How to Concentrate on Studies for Long Hours
Have you ever wished you could control your mind better?
I’ve definitely felt that way before. Heck, there’s a reason this blog is called Project Monkey Mind.
It’s frustrating, because you know that you really need to concentrate on something, and you’re trying your best, but you just keep on getting distracted.
To be fair, you’re not alone. Focus has become a huge topic in recent years, largely because technology related interruptions have been making it harder for us to sustain concentration for long periods of time.
But this doesn’t mean that we can’t see significant improvements to our attentional-control. Our ability to do so is a puzzle. We don’t need to solve all of it at once, we simply need to figure out which pieces will make the difference for us.
One primary issue we have is that we come across advice about concentration, most people fail to take into consideration the scope of factors that impact our ability to focus, instead opting for a one-dimensional approach. Maybe they say it’s your diet, or your willpower, that you need to be more organised with study materials, or that you should “try meditation.”
This is why in this article I’m attempting to cover everything!
To maximise our ability to concentrate on our studies for longer hours, we need to consider how we can:
- Improve our baseline ability to concentrate
- Decide on the best time of day for us to study
- Eat the right foods before studying
- Create the best environment for us to study in
- Clear brain fog
- Approach work with the right mindset
- Create an effective study plan and set goals
- Avoid distractions while studying
- Remember what we study
- Safely take supplements or nootropics that optimize our brain for study
But first, we need to ask an important question.
What is concentration?
Put simply, concentration is the ability of an individual to direct their attention towards a desired object of focus. In psychological research, this is also referred to as attentional control. The ability to concentrate is an executive function, mediated by the frontal areas of the brain. There are a number of reasons why your attentional control may be limited, many of which we’ll cover here. From a clinical perspective, autism, ADHD and anxiety are some disorders that may limit our attentional control.
It’s often said that modern society has eroded our ability to focus on a single object at a time. This is because of an overwhelming amount of stimulus, typically in the form of marketing, implicitly conditions us to jump from one thing to another. Fortunately, the brain is largely a creature of habit, so by retraining it, we can mitigate some of these maladaptive patterns of attention.
How can I improve my concentration?
Here are a few effective practices for improving your concentration. Remember that your brain is like a muscle, you want to train it, then allow it to rest, and you can see significant gains, but they will generally take persistence and time.
The most effective way to improve your concentration is undoubtedly through meditation. However, not all types of meditation will serve this purpose in the same way or to the same degree, you need to make sure you’re doing the correct meditation. When studying meditation, scientists generally place practices under two broad categories. These are open-monitoring and focused-attention, the second of which is most effective at improving your ability to concentrate.
In open-monitoring meditation, the practitioner is instructed to place their attention on the thoughts and feelings that arise, and simply observe them as they pass, without judgement. The most well-known form of this meditation is mindfulness, which has not been shown to directly improve our ability to concentrate.
The second form of meditation, focused-attention, has us direct our awareness toward a single object, be that a sensation, mantra, or the feeling of the breath. While this meditation is incredibly effective, and long-term meditators have been shown to have superhuman levels of focus, it can sometimes take hundreds of hours of sustained practice before you will notice significant changes in yourself.
Further Reading: The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind – B. Alan Wallace
Read out of your comfort zone
There are a huge number of benefits to reading. Not only will it improve your vocabulary and general knowledge, but it can also sharpen your memory, imagination and communication skills. What is most relevant, however, is that reading dense content that you can’t completely comprehend can condition your mind to become used to focusing on study topics.
The longer you are able to read through this content without getting distracted, the easier it is going to be to study for long periods of time. You don’t need to constantly be knee deep in abstract philosophical texts, but if you can spend fifteen minutes every day reading something that you have to pay close attention to, this will be a huge help when it’s time to study for exams.
Work in chunks
Both the body and brain work best when they are required to exert high amounts of energy and then given rest periods to recover. We see this in athletes who train in short bursts with intervals in between. Known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) it helps with mental focus and dopamine production. The same approach can be taken when we are trying to train the mind.
If we follow a regime whereby we give 100% of our concentration for a specific period, with rest intervals in between, we avoid burn out and maximise productivity. One of these methods is called the Pomodoro technique which is 25 minutes of deep work followed by 5 minutes of rest.
Strengthen your willpower
By now you’ve probably heard the cliche, willpower is like a muscle. Well, fortunately, this cliche is actually quite useful. While focused-attention will help you become immersed in the study, it is willpower that will help you to not fall into the temptation of distractions when they inevitably come up.
There are any number of ways willpower can be strengthened, but typically, repetitively engaging in any activity where there is a degree of psychological resistance will do the trick.
Some examples include:
- Setting your alarm earlier than you want to wake up (when there is no external pressure)
- Taking a freezing cold shower 5 minutes a day.
- Pushing your comfort zone with physical exercise
- Doing things that make you feel socially uncomfortable e.g. public speaking
Further Reading: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength – Roy F. Baumeister
Choosing the best time of day to study
This is potentially the most important factor when it comes to concentrating on your studies. We all run on a circadian rhythm, which means that your energy goes through peaks and valleys throughout the day. This will vary person to person. As a general example, while to a certain extent we can change when we get up and go to sleep, the reality is that some of us are wired to be morning people, and others night owls.
What’s important is that we find the most effective time for us to use our mental energy.
Here’s a simple experiment that I have used to increase my work output. Set an alarm on your watch and phone that goes off on the hour every hour that you are studying. When the alarm goes off, note the time and give yourself a score out of ten in terms of how much energy you have and how productive you’ve been.
Do this for two weeks and you will start to see when you peak concentration times are. For me, my energy is highest from 9am to 2pm, however before 10am and after about 12.30pm my productivity is lower. This means that 10am to 12pm is the best time for me to put the most important tasks of the day.
Further Reading: The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy
Eating the right food before studying
Food and nutrition is such a fundamental need that when we are too hungry, or our blood sugar is low, it becomes incredibly difficult to focus.
Eating the right foods before you start to study is as important as choosing the right time of day. Make sure that you eat natural foods that aren’t difficult to digest, such as a lot of fat or protein. You also want to avoid anything that spikes your blood sugar, such as gluten, and potentially dairy (even if you don’t have an intolerance).
Snacks are better than large meals, as the latter can take a lot of your body’s energy and leave you sleepy.
Grains, seeds, nuts, and dried fruits are all good snacks to keep you focused while you’ll study.
Another important point is to stay hydrated, so if you have been drinking caffeine, make sure you are drinking more water than you usually would.
Creating the right environment
Having a clear and distraction-free work environment will aid in creating a clear and distraction-free mind.
The human brain is a pattern making machine, so rituals and symbols can be incredibly powerful in guiding us towards specific psychological states. When you have a study environment that is conducive to deep work, it will become easier and easier to concentrate as time goes on, because your mind will start to associate that space with deep focus.
Try and make sure you have a place that is:
- Well lit, preferably with natural light
- Has fresh air (you may want to invest in some plants)
- Has a comfortable chair or standing desk
- Is free of noise
- Is clear and clutter-free
Further Reading: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing – Marie Kondo
Clear brain fog
Brain fog is a state whereby you commonly feel mental confusion, and you rarely feel mental clarity. It is also described as having a cloudy mind, and can occur as a result of overworking, overstimulation, poor diet, and substance abuse such as marijuana or alcohol.
To clear brain fog you should:
- Get adequate exercise
- Get adequate and regular sleep
- Avoid alcohol and cigarettes
- Go to a sauna
- Reduce or eliminate alcohol intake
- Stop eating any foods to which you may have allergies
- Stop consuming processed sugar
- Take supplements such as a multivitamin
Further Reading: The Brain Fog Fix: Reclaim Your Focus, Memory, and Joy in Just 3 Weeks
Studying with the right mindset
The attitude with which you approach your studies is the next important piece of the concentration puzzle. Many people find it hard to get motivated, and while the other topics I’ve touched on in the post will help you be more able to study for longer periods of time, it is your mindset that will inevitably determine your willingness to do so.
To approach your work with the right mindset, you need to get in touch with why you are doing what you are doing.
Keep a motivation list. It can be effective to use both positive and negative motivation. Write down five good things that you’ll get out of doing this work, and five potential repercussions for not doing the work. Make sure the list is close by so you can glance over it whenever you’re getting distracted. This exercise won’t be effective, however, if the negative motivation makes you too anxious to focus on the tasks at hand.
Surround yourself with the right voices. You’ve probably heard the cliche, surround yourself with the right people. The problem with this is that not everyone has access to a social circle that is hard working, driven, and compassionate. Maybe your fellow students are overly competitive, or you’re completing a distance learning degree. You can counteract this by listening to podcasts and watching youtube videos that are motivating you to do the work.
Celebrate small wins. Being mindful of little victories can help give you the momentum to get through long study sessions. This is another reason setting goals is so effective. We need a reward system, no matter how trivial, in order to keep the dopamine flowing and ensure our engagement in the task at hand.
Take it seriously, but try to see the humour. Humour is very effective when it comes to any difficult activity. This is because it keeps us relaxed, and prevents us from being overwhelmed by worries and anxieties. When we’re studying, our brains get tired, which means two things. Firstly, we can take what we’re doing far too seriously, and secondly, we can make mistakes. So if you make a mistake, try not to get frustrated, take a moment to put things in perspective and see that whatever you’re doing is not the be all end all.
Be as curious as a child. Children approach new stimuli with curiosity and focus because their brains are wired to take in new information. We can see this clearly with movies, while adults will often want to wait months or even years between watching the same film again, children will often be happy to immediately rewatch a movie because they can absorb new details every time. Make sure that you’re focused on what you’re going to enjoy about learning this material, as opposed to thinking about where you’d rather be.
Enjoy some of your failures. Failure doesn’t need to be a bad thing. In fact, although we don’t talk about it, it’s a very natural part of being human. It’s only a problem if you’re coming from a place of hyper-competitiveness whereby anything less than absolute success isn’t good enough. Getting something wrong means that there is an opportunity for learning and growth. This is obviously hard to keep in mind when you’re emotionally invested in something that doesn’t seem to be paying off, but try anyway, and see how the perspective shift improves your ability to study.
Creating a plan and setting goals
When doing any study, it’s vital that you have a clear plan in mind if you want to make the most of your time. Sitting down without goals and objectives is the quickest way to spend your study time distracted and confused.
- Figure out what you need to study. This means you are completely sure about all the textbooks you’ll need and that you have everything ready and within reach beforehand. You don’t want to be constantly disrupting your concentration by looking for other study materials or trying to decide one what snack you want.
- List topics in order of importance. By creating priorities beforehand, you minimise the likelihood that you’ll get stuck trying to figure out what to focus on. If you’d like you can use a matrix and rank tasks in terms of importance (1-4) and urgency (A-D). This gives you a visual perspective on what needs to be done. This will help you make quick decisions and prevent you from ruminating while you study.
- Divide your time effectively. You can divide your time however you’d like, but make sure you’re placing the most important material in the space where you believe you’ll be the most productive. Another strategy to consider is doing what you like least, first. This way you’ve got something to look forward to in the second half of the study session, and you’re not wasting any mental energy thinking about how you’ll soon need to do what you don’t like.
- Set micro-goals and rewards. Using carrots and sticks is the most simple way to motivate yourself during long study sessions. Make sure your goals are realistically attainable, which is why the smaller the better. The dopamine hit we get from achieving our aims can keep us alert and positive. Likewise, make sure the reward is conducive to studying, such as a coffee, a walk or a healthy snack. Things such as sugary treats or social media may not be the best way to go.
Further Reading: First Things First – Stephen Covey
Avoiding distractions while studying
When we stop what we’re doing to take a look at Facebook, we never think we’re going to waste time. But we always do. In fact, one study out of the University of California Irvine found that following an interruption at work by an irrelevant topic, it took people an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task at hand.
Now imagine you’re being interrupted just once an hour.
That’s 39% of your time going straight down the drain from a single Facebook check!
Here are four quick ways to avoid distractions while studying.
Keep a distraction journal. This is the most effective technique for someone who is prone to getting a thousand ideas. Keep a blank journal next to you, and when an idea or distracting thought comes up, even if it appears to be somewhat related to the topic at hand, simply write it down and come back to it in your break. Surprisingly, you’ll find that as you revisit this list later in the day, the ideas that seemed to so persistently occupy your mind’s eye when you were trying to study, don’t feel that important anymore.
Turn your electronics on airplane mode. Electronics are by far the biggest distraction when it comes to studying. Though you may need them for research, is best that you organise all that is required beforehand, so you’re not tempted to take a quick Facebook break. The best option is to switch off all wifi access until you’ve finished studying unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Choose the right music. Experiment with different types of study music to see which helps you concentrate the best. Usually, lyrics will be distracting, so anything with white noise or ambient sounds can help you to stay calm and alert.
Study with the right people. Studying with other people can be motivating and drastically improve your focus, however only if they’re the right people. If you’re with someone who gets distracted easily themselves, it’s likely that you too will become distracted.
Remembering what you study
Remembering what you study is obviously a huge part of concentration. It not only has the practical application of allowing you to the most benefit from your study time, but it also gives you the confidence and motivation to know that the hours you’re putting in are worth it.
Generally, improving your memory is a matter of using techniques that complement your learning style, and ensuring your brain is healthy. However, while the way we retain information may be different from person to person – some of us are more hands-on, while others visual or auditory – at the end of the day everyone can benefit from an approach that uses more of their senses.
Memory Palaces, also known as the Method of loci, are a way by which we store information using visualization and our spatial memory. This technique is relatively easy to learn, though it takes diligence, and it is how some people are able to store seemingly superhuman amounts of information. My buddy Anthony Metiever teaches memory palaces and has found that these techniques can take you as far as remembering a whole textbook.
Mind Mapping is a technique whereby you use colours and shapes to create a visual representation of the connection between complex themes. Again, this is a way by which you can condense information and cross-train your mind with visual (colour, shapes) and auditory (words) prompts, in order to better remember what you’re studying. Tony Buzan is one of the more well-known mind map teachers, check out this video to see you how you can use them for yourself.
Teach what you’ve learned
This allows you to embody the content, using language and physical gestures to encode it in your long-term memory. If you can find a study partner and practice teaching each other different concepts, this will be beneficial for the memory recall of both of you.
Walk before you study
Doing light exercise before you engage in mental activity is a prime way to warm up the brain. In fact, one study found that students who spent 20 minutes walking on a treadmill at 60% of maximum heart rate, showed a marked improvement on response accuracy and better performance on an academic achievement test.
Speak out loud
You can do this by teaching others, or simply by talking out loud to yourself. Take this a step further by recording what you say and listening back to it again, or trying to explain what you’ve said using different words.
Should I use nootropics and supplements for concentration?
It’s fair to say that many of us are attracted to the idea of being able to concentrate like Bradley Cooper in the movie limitless. Unfortunately in the real world there are always trade-offs for taking these kinds of drugs. There are however a number of supplements and nootropics that can boost our concentration, and if we do research and experiment safely, we can see some great benefits from their use.
A balanced diet will ensure that we stay mentally sharp and are able to concentrate for long periods of time. However, with busy lives and high organic food prices, it can be difficult for most of us to find that equilibrium. If you have the luxury of doing blood tests to see which supplements you may see the most benefit from, which is great. However, for most of us, a multivitamin is the most straightforward way to cover all ground.
Omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly important for mental function, particularly if you’re not getting it in your diet through foods such as salmon, avocados and olive oil. Taking a daily supplement, such as fish oil, promotes mental clarity and focus, and may be able to prevent the onset of age-related neurological disorders.
Most people take caffeine to study, many do so daily. Simply be aware that the effectiveness of caffeine works on a bell curve, so in this case, you can have too much of it and it can impede your ability to concentrate.
L-theanine (found in green tea) has been shown to counteract the jitters that you can sometimes get from too much caffeine. In doing so it can improve cognitive performance, so it’s recommended that you take both together. It’s recommended that you take it at a ratio of 2:1, so 80 milligrams of caffeine should be combined with 160 milligrams of L-theanine.
These are cognitive enhancers also know as smart drugs that vary in legality, price, and side-effects. Below I listed some of the most commonly used cognitive enhancers. Make sure you do your research and consult a doctor before deciding to use any of these.
And there you have it, that’s how to concentrate on your studies like a Zen master!
As you can see there are a huge number of things that go into your attentional control.
Challenges are going to arise depending on your baseline motivation, focus ability, organization skills, mental clarity and physical health. If you take a holistic approach, you’ll see a much more drastic improvement than if you simply attack one area.
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