Focusing on work can be one of the hardest barriers at school to improving your grades and not being able to focus is incredibly frustrating. This article will teach you tried and tested ways to improve concentration and focus. As well as methods for studying that will improve your knowledge retention overall. Read on to find the secrets to better grades and longer focus, and to inject some more fun into your daily work routine!
Focus and concentration are the ability to pay attention to one thing at a time, especially for an extended period. Both short and long-term strategies can help you to concentrate better. In the short term, using study methods that are engaging, reducing distractions, and planning your sessions can all help to improve focus. In the long term, lifestyle changes such as improving your sleep, including foods high in B Vitamins and Omega-3 in your diet, and performing brain training exercises can work wonders. Most importantly: remember that concentration is a skill and will improve with practice, so keep trying and it will get easier.
1. Take a Break
It feels counter-intuitive to find taking a break as the first item on a productivity list, but it is often the key to focussing better. If you begin to feel extremely tired or find you cannot take anything more in, it is time to have a break. This break will allow your mind to refocus and expend some of the energy built up while sitting and concentrating. It also gives your eyes a break from close focus, which can help with strain headaches. More information on effective breaks is found here.
During your break, it is recommended to:
- Take some light exercise, such as a quick walk, 10 star-jumps, or just stretching out where you sit.
- Get a drink of water, and a snack if you need one.
- Change the scenery and go to a different part of your home or study space.
- Focus on distant objects or go outside to relax your eyes and allow eye strain to dissipate.
- RELAX! Try not to check your emails or do anything work-related. This is a time to pause, not catch up on other tasks.
2. Use the Pomodoro Method
The Pomodoro technique is a system of focus and break times that divides revision or work into manageable chunks. There are many systems, but the most common is 25 minutes work, 5 minutes break (this is one Pomodoro), repeated 3 times then taking a longer 15–30-minute break. This can be repeated for as long as your want, and adjusted to your times, but is a useful template. To learn more about the pomodoro technique check out this website.
There are many tracking apps for this method, as well as online programs like this one. Others can be found by typing “Pomodoro” into any search engine or using a physical timer.
3. Reduce Distractions
It is impossible to focus fully if you are in a noisy, crowded or stimulating environment, therefore concentration is always improved by having a calm and quiet place to study. This means switching off the TV and radio, putting your phone onto “do not disturb” mode. Having a quick tidy of physical clutter in your space before beginning to study, so this cannot distract you during work time is very important.
Also, take care of physical needs before sitting down to study, you should grab a glass of water, a snack and use the bathroom to avoid these interrupting your concentration. If your home has many people, or noisy roommates, then studying out of the house can be beneficial. More on this below.
4. Avoid Your Mobile Phone
Your phone can be the most distracting thing in the room because social media and message alerts are designed to be attention-grabbing and addictive. For this reason, a “quick check” on social media can turn into hours of scrolling without realising!
To avoid this, putting your phone on “do not disturb” to avoid message alerts is a useful way to eliminate the distraction. Also, keeping your phone at least 20 seconds away from where you are sitting means you are less likely to check every notification.
If you need motivation to not look at your phone, apps such as Forest, where you set a timer and grow a virtual tree for as long as you do not look at any apps, can be very useful and encouraging. This can also help with techniques using timers, such as Pomodoro.
5. Background Music and Noise
Often it can be impossible to avoid background noise when working. If you need silence to work, investing in earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones can deeply improve the quality of your focus.
If you find silence unhelpful, classical music, music from video games (which is made to inspire focus), and nature sounds, as well as white noise have been found to create a calming environment that helps focus and allows you to tune out unhelpful environmental sounds. Just ensure that any music you choose has no lyrics, which disrupt focus and prevent you from taking in what you are learning.
6. Try Not to Multitask
When there are many tasks due, it can be very tempting to try to complete several at once, and it feels as though we are being more productive and getting them, all done faster.
However, research has proven that this is not the case. When we multitask, one or both tasks are almost always completed to a lower standard, and we rarely understand both parts to a good degree. This is especially true for revision, where memory is involved, as you can get the tasks or facts confused. To learn more about multitasking click here.
For this reason, try to focus on only your current task, and avoid taking “mini-breaks” to write emails or complete another task. If you have many tasks due, using the productivity matrix detailed below can help decide which to focus on and when.
7. Make Plans Before You Start
Studying can be incredibly overwhelming. When there is a whole course or module to revise, knowing where to start can make you feel panicky and avoid beginning. For this reason, creating a plan before studying is hugely important to learn what you are focussing on.
Start by writing a big list of all the things you need to do. If you are revising for GCSEs or other structured exams, your revision guide or the exam board specification (found on their website) is a good place to start. Find which times of the day you can study and write in which parts you will work on at this time, leaving time for relaxation and other important things like homework and sleep. More guidance can be found here.
Some apps help you with this, which can be found by searching “study planner” on any search engine, and you can also write one out on paper or a calendar. More help on creating a study timetable can be found here.
8. Schedule Time For Reviewing and Planning
As mentioned earlier, planning your work time is key to focussing fully on your tasks. If you schedule time into your week to plan sessions for focus, then this planning will not take time away from your study, and you can focus on the task rather than what you should do next.
Equally important is spending time after a focussed session reviewing and checking what you did, and how well you feel it went. This could just be 5 minutes afterwards to check items off a to-do list and put a red (for not understood or complete), yellow (for half understood/partially complete), or green (fully understood/completed) marker next to them.
This colour coding will let you know how well you understand (if this relates to the task). This can help decide whether you need to schedule more time for this in the future or need to add the task to another session again.
9. Work Somewhere Different
There is plenty of evidence to say why you shouldn’t work from your bedroom. The bedroom should be a place you sleep and relax only. Working here decreases sleep quality, disrupts the calming space, and makes it very hard to switch into “work mode”. To learn more about this check out this website.
For this reason, having a dedicated office space where you can immediately start working when you sit down can be conducive to better concentration. If you can, leaving this place for breaks and whenever you stop work (no scrolling social media or daydreaming here) also cements the idea that this is a space for work.
However, if there is not a quiet place in your home where you can work then going to a coffee shop, library, or another quiet place where you can focus is useful. Some people prefer to regularly change up their study environment, as it stops boredom or complacency about their work.
10. Make SMART Goals
Similarly to planning, goals can help you focus on more accurately achieving what you want to do in a session. SMART goals are:
- Specific – narrow down to a focused objective.
- Measurable – define what evidence you can use to prove that you have completed your goal.
- Attainable – make sure your goal is realistic in the time frame.
- Relevant – your goal should align with your long-term objectives and values, such as passing GCSEs.
- Time-Bound – your goal should have an end date that you can reasonably complete it by.
These criteria help your goals to be in line with your plans, and for you to easily measure them in a clear framework. This website shows this idea in detail, as well as how to set these goals in a step-by-step way.
11. Find Engaging Methods of Studying
When studying, revising the same material or similar repeatedly can mean you get stuck with one method. This can make studying boring, which in turn make you less likely to enjoy your work and not focus. Regularly changing up your methods avoids this, and means you know the material better because it’s encoded differently!
Some suggested methods are: Mind maps, Flashcards, Past Papers, Teaching someone else what you are revising, and Group Revision. There are loads more, for example, this article lists lots of methods to engage more in your work.
12. Engage Your Senses
Everyone has experienced that sinking feeling of reading and re-reading and knowing you are not taking it in. We watch a video or read a report but have no idea later what we have read. The way to avoid this is by engaging more than one sense in your task. For instance, if you are watching a video, take some notes of the key points, or sketch them.
If you are reading, then stop every page and summarise what you have read. Similarly, while making notes, read them out or make a video of yourself explaining, or teach another person the material. These methods all help encode the information into your brain in a variety of ways, so it is more likely to stick.
13. Use Visual Tools to Track Progress
A part of being able to concentrate on your task is being motivated. There are many ways of doing this, but one is a visual to-do or task list.
Simply write all the tasks you need to complete (or all the topics you need to revise) on paper or post-it notes, then as you complete them, cross them off or remove the post-it note from the wall. This works as it gives you a tangible sense of achievement, which means you are motivated to keep going.
14. Do Similar Tasks Together
If you have a long list of tasks to complete, one of the hardest parts can be switching off your brain and moving to the next task on the list. This is made even harder when the task is very different to what you were previously doing, and this feeling of distraction can lead to losing focus and avoiding starting new tasks.
To avoid this, before beginning, while in the planning stage and writing out your to-do list, group together similar tasks, such as sending emails and making phone calls as ‘correspondence’ or writing a report and proofreading. This helps smooth the transition to a new task as you do not have to completely change your mind set before starting.
15. Use the Productivity Matrix
Simply put, the Productivity (or Eisenhower) Matrix is another way of prioritising tasks so that we get the tasks that are most important done quickly, helping you to concentrate on what matters most and therefore improve focus. This system has 4 sections, which you sort your to-do list into:
- Important and Urgent: these tasks are ones left to the last minute or crises that you couldn’t predict. These are to be completed immediately! They usually have a short-term focus and a deadline.
- Important not Urgent: these tasks can be planned and put into action for a later time, or once you finish the urgent list. Spending more time on these helps eliminate things from the future Important-Urgent list. They could include planning, or similar long-term, goal-focused work.
- Not Important but Urgent: these tasks need to happen but aren’t on your list of priorities. If you work in an office environment, these would be the tasks you delegate to others. They could be responding to emails, making phone calls or regular meetings with no functional purpose.
- Not Important not Urgent: these are tasks that distract you during the time you want to focus. They could include scrolling social media, personal phone calls or anything causing you to procrastinate. They should be moved to times when you aren’t focussing, or removed from your day if they have no positive impact on you or your study goals.
16. Reward Yourself For Focus
When you have focused for the amount of time you planned to, you have achieved a goal! It is important to recognise this as something to be proud of, as this will increase the positive connotations of focus and make you more likely to do it in the future. One way of recognising this achievement is through rewards.
These rewards could be simple, such as watching some TV or playing a video game, or things like going for a coffee break at a nice café, or a sticker on your planner. Anything which motivates you.
A good way of making these rewards is to have them randomised. This means that each time you achieve the focus time, you use a random yes/no generator, or flip a coin, and depending on which side it lands on you get a reward or not. This increases the payoff from the reward as you want to work hard for another try at the reward, and makes it into a game, making the work more fun.
17. Tidy Your Space
There is a saying “a tidy house is a tidy mind” – this also applies to wherever you work or study. When our space is cluttered and filled with papers, stationery, and other miscellanea, we are also distracted by moving things, and other tasks which we can see that are not yet done.
Tidying your study space before you begin to concentrate can help foster greater focus, as we are undistracted by our environment and can work unhindered by the surroundings. Also, this tidying can be a great way of swapping between relaxing and concentrating modes, as we enter our study space and start to change our mindsets.
18. Brain Dumping
Similarly, to having a tidy space, before work your mind can be buzzing with a million thoughts and ideas not related to your task. This is unhelpful to focus as it does not allow to only see the task at hand. There are a few ways to avoid this, meditation (below) and brain dumping can be very helpful.
Brain dumping is simply filling a piece of paper (for 5 minutes) with any thought that comes into your brain. Then you can begin your session of focus and continue noting ideas and thoughts as you need to, keeping them for after the session.
Then later you can go through these notes and sort any ideas or tasks which need doing onto a to-do list and begin the process again. This is useful for when you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed by tasks, as it allows you to concentrate on a task but still acknowledge other tasks.
19. Switch Task
Eventually, you can get to a point when studying where more work on the same task is useless. This is often due to lost focus, lack of inspiration, or feeling in the wrong mindset. While sometimes these feelings can be pushed through, sometimes there comes a point where switching task is more productive.
It is important to remember that not completing something immediately is not always bad, sometimes it is an important part of improving or sustaining concentration.
20. Schedule High and Low Focus Tasks in Succession
Sustaining a high level of focus for a long period is nearly impossible for most people. For this reason, scheduling all high focus tasks to be completed all at once is not a good strategy for completing as much as possible in a time.
When planning, it is most effective to have a high-low-high-low structure to task lists, so that completing them in order gives your brain a break and you can have a greater level and length of session overall. Especially in the long term, this strategy can lead to extended possible concentration duration, as the brain and body get used to focusing for a longer period.
21. Good Sleep
While sleep appears to come up in every article about every possible problem, good sleep is indeed key to good concentration. When the body is well-rested, the mind can focus on a task clearly, rather than focussing on when it can next rest.
Adults and Teenagers generally need around 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Not only that, but sleep (especially the REM phase) is when memory and learning are consolidated into long-term memory. Not sleeping means that these facts are less likely to be cemented into your brain, and therefore less likely to be remembered. So next time you think about an “all-nighter”, read this article here.
When we are very busy with work, finding time to exercise can seem like a distraction from all the things we need to get done. However, physical activity can be an incredible way to enhance concentration and improve your health and sleep.
Studies have found that 20 minutes of moderate exercise before working or studying can increase concentration and focus for around an hour afterwards. Therefore, scheduling a walk, jog or yoga session before your focus time can be very beneficial. Read more about the benefits of exercise on study here.
However, it has also been found that very high-intensity exercise such as HIIT (high-intensity interval training) can decrease concentration, likely because it exhausts the body. Make sure that the exercise is not so tiring that you are unable to think and do something you enjoy!
23. Spend Time in Nature
Another way to improve concentration is to spend time in nature. Just 15 minutes daily (possibly combined with walking, running or other exercises as above) can benefit mental health, as well as increasing concentration.
Being in nature reduces stress levels and heart rate and increases awareness of our environment as we tune in to sounds and sights which we might be otherwise too busy to see. A good place to do this is woodland or forested areas, but grassy parks or beaches are also lovely places to connect with nature.
Meditation is becoming increasingly more common, and for good reason, it not only improves focus but also sleep, mood and productivity. Luckily, this increasing popularity means there are many resources for free meditations online and on apps. For instance, searching “meditation for focus” on YouTube or Google yields thousands of results.
There are apps dedicated to providing meditations such as Headspace, which has sections dedicated to focusing, stress and work meditations and videos.
If you do not want to use an app, simply set a timer for 5 minutes (or longer, build up over time). Sit with your eyes closed and your hands in your lap, trying to focus on your breath without following any trains of thought (just noticing them as they pass) is a great way to start building mindfulness into your everyday life.
25. Feed Your Brain
There are a few foods that have proved helpful to concentration. This is because they contain specific nutrients which are useful when the brain is focussing. For instance, foods high in Omega-3 such as Oily fish (salmon, mackerel), walnuts and eggs can improve mood and memory, which is positive for concentration.
Also, whole grains, nuts and seaweed are high in B Vitamins, which improve the cognitive functioning of the brain and can even help protect against nerve damage in the brain from certain chemicals.
Finally, foods high in Dopamine and Fibre increase motivation and concentration and include fruits (ripe bananas, berries, other raw fruits), vegetables, seeds and many more. Small inclusions of these in your diet can help focus in a big way over time and are also a tasty way to get good nutrients during snacks and meals.
Caffeine is a common way used by many people to increase their focus in the short term. It is a stimulant that works by blocking the neurotransmitter adenosine (which causes drowsiness) from entering the brain. Caffeine can be found in coffee, tea, chocolate, so it is likely already a part of a lot of people’s daily diets.
However, the key to caffeine intake is to keep it small. Caffeine is an addictive compound, so it can lead to headaches, and other symptoms if you stop having it after a long time. The caffeine found in 4 cups of coffee is safe for adults, but for teenagers, this is much lower, and it varies in different people, and exceeding the recommended amount can lead to shivers, anxiety and decreased concentration due to the stimulating effects.
If you would like to learn more about the effects of caffeine click here.
27. Practice Makes Perfect
As with anything, concentration improves the longer you practice it. Starting small with just 5-10 minutes of focus at a time and gradually building up will lead to a longer attention span and better focus! Just like any skill, practising every day leads to the best improvement overall, so keep working on it even if you do not have work or studying to do.
28. Practice Doing One Thing
Similarly, to above, training your concentration does not just happen during work time. You can practice focussing deeply on all areas of life, by doing the task you are doing with your full attention until it is done. For instance, watching one TV program, without scrolling social media or doing another activity, or reading only one book before you start the next one.
These ideas help you to develop focus and patience into your routine and are a kind of mindfulness. This will help your studying, but also improve your daily life as you begin to notice new things about activities you take for granted but never fully noticed before. You will find new parts in your day which you enjoy, and that is as good a reason as any to try this technique.
29. Listen to Your Body Cues
There sometimes comes a time when studying where you simply cannot focus anymore. In these situations, paying attention to what your body is telling you can help you to understand what you need to do to return to a focused state. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I need a drink?
- Am I hungry?
- Do I need the toilet?
- Am I restless? Do I need some air?
- Am I bored with this task?
- Am I tired?
Then, with your answers in mind, go and complete what your body needs, by getting some sustenance, or going for a walk. Then you can return to focussing refreshed or decide that you need to stop for the day. Listening to your body is the best way to improve your well-being in the long term.
30. Brain Training Games
As with any muscle, the brain can be exercised and trained to improve its performance in concentrating over time. There are many games reputed to help with this: chess, sudoku, crosswords and similar logic puzzles are useful paper games, while apps such as Lumosity provide the same benefits on your phone, so you can use them anywhere.
These games do not only have to be intended for brain training. Research has shown that playing moderate amounts of Video or Computer Games can improve focus and concentration, as well as problem-solving skills, especially if they are strategy based. Therefore, enjoying a video game in your spare time can improve your concentration at work!
31. Work at Optimum Focus Times
Every person has an optimum, or ideal time of day at which they focus. This is like the ‘night owl’ and ‘early bird’ theory, in that some people work better in the evening, and some at other times of the day.
The best way to find this out is by starting work at different times for a few days and recording how productive and motivated you felt. Then, once you know which time of day you prefer, schedule your focus time to be concentrated there where possible, with high effort tasks being in that block. However, this does not mean that other times of the day are not useful! You can get just as much done at any time, just that certain times may be easier for your brain than others.
32. Medical Issues
If your inability to concentrate is regularly affecting your work, or health, and is not changed by any of the tips in this article, it may be beneficial to see your doctor or GP.
While lack of concentration is usually not a sign of a problem when recurring, it can be a symptom of a larger issue that a doctor can help with. Lack of concentration can be symptoms of ADHD, Chronic Fatigue, Insomnia, Anxiety, and Depression, as well as a side effect of certain medications. If you have any of these issues there are medical solutions to improve concentration issues, so ask your doctor for more information on this.