The human brain can do incredible things and when we understand the mechanics of how our brains work, how we concentrate, focus, absorb and store information we become better learners. Students are always looking at ways to improve their concentration and train their brains to focus for long periods because let’s face it, during your education years, you have a lot to do and everything you learn during this phase of your life will shape your future and ultimately who you become. So, what’s the science of improving your focus, is there a focus formula or does it depend entirely on the individual brain?
The science of concentrating
What happens in our brains when we are trying to concentrate on one particular thing? Intense focus requires a network of brain regions including the frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that tries to keep us in check from the natural impulse to abandon the boring activity and do something more fun. At some point, our concentration will waver, our mind will wander and the attention towards the task will disappear, and we will naturally search for another stimulus.
What affects our concentration?
Many things affect our ability to concentrate effectively including our diet and nutrition, lack of sleep, hormonal changes, and stress. Studies have shown that having a low-fat diet can decrease your focus, the brain needs essential fatty acids to function, and similarly, eating processed foods or those high in sugar can cause your blood sugar to spike which will lead to lethargy and this will destroy your focus.
There are other ways that our bodies can break down that can affect our focus, if you are hungry or dehydrated, low mood, fatigue, and headaches can cause you to lose your attention span when trying to complete an important task. Likewise, a lack of sleep can slow down your thought process significantly. Did you know that even one bad night of sleep can make you less vigilant and affect your working memory? A 2016 study by Australian researchers found that restricting yourself to five hours of sleep caused significant impairments in sustaining attention and completing tasks.
So make sure you are getting a full eight hours of sleep every night. Stress is another factor that can affect your concentration. Underlying stress, whether it is a health concern, a relationship worry, or general stress about everyday life, can lead to you feeling overwhelmed and burned out and unable to concentrate on your studies.
Improving your focus
Unfortunately, there is no magic pill or quick fix to being more focused but there are ways to train your brain and adapt your lifestyle to ensure you are learning at the best possible level during your educational journey. The best place to begin is to start minimizing the tasks you are participating in. A research study from Stanford revealed that the students taking part in the study who were multitaskers performed poorly on the tests compared to those who focused on one task at a time.
The next thing you need to improve your overall focus is to create a to-do list and stick to it. Prioritizing the tasks, you need to do in the order of your deadlines will give you a clear idea of a schedule you can follow. It’s always important to complete a task before beginning another one because incomplete work will decrease your levels of concentration. This stems from the Zeigarnik Effect which finds that people are more likely to stay focused when they complete each task, rather than going from task to task without completing any of them successfully. So, keep it simple and tackle one thing at a time, rather than juggling too many different things.
Another way of increasing focus, backed by science, is meditating. A 2011 study found that people who regularly meditated were less likely to daydream when doing important tasks and this is because those who meditate exhibit a lower amount of default mode network activity in their brains, which has been linked with anxiety, depression, and attention difficulties. It’s also a good idea to take regular breaks. When you study for too long, you are more likely to deviate from your tasks and find something else to gain your attention. It’s more productive to take a break to watch a cat video or message your friends rather than trying to force yourself to study for five consecutive hours.
Have you heard of the Pomodoro method? If you haven’t, you should. It’s a time-blocking technique that compartmentalizes your tasks into manageable chunks. You focus on the task for 25 minutes and then have a short, 5-minute break before you do another 25-minute chunk of work. This method creates sustainability in your concentration because you are giving your brain the appropriate breaks it needs to digest the information that you have learned.
Creating your focus formula
Distraction can prevent you from achieving and succeeding, so you must create your focus formula and give yourself strict rules to follow to ensure that you are studying and learning to the best of your ability. Just tell yourself that what you do in the short term affects you in the long term and by implementing boundaries for yourself, you are giving yourself the foundation for success.
Every brain is different and something that helps you focus may distract someone else. So, the best place to begin is to ask yourself some questions. Do you like background music or do you focus better in complete silence? Are you a big procrastinator? If you are, maybe removing electronics from the room might benefit you when you are studying. Are you doing everything you can in your day-to-day life to look after yourself? This includes getting plenty of sleep, eating healthily, exercising regularly, and taking time out to relax and do something for yourself. Once you have a formula that works for you, stick with it and you will be acing those exams and holding your qualification in no time!