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Concentration
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Concentration has been defined as "the ability to direct one's thinking in whatever direction one would intend".

We all have the ability to concentrate some of the time. But at other times our thoughts are scattered, and our minds race from one thing to another. To deal with such times, we need to learn and practice concentration skills and strategies. To concentrate, we have to learn a skill, and as with any skill this means practice repeated day after day until we achieve enough improvement to feel that we can concentrate when we need to. Our ability to concentrate depends on enthusiasm for the task skill at doing the task our emotional and physical state our environment

People sometimes refer to a concentration span: this is the time we can concentrate on a specific task before our thoughts wander. In learning concentration skills, we aim to extend our concentration span - bearing in mind that we will have a different span for different tasks. It cannot be expanded to infinity! Most people find their level for most tasks round about an hour, but for some people and some tasks it will just be a few minutes, while for others it might be two or three hours.

The main barriers to concentrating are boredom, anxiety and day-dreaming. Thus in improving our concentration skills we need to counteract these barriers. The following three skills are basic to concentration: if you want to improve your concentration, start by practising them. They will be followed by further strategies which will allow you to build onto the basic skills.

1. STOP!!!

This sounds very simple, but it works. When you notice your thoughts wandering, say to yourself 'STOP' and then gently bring your attention back to where you want it to be. Each time it wanders bring it back. To begin with, this could be several times a minute. But each time, say 'STOP' and then re-focus. Don't waste energy trying to keep thoughts out of your mind (to forbid thoughts attracts them like a magnet!), just put the effort into 'STOP' and re-focus.

To begin with you will do this hundreds of times a week. But you will find that the period of time between your straying thoughts will get a little longer each day, so be patient and keep at it.

2. Attending

This is about maintaining concentration and not giving in to distractions. It could be described as a sort of tunnel-vision, or as being focused: you keep your concentration on what is in front of you. If you are distracted, use the STOP technique to regain concentration. You can practice attending in many situations:

  • eg. in a lecture, if people move or cough, ignore them, don't look at them, actively exclude them from the link or tunnel formed between you and the lecturer.
  • eg. in a social situation, keep your attention solely on one person - what they say, how they look etc. - and ignore what is going on round about.

3. Worry time

Set aside one or more specific periods in the day when you are allowed to worry. It can help to set them just before something that you know you will do, to ensure that you stop worrying on time - e.g. before a favourite TV programme, or a meal-time. Whenever an anxiety or distracting thought enters your mind during the day, banish it until your next worry time, and re-focus on to what you are supposed to be doing. Some people find it helpful to write down the banished thought: it is easier to banish a thought if you are sure you won't have forgotten it when you get to your worry time. It is important that you keep your worry time(s), and make yourself worry for the full time. If you find that you can't fill the time available, then make a conscious decision to reduce it.

You may notice, particularly if you keep a list, that certain worries keep reappearing: this is a fairly clear indication that you need to do something about them!


Other things that can help
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  • once you know what your concentration span is for a specific activity, decide whether it is acceptable or whether you need to train yourself to expand it - e.g. a listening concentration span of 10 minutes and a lecture of 50 minutes is a mismatch!
  • in between periods of concentration, do things to change your physical and mental activity - e.g. move around to boost your circulation if you have been sitting, give your brain a new focus.
  • give yourself incentives and rewards appropriate to the level of concentration you have had to maintain.
  • be 'active' in mental activity! Use a hierarchy of questions to help you focus when reading reference material or listening to a lecture - rather than passively reading through it or listening and hoping that something will stick - and then write brief notes.
  • ensure that your environment aids concentration - reduce distractions and don't be so comfortable that you nod off.
  • do tasks that need most concentration at times when you are mentally and physically fresh: concentration is harder to maintain when you are tired. This means you need to know the times of day when you work best: people vary as to when is their best time.
  • experiment and see whether working with another person helps you to keep focused on the task
  • if you feel stuck check that the problem is one of poor concentration rather than lack of the necessary knowledge or understanding
  • don't look for an easy answer in stimulants such as caffeine. They only have a short-term effect of making you feel alert, and too much or too long an exposure can have serious effects on your physical and mental health.

Combating specific problems with concentration
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1. When you have been concentrating well but your brain now feels saturated.

Take a short break and then recharge your mental batteries by reviewing what you have done so far, considering whether it might help to switch to a new topic now. If you feel too tired to restart after a short break, review what you have done and where it fits into the overall task, and define where you need to pick it up again. If necessary make a note of this. Then decide, before you stop, when you will restart the task.

2. How to concentrate on a topic which you hate or which bores you.

Actively search in the material for aspects of the subject that can be turned into useful information (and might even be interesting!): you could do this by focusing on finding five central, important ideas to think about. Use mind-maps or spider diagrams to record the search, and write test questions to summarise your learning after each study session.

Focus on the personal rewards of completing the topic satisfactorily (even if its only to be rid of the task) and build in treats to reward yourself as you progress through the task. If all else fails, see it as a personal challenge - don't let it beat you!

3. Day-dreaming

Use the STOP technique and Attending suggestions to counteract day-dreaming. It may help to allow yourself to day-dream as a reward after a period of concentration.

4. Negative thinking

Loss of concentration can lead to negative thoughts about yourself. Deal with them as with other distractions, and banish them into your Worry Time, when you can check out their reality.

If you have concentrated well enough to get this far in this leaflet you are doing OK.>

  • talk to your Tutor or Supervisor
  • share ideas with other students
  • buy a self-help book (the Open University publish some good guides)
  • make an appointment to see a Counsellor

This page has been adapted from information produced by the Counselling Service at Royal Holloway, University of London and they retain copyright.

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