concentration techniques

Stated in simple terms, concentration is thinking. And during our waking hours we are, with varying degrees of intensity, thinking all the time. Actually, our supply of things about which to think and worry never runs out. William James, the famous Harvard philosopher and psychologist, said that some thought or idea tries to gain the focus of our attention every two or three seconds. These thoughts and ideas bang, rattle, and knock on the door of our consciousness, trying to gain entry! It is no wonder, then, that it is so difficult to keep our minds on the job in hand. Concentration is a slippery quality, because it is not a product or a process; rather it is a by-product. Concentration happens only when we don’t think about concentration. For example, if you were thinking deeply about the principle of magnetism and suddenly realized that you were concentrating, then, at that moment of realization, you would have broken your concentration on the subject of magnetism. In the words of William James, trying to seize concentration is “like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas light quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.” We all agree, I believe, that concentration is elusive. What do you see in the figure on the right? You will probably find your visual focus shifting every few seconds, so that you first see a goblet and then two profiles, and then the goblet again. It is difficult to focus visually on just one of the images and ignore the other. Similarly, it is hard for the mind to focus on just one idea at a time. Concentration is one of the keys to success. A person who can focus his total thinking on the task before him has an infinitely better chance of completing the task more quickly and accurately than a person who divides his attention, focusing only 25 percent of his thinking on the task, while the other 75 percent is concentrated on a television program that he watched the night before. Even in physical tasks, concentration is the key. Take bowling, for instance. A good bowler takes his position, stares at the pins, tries to shut out the noise and people, and then when he has gathered and concentrated all his thinking on the pins at the end of the alley, he makes his move. After a short measured run, he arcs the ball smoothly onto the runway. With the ball rolling down the alley, his thinking is still so concentrated that he tries to control the ball with “body English.” That’s concentration!

Imagine reading your text so intensely that you speak out to the author: “That’s not proof enough,” or “Other writers explain it differently,” or “I never thought about the problem that way before.” That’s concentration! Trouble in concentrating may come from many causes, often interrelated. For example, many students are so afraid of failing that the dread specter of failure takes more of their attention than their study assignments. Anxiety causes them to do poor work, and this in turn intensifies the fear they started with. Some students never get off this treadmill. But many do, and nearly all can, if shown the way.

Fortunately, the ability to concentrate can be improved by learning to recognize the causes of poor concentration and by learning to control them as a matter of habit. The causes can be external or internal distractions, physical or mental fatigue, or lack of interest in the work to be done. All these, once recognized, can be overcome.

College study halls and libraries are full of external distractions, ranging from blue eyes to banging doors. Select your place of study carefully. Following these suggestions can minimize distraction.

A Place to Study
Some of us study whenever we have the chance. Itinerant preachers read their bibles on horseback as they traveled from village to village. Abe Lincoln read by the light from the fireplace. Most of us, however, need something more stable. We need a workbench or desk — a place of our own where pens, pencils, paper, and dictionary are at our fingertips, a place where we can leave books open and papers ready for our next study session. As a student, I had a plain faced door supported by two sawhorses — a wonderful space on which to work. Psychologists emphasize that a conditioning effect is created between the desk and you: If you nap or daydream a lot while sitting at the desk, then the desk can act as a cue for napping or daydreaming. To avoid this type of negative conditioning, always use your desk just for studying. When you want to nap or daydream, leave the desk and nap or daydream elsewhere.