concentration techniques 9

There are three lessons to keep in mind here: First, stay in good physical condition with the right kind of food, sleep, and exercises. Second, schedule your different subjects so that you don’t study anyone subject so long that you get bored with it. Third, be interested, or create interest in the subject in hand, so that you can keep working beyond the first symptoms of tiredness.

The American philosopher and psychologist William James developed this insight years ago. Basing his ideas partly on his background in medicine, he believed that most people do not use their mental energies in sufficient depth. He said that our reserves of energy are stored layer upon separate layer. In the physical (muscular) sense, after using up most of the energy in the top layer through working or running, signs of fatigue relay the message for us to stop; but in cases of necessity when we do not stop to rest, a surprising thing happens:

The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy.

We have, in other words, gotten our second wind, and continue to work or run almost effortlessly until we approach a third layer. We become tired again, but if we continue we can pierce through the resistance to gain a third and a fourth “wind.” William James said that in this process, there is an exact parallel between physical energy and mental energy. The feeling of “tiredness” occurring well before quitting time may very well be a sign that you are approaching the second layer of mental energy. It is, however, not a sign that you are actually fatigued. At this point, William James might say, “Don’t stop! Keep going! You are on the verge of tapping a new layer of reserved mental power that heretofore you never realized you had. Keep going, and you will attain the energy of your mental ‘second wind’ enabling you to continue studying not only at a higher mental level, but also with relative effortlessness.”

Most of us find it particularly hard to concentrate on a “boring” or “difficult” subject. The difficult subject is often the one that we are not interested in; consequently, we do not care to read and think about it. Frequently, the subject remains “boring” and “difficult” simply because our knowledge remains meager. Worse still, it pulls down our grades and upsets our composure and self-confidence. When we make the effort to break through this barrier, we are almost always pleasantly surprised. Once we read and think about any subject, we soon find in it something of interest and value. In the following excerpt, William James describes graphically the delaying action taken by a person who tries to avoid grappling with a “detested” subject.

There are topics known to every man from which he shies like a frightened horse, and which to get a glimpse of is to shun … One snatches at any and every passing pretext, no matter how trivial or external, to escape from the odiousness of the matter in hand. I know a person, for example, who will poke the fire, set chairs straight, pick dustspecks from the floor, arrange his table, snatch up the newspaper, take down any book which catches his eye, trim his nails, waste the morning anyhow, in short, and all without premeditation — simply because the only thing he ought to attend to is the preparation of a noon-day lesson in formal logic, which he detests. Anything but that!

The following suggestions will help you take a more kindly attitude toward the “detested” subject and overcome your burden. They may even help you gain a true education.

Small group sessions. Find two or three other students who are interested in meeting with you to discuss briefly each assignment in the particular subject that is “boring” to you. During the give-and-take of the discussion you are bound to learn a great deal and the subject may become “alive” to you. Also, the enthusiasm of some of the members might rub off on you. Once you begin to know something about the subject, your interest level will rise, and the vicious circlewill have been broken. The only prerequisite for a group meeting is that every member should do his homework. Only then can each person become an active contributor as well as a receiver.

Individual tutoring. Don’t just “hang in” there knowing less and less, while almost everyone else is learning more and more. When you see that you are going to have trouble, find a classmate who is mastering the subject and arrange, for a modest fee, to be tutored. The tutor will probably be able to supply the understanding that will make it possible for you to be on your own in a short time.