Concentration is a skill, not a set limit.
- 5 Psychological factors affect concentration while studying
- 1. Mental and Physical resources to concentrate better: Hone your executive functions
- 2. Intrinsic motivation: Ignite the self-motivation to study and the satisfaction to continue
- 3. Distraction & stimulation: Feed your attention enough to increase concentration
- 4. Your perceived ability to learn and study: Manage emotions & Beliefs to increase concentration
- 5. Selecting what to focus on: Decide what to study/learn and guide your attention
5 Psychological factors affect concentration while studying
- Mental and physical resources to concentrate – Is your body and brain in the right condition to pull off a focused study session?
- Intrinsic motivation – Do you really want to concentrate?
- Distraction & stimulation – Can your brain manage your current balance of things that distract you and things that stimulate you?
- Your perceived ability to learn – Can you imagine yourself handling your study workload? Do you believe you can conquer it?
- Selecting what to focus on – Do you really know what you need to focus on? Do you know what you should concentrate on first?
Notice how all of these factors are within your control. Your concentration while studying (by yourself and during lectures) or working depends on how you manipulate these factors to make them favorable. But how do these factors become favorable?
This article primarily discusses how to concentrate on academic content but you can apply the insights to improve concentration at work.
What is concentration in learning?
Concentration is the ability to purposefully sustain and guide one’s attention to learn, comprehend, observe, monitor, and self-reflect in a given situation. Effective concentration suppresses distractions within our conscious and unconscious awareness. It is a part of our executive functioning. Concentrating involves narrow, razor-sharp focus and a broad, global focus. The goal of increasing concentration is to improve memory and learning.
1. Mental and Physical resources to concentrate better: Hone your executive functions
Attention is an “executive function” which means it’s a fundamental cognitive process necessary to control behavior and thinking (like studying & focusing).
Other important executive functions that enable concentration are cognitive inhibition (ignoring irrelevant information & thinking), inhibitory control (stopping the impulse to procrastinate & ignoring distractions), cognitive flexibility (automatic & deliberate shifting of attention between different important tasks & concepts), and self-regulation (managing your behavior, thoughts, and emotions). Together, these executive functions define our concentration level. A healthy brain and body keep our executive functions tip-top.
Contrary to popular belief, short distractions as well as switching tasks and paying attention to a small variety of information is good for maintaining focus for a long time. When we choose just one type of task and monotonously focus on it for a while, we get habituated (unresponsive) and attention to details (and changes) worsens. To counter this habituation, sporadically attend to something else for a short duration. These breaks refresh our executive functioning to perform at its peak.
Difficulty in concentrating and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are often linked together because both have a common feature – Executive Dysfunction. Those with ADHD demonstrate what looks like surplus attention as it takes a lot to occupy endogenous attention (read point 3). In some cases, medicines from the “stimulant” category help. Seek medical advice.
Preparing your body and brain for efficient executive functioning
- Sleep well, sleep enough, and take breaks. Brain functions depend a lot on the quality and quantity of sleep and breaks restore attention.
- Stay hydrated, eat well, and do some coordination-based exercise and aerobics. If you are dehydrated, lethargic, and haven’t consumed food, your concentration power will drop. The brain demands a lot of resources (glucose, oxygen, calcium, etc.) at the chemical level. Keep your body healthy to allow the brain to consume those resources.
- Work on mental health, avoid boredom, and partake in some meaningful stimulating work that engages your brain and body. Emotional states affect overall attention, and they may decrease your ability to concentrate.
- Take enough healthy breaks for your brain to digest past learning and replenish resources for a burst of concentration. A work break to watch cute photos of animals is a known way to boost concentration by increasing careful behavior and narrowing attention (sharp focus).
- When you choose to concentrate, find a way to stay engaged, curious, and have fun because these mental states supply more cognitive resources that are specifically relevant to what you are processing. Gamify. Interact. Create. Be active, not passive.
- Play games for fun to train your brain. Video games can improve concentration because games often demand it, and we end up practicing our focusing ability. They also become a good break to reset the mind.
- Practice mindfulness, meditation, or yoga to improve cognitive functioning and baseline concentration level. Yoga may also improve overall cognitive functioning in children with ADHD and depressed people.
- Coffee, Green Tea & Matcha Tea are great to enhance attention. So is chewing gum.
- Go out into nature to improve overall well-being and work-life productivity. Doing so helps our brain reset the emotional chaos that disrupts attention. It’s also helpful for kids.
2. Intrinsic motivation: Ignite the self-motivation to study and the satisfaction to continue
Concentration for study material comes naturally with pure love, curiosity, fascination, and personal relevance toward the content, or you have to depend on external rewards like marks, praises, and desirable outcomes like professional independence, good college, better job prospects, respect in society, avoiding shame, etc.
A burning desire emerging from within you is called intrinsic motivation. That motivation stems from the joy of learning what you love, the love of knowledge, the satisfaction of progressing, etc. Intrinsic motivation depends on your values & wishes. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation stems from external rewards like marks, praise, ego boost, and outcomes like social respect.
With intrinsic motivation, you increase focus because you want to focus. External rewards can also be powerful, but they may change, and once your attitude toward the reward changes, you undermine intrinsic motivation. This is called “motivational crowding-out” – if you are intrinsically motivated to study, seeking external rewards can actually interfere with and disrupt your motivation to study.
High motivational intensity, such as a deep-seated desire, narrows attention (makes it razor-sharp), and low motivational intensity, such as simple liking and pleasantness, broadens attention (big picture) according to the motivational dimension model of affect.
That means: If you are not very motivated but ok to do the work, start planning first. And if you really love the work, start with details. Doing otherwise might break your focus.
Whether your concentration power is good or bad, intrinsic motivation will improve it.
What if there is no intrinsic motivation and no desirable external reward? This is the point where most people fail to concentrate and then procrastinate, only to have guilt, regret, stress, and anxiety. These are moments when you have to bite the pain of your work and finish it. This is now a game of emotional tolerance.
These tips will create a relationship between you and your study material.
Tips to increase the motivation to study
- Find relatable “hooks” in your study material so you care about the material.
- Look for relevance in your material so you know it will be useful.
- Ask someone passionate about a subject you dislike why they like it; it shifts your perspective.
- Focus on the reward you get after learning something you dislike.
3. Distraction & stimulation: Feed your attention enough to increase concentration
Distraction is made up of everything that pulls your attention away from what you need to focus on. Stimulation is everything that arouses your brain to be goal-directed for learning and work. There is a reason why a balance of stimulation & distraction is required to improve concentration while studying.
We have two types of attention – endogenous & exogenous. Both are active at the same time in a delicate balance. Endogenous attention is goal-driven, deliberate, and can convert into concentration. Exogenous attention is stimuli-driven (whatever attracts you), automatic, and can convert into both – concentration (if it is useful to you) or distraction (if it is unrelated to your task). When you plan to study a graph, you mostly employ endogenous attention. When you lose focus because of a notification on your phone and start scrolling through Instagram, you are at the mercy of exogenous attention. High-concentration study sessions are possible when we limit exogenous attention and maximize endogenous attention.
When any type of attention is not fully occupied, exogenous attention has more opportunity to break your focus. Some people can concentrate without distractions while studying. Some need a small level of distraction while studying.
Background music can occupy some portion of your attention, and according to research, it does help people concentrate better.
Generally, music with lyrics is a bad idea because lyrics & human voices capture our exogenous attention. Many can increase concentration while reading and writing, even calculations, by listening to background music or noise. Others require total silence. Some can only focus for a few minutes and then require a conversational or YouTube break. Many would prefer non-zero distraction and non-infinite stimulation which occupies enough of your attention to allow the endogenous attention to focus on studies and work. Everyone’s capacity to concentrate is different because their need for stimulation/arousal & vulnerability to distraction is different.
Distractions from within the study/work material (noticing some important bit of information) also use exogenous attention, but those distractions are useful as they help you connect the dots and link related/highlighted concepts while learning. Stimulation/Arousal (or the lack thereof) emerges from enthusiasm, lethargy, exciting content, boring presentation, dull room lighting, background chit-chat, attending to other less important work, etc. All of these factors affect how your attention is occupied. Once you are deeply engaged and feel excited about studying a topic, you’ll experience flow.
The advice here is: Fill up your attention, with the least distracting but potentially engaging activities while studying.
Tips to zero in on your distraction/stimulation balance for a fully occupied attention span
- Reflect on how you can focus using different sources such as books, YouTube, Audio lectures, Slideshows, forum discussions, etc. Choose what’s most convenient and appropriate for you.
- Try different types of background sounds ranging from meditation music to metal.
- Try studying with or without your phone/music according to which content format you are using – books, YouTube, articles, etc. Each will engage you differently, so your brain will get distracted differently.
- If a topic distracts you, try studying it from a different source like YouTube or articles. Repetition in different forms also helps learning.
4. Your perceived ability to learn and study: Manage emotions & Beliefs to increase concentration
Just like distractions, your beliefs and attitudes can break your concentration. People have core beliefs such as I’m not smart enough; This is too much to study, I’ll never finish this in such little time, I don’t know how to start, I cannot focus without _____, If I study a lot I will change who I am, etc. These beliefs open the door to procrastination and even self-sabotage. Some of these beliefs are rigid, and we tend to affirm them because they are a part of who we are. Sometimes, these beliefs come from only a small portion of your real experiences, usually negative experiences. To counter those negative experiences, we engage in mood-improving distractions that make us feel good.
If you believe that you cannot study for long hours, you can direct yourself to study for only 15 minutes. Or, instead of feeling overwhelmed by the entire workload, pick a tiny load, and study it thoroughly. The smaller the task gets, the more manageable it feels. And that is an easy way to overcome low concentration and negative beliefs about your capacity to focus. Read more about managing emotions here and here.
Breaking a task into small parts (chunking) is a good way to have short bursts of concentration, especially if your baseline concentration is poor. Taking breaks between study sessions and revising previous learning is another useful technique (spaced repetition). Both of these techniques reduce the actual & perceived burden of intense study sessions. Read more about these techniques here.
The latitude of acceptance is a mental filter that accepts self-thoughts based on how easy it is to believe them. If you hold strong beliefs like “I am bad at numbers,” it will be hard to modify that belief into “I am good at numbers.” Instead, modify a self-belief just enough so you can accept it (e.g., I am bad at numbers but can try and learn this short routine). Small positive changes can widen the holes in that filter and allow bigger changes in beliefs. These beliefs would determine your attitude, commitment, and confidence in focusing.
Tips on how to change your beliefs about your capacity to focus, study, and learn
- Improve your study-related beliefs a little at a time so they are believable. I hate math —> There must be something in it that I like.
- Study for short durations, like 20-45 minutes at a time, so you are not emotionally exhausted.
- Expect more from yourself and surround yourself with people who expect more from you. (more here)
5. Selecting what to focus on: Decide what to study/learn and guide your attention
Before we even begin to concentrate, we have to make a decision on what to focus on. To make things worse, you cannot begin with everything, even if it is equally important. Deciding where to start is one of the hardest decisions. If you don’t know, choose a topic that is related to your previous study session. If your only option is to study new concepts, begin with a simple overview of a topic and peel the onion layer by layer.
Shifting between context and facts is important. Both strengthen memory for each other. Some information is irresistible to look at and helps you concentrate on a small specific area. These are your “anchors”. Find them.
Knowledge builds bit by bit, and it’s important to limit your focus to a balance of depth & breadth. That is, take a topic, draw a circle around it, learn a few things within that circle, learn things that are on its border, then repeat this for a new topic, and occasionally, do an overview of how multiple circles merge into each other. This engages a narrow, detailed form of attention and a global, broad form of attention. Both narrow and broad attention is a part of “attentional control,” a fancy term for concentration.
Tips on choosing what to focus on
- Select just 2-3 topics to study at a time. Limiting choices improves focus because you’ve set a small achievable goal. Fewer distractions and easy decisions. Snowball around that after you are done.
- Switch between narrow and broad perspectives. So concept – detail – concept – detail. Study similar concepts in parallel as a “concept cluster.”
- Study at various levels of processing. Learn new concepts at the very basic level, then add more details, then learn the limits, and so on. Adding a little bit beyond your current comprehension will keep you engaged.
- Attention wavers, and you can get bored, so shift to a related topic to refresh your mind.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
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