Guide on wellbeing: concentration

How to practice concentration and what things affect our ability to concentrate.

We can say that our time and attention are our most valuable resources. And when it comes to your attention, the direction in which you focus your attention affects what happens next and, in the long run, the direction in which your life develops. If you find focusing to be challenging for you, you can take comfort in the fact that it’s a skill you can develop as long as you know what it is that you can actually do about it. 

Focusing is the spotlight of your attention 

Focused attention can be thought of as the light shining out of a flashlight. Strong focus means to be able to keep your attention clearly on the task you have chosen, and for as long as you want. Seen this way, it means that the spotlight of attention doesn’t wander off to social media, the kitchen sink, or future plans or worries. 

Focusing isn’t only about efficiency and immersion into the task at hand, but also about the intentional, conscious and free choice of what to focus on. Having our attention randomly switch gears is also straining four our resources. And if this happens repeatedly, the unfortunate consequence is that it gets harder to both make and pursue long-term plans. 

It’s also important to remember that losing your focus from time to time is perfectly normal. Fortunately, we can, if we wish, train to get better in consciously choosing where to focus our spotlights, and to restore our focus again and again. 

The fundamentals of concentration 

Unfortunately, you can’t conjure a strong focus by willpower alone. In order to deepen your focus, certain basic conditions must be met. Since the brain isn’t separate from the rest of the body, things like bad health, poor sleep, low blood sugar, needing to go to the bathroom, and being thirsty affect one’s ability to focus. In addition to these basic needs, your ability to focus can also be influenced by if you exercise or not, spending time in nature, and your overall experience of having (or not having) harmony in your life and relationships. 

Besides such external factors, our ability to focus depends on 

  • the structure and neurochemistry of our brain  
  • our so-called metacognitive ability, that is, our ability to perceive what is happening in our minds and our ability to consciously direct our attention. 
  • the ability to deal with difficult emotions and thoughts. 

Build your attention span 

Increasing willpower or “self-discipline” is not a very effective way to improve your ability to focus. Instead, try the following tips: 

  • Plan to focus. It’s much easier to focus when you’ve already set the intention that you will be focusing at a certain time. When you also make sure to satisfy the basic needs of your body and mind, you create excellent basic conditions for concentration. Treating your body well will protect your ability to focus.  
  • Create conditions that enhance concentration. A neat and clear space for working helps. Remove any external distractions from your environment. Leave your phone in another room, or at least close all notifications and put the phone in the “do not disturb” mode. If you can work without your phone’s internet, close the internet completely. 
  • Say a clear “Yes” to your priorities and “No” to things that are irrelevant or less important to you. In order to be able to focus in peace, it’s important that you prioritise what you’re going to do. Take a moment to reflect on what is really relevant to you at any given moment and what you don’t consider your priorities. Remember that whenever you say “Yes” to things that are not your personal priorities, you say “No” to what is really relevant to you. Fortunately, it also works the other way around! 
  • Make use of the pomodoro technique. Doing work in sprints with a short break in between is a great way to maintain your ability to concentrate. Remember that unless you intentionally give your body breaks, your body will demand them sooner or later, often in the form of long procrastination breaks. 
  • Defeat avoidance by taking a conscious approach to your work. Notice your own impulses to do something else than what you’ve decided to do and jot them down on paper on their own list. Return to this list during your break to assess how important these impulses actually were. 
  • Consciously focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking is actually an illusion. We can only focus effectively on one thing at a time. If you want to deepen your focus, it’s especially important to get rid of all other things in your field of attention. 
  • Practise conscious awareness, or mindfulness, every day. This helps you learn to direct your attention back to your chosen activity more and more smoothly and with less and less delay. 
  • Remember to give yourself constructive feedback and reward yourself. Give yourself open-minded and constructive feedback about what worked and what didn’t and reward yourself (for example with kind feedback to yourself) for your good efforts to improve your focus. 

Is there reason to seek professional help? 

There can be several reasons behind having a difficulty to focus, and as noted, no one has perfect focus. As normal humans, our attention and thoughts tend to naturally stray.  

If trying out the tips listed above doesn’t work, and if you’ve experienced prolonged and repeated difficulty focusing, and it’s having negative consequences in your life, it’s important to see a professional. In such situations it’s important to check if the reason behind these problems could be ADHD or learning disabilities. It’s also good to know that anxiety, depression, and stress can also have a strong effect on your ability to focus, as can a lack of meaning and motivation in what you do. Help is available, for example, from the FSHS, your local health centre or from the university’s study psychologist

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