Concentrate to Learn

We must concentrate to learn effectively, a point that I have experienced numerous times in my life. The myth of multi-tasking has been thoroughly debunked by now (for example, see here), but nevertheless many of us try to learn things while trying to do something else. This is ineffective and just ends up causing stress.

The scariest example in my experience was a time early on in the cell-phone era when I received a phone call while I was driving. I answered the call and spoke for a few minutes. When the call ended, I put down the phone and was startled to realize that I had no memory of how I had arrived at my current location. I was on a very dangerous kind of auto-pilot. This was years before there were laws about driving while talking on a cell phone, but it was scary enough that I never did this again.

The example of driving while talking on a cell phone may seem to have nothing to do with learning, but the conclusion is the same. When we try to do two things at once, we end up doing neither of them very well. Constantly switching your attention from one task to the other is also very stressful, besides being ineffective. Because that’s what multi-tasking really is: We don’t really attend to doing two things at once, we constantly switch our attention from one task to the other.

Sometimes multi-tasking is actually helpful; for example, when we continue to carry on a conversation while we tie our shoe laces. We have automated the process of shoe-lace tying, so that we give it absolutely minimal attention while we speak. This means that we don’t have to interrupt our conversation to tie our shoe laces. And there are complex problem-solving activities that are made easier if we have automated some thinking processes. For example, if you are trying to solve a physics problem but are struggling with basic mathematics manipulations, then your experience is not likely to be good. By automating basic mathematical operations, you free up more of your attention for thinking through the physics part of the problem.

Our attention is a limited resource. This point was driven home to me when my son was learning how to drive a motorcycle. The book he was learning from, A Twist of the Wrist (which is highly-recommended), spoke of attention being like a ten-dollar bill. The key point is that attention is limited, so if you spend some attention on some aspect of a task, then you have less attention available for other aspects of the task. For a motorcycle rider, this limitation could become life-threatening if you attend to the wrong things. In an emergency situation you must focus on the key things.

For a learner, scattering your attention means that you will not learn very much. Doing this over and over again means that over time you will fall behind in your courses and your stress will sky-rocket. To learn effectively, you must concentrate your attention on specific tasks and eliminate distractions. Ideally, you will do this in long stretches of time, so that you will learn deeply and internalize your learning. With repetition, you will place your learning in long-term memory, where it will be available for a lifetime.

Like anything else, the ability to concentrate is a skill that can be learned, and you can improve your concentration with regular practice, ideally daily practice. Consider this video: Unwavering Attention. Meditation is ideal for this purpose. Carving out even ten minutes a day to meditate can improve your ability to concentrate. There are many kinds of meditation that are simple and are not connected to any particular religion. For example, you can just sit with your back straight in a comfortable chair, and pay attention to your body and your surroundings. Scan your body and notice any tense muscles, and relax them. Feel the chair under you, and the floor that your feet rest on. What do you hear in the room around you? What do you smell? Focus on your bodily sensations and feelings. If thoughts arise, just gently bring your attention back to what you are feeling in your body, without anger and without being upset. Our attention wanders naturally, and it takes practice to decrease this wandering a little bit. Practice in focusing your attention is extremely valuable, as it will help you to devote more concentrated attention on your studies.

It’s wise to set a timer while you meditate, so that you don’t continually worry about “when is this suffering going to be over?” It may seem onerous at first, but over time it will become a very pleasant and welcome activity.

This is the ultimate point of meditation: The goal is not just to be meditation for 10 minutes per day, although this is a great start. The goal is to bring the same attitude of concentrated attention to your entire life.

Improving your concentration is challenging, but it’s a worthwhile goal, as it will help you achieve all of your other study goals. Therefore, be gentle with yourself, and stick with your practice. Start with ten minutes per day, and over time build up to thirty minutes per day of sitting meditation. The incidental effects on your health are extremely beneficial. (My own meditation of choice is qigong, and the web site of my qigong teacher (Sifu George Picard) can be found here.)

As you improve your ability to concentrate, your effectiveness as a student will increase proportionally. Concentrated effort accelerates learning and makes it more effective, integrated, and long-lasting.

Concentration is important; practice this daily for best results!

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This is part of a series of posts on how to learn; the first one is here. These posts on how to learn will all be linked on this page for easy reference.