not.

People often think that mindfulness is about emptying the mind completely – a hard task. This is also not true. Mind wandering is very normal, our minds naturally get us tied up in knots over all sorts of things. Mindfulness is about noticing when our minds are doing this – and gently pulling our attention back to focus.

Another common misconception about mindfulness is that it takes a long time to do, and it requires lots of practice.

Whilst this is somewhat true in that mindfulness is an exercise that requires practice, a few minutes spent practising mindfulness can save you hours of wasted time fretting and worrying. And it is something that you can do in an informal way and incorporate into your every-day routine.

Mindfulness is also not about adopting a passive view of life, stopping us from striving or achieving things. It is about having an awareness of ourselves that can help us choose our goals. And it allows us to find the best path towards reaching these.

Mindfulness is also not a religion. Whilst it is true that many religions have used meditation for spiritual purposes, you don’t have to be religious to practice mindfulness.

How does it work? The Mind-body connection

The mind and body are connected. When we sense a threat, our body reacts and tenses up- ready to fight or run away. This ‘fight or flight’ response happens unconsciously and is quite simplistic.

It does not differentiate between an external threat, like a tiger roaming around campus, and an internal threat – like a bad memory or a worry. Both create the same reaction in our bodies.

This means that when a threat is sensed by the brain the body tenses up to fight or run. This then tells our brain that there is a threat, so it sends messages to the body to tense up further, forming a vicious cycle.

Our body changes and react based on our thoughts. A difficult memory can make us feel stressed in the present, that then manifests in our body, which then signals to our brain that there is a threat.

Stress itself is a normal emotion and sometimes in can come and go easily. However, sometimes we can get stuck in a pattern of stress which is hard to get out of. We may then start wondering why we feel so stressed, and our brain will bring up other worries increasing tension. This can then send us into a spiral that can happen in an instant, before we are even aware of it.

We can’t stop random thoughts appearing that may trigger unhappy memories or stress, but we can use mindfulness to help stop what happens next.

To notice these negative thoughts or feelings, accept them without judgement. Then, shift your attention away from them. This will stop the spiralling of negative thoughts preventing a vicious cycle.

Benefits of Mindfulness

There has been a lot of research into mindfulness and evidence has shown multiple benefits. A few of the main proven benefits of regular mindfulness practice include:

  • Reduced anxiety, stress, depression, exhaustion and irritability.
  • Improved memory and reaction times (great for students preparing for exams!)
  • A reduction in pain and quality of life for suffers of conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic pain and IBS.
  • Reduction in self- destructive or addictive behaviour – including excessive alcohol intake.

For more information on the benefits of mindfulness see www.franticworld.com

References:

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) Wherever you go, there you are. New York: Hyperion

Siegel, D., (2007) The mindful brain: reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York: Norton

Williams, M., Penman, D., (2011) Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. London: Piatkus

Hanson R. (2009) Buddha’s Brain –The practical Neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.

 

 

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