Learning scientist and head geek. Formally Labster CTO
Train Your Brain #4: Boost your concentration
To make sure you are prepared for effective learning, your environment, mental state and energy levels all need to be in the best conditions.
So in part 4 of our Train Your Brain guide (see part 1, part 2, or part 3), we’ll cover the tricks with the biggest impact and smallest effort required from your side. This includes boosting your focus to reach your peak learning state, as well as boosting your energy levels to make sure you're always ready to take in new information.
BE SUPER SHARP AT ANY TIME
Have you ever experienced a situation where you forgot everything around you and focused 112% on the task, game or book you were working on or playing with at the time?
Many people get this feeling when they do their favorite sport/hobby or play their favorite computer game. They forget everything around them and find themselves completely immersed in the activity.
This is basically what we call your peak mental state and it is also often called flow or being in the zone.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could trigger the same mental focus instantly, every time you started working or studying, and you were able to clear your mind right away and focus 112% on getting your tasks done as fast as possible?
3 EASY STEPS TO TRAIN YOUR PEAK STATE
The following three steps will help you train your brain to get you into your peak learning state at any time. We call it the ReFT process:
- Remember: Remember a time where you were super focused. For example, when running, playing a game, reading a book, or something fourth.
- Feel: Close your eyes and really feel how focused and concentrated you were at that time. It is important that you feel it! Imagine being in the same situation.
- Trigger: Activate a trigger (e.g. squeeze your thumb and middle fingers together).
And now you’re probably thinking: What? How is that supposed to help me?
The answer is quite simple: This is a NLP (neuro linguistic programming) technique, which helps you activate the brain and get yourself into the same state as your were in the past when e.g. running, playing a game, or whatever you were doing in full concentration.
Don’t believe us? Give it a go!
Now we will very briefly explain why this powerful technique works and how you can apply this easy 3-step process to your own life.
An automatic trigger is an external event/thing/sound that will trigger thoughts and feelings in your brain. By using automatic triggers effectively, you’ll be able to make sure that nothing gets in your way of getting things done quickly.
In the following sections, we’ll give you an introduction to how you can use the following types of automatic triggers:
- Your study environment
- Music and sound
- Other senses
YOUR STUDY ENVIRONMENT
Your study environment constantly triggers different states in your mind.
Your environment can work to your advantage, but it can also be a source of constant distraction.
We probably all know what happens when you have the television running while you’re studying: Suddenly an entertaining commercial or your favourite TV show comes on, and you immediately get distracted. The same goes for other technical devices like our phones, or pop-up messages on our laptops.
Research has shown that these types of distractions can cost you a whopping 23 minutes trying to get back into your fully focused mental state.
Even the smallest distractions, like your favourite video game sitting on your desk, can make your subconscious mind register and remind your conscious mind how much you like to play that game – and how much you’d rather play that than study.
So to set yourself up for effective learning, you need to set up your environment without distractions.
Here are some quick and easy tips for you to quickly improve your study environment:
- Never study/work in the place where you also do leisure activities (like watching TV, playing games, etc.)
- Pick one place, and study as often as possible in that same place (e.g. school libraries are great – there are few distractions/automatic triggers as well)
- Remove any objects from your view/desk that could potentially remind you of hobbies/sports/games etc.
- Add objects that remind you of your peak state, such as school books, reports you wrote etc.
- Turn off television and radio (we’ll get back to the use of music in a bit)
- Remove any visible shortcut icons on your computer’s desktop (e.g. social media, online games, etc.)
- Close unnecessary programs. This one is very powerful for when you work on your computer. Simply having your mail program or Facebook running in the taskbar, will constantly distract your mind. Close it – and you’ll probably find it easier to focus.
Try to follow these steps, and you’ll be off to a very good start when you study!
MUSIC AND SOUNDS
There are many opinions on whether it is good to have music running in the background while you are reading and studying.
Some people may say that it works great for them and helps them concentrate, whereas other people find themselves distracted by it.
Having covered how and why environmental triggers work, we already know the effect of these. For example, if you always listen to a certain song when you study, then you’ll automatically trigger your study state whenever you hear that song or type of song.
So the trick is to use music wisely. It will work for some people, but not for others. Remember to keep this in mind when doing group work as well.
A final powerful trigger you can use to your advantage is smell. The reason why smells are especially effective is because our sense of smell was one of the first and most developed senses in our brain, and it’s directly connected to our central nervous system.
Here are some ways you can use this in practice:
- Drink a certain type of tea or coffee whenever you study
- Use special scent products like scent sticks and oils
- Light scented candles when studying
World-renowned hypnotist, Paul McKenna, has created a line of audiobooks called “Positivity”, which can be helpful for getting you into your personal peak state in no time. They take 20 minutes, so you can listen to them in the evening before going to bed, or while taking a nap during the day. You can find more information on his website.
GET THE ENERGY YOU NEED
Being able to focus on your studies also requires a good, stable level of energy.
To get that, there are five particular habits that will help you, and which are not all too difficult to implement. These are: Power napping, deep breathing, aerobic exercise, drinking 2 liters of water daily, and keeping a healthy sleeping habit.
Let’s take a look at each of these tips to understand why they’re important, and how you can start implementing them.
TRICK #1: POWER NAPPING
The power of power napping is actually quite underestimated. But a power nap of just 20 minutes can provide you with the energy equivalent of 1 hour of deep sleep.
Whenever you feel slightly tired or slow around noon, do the following to re-energize yourself:
- Set your mobile phone alarm to anything between 15-20 minutes. Not more than 20 minutes.
- Lay down or sit back in a chair where you can relax and feel comfortable closing your eyes. It should be in a place where you will not be interrupted.
- Start counting down from 300 in your mind and focus on your deep slow breathing.
Using the counting technique, you will keep the logical part of your brain active and prevent your mind from starting to think about all the things you are working on, which eases your ability to fall asleep.
The key is to completely let go, and dose off for just 15-20 minutes.
If you nap for longer than 20 minutes, your brain starts to enter a deep sleep state. That’s why you should limit the nap time, or you’ll find that you’ll have a much harder time waking up again.
Another small rule of thumb is that you should keep the number of power naps to one per day, and only occasionally two, as otherwise you may make it difficult for your body to develop healthy sleeping patterns.
TRICK #2: DEEP BREATHING
Next up is a super simple, yet extremely effective, way of increasing your overall level of energy and health: Deep breathing.
Deep breathing is a vital part of yoga, and with good reason. When performing deep breathing, your body’s lymph system is activated. The lymph system is what helps your body clean up and remove all the waste your cells produce.
On top of this, the lymph system also provides all your body’s cells with the nutrition they need to perform well. So it’s needless to say that this part of your body is extremely important for your energy levels.
If you’re not a big fan of yoga, you can also make use of deep breathing outside the yoga classes. Here’s how:
- Breathe in for a count of 5
- Hold your breath for a count of 20
- Breathe out for a count of 10
- Repeat step 1-3 ten times, each morning and evening
You can adjust the length of each step, as long as you follow the simple rule of 1-4-2 (in the example above multiplied by 5). Other patterns you can try are:
Breathe in, Hold, Breathe Out
- 4 – 16 – 8 (times 4)
- 5 – 20 – 10 (times 5)
- 6 – 24 – 12 (times 6)
Simply repeat this exercise in the morning and evening, and you’ll start to feel how your body’s ability to take in and process oxygen more effectively will increase your well being and energy levels after just 2-3 days!
To help you control the breathing, we recommend the following tools:
TRICK #3: AEROBIC EXERCISE
This one probably won’t come as a surprise to you, but it’s nonetheless an incredibly important part of keeping energy levels up: Aerobic exercise.
Similar to deep breathing, aerobic exercise will also activate the lymph system and keep your body in the best shape possible.
As a rough minimum, try to spend about 30 minutes, three times a week on exercise such as running, swimming, biking, etc. If you do this, you’ll quickly find yourself having increased levels of energy, making up for the 90 minutes you’ve spent on exercise in increased productivity.
TRICK #4: DRINK 2 LITERS OF WATER DAILY
Drink more water.
It’s simple, easy, yet incredibly easy to forget. But drinking enough water can work wonders on your health and energy levels.
Try to develop the habit of always having water near you when you work or study. Perhaps you can place a water bottle as a reminder on your desk, so you always have water within reach, and don’t have to interrupt your workflow.
The amount of water you should drink depends on your size and activity levels. However, two liters a day is a good estimate for most people. If you’re not getting enough water, you’ll get dehydrated, which can result in the following consequences:
- Reduced alertness
- Reduced concentration
- Slower reaction times
- Feelings of nausea
TRICK #5: KEEP HEALTHY SLEEPING PATTERNS
To stay fully energized while you study, it’s best to get up at the same time every morning.
Despite the simplicity of this tip, many people find it difficult to follow, often claiming that their days are too unpredictable to follow a fixed sleeping pattern. But let’s be honest - it is, to a large extent, all about priorities and commitment.
By following a fixed routine, you allow your body to adjust to an optimal sleeping cycle, where you can wake up every morning, refreshed and alert – even without an alarm.
The question is now just how many hours of sleep you need. To answer this, you'll need to carry out a little experiment on yourself to test your need for sleep.
As with any experiment, you’ll need to minimize the number of factors that can influence the results – in this case, your energy level. Here are some guidelines on how to experiment with your sleeping habits to find the optimal sleeping routine for you:
Improve Your Sleeping Habit:
- Go to sleep at a fixed time every night, e.g. at 11pm.
- During each test, sleep for 3 days in a row with a specific number of hours to allow your body to adjust to the new number of hours of sleep
- Start by sleeping 8-9 hours, and then reduce it by 30 minutes each time you have slept the number of hours for 3 days.
- At the end of the last day of each test period, ask yourself how alert and energetic you feel on a scale from 1-10. With 10 being super energetic and 1 being where you fall asleep each time your teacher opens his/her mouth and tries to talk to you.
- At the end of the test, you simply pick the number of hours you feel most comfortable sleeping. You will actually find that sleeping less hours is often makes you more energized, as long as you wake-up daily at the same time.
Now you may be wondering: “Why the range from 9 hours to 6:30 hours?”
Research has shown that this range of hours is the optimal number of hours to sleep, depending on your age, daily activity level and your body’s health/fitness level.
Studies have also shown that sleeping too much will tend to make you less energetic, because you disturb your body’s internal clock and sleeping pattern. Therefore, you should avoid periods of little sleep with subsequent recovery periods of oversleeping, as this will only cause you to need more hours of sleep in the long run.
- Learn to be able to use your own peak learning state to boost your focus and concentration level.
- Train the use of physical triggers to be able to instantly activate your peak learning state, and reduce the number of environmental automatic triggers that will otherwise disturb your focus constantly.
- Optimize your learning environment by setting the right location, lighting, music, sounds and other senses.
- Finally, you must learn to master the few simple tricks to optimize your energy level and create the best conditions for your brain to focus and operate during your studies.