Help for Sustaining Concentration


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Focusing attention and sustaining concentration is the most difficult challenge for adults in meetings and classes. There are several reasons why adults have trouble concentrating for any length of time. Some of those reasons are:

  • External distractions
  • Internal distractions
  • Feelings of boredom
  • Bad habits
  • Speech thought time differential

External distractions include such things as others talking or whispering or eating or shuffling papers, noises outside of the room from the hall or street, the clothing or mannerisms of the speaker, a soft voice, or, at home, the radio, television, or phone calls.

For most of these distractions you can lessen the effect. Don’t consider it rude to ask others to stop talking or carrying on. You are paying good money for the class and you have the right to attend without annoyance. If you can’t hear the speaker easily, see if you can move your seat so that you are closer to the person speaking. If you find you keep thinking about the speaker’s outfit, hair style or gestures, remind yourself why you are sitting there in the first place. At home, you need to plan your study area that is discussed in Chapter 6. You won’t be able to eliminate all external distractions, but you should be able to reduce those distractions to a minimum.

Internal distractions can be either physical or psychological. Physical distractions include feeling hungry, tired, having a headache or a sore back, while psychological distractions include being concerned about a personal problem, remembering that you need to stop at the store on your way home, or pay the rent, or just being worried about too much to do, too little time.

Some pre-planning and self-discipline are required to reduce internal distractions. Eating nutritious food (protein is good for alertness) and getting a reasonable amount of sleep (try a 10 minute nap before class) will help with the first two distractions. Often, pre-planning can reduce physical discomfort. Perhaps taking a cushion for a hard chair or changing from an office outfit to more relaxed clothing would make you more physically comfortable. Personal problems and time pressures can often be set aside for a time by jotting a note to yourself on a separate note pad you have for this purpose. Once you have formed a habit of writing notes and checking those notes after class, you can forget trying to remember whatever it is that has popped into your head.

Feelings of boredom come from you, not the class. Nothing in and of itself is boring. If you find yourself thinking that the class is boring, stop and ask yourself why? Are you focusing on the message in a way that makes you want to know more, or have you already decided you know everything the speaker is going to talk about? Curious students don’t close off from material they recognize. Rather, they listen carefully to see what more they can learn. Curious students stay engaged with the message.

Bad habits can be changed. Learning to be an active rather than a passive listener will go a long way in helping you to increase you ability to concentrate. The following are habits that active learners strive to perfect:

  • Plan to listen so that you can ask a really brilliant question about the lecture topic before class is over. You don’t have to ask it, but it may be so good you want to.
  • Listen with the intention of relating what the main points of the class were about. Plan to tell someone later about what you learned. You get a bonus here if you actually do it.
  • Listen as if you are the only student in the class. Going solo means that you will be responsible for all questions and answers and that you might be called on at any time….

    (This is guaranteed to keep you alert!)

Speech-thought time differential is the difference in our rate of speaking versus our rate of thinking. It is something that everyone does which is a huge time grabber. Often this time differential is used for day dreaming. Day dreaming is healthy and enjoyable at the right time and in the right place, but when it interferes with your ability to sustain concentration in class… well you know the problem.

Perhaps a little understanding of why we can so easily go off on a mini mental vacation will help you turn your day dreaming time into productive time. These mini vacations happen because the normal rate of speaking in a public setting (class) is 150 to 250 words per minute (wpm). Our brains, however, can process words at 400 to 800 wpm. This difference in speech speed and thought speed allows a huge amount of time for other brain activity such as day dreaming. We literally think between words. Good students work to control what happens during their extra time differential. Some of the ways to use the time are:

  • Use this time to be forming good questions in your mind.
  • Anticipate the speaker’s point. Predict the direction of the talk.
  • Mentally summarize what the speaker has been saying.
  • Identify key ideas and words.
  • Mentally organize key ideas.
  • Relate the message to your own experiences or to what you already know.
  • Evaluate the evidence presented.
  • Look for what is not said–is there a deeper meaning or message?
  • Review the information already given. Ask yourself: did I understand, could I tell this to someone else, did I get the main point?

With a little practice you will learn to refocus your attention quickly and sustain your ability to concentrate for a longer period of time. All of this adds up to listening effectively.