One of the great challenges for any student is mastering the art of staying focused in a world of incessant distraction. According to Maggie Jackson, columnist for the Boston Globe and author of the book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, “the way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention–the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress.” While that is a rather profound assessment, we would have trouble arguing that persistent overstimulation and distraction does not directly affect young people and their ability to focus. Naturally, this can lead to difficulties in college, work, and even personal relationships. So below let’s examine some simple ways to stay focused that you can start to implement right now:
1. Stay Healthy
By now, the brain-body connection has been well-documented. A slew of studies show that a healthy body correlates to a healthy mind. When you have, for instance, exercised and eaten a good, well-balanced meal, you will reap innumerable mental benefits. Indeed, studies show that those with healthy diets are 24% less likely to experience cognitive decline than are those with less healthy diets. Physical exercise also yields amazing mental benefits; experts say that young people who are physically active experience improved attention, concentration, and scores on standardized tests and achievement exams. From healthy habits come finely-tuned and attentive minds.
2. Work on Mindfulness
The Buddhists were on to something when they promoted the virtues of silent meditation. When focusing, try to concentrate your attention on one thing, rather than five. Mindful breathing, for instance, can help you to stay centered and relaxed as you focus on the task at hand. Mindful studying, which involves being aware of and paying attention to your surroundings, can help you to reduce distractions and to accept the fact that you may lose focus—in fact, it’s natural to lose focus at times— without getting angry or frustrated. Overall, a mindfulness approach can help you to control internal distractions such as worry or stress, which will lead to a better ability to focus.
3. Bring in a Pro
There shouldn’t be any stigma attached to getting help if focusing is a struggle. Schools offer numerous resources, such as assessments to determine if there are any learning obstacles such as ADD or ADHD, accommodations such as extended time tailored to a student’s unique struggles, peer tutors who can help students with discipline and learning strategies, and counselors, aides, and school psychologists to intervene if lack of focus is causing significant obstacles for a student. Furthermore, you can seek the outside help of tutors and academic coaches who are well-versed in cultivating good study habits and improving a student’s ability to focus. If you are struggling to do it on your own, remember that you don’t have to: there are professionals at your disposal to help.
4. Shorten your Study Time
This may sound counterintuitive, but research shows that when you break study time into manageable chucks, you are more likely to retain information and stay with a task until it is completed. Much like in mediation, where it’s vital to start with small increments, such as five or ten minutes then build up to long, concentrated meditation, studying and focusing also benefits greatly from being parceled out into smaller chunks of time. Start small by focusing on the assignment for five minutes then take a short break. Then take ten minutes, then twenty between breaks—before you know it, you’ll be easily focused for an extended period of time.
5. Balance your Life
Social interaction is absolutely an important component of a young person’s life. Without it, young folks are more prone to stress, anxiety, and depression. That being said, it is necessary to create a healthy balance between social life and academic life. It’s tough to focus when your phone is constantly buzzing out notifications for texts and Facebook messages. Similarly, focus will be negatively affected when you spend too much out on the town with friends, so it’s vital to achieve a work-life balance that allows you the best chance to stay on top of assignments and schoolwork. This is also an important skill to master for college, when you will be presented with, perhaps, more opportunities for socialization than ever before. The balance you strike between learning and socializing can set you up for success and the ability to take care of tasks in a responsible and timely fashion.
6. Schedule an Appointment with Yourself
If you had an appointment with a doctor or a teacher, chances are you’d show up for it and not just blow it off. There’s something about putting it down on your calendar that makes it feel “official.” Try scheduling an appointment with yourself and holding yourself accountable to keeping it, arriving on time, and focusing during it. This little mental trick can really help you to make the most of your limited time. You can even use this strategy to combat worry; if there is something that you’re stressing about, for instance, make an appointment to worry about it at a later time rather than allowing it to cut into your study time.
7. Practice Multitasking
While, as mentioned above, keeping your attention on one thing at a time is good, that doesn’t mean you can’t also improve your ability to take on multiple tasks while staying focused all the while. It might seem counterintuitive to have kids focus on a several tasks at once, but giving them multiple simple tasks to do concurrently can help train their brains to focus more acutely on a set of given tasks. A simple exercise might be to have young students sing a song while tying their shoes or listen to music while coloring. This attention to multiple tasks can ultimately help students to focus later on down the line.
The ability to focus is a valuable life skill that can help young people become competent, successful adults. From enacting the tenets of mindfulness to working with an academic coach, there are many simple ways to begin working on honing your ability to stay focused.
Written by Phil Lane
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