How to concentrate more
I’ll share the good news first: the wonderful thing about concentration is that it’s totally within your control.
All you need to know is how to make a few simple changes to your day so you can optimize the time you have available.
Here are 5 things that helped me focus better and actually get stuff done.
Tip #1. Practice the 4–7–8 breathing exercise.
If you haven’t heard of this one, try it immediately — like, right now, after you’re done reading this — because it will change the way you feel and think. The 4–7–8 breathing exercise is simple to do. It’s used by many people to relax and even fall asleep, but I’ve been using it to achieve a sense of calm throughout the day. Here’s some background on this practice that was created by integrative medicine practitioner Dr. Andrew Weil. And, these are steps on how to do it:
Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of 4.
Hold your breath for a count of 7.
Exhale completely through your mouth, making a loud whoosh sound to a count of 8.
Repeat the 4–7–8 cycle four times.
Tip #2. Make a commitment to reach ONE study goal a day.
The best way to get your mind on board to concentrate on anything — not just studying — is to start the day with a question: “What is the one thing I am committed to completing today?”
Why it’s important: It will encourage you to think strategically about the day, keep you focused on your top study goal, and force you to prioritize the one goal that you want to reach by the end of the day. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have many study goals, but it does means that you can finish one today (read a certain number of chapters or practice exam questions, for example), so that you can concentrate better on your other goals in the days that follow.
How you can practice it: Write the question in big bold letters on a sheet of paper and hang it on your bedroom or bathroom wall. Pick a location where you can easily see the question as soon as you wake up (next to your bed or the bathroom mirror, for example). Then, read it out loud as you start your day. Take a few moments to think what you want to prioritize, and then come up with an answer and say it out loud too. Later, as you go through the day, make sure you’re working on completing what you’ve identified as your study goal for that day.
Tip #3. Do the most complex cognitive tasks in the morning.
Why study early? It’s all about taking advantage of your circadian rhythm, which dictates which activities we’re more likely to do best at certain times of the day. For most people, your brain’s peak performance happens 2-4 hours after you wake up. This is the time when your brain can focus on analytical thinking that requires the most concentration. For studying, this can be reading, writing, coding, analyzing, critical thinking, or problem solving.
When should you study? If you wake up at 8, your peak times are between 10 and 12. And just because it’s noon, it doesn’t mean you have to stop; feel free to extend this time for another hour or so to maximize your peak performance and wrap up an important section, chapter, or lecture.
What are the benefits? Doing your hard work early in the day allows your brain to focus fully on the problem at hand, with fewer distractions, less inputs from your environment, and with a lot of energy that you've gained from a restful night.
Tip #4. Use a timer.
For most efficient studying, you don’t need to be sitting at your desk for hours. Use a timer to better manage your study session. That way you allow your brain to focus in a more targeted and effective way. Here are some examples:
Read and review study material. Set the timer to 30 or 60 minute increments to maximize concentration; or, for really short bursts of study, try the Pomodoro technique which consists of 25 minute blocks of time, followed by 5 minute breaks.
Practice exam questions. Use the review questions from your textbook or create your own based on the most important concepts from each chapter. Write the questions down on a sheet of paper. Then, use the Pomodoro technique to rehearse for the exam. Give yourself only a short time to answer each question. Use each 25-minute block of time to cover several questions, and go down the list until you’ve covered them all.
Take breaks. When you're done with one timed segment, step away from your desk and do something completely unrelated to work: get some fresh air, stretch, have a snack, grab a cup of coffee or tea.