Improve Your Focus With Better Feedback and A Perfect Challenge Level

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coloringPart 3 in the series “Getting Into the Study Groove” – See the end of this post for more segments in the series.

So far we’ve talked about the first four characteristics of that perfect state of academic zen; the state where we are at one with our studies, losing all track of time and all sense of self and getting completely focused on the task in front of us. The next two items that typify the flow state are…

(5) Direct and immediate feedback. To hit that perfect zone of zen-like you need instant feedback. A kindergartner with a coloring book has that sort of immediate feedback; “Am I coloring within the lines or not?” A circus highwire walker has it too; “Am I still on the wire or am I falling?” Both of them know whether or not they are maintaining their focus on a second-by-second basis, so they can adjust accordingly.

You can do the same thing with your studies by carefully defining what constitutes perfect progress for whatever task you are engaged in. Before beginning your work, take a second to write it down. Here are some examples to get you started…

TASK: Taking Notes in My History Class

Perfect progress is…

  • Capturing all relevant/important information
  • Adding emphasis to bring out the most important points
  • Crossing out stuff that won’t be on the test
  • Adding illustrations to increase recall
  • Doing mini-reviews to increase recall
  • Asking my own questions of the material
  • Reacting to the material
  • Noting where I don’t understand/need clarification

TASK: Reading my Metacognitive Aspects of Rust Prevention text book

Perfect progress is…

  • Not wasting time reading irrelevant or untested material
  • Capturing all relevant/important information in my notes
  • Adding illustrations to my notes to increase recall
  • Doing mini-reviews to increase recall
  • Asking my own questions of the material
  • Reacting to the material
  • Noting where I don’t understand/need clarification

Knowing what perfect progress looks like will enable you to continually compare what you’re doing to what you should be doing so you can constantly make course corrections to stay on target. The act of trying to align your behavior with your target behavior will increase your concentration.

(6) The Goldilocks Principal. Goldilocks was constantly looking for that “just right” state; not too hot or too cold, not too hard or too soft. Do the same thing with your study activities. No task should be too difficult or too easy. Too hard and you’ll get frustrated and give up (that will lead to procrastination next time). Too easy and the task becomes boring. Our brain likes a doable challenge.

One easy way to do this is to add a time factor to your “perfect progress” from item number 5 above. For example, let’s say we are reading that boring text on Metacognitive Aspects of Rust Prevention and I just can’t maintain perfect progress for long.  Every few minutes I catch myself wondering whether earthquakes cause canned-soda mishaps for weeks afterwords or if the smell coming from behind my desk could possibly be the slice of pizza I mislaid last week. Set a timer for five minutes and see if you can maintain perfect progress for at least that long.

Did you make it successfully through five minutes? Celebrate! Then reset the timer for six minutes and try again. Keep bumping up the time until it’s a real challenge.

This is also a great way to keep your concentration level up on those difficult math problems. Don’t make your goal successfully completing the problem. On really hairy-scary problems, that’s just a recipe for failure and frustration. Instead, set your goal at diligently working on the problem for five minutes (or ten, or twenty-five … whatever seems just doable if you really concentrate). Successfully completing the problem will eventually take care of itself if you just keep at it long enough. So set your sights on keeping at it.

Other entries in the series "Getting Into the Study Groove"

  1. Getting Into the Study Groove
  2. So Focused You Forget Yourself (And Your Watch!)
  3. Improve Your Focus With Better Feedback and A Perfect Challenge Level
  4. The Secrets to Study Concentration Through Control and Focus