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10 Tips for Razor Sharp Concentration

10 Tips for Razor Sharp Concentration

Writing to-do lists and keeping a schedule may keep you organized, but does it really help you get more done? I believe that organization is important, but what you really need is focus. Being able to sit down and concentrate intensely on your work for a few hours. Even a half hour of focused effort can get more done than an entire day of distraction and multitasking.

Here’s some tips to get into a state of deep concentration where work flows easily:


1) Cut Off the Noise

It may be obvious that distractions aren’t helping your focus, but do you actually cut them out? I’ll admit, it can be tempting to put the e-mail alerts on, turn on the IM and answer every request sent your way. But in the end it is only preventing you from concentrating.

Getting into a state of concentration can take at least fifteen minutes. If you are getting distracted every five, you can’t possibly focus entirely on your work. Answer your e-mails at scheduled times. Request that people don’t interrupt you when working on a big project. If you are required to answer phones and drop-in’s immediately, schedule work when the office is less busy.

2) Structure Your Environment

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The place you work can have an impact on your ability to focus. Try to locate yourself so you are facing potential distractions such as doors, phones or windows. This way you can take a glance to assess sounds that would otherwise break your focus.

3) Clarify Objectives

Know what your goal is clearly before you start. If you aren’t sure what the end result is, the confusion will make it impossible to focus. Before I write any articles, I define the main focus of the article and get a brief mental picture of the structure. Unclear objectives often result in having to redo sections of work.

4) Divide Blobs

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Big blobs of tasks that have no clear start or end point destroy focus. If you have a large project that needs work, clearly identify a path that you will use to get started working on it. If the sequence of actions isn’t obvious, it will be difficult to concentrate. Taking a few minutes to plan not only your end result, but the order you will complete any steps, can save hours in wasted thinking.

5) Know the Rules

Get clear on what the guidelines are for the task ahead. What level of quality do you need? What standards do you need to follow? What constraints are there? If you are writing a program, get clear on how much commenting you need, what functions you want to use and the flexibility required. If you are writing an article, decide on the length and style.

If the rules aren’t clear from the outset, you will slip out of concentration as you ponder them later.

6) Set a Deadline

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Deadlines have both advantages and disadvantages when trying to force concentration. A deadline can make it easier to forget the non-essential and speed up your working time. If you give yourself only an hour to design a logo, you will keep it simple and avoid fiddling with extravagant designs.

Time limits have disadvantages when they cause you to worry about the time you have left instead of the task itself. I recommend using a deadline when:

  1. Time is limited. If you only have a day to complete work that could easily take weeks, chunking it into specific deadlines will strip away everything that isn’t crucial.
  2. It’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. If your task could easily expand to have new features or ideas, use a deadline to keep it under control.
  3. To avoid procrastination. A tight deadline can save you if you are worried about procrastinating.


7) Break Down Roadblocks

Roadblocks occur whenever you hit a tricky problem in your work. This can happen when you run out of ideas or your focus wavers. Break down roadblocks by brainstorming or planning on a piece of paper. Writing out your thought processes can keep you focused even if you might become frustrated.

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8 ) Isolate Yourself

Become a hermit and stay away from other people if you want to get work done. Unless your work is based on other people they will only break your focus. Create a private space and refuse to talk to anyone until your work is finished. Put a sign on your door to steer away drop-ins and don’t answer your phone.

9) Healthy Body, Sharper Mind

What you put into your body affects the way you concentrate. Nobody would expect peak performance if they showed up drunk to work. But if you allow yourself to get chronic sleep deprivation, overuse stimulants like caffeine or eat dense, fatty foods your concentration will suffer. Try to cut out one of your unhealthy habits for just thirty days to see if there is a difference in your energy levels. I’ve found even small steps can create dramatic changes in my ability to focus.

10) Be Patient

Before I write an article, I often sit at my desk for a fifteen or twenty minutes before I put finger on the keyboard. During this time I feel a strong urge to leave or do something else. But I know that if I am patient, I’ll stumble upon an idea to write about and enter a state of flow. Without a little patience, you can’t take advantage of flow when it rushed through you.

If you need strong concentration I recommend periods of 90-120 minutes. Any less than that and you will waste too much time getting started before the flow can continue. More than this is possible to sustain focus, but you will probably benefit from a quick break.

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Scott H Young

Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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Last Updated on September 18, 2019

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

What to Write Down

Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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Dates of Events

Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

Names of People

Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

Theories or Frameworks

Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

Definitions

Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

Arguments and Debates

Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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Images

Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

Other Stuff

Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

Your Own Questions

Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

1. Outlining

Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

2. Mind-Mapping

For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

Here’s the idea:

In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

3. The Cornell System

The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

The Bottom Line

I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

More About Note-Taking

Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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