The Secrets to Study Concentration Through Control and Focus

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So far in this series (other posts in the series can be found at the bottom of this post) mountain-childwe’ve looked at six of the nine aspects that characterize what psychologists term the “flow” state; that conscious state of high and focus where we lose all track of time and perform at peak levels. We’ve looked at ways to bring each of those aspects into our studies. What about those last three?

(7.) A sense of control. In order to really get into that high concentration groove you’ll need to feel like you are in control of your studying. That can be really tough if you feel overwhelmed. You may feel that there is just so much to do you don’t know where to start or that the material or task is too difficult. When that happens most of us are tempted to throw up our hands in disgust and go do something we can control, like changing the desktop background on our computer or improving our skills with a Q-tip. Here’s how you can quickly gain a sense of control over those daunting study tasks.

First, make a list of everything you have to do

  • Read 6 chapters in A Comprehensive History of Plastic Wrap
  • Write 20 page research paper for Parasitic Statistics
  • Catch up on last three weeks of practice problems for Testudinate Calculus

Next, rank the list items in order of importance. By importance, I mean which will cost you the most if it doesn’t get done. This is very important! It’s really tempting to do the less valuable but more doable.

  1. Research paper for P. Stat.
  2. Practice probs for T. Cal.
  3. Rdg for Hist of Pl Wrp

Now, take that first one and break it down into a series of steps. Each step should take no more than one hour.

  • Rsrch ppr for PStat
    • Find three references in library
    • Skim through first ref to ID relevant passages
    • Read important passages and take notes
    • Skim through second ref to ID relevant passages
    • Read and take notes
    • et cetera

Now, work through the steps one at a time. Once you complete a step, check it off your list. Bask in your sense of control.

What’s happening here? Doing an entire research paper is a mountainous insurmountable task that leaves us feeling helpless. But mountains are climbed one step at a time. By breaking it down into small tasks we turn Mount Research Paper into the simple step of finding three references in the library. We also have the added bonus of being able to check that item off our to-do list within the next hour or so. That’s a nice reward that will keep us coming back for more.

(8.) Flow activities are intrinsically rewarding, meaning we do them because we feel good when we do them. Think of your favorite activity–skiing, reading, mumblety-peg, whatever. You do it because you enjoy doing it, not because someone is paying you or rewarding you in some other way.

Yow! How can we make our studies intrinsically rewarding? It’s not as hard as you might think.

In fact, learning itself is intrinsically rewarding. We are brainy beasts. Our skulls house more gray matter per pound of body weight than almost any other animal on the planet. (I’m tempted to say, “than any other animal on the planet,” but sure as I do, someone will write in telling me how the Albanian Aardvark or the Greater Tufted Titmouse lords it over us in this regard.) We derive real pleasure from gaining sudden insights, spotting patterns, and figuring things out.

The problem is that those “a-ha!” experiences we get during our studies are often buried under mounds of rather boring work. We often spend loads of time dreading the work and moaning about our hardships. When we do finally have that rewarding flash of insight we feel good for about three seconds and then start dreading the next task.

Slow down and sniff the proverbial roses. Return to smell the roses again later. Collect the roses and put them in a vase where you can smell them before, during, and after, your studies.

One easy way to do this is to pay attention to those good feelings when they pop up and write down the circumstance on a sticky note. For example, “Importance of mass beaver migrations finally clicked. Yeah me!”

Bask in the glow of your new found knowledge; let yourself feel good about it. Now put that sticky note next to your desk. Before you begin studying each day, look over the accumulated notes of your triumphs and remember how good each of those felt. Look forward to adding a couple more to the bouquet.

How does it work? Basically, you’re teaching yourself to pay more attention to the good stuff and less attention to the less-than-fun aspects of studying. A basic psychological principle is that you get more of whatever you pay attention to. This is just a way to apply that to your studies.

(9.) Action awareness merging is the last characteristic of flow. Fancy term. Simple concept. It just means that your awareness narrows down to the action you are engaged in. You get tunnel vision for what you are doing. Most of us would just call it “getting focused.”

This is definitely a tall order for some of us. I have a friend who has to have medication to make this happen, and you can really tell when he’s on his meds. When he’s not taking his Aderol he rarely finishes a sentence on the same subject he started on. The Aderol HELPS. He was in his thirties before he finally figured this out, so go get help if you think you might need it.

Thankfully, most of us can forgo the professional help and get there with a little concerted practice. I imagine my brain as a child or puppy. It gets distracted very easily so it has to be constantly monitored, redirected, and rewarded.

I monitor it by clearly deciding what I should be doing and then setting a timer (as discussed previously). For instance, “I should be committing this page of notes to memory.” I then set my timer for two minutes, or five minutes, or whatever time I think will be a challenge. When the timer goes off…

I redirect myself if I’m not on task. Was I daydreaming about what the love child of Angelina Jolie and Mick Jagger would look like (answer: a toothpick with frog lips)? If I was daydreaming, I don’t waste time in self-recriminations. Instead, I renew my vow to stay on task, set the timer again, and jump right back in. Conversely, if I was on task when the timer went off…

I reward myself. In fact, just now as I wrote that last sentence my timer went off. I got up and did a celebratory dance, complete with white-boy’s overbite. My fellow diner’s here at the coffee shop were initially amused and eventually disturbed.

The reward doesn’t have to be huge; just a little self-congratulations, an oreo, or a nice long stretch, will do. Every once in awhile, though, it’s nice to treat yourself to something bigger. Like a kindergartner or a puppy, your brain will soon learn to concentrate on command.

As you work on your studies in the next few days, you might read one of these 9 characteristics of flow and try applying it. Practice these consistently and you’ll soon find yourself so absorbed in your studies that you’ll be forgetting to eat and regretting the need for potty breaks. Write me and let me know how it’s going. That is, if you can tear yourself away from studies for long enough.

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

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