The real reason you can’t concentrate properly

It’s January, which means one thing in particular for students: the first round of the years’ exams.

You promise yourself an 8-hour stint in the Learning Commons with a half hour for lunch, and end up scrolling through your feed hoping that dear God will someone post something apart from dogs on New Year’s Day walks and inspirational messages for the year ahead.

You set up in the library for the day but quickly find yourself embroiled in a heated debate over Brexit with an acquaintance from secondary school. Once you start thinking about the state of the nation, it’s difficult to think about anything else, right?

When it comes to exam revision and coursework deadlines, there’s this idea that you can just muster the strength to sit down for a long period of time and study until you drop.

But why is it really so hard to concentrate when you need to? What is stopping you from finding focus?

Imagine you’re an athlete. You don’t show up at the Olympics and expect to run the 100m dash in less than 10 seconds. You train for it. If you go to the gym, you won’t be dead-lifting your bodyweight on the first visit. You’ll destroy your back and look like a prat.

Why do we expect to be able to throw ourselves into mammoth stints of concentration without any kind of training?

Attention is like a muscle, and you can let it waste away. This is easier now than ever, with that distraction device pinging away in your pocket and our laptops hooked up to every social media platform going. The opportunities to eat away at your long-term attention are seemingly limitless.

Every time we allow something to distract us, it teaches the brain that this is a normal pattern. We are teaching ourselves to procrastinate. Each distraction by a notification or an update or some incessant group chat is an invitation to reduce the ability to focus for an extended period of time.

So we can’t concentrate and we’re surrounded by technology that clamours for our attention, what is there to do about it?

The answer is definitely not: try to sit still for several hours and just do everything you need to do. Unless you have an impending deadline or an exam tomorrow. In that case you’ve left it too late for advice like this.

You have to start training your brain to focus. One of the best ways to do this, described by Thomas Frank, is the Pomodoro method. You set a timer for 25 minutes, choose a single task to work on, and for those 25 minutes you work on the task and nothing else.

When the timer clocks out, you set it for 5 minutes and take a break. Check messages, read about Brexit, read about Trump, write in your diary, text an ex, whatever will help you unwind. Then you set the timer for 25 minutes, and carry on. If anything distracts you or comes to mind in the 25 minutes (“I really shouldn’t have texted my ex”) then you write it down on a post-it and deal with it in the next 5 minute break.

From: screenshot from, Thomas Frank.

Procrastination is the worst of both worlds. It’s not contributing to your learning, and it’s also not relaxing. Using the Pomodoro method teaches your mind that some times are for working and some are for relaxing. The attention span of the average person is only 30–40 minutes, anyway, so trying to concentrate for hours at a time is counterproductive.

Thomas Frank (a guru of productivity and creativity) rates this method for a number of reasons:

1. It externalises the motivation to work (the timer tells you whether you’re working or resting)

2. It narrows the scope of your task and gives it a fixed end time, and is therefore more manageable

3. Writing down your distractions helps to remove them from your mind, and trains you not to act on distractions even if the distraction is there

Like I said, attention is a muscle, and if you don’t exercise it you can’t expect it to grow. You can expect the opposite.

There are some other things you can do to make your life easier when you need to concentrate. Most of them are to do with your phone.

Turn off notifications. You can control the notifications on your phone. Turn them all off. You’re not missing out.

Do you really think that if you don’t reply to Ollie’s comment on that meme then you’re going to have to buy him a Nando’s? Someone liked your night out photo when your eyebrows looked really good? Check it later, you don’t need to know every time you get a double-tap.

If you suffer from chronic FOMO, then just turn them back on when you don’t need to be so focused any longer.

Move apps off the homescreen, or put them in a folder. You can “hide” your most distracting apps in a folder away from the homescreen. Obviously, you can still get there if you really want. If you’re desperate for distraction then none of this will work, anyway. But moving the most attention-seeking apps like Instagram and Facebook away from the homescreen reminds you that they’re not all-important.

Get a productivity app instead. There’s an app called Forest. It grows a picture of a tree when you’re not using it. If you check your phone, the tree dies, and you feel sad. You can grow lots of trees and end up with a forest. If it sounds stupid, don’t knock it. We’ve all been taken in by things equally as mundane (Temple Run, Farmland, Candy Crush, that one with the fish).

Have a proper break. Don’t live in a constant state of tension and unease. The phrase of the moment is “don’t study more, study smarter.” If you learn to make your study time more worthwhile, then you can afford to take a proper break, rather than spending your Christmas and January in a fog of revision-induced anxiety. Don’t procrastinate: either do the work, or don’t do it. And if you don’t do it, then make sure you “don’t do it” properly

Author: David N Rose.