Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue

To do two things at once is to do neither.
Publilius Syrus, Sentences (circa 100 BC)

Improving My Attention and Concentration

The Functioning of Attention and Concentration

Attention, Concentration and Motivation

Intrinsic motivation helps me concentrate and stay focused on a learning task. Certainly, my interest in the activity facilitates my quickly getting started and resistance to external distractions, while fostering an in-depth approach to the material. Achievement-oriented motivation, i.e., without real interest in a task, does not help my concentration because my thoughts are focused on the anticipation of results and their consequences (good marks, pride, professional achievement) rather than on task performance per se. Intrinsic motivation fosters self-discipline, perseverance when facing difficulties and a strategic approach to learning. Lack of motivation or extrinsic motivation gives rise to resistance, anxiety and a superficial learning approach that is focused mainly on passing exams and strictly adhering to course-plan requirements.

Therefore it is in my best interest to adopt attitudes that most favor intrinsic motivation or, failing that, achievement-oriented motivation: long-term perspective, finding personal meaning and purpose in the task, the love of a job well done, positive attitudes and anticipation of success. Certain techniques of positive conditioning can be very helpful if my motivation wavers: respecting planned study periods (prevents discouragement), a reward system. My subconscious records unpleasant experiences and offers more resistance each time I fail to keep the commitments that I have made to myself.

Attention, Concentration and Stress

University studies are demanding. Learning efforts sustained over long periods of time result in intellectual and physical fatigue. The more a task is complex, new, abstract, tedious and of poor perceptual quality (small font, dense, without divisions, etc.) the more attention and concentration efforts are required and the more quickly I become fatigued. The various sources of pressure (lack of time, exam-related anxiety, personal worries) demand additional efforts on my part to maintain my attention on the task. Therefore, it is particularly important to, as much as possible, limit my sources of stress by carefully choosing my work times, places and environments and by scheduling specific times to address my personal problems.

It is preferable to adapt my work environment to the nature of the task. Routine, repetitive and tedious work requires a stimulating atmosphere and high level of cerebral activation. On the other hand, study and problem-solving requires a calm and relaxed atmosphere and a lower level of cerebral activation.

Attention, Concentration, Conception of Learning and Impulsivity

To learn takes time. My learning is measured by the knowledge stored in my memory and my capacity to activate it at the right time and in the right place. The development of a competence is a process of progressive construction and re-construction that necessitates frequent thinking and re-thinking. Inadequate learning patterns (linear or cumulative), extrinsic motivation and a tendency towards impulsivity incites my wanting to finish before I even get started. In such cases, essential information is not always perceived and registered accurately or processed thoroughly.  My attention will be focused on speed and the number of pages I need to read. I read but retain little.

Attention, Concentration, Time Management and Organization

Good use of time takes into account my personal concentration and attention capacities. A general principle is to plan concentration-demanding tasks (study, reading) for the best times of the day and week. Less concentration-demanding tasks (sorting documents, looking for books in the library) can be performed during other times of the day and week that are less conducive to intellectual work.

My ability to efficiently concentrate for hours varies according to my energy reserves and the task difficulty. I can extend my concentration time with training. Regular breaks (10 minutes per hour of continuous work) are best for my recuperation and information assimilation. My minimal capacity of sustained concentration (without breaks), which is required for advanced studies, should not be less than 20 minutes in duration. Any capacity below this minimum indicates a need for training.

Factors Beneficial to My Concentration
  • An appropriate environment: noise and other solicitations demand increased concentration efforts.  When they are present, concentration duration will be less and fatigue will set in more quickly. Therefore it is particularly important to give a great deal of attention to choosing my work times, locations and ambiences (auditory, visual, lighting, etc.).
  • A quick start: training oneself to concentrate quickly (within less than one minute) increases efficient use of available time and the inner satisfaction that results. Motivation comes with feeling productive and efficient.
  • Work organization: if a large part of information processing is automatic, less energy and effort is required. In developing a personal study organization system (ex. summary sheets and sorting system, in-class or reading note taking method), I can more immediately get to work and minimize my energy output in terms of concentration efforts.
Factors Detrimental to My Concentration
  • Physical and nervous fatigue: it is not recommended to study after intensive sports, at the end of a day of intensive intellectual activity or after prolonged hours of study.
  • Imbalanced lifestyle and personal habits: insufficient physical activity, improper nutrition, insufficient or inappropriate recreational activities or hobbies.  It is wise to plan daily and weekly relaxation, physical and recreational activities and to reward myself for fruitful work periods.
  • Personal problems: financial concerns, emotional distress, and material preoccupations rank among the most common sources of concentration disability. I can train myself to temporarily free myself from these endogenous distractions by allotting specific time for them in my daily schedule.
  • Pessimistic expectations: anxiety, fear of failure and high levels of stress are detrimental to my concentration. Again in this case, I can train myself to change the way I view events and to better resist psychological pressures.
  • Negative attitudes: lack of interest in a task, demobilizing inner dialogue and slow starts render attention and concentration difficult. The more I dislike a task, the longer it seems to take.

Strategies to Control Attention and Concentration

Mobilizing My Attention

To control my attention, I must learn to recognize those times when I am about to disconnect so that I can reconnect right away. Certain situation characteristics are effective in mobilizing my attention, such as discussions and problem-solving groups. I have the tendency to disconnect while reading tedious material or during tough, abstract courses where the content solicits little of my attention (monotone voice, no visual supports). Some tactics that can help me to stay focused on the subject include taking lots of notes, organizing ideas using outlines or note mapping, following along in the text, noting ideas evoked by the presentation, noting distracting thoughts, purposefully disconnecting (look out the window, become aware of my position and breathing, relax) so that I can better reconnect a few moments later.

Focusing My Attention

The more selective my attention, the easier it is to process incoming information. When I focus on one aspect of the task at a time, I limit the risk of confusion. In order to do this, I must divide the task into smaller units. For instance, reading a chapter is a task that can be split into several successive periods: first, I do a preview of the titles and subtitles in order to get a general idea of the content, then I carefully read the introduction and conclusion in order to understand the author's intentions and orientations and finally, I read the chapter section by section, taking notes, summarizing the author's ideas, using mnemonic reminders and then I revise. Between the task sections, there are natural break times and opportunities for me to briefly relax and physically move. Although these breaks are very short (a few minutes), they allow me to recover my capacity to concentrate. They also help me to assimilate and store essential information in my memory long-term, so that I can rapidly recall the main points of the previous work unit.

Using My Internal Dialogue

Negative, demeaning and pessimistic internal dialogue distracts my attention from the task and shifts it to its affective and motivational context. This shift is detrimental to the task and contributes to my lack of motivation, weakens my resistance to distractions and encourages my disconnection. Self-talk about the task; the best way to organize its completion, articulation of my questions and reasoning, either out loud or silently to myself, helps to maintain my focus. Talking about the task, whether internally or out loud, will often increase my understanding.

Using Mental Imagery

Similarly to internal dialogue, all cerebral activity spontaneously generates a constant flow of images and scenarios. The use of drawings, diagrams, graphs, schemas or models keeps my mental imagery focused on the learning task, while facilitating my understanding.

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