Five Simple Steps to Improve Your Concentration
Whatever you do during the day, there are probably times when you need to concentrate. Perhaps you’ve got a project at work that requires focus (it could be anything from writing a report to carrying out some important lab tests). Or perhaps you’re studying – for a degree, for a vocational qualification, or just for your own enjoyment.
If you can’t concentrate, you’ll have problems:
- You might make silly – and potentially costly – mistakes.
- You’ll find tasks taking much longer than they should.
- You may even give up on things that are important to you.
Some people think they’re just not very good at focusing, but that’s simply not true. All of us can improve our ability to concentrate.
Here’s how, in five easy steps:
- Step #1: Pay Attention to Physical Factors
Your ability to concentrate is heavily affected by your physical state. I’m sure you’ve noticed that you struggle to stay focused when you’ve slept badly the night before – or after a heavy lunch.
Make sure your lifestyle is supporting, not hindering, your ability to concentrate. That means:
- Get enough sleep. For most people, that means 7 – 8 hours: you might find that you need 6 or 9 hours, though.
- Eat sensibly. If you’re ravenous, it’s hard to concentrate on anything other than your rumbling stomach. Conversely, if you have a huge lunch, you’ll not get much productive work done during the afternoon.
- Watch your alcohol intake. Maybe a glass of wine or a can of beer helps you relax at the end of the day… but it might also kill your ability to focus on that book you wanted to read.
- Exercise regularly. If you’re feeling tired or unfocused, just a few minutes of activity (perhaps a brisk walk) can revive you.
- Step #2: Minimize Possible Distractions
Do your surroundings make it almost impossible for you to concentrate? If you have colleagues dropping by every few minutes at work, or family/housemates interrupting at home, it’s going to be very hard for you to stay focused. A single interruption can mean spending several minutes just getting back into your task.Cut out as many distractions as you can:
- Close your office door, if possible.
- Wear headphones (even if you’re not listening to anything) to prevent people engaging you in conversation.
- Switch off your cell phone. Close down your email inbox and any chat programs on the computer.
… I’m sure you can think of a few more!
If it’s really hard to focus in your work or home environment, how about a temporary relocation? Take your book/papers/laptop to a cafe or library where you can work uninterrupted.
- Step #3: Do One Thing at a Time
Multi-tasking is terrible for concentration. You can’t read a book and watch TV, or edit a document and listen to the radio – you’re either doing one or the other at any given moment.
If you’ve got a long to-do list, it might be tempting to multi-task – but remember that you’ll almost certainly be more productive if you tackle your tasks one at a time.
It can take a while to break the multi-tasking habit. One trick I use is to mark each item on my to-do list with asterisks – one asterisk for “this is what I’m doing now”, two for the next task in line, and three for the one after that. This helps me to stay focused on a small section of my list rather than jumping around between lots of different items.
- Step #4: Actively Engage With What You’re Doing
Do you find your mind wandering while you’re supposed to be concentrating? Perhaps you need to focus on a lecture, a presentation or a book – but the material (or the presentation of it) isn’t very engaging.
To improve your concentration, engage with whatever you’re doing. Don’t just passively sit there and watch a presentation, take notes. If you’re reading a document, have a pen or highlighter in your hand to mark key sections. You might even find it easiest to work with a partner, discussing short sections of a book or document as you read them.
- Step #5: Dismiss Irrelevant Thoughts
However hard you try to concentrate, you’ll find that stray thoughts creep in. Things like:
- Hmm, I’d like a coffee…
- I mustn’t forget to send that email to Joe…
- I wonder what’s happening on Facebook?
- How am I going to get through all this work?
Instead of giving in to these thoughts or dwelling on them, simply dismiss them. Tell yourself: I can deal with this later. I’m working on Project X right now.
If you’re worried about forgetting something, write it down. Add “send email to Joe” to your to-do list – then get on with your current task. If you open up your email straight away, you’re almost certainly going to get distracted by messages in your inbox.
And that’s it! Five straightforward steps that can hugely improve your concentration. Which of them will you try out today?
(And if you’ve got your own tips for steady focus, share them with us in the comments below.)