When you are learning something, or writing something, creating something etc., it is tempting to just go at it and work as long as you are able. It may even feel efficient. At least that is how it feels to me. I like to work flat out until I am done. Unfortunately it is not efficient. We humans are not that good at focusing intently for long periods at a time. What happens is that we start by focusing intently but after awhile our ability to concentrate starts to drop off and if we keep going, we will be able to focus and learn less and less all the time. And then we go to Facebook, news sites, email, or what else still may feel like efficient but isn’t. So this is one of the techniques to learning better I am working on.
How long any one individual can focus is varies. You can test this yourself. When you have set up your books, pens, and whatever else you need to study at that time, start a timer and as soon as you feel it getting harder to understand, harder to focus or you find your mind wondering, stop the timer and see how long it was. This one measurement will not give you an all-encompassing figure as our ability to focus intently varies a lot based on many factors, like how well he have slept, how interested we are in the material, how we feel about learning in general and learning the topic specifically, and on many other things as well. Doing a few measurements in different setting and times can give you a better average, if you want to study your own ability to focus in more depth. This can be useful especially if you are planning on extending that time (more on this at the end of this post). For this technique, however, it is unnecessary.
The measurement you took gave you little benchmark you can use. If you could focus for 15 minutes, then probably asking yourself to focus for an hour at a time is excessive. If you could focus for an hour, taking a break every 15 minutes will most likely disrupt your workflow too much. However, what we are doing next is training our brain for focusing intently – taking a break – focusing intently -process. For that to work well, you need to choose a period that is easy for you to maintain now. You can always lengthen it later if you so choose. So choose a time period that is easy for you and by the end of which you still feel you could continue to study. Twenty minutes to a half an hour is pretty good to start with. I chose half an hour of intensive working and five minutes of rest in between.
Once you choose the time you want to start with, here’s what you do next. You set up a timer of your choice to ring, klang, play a tune or what ever is the least irritable for you, to ring when that time has passed. Then you study and focus as intently as you can on your material and on the learning. When your timer rings, klangs, or what ever it does, walk away from your material for five minutes. If you focused for 40-50 minutes, the break can be longer, of about 10 minutes. During that break, you can do something pleasant and fun away from the materials and study location. You can walk about, get some water, play an instrument or what ever. However, don’t go to social media, learn something else, or play a game needing concentration on your computer, because then your brain will not recharge. Also, if what you are doing takes your focus out of studying into, lets say, social media, it can be difficult to get back to studying when your break-time is over. The idea is to do something completely different to give your brain a chance to recharge, relax and get ready to concentrate and learn again.
So after you have done something completely different and not requiring you to read or focus, for 5-10 minutes, you go back to your study station, start the timer and do another stint of studying. Again, as the timer rings, you take a brake. Then you can study again. By doing it this way, you are able to maintain focus for a longer period of time in total than if you just try to study without breaks.
What you are also doing is teaching your brain to focus until the timer goes off. For those of you who wish to lengthen the period of time you can focus intently and learn, that is very good. Once it is easy to study intently for your chosen period of time, take a break, and continue, you can start to lengthen the time period. For this, please practice moderation. Lengthen the time in baby-steps of a minute or two at a time and give time for your ability to focus to strengthen before you add any more time. There is no hurry as this added time accumulates quite quickly. If you add only one or two minutes every other day, you probably won’t even notice the difference, but soon the time you spend on focusing intently during a day has clearly increased.
If you are teaching yourself this, as I am, then pay attention to the amount of study stints you can do within a day. If you find yourself tired and focusing is getting harder, don’t start another study period. Sometimes we sleep badly or for whatever reason it is hard to focus. When this happens, it is better to go out and take a walk and try later or the next day. That way your brain gets the rest it needs to learn. This is also a good time to look at those emails waiting, news topics, social media and what ever running matters we have that require our attention, but not our 100% concentration. So good luck everybody.