How to Concentrate

Concentration is a key skill for becoming a good learner. This is especially true in studying mathematics and physics, where you are continually engaging with new concepts. You also frequently have to mobilize all of your thinking power to grapple with complex problem-solving tasks. This often takes time, so you need to sustain your focused attention for a good long time.

As part of my chess training, I tackle a number of chess problems daily. I typically start by reviewing the problems I solved the previous day, and then move on to new problems. One day I was tired, and sloppy, and I put very little effort into solving the problems. I made quick, thoughtless attempts, and then looked up the solutions. The next day, when I reviewed the problems, I had forgotten the solutions, and had no idea how to solve the problems. In short, my quick, sloppy attempts on the previous day were a complete waste of time.

On the other hand, yesterday I devoted serious effort to solving some chess problems. I didn’t solve all of the problems successfully, but I devoted considerable time and effort on each problem. The ones I didn’t solve correctly I reviewed carefully to see which factors I overlooked, and to understand the solutions thoroughly. Today, upon review, I remembered all of the solutions instantly, a good sign that I understand these problems and have internalized the patterns.

It’s the same when you are reading your mathematics or physics textbooks, or solving practice problems. If your attention is scattered because there is a lot going on in your environment (music playing, people speaking to you, your cell phone buzzing, you’re simultaneously watching your favourite TV series, etc.), it’s likely that your results will be about as poor as mine when I fouled up a chess problem-solving session. To increase your concentration, and sustain your concentration for a longer period of time, begin by creating a study space that is free from tempting distractions. Put your cell phone on “silent” mode, and put your phone away where it is out of sight. Do your best to eliminate other distractions. Make an agreement with yourself to study for a certain time, and stick with it. Then take a break at the end of the study session and get up, stretch your legs, check your phone, etc.

Don’t rely totally on group work for learning, as it is neither conducive to concentration, nor is it always an efficient use of time. The best way to make use of your study group is to discuss difficulties you have had in your previous solo study session. You’ll get a lot more out of a group study session if you have previously studied on your own. Similarly, you’ll get a lot more out of lectures if you have studied the textbook before lecture.

The ability to concentrate is a trainable skill; how do you learn to concentrate? The best way to learn how to concentrate is to practice concentrating! This may sound silly, but it is true. It’s also not easy, because most of us are continually and habitually distracted. A good way to develop the habit of concentration is to meditate on a daily basis. There are lots of very simple and good meditations that do not conflict with any religion. For example, you could try taoist meditation, mindfulness meditation, Buddhist meditation, or Zen meditation. There are many other varieties, including religious meditation in your personal religion. The style of meditation is not as important as that you do some meditation every day! Besides helping you to practice concentration, there are numerous other health benefits to daily meditation. Some of these benefits are decreasing stress, and relieving anxiety and depression.

Once you have practiced meditation for a while, you will learn to bring the same meditative awareness to other aspects of your life. And that is really the goal, to bring your focused attention to every moment of your life. In this way you can create your life according to your own desires, and experience less stress doing so.

It can be quite challenging to begin a meditation practice, so be persistent. Also be gentle with yourself; don’t worry about whether you are doing it right or wrong. Just do it, and you will reap the benefits. All it takes is a few minutes a day; you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

I have found it extremely difficult to have a regular meditation practice, and have only done so in the past year+ of my life. Now that I have started, I am seeing the benefits, and I only wish that I had started much earlier in my life. But, as they say, better late than never.

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