People often have high expectations of their ability to concentrate on a task and become frustrated if they find they can't focus as well as they feel they should. When planning how they will use their time, students often set aside whole mornings or afternoons, without considering how to factor breaks into this so that they work in a sequence of shorter sessions rather than expecting themselves to work continuously the whole time. However, the ability to concentrate varies between individuals, and is affected by a number of factors. It is important not to have unrealistic expectations for yourself or to judge yourself negatively if you can't focus for as long as you feel you ought to, but to accept your natural attention span and find ways to work within it or to strengthen it.
Your natural concentration span
You may naturally be able to focus on a task for a longer period of time (an hour or more) without your thoughts wandering. This may depend on the task, and be possible only if you find it an enjoyable or interesting activity. In this case you will need to think of strategies for managing tasks which you find less engaging. It may also lead to an absorbtion on one task to the exclusion of others, which could be problematic. You may find that it is hard to focus for such long periods and that your mind wanders after about 20 minutes. You may have a disability which makes long periods of concentration difficult. Even if you have a shorter concentration span, it does not mean that you work less hard, simply that you work in shorter bursts. It is worth observing your attention span as you work, in a non-judgmental way, and noting how long your average concentration span is, and then develop strategies to accommodate or enhance it.
Factors that affect your concentration span
There are various factors that can impact on your concentration. These include your:
- commitment to the task
- enthusiasm and interest in the task
- skill and confidence in doing the task
- emotional and physical state including comfort and tiredness
- psychological state including preoccupation with worries
- environment (University Counselling Service Leaflet: Concentration)
Boredom, anxiety and daydreaming can also barriers to concentration, possibly in response to the above factors. It may help to see which of these might be affecting you at a particular time, and seeing what changes you can make or strategies you can use to counter them.
The way you structure your time may help to improve your concentration.
- Don't be unrealistic or too ambitious in setting the length of your working sessions. Try a shorter length of time; perhaps 20 minutes. If you are still focussing well after that time, then you can always continue.
- You need regular breaks to refresh yourself, built in around your natural concentration span and any factors that may be affecting you. It's not about how long you work, but how efficiently you work when you are studying. Many people only allow themselves breaks when they feel that they have done enough work. However, breaks are not something you deserve, they are something you need (although how you use those breaks could be a reward to motivate you). Be careful that you do not take breaks as a way of procrastinating, however.
- If you find yourself getting stale, try changing your location, or switching between tasks. Be careful that this does not become a way to procrastinate.
- Take a note of the time of day at which you tend to concentrate best - it could be any time, lunchtime or the middle of the night - and aim to do the tasks that need most concentration then. This is a very individual issue; don't feel that you should be able to work best at a certain time, but use what works best for you. As a student, you have a high degree of independence in the way you organise your work. Whenever you work, make sure that you have a balanced lifestyle, however.
- If worries or other trains of thought are continually distracting you, put aside a period of time in the day when you give yourself permission to worry or daydream. When a train of thought begins during a study session, make a note of it and put it aside until that time.
- If the task itself doesn't motivate you, then try adding some extrinsic motivation in the form of a small reward.
- Your approach to learning may be too passive. Active study strategies which demand your attention and involvement may help you to concentrate better. For example, if your mind wanders when reading then you may find it useful to jot down a brief summary - a word or phrase - of each paragraph, to make you engage with what you are reading.
- Conversely, if the task you are undertaking is by nature a very active one, such as writing, you may tire easily and lose concentration. In this case, you may need to shorten the time spent working between breaks. You may find stopping and starting again interrupts the flow of your ideas, but if you are reading, you could try summarising each paragraph as you read so you can quickly gain an overview when you continue, or, if you are writing, jot down the main points of the next paragraph or two before you take a break so you can continue easily.
The Counselling Service recommends the following strategy for improving your focus:
"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 (forbidden thoughts attract 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 gets a little longer each day, so be patient and keep at it." (University Counselling Service Leaflet: Concentration).
The University Counselling Service can offer further guidance on improving your concentration span. You might like to read their leaflet on concentration or attend a 'Can't Work' group session.