In my younger years, I used to spend hours and hours in unproductive study time. Now that I look back on those times, I realise how much time I wasted with my thoughts wandering away from the topic I needed to focus on.
I spent hours in my university library or on school work only to come out later realising I had gotten very little done.
If you are in a similar position to me, you will also have noticed that there are some people who can make a decision to study, then it happens as if by magic. One hour later they’ve done all that they planned to do and seem to be able to go on and enjoy the rest of their day.
What’s worse is that they did all this in a fraction of the time you took to do it! It seems all too easy for them.
Now that I am older I have since become more effective at focusing on my daily work and getting it done.
I have noticed that being able to concentrate is made up of a multitude of factors such as your working environment, your amount of brain fog, to your diet all the way to how addicted you are to instant gratification.
In this post, I’ll lay out a list of factors which I believe affected my ability to focus on my work.
These principles can be applied to any type of work that takes focus. Such work could include, an essay or work assignment you have to get done, some admin work like your taxes that you keep putting off, or perhaps an exam that you need to study for.
One thing to note is that not everyone is the same and you will have your own preference of how you like to study.
The problem is that if you were like me and cannot concentrate, you may not know what your study preferences are.
So have a look through this list and choose the ones that you’d like to try or that you feel will make a difference.
I believe the concept of energy management is one of the biggest factors that will determine your ability to concentrate on your work.
Studying and completing any difficult task requires willpower and focus. Both of these components are available to us at any time, however, our willpower reserves aren’t steady throughout the day. They can, and will become depleted at some point.
The amount of willpower you have at a particular time can be influenced by many things, some of which I will discuss in this post.
The simple idea regarding energy management is that you want to study when your willpower levels are at it’s highest because that is when you will have the most focus.
To improve your ability to concentrate long-term, you will also need to adopt a lifestyle where you learn to use your willpower reserves effectively, and also learn methods on how to replenish them whenever the tank runs empty.
This is the basic principle in determining when is the best time to get your most difficult tasks done.
Starting the Engine: The Problem of Procrastination
Some of us not only have a problem staying focused, but the idea of sitting down to being working feels uncomfortable. The end result is a lot of worrying but nothing ever gets done.
In this section, we’ll look at how to address this problem and get you seated and ready to work.
Develop a ‘Eat That Frog’ Mentality
Eat a live frog in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you all day – Mark Twain
One of the best pieces of advice I have come across on how to tackle your most dreaded tasks is based on the words of Mark Twain.
If you consider your work the worst thing about your day, then it makes sense to get it done as soon as you can. Once you get it out the way, then you are free to enjoy the rest of your day with the knowledge that the worst part of your day is over. In addition, you will not have constant thoughts bothering you all day reminding you to get the work done.
This is a great way of thinking that you can apply to any area of your life. This is one of the methods that helped me start exercising after not exercising for many years. I would exercise first thing in the morning, and once it was done I was guilt-free for the rest of the day!
Just Do 5 Minutes
If you are really struggling to even get started on a difficult task then another effective trick is to say to yourself that you are only going to do 5 minutes of work. The rule is that if you are do not want to work after you’ve sat down for 5 minutes, you can get up and walk away.
Whenever I have used this technique I have never got up after 5 minutes and walked away from the task. In most cases, I’ll follow through all the way to the end.
Afterwards, it’s not uncommon for me to wonder why I put off the task in the first place given that it was much easier than I anticipated. The lesson is to watch out when your mind starts to play tricks. It will often create the illusion that the task is much harder and more painful than it actually is.
Take a (Mind) Dump
The mind loves to wander. Especially when you have something important to do.
You begin to think about the shows you want to watch, the other things you have to get done, things that people said about you, how bad your life situation is or whether to check if someone has replied to your message or not.
The best remedy is to take a mind dump.
This means taking out a pen and pad and jotting down everything that is on your mind. Spend around 10 minutes or however long you need before all your wandering thoughts are written down.
Once these thoughts are on paper your mind no longer has to hold onto the thoughts or constantly remind you that these things have not been handled.
Say to yourself that you will come back and handle all these things once you’ve finished your work.
This is not only a great practice to do before you work, but whenever you find yourself with wandering thoughts throughout life.
Some people may find that setting themselves a reward once they have completed their work can help create motivation to focus.
For example, your reward could be that you get to watch an episode of your favourite show or eat ice cream after you complete your work.
I must admit this has never worked for me as I will be thinking about the reward the whole time rather than being focused on my work.
What I find more of a reward is knowing that once I get the task out the way, I can enjoy the rest of my day more fully as I know that I have accomplished the hard task I had previously set out to do.
Get a Study Buddy
Some people may find that meeting up with a buddy can help them work. This could be working on a task with someone to brainstorm ideas, or simply meeting a friend at your favourite study place and then working on your own projects separately.
Personally, this trick did not work for me especially in my university days. I would meet a friend to go and work in the library and we would basically do nothing but end up going to the coffee shop and drinking coffee.
Alternatively, perhaps you already work with a friend and have found that you cannot concentrate; maybe it’s time to get honest and ditch your study buddy? You may find that you work better in isolation.
How to Focus During Your Work and Studies
This was the hardest part of studying for me.
My mind wandered like crazy whenever I tried to study and I would have to read over and over again whatever I had just read.
I spent hours studying but nothing ever sunk in because I could not focus. My problem was I never had any tactics or strategies to help me concentrate. I just sat down and hoped that I may lapse into a state of focus.
Luckily for me over time, I found ways that can help concentration.
Find Your Perfect Working Environment
This is one of the essential keys to maintaining focus and concentrating on your work. To concentrate properly on your work you will have to find out which is the best environment where you seem to be able to focus.
Here are some thoughts to consider when choosing a location:
Clutter Free: It’s very difficult to concentrate if there are 1000 things around you or in your work area. You may have heard the saying ‘cluttered space = a cluttered mind’ and I think that this saying is very true.
To achieve the best focus you want to only have the tools you need to get your work done nearby. In addition, your work surface, such as your desk, should have sufficient space and be clear of any junk.
Different Location: The location where you work is also of the utmost importance.
To achieve the highest level of concentration it is advisable to work away from the place you spend the most time. For example, if you spend a lot of time in your bedroom it would be best to work in another room or leave your home altogether.
To explain this theory further, let’s also assume that your bedroom houses your TV, PlayStation 4, favourite musical instrument, your bed etc. It is likely that your subconscious mind has learned to associate your bedroom with entertainment or sleep.
Therefore, you may find that studying or doing your work may be a difficult thing to do in your bedroom even if you an area set out for working in your bedroom.
By changing to a different location than you normally spend most of your time, you can signal to your brain that it is now time to get serious and focus on your work. Your local library, empty classroom or a coffee shop nearby could be worth trying out.
Life Nurturing: When considering a new location to work in, also be sure that it is well lit, airy, clean and comfortable. In addition, it should be at a desk, rather than on your bed or on the floor.
Finding a good location that works for you is one of the best ways to boost productivity, so much so that I’ve written a post that fully covers the best places to study.
Set a Time Limit
I wish I knew about this tip before.
When you have work you plan to do set a time limit and set it at a short duration relative to the amount of work you have to do. Nothing will keep you more distracted from your work than the belief that you have an unlimited time to complete your task.
For example, it is not beneficial to say to yourself that you have all day to get your work done if in reality, you could work for less. If you plan to study all day, your mind may wander because you feel you have so much time to study and that there is no urgency to focus.
It would be far more effective if you set your study time for two hours where you commit to studying or completing your task.
By shortening the time the importance of the work seems greater and your focus should increase.
Even if you have nothing else planned for the day other than your work, try this method and you’ll find it much easier to stay focused over a shorter period, rather than a longer one.
Work in Time Slots
Along the same line of thinking as setting a time limit, working in chunks of time is also helpful in maintaining focus.
By breaking down your large work sessions with frequent scheduled breaks, you will ensure that your willpower and focus never drops too low within a work session. Every time you take a break, you will come back to your work with a fresh mind and renewed focus.
You should not be afraid or feel guilty of scheduling a lot of breaks.
You may have come across the Pomodoro method which outlines that you work in 25-minute sessions followed by a 5-minute break. At the end of a set number of 25-minute sessions, you can take an extended break of the length of your own choosing.
The standard schedule prescribed by the Pomodoro method is to do four 25 minute sessions (with 5-minute breaks at the end of each) before you take an extended break of 20-30 minutes. In essence, you have set out a chunk of work time of around 2 hours.
You do not have to follow the Pomodoro time schedule, however, if you’ve never tried a method like this before, then it’s a good idea to work to their suggested schedule. You can find timers to work to available on YouTube like the video below.
As you improve your focus over time, you may be able to move to longer sessions, for example, sessions of 5o minutes followed by a 10-minute break. The idea is to play around and experiment until you find a work schedule that works for you.
But one thing is clear, if you are someone who struggles to focus you should definitely employ some type of work/break timetable rather than trying to work for hours on end without a planned break.
Working for too long is more detrimental to your focus than taking breaks.
Take Replenishing Breaks
There are two main types of breaks:
Short Breaks – These are the breaks you would take inside of a planned long work session. For instance, the 5-minute break after each 25 minute Pomodoro session, or the 30 minutes extended break you take after 4 Pomodoro sessions before starting all over again.
Short breaks could include such activities as getting up and topping up your glass of water, taking a bathroom break, or getting a quick snack. You could even do a quick stretching session or a couple of chores around the house.
Whatever you choose to do it would be best to choose something that takes you away from your desk for a short while.
Longer Breaks – You should take long breaks whenever you feel like your willpower and focus is completely drained and that no matter how hard you try you cannot focus.
Long breaks can be a from an hour to a few hours in duration. There really is no maximum amount of time.
The idea is to get away from your desk and replenish your energy, focus, motivation and to clear your mind. After taking such an effective and replenishing break, when you sit down at your desk again to work, you will feel fresh and invigorated and ready to go again.
The simplest example is going for a walk. Nothing beats getting your legs moving, the blood pumping around the body and breathing in fresh oxygen.
Long walks in a quiet and pleasant area, such as a park or an area with a lot of green helps replenish the mind.
Studies have shown that walking in a city or busy area may not be as effective as your brain still has to work to avoid oncoming traffic and navigate around potential obstacles.
I find that even a quick walk around my block has a huge effect in helping me get my focus back.
Similarly engaging in exercise is another effective way of replenishing willpower. I
have found that doing intense aerobic exercise (such as cardio, going for a run or HIIT) followed by a cold shower has never ever failed to help me feel replenished afterwards. For me, this is the ultimate break.
If it’s in the afternoon and you’re feeling sleepy do not be against the idea of taking a nap. For some people, this works very well. Just be sure to set an alarm so that you do not sleep for too long!
Other examples such as meeting up with a friend for a meal, watching a movie, playing sports, running errands around town or cooking could work well.
It may take some time to find what works for you, but again, as a rule, you will want to avoid staying seated at a desk or being in the area you have been working in already.
Silence, Music or White Noise?
When I used to do my homework or have to study I would put on the radio and listen to the latest hits on the radio. I now know that this was probably one of the worst ideas ever.
Listening to music isn’t a bad thing, but I don’t think that songs with lyrics and a high tempo beat together is a good formula for effective study.
Therefore listening to your favourite modern artist (with lyrics) may not be the best idea.
Classical, instrumental jazz and other music in this genre can be popular types of music to help people work or study. There are even special types of music with specific beats which are deemed to increase focus and concentration.
I have used both but finally settled on Brain.fm. If you are someone who works better with music or would like to try working to music, you may want to consider these services.
I used to listen to music but now I work in complete silence or whatever noise is going on around me depending on the area (such as a coffee shop or library).
I find that music slightly draws my attention away from my work. It’s as if I know someone has composed this piece of music and it is meant to be heard and therefore I should listen.
Furthermore, the music services I mentioned require headphones for the best results.
I have found that I work best when my head is clear and free of anything such as earphones or headphones.
However, if I did find myself in an area where I simply cannot concentrate because of a particular noise around me, I would use my noise-cancelling headphones and listen to Brain.fm.
Work When You Have the Most Willpower – Consider Morning Work
I don’t know about you, but I work best in the mornings.
My usual routine is to wake up, drink water, do some foam rolling and stretches, followed by a quick workout and a shower.
Once this routine has been completed, I’m in the right frame of mind to get started on my most difficult tasks of the day.
The mornings are usually the time of day when people have the most willpower.
It’s at a time where you’ve (hopefully) had a good nights sleep, and you’re brain hasn’t been worn down by all the ‘stuff’ that surrounds your everyday life.
If you are someone who struggles to focus and often always works in the afternoon or evenings, it could be worth trying to work first thing in the morning.
Either way, the goal is to experiment.
Don’t assume that since you’ve always worked in the night that that means you work best in the evenings. Try switching it up.
Early afternoon (12 pm – 3 pm) are the worst times for me regarding my ability to focus. More often than not, my focus levels have been depleted by a focused morning work session and I’m either thinking about or digesting my lunch. I’ve pretty much now learnt that focused work in the early afternoon is counter-intuitive for me.
During these low willpower times, I now give myself permission to relax or instead do work of a more ‘shallow’ nature.
This is an important point.
When you have learnt which are your non-productive hours, do not attempt to do work that requires deep focus during these times. Instead, take a longer break and adopt some of the ideas mentioned in the above section.
If you try to work in your non-productive hours you will inevitably lose focus.
Switch Your Topics or Style
Sometimes an inability to focus on your work is down to boredom.
This could be down to ‘how’ you are studying or the method you are using. There are various ways of switching this up depending on the type of work you are doing.
Here are some ideas to consider:
- Use Mindmaps or drawings to help you study. I always used to be a guy who would use lists, blocks of text, and reading textbooks to learn things. It was only until I experimented with using things like flash cards and mindmaps that I began to find learning less boring and things began to sink into my brain better. Perhaps you need to change your work techniques?
- Consider switching up your topics and moving onto some other kind of work if you begin to lose focus. There are some types of work that require an extremely high level of focus and some that require less concentration. Learn to tackle the right type of work for your mood and level of focus and you’ll find yourself more immersed in your work.
- Changing the location you are working also can help things. If you’ve been working in the library and are beginning to lose your concentration, you could walk to a coffee shop. You may find that the little walk and the new location may renew your concentration reserves.
Turn off your phone…. If you really can’t bear to turn it off then at least put it away in a random cupboard or another room.
The last thing you want is the latest news, social media updates and e-mails hounding you for your attention.
The other elephant in the room is your laptop or computer. It’s not always the case that you can just lock away your computer as this is often the tool we rely on the most to do our work.
The first thing to ask yourself is if you really do need the computer to do your work, or are you just making excuses to use it and be comforted by the fact that the internet is close by?
If you have decided that you still need your computer, then consider turning off your wi-fi or using your computer in a location where you know there is limited internet access.
In the case that you do need to be connected to the internet, consider using apps that block access to your favourite sites and tools. Shut down any programs you do not need open and treat your computer as if it was a minimalist haven.
Furthermore, eliminate any other things that you are prone to be distracted by. This could be your TV, your cat, your distracting study buddy or a noisy neighbour; do what you can to distance yourself from such things so that you can reach a level of deep concentration.
Know When To Call it a Day
Everyone at some point in the day will reach a point where they are burnt out and can no longer enter that much sought after zone of concentration.
During such times it is far better to quit and get some rest, as continuing to push on would be counter-intuitive.
I know that there are times where I have continued to work and push on despite the fact that my body was giving me signals to stop and rest.
The likely result of working through your low energy moments is the production of low to sub-par work, an increase in stress and a constant inability to focus.
Be aware and listen to the signals in your body of when you need to get some rest. However, be sure to balance this awareness out with an honesty that you are not taking the easy way out and avoiding your work.
How to Keep Your Concentration Long-Term
All the tips mentioned in the above section are great strategies and techniques to help you focus during a task, however, you can make changes to your lifestyle so that you can become less reliant on strategies.
Through improving your overall health and lifestyle, focus can become effortless and what’s more, you can begin to develop better concentration in everything you do in your life outside of your work.
It is my opinion that if you really struggle to focus beyond what you consider to be normal, and all these strategies do not work for you, then you may have to take a closer look at your lifestyle.
All these strategies work well and will help you in this information overloaded culture we now live in, however, a large part of concentration and the ability to focus comes down to how you live your life and how healthy you are.
Here are some lifestyle factors that may affect your ability to concentrate:
- Diet – If you live primarily on a diet of unhealthy junk food, this can cause you to lose focus, become susceptible to energy crashes, anxiety and can cause a restless mind. Stay away from foods high in sugar and stick to fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy meats. Eat healthy for a healthy mind.
- Water – Staying hydrated is essential for maintaining focus. By drinking sufficient amounts of water every day you will increase your ability to focus, reduce migraines and lower stress levels. Make sure you are constantly sipping water throughout the day and you will also reap the many other benefits that drinking water brings.
- Sleep – One of the biggest factors that affect your focus is how much you sleep. It’s such a big factor that it deserves its own post If you are not getting adequate amounts of high-quality sleep then you will not be able to concentrate. If you find yourself struggling to concentrate take a quick check on how well you have been sleeping the past few nights. Either way, to improve concentration look for ways to improve the quality of your sleep. If you feel that this is an area that you need improvement on, find out ways on how to get a good nights sleep.
- Exercise – Your body loves movement which gets the blood and oxygen flowing in your system. Making sure you are moving frequently and engaging in some form of exercise will also improve your mental health and focus. If you are struggling to concentrate, consider taking the steps to start exercising at least a few times a week.
- Brain re-wiring – You and I now live in a world of constant information and distraction. We are connected to the internet throughout the day. As such our brain becomes accustomed to living in a distracted state from constant notifications and information checking. The brain will ‘rewire’ in such a way that it can no longer focus on something for a long period of time as it has become too used to bursts of instant gratification. If you cannot concentrate on anything without reaching for your phone after a few seconds this could be the cause of your inability to focus. If you’re interested in this reading more on this phenomenon I recommend the books Deep Work by Cal Newport and The Shallows by Nicolas Carr.
All these mentioned lifestyle factors play a big part in your ability to concentrate on your studies and how to improve each of these areas is too big to cover in this already long post!
Take some time out to reflect on your lifestyle and see if you can improve in any one of these points.
Don’t Expect Immediate Results
It will take time to go from a distracted way of working to monk levels of concentration. Don’t become frustrated or give up if you cannot focus on your work.
One other last point to make is that it may be the case where you may not even have a concentration problem.
It could be that your subconscious mind is telling you that your work or what you are studying is not for you. If you are in school you may not have a choice, however, for some, it could be a sign that you may be on the wrong career path or slipping away from what you really want or enjoy in life.
Either way, learning how to concentrate isn’t just something that is of benefit when you need to work. Learning to focus can help you in all areas of your life.
I hope that this post will help you complete your most difficult work and that you at least had enough focus to make it down to the end of this article!