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Learn Faster by Training Your Brain to Focus

Recent studies have shown that it can take more than 20 minutes to return productively to an interrupted task.

In today’s world, we are increasingly bombarded with distractions. Recent studies have shown that it can take more than 20 minutes to return productively to an interrupted task. Constant phone calls, incoming emails and people stopping by for “a quick question” can seriously disrupt our train of thought and stop us completing our work in a timely manner. And that’s even without the distracting pings of social media notifications.

Organization, not Distraction

Do you ever have those days when you feel that everything is happening all at once? You can’t think straight because you’re being constantly bombarded with things to do? It could be time to take a deep breath and simply slow down. A bit of organization can help your life get back on track so you can do things you WANT to do rather than constantly playing catch up and feeling like you aren’t actually moving forward.

Productive people often spend a few minutes each morning organizing their day. Many people also boost their productivity by resisting the temptation to be constantly accessible to others. They build their efficiency by setting aside certain times of the day to answer emails and return phone calls. If your workmates or clients know that you are unavailable at certain times they will adapt.

Try turning off your phone from time to time. Compose a suitable message on your answering service so people can ask you to call them back. Avoid checking your emails constantly and instead set aside three or four times each day to process them.

Organize Your Learning Time

What does all this have to do with learning? Many people discover they can retain information more easily when their brain isn’t constantly being distracted. Having a clear head can make a big difference. Set aside time in your day or evening to devote purely to learning and don’t let distractions interfere. How much time should you set aside? It’s an individual decision, but having allocated the time, make sure you don’t use it for other things. Tell yourself that now is the time to focus on your learning.

Sound or Silence?

Different people learn in different ways. For example, some people can retain information better by listening to background music or neutral noise. Even the general clamour of coffee shop conversation can help some students. Others prefer silence. Headphones can be useful, either to deliver sound or to cancel out distractions. This is something you need to work out for yourself.

Many people use the Pomodoro Technique to help themselves focus. The course Learning How to Learn on Coursera also recommends the technique to beat procrastination. I have mentioned the Pomodoro in several other posts, but its benefits for learning are so great that it’s worth another mention.

How to Make the Pomodoro Work For You

There are several easy steps to make the most of the Pomodoro.

  • Remove distractions. Turn off your phone, put it in another room, or, if you are using it to watch educational videos, close your email and social media accounts. If working on your computer, close all other applications to avoid the temptation to “just quickly check” something.
  • Set your Pomodoro timer for your optimal time. The inventor of the Pomodoro technique, Francesco Cirillo, recommends 25 minutes, but if this is too long or too short for you, use a length of time that best suits you. Even 5 or 10 minutes might be all you can manage at first, so make the most of those minutes and aim to gradually build up the time. After all, you wouldn’t try to jog or lift weights for 25 minutes without a break on the first day of an exercise program.
  • While your Pomodoro is running, keep your mind on the subject you are studying. Pay attention to the videos. If you notice your mind has wandered, remind yourself that it is study time right now and you will think about other things later.
  • If you realize you haven’t taken something in, re-watch the video or read the article again. Close your eyes briefly if necessary, to help re-focus. Take notes, preferably by hand. Read, then try to teach your mirror or pet about what you just read. If you can’t remember, watch or read it over again and try again to explain it in your own words.
  • Little by little, you will realize that you are remembering more each time.
  • Have a pen and extra paper ready in case you think of something you need to do after the Pomodoro is finished. Quickly jot it down so you can turn your attention back to your learning.
  • At the end of your allotted time, take a short break. Stand up, walk around, have a healthy drink and let your brain relax. Alcohol and massive sugar hits aren’t recommended for optimal brain function. The benefits of this break are twofold: to rest the brain and allow it to go into the diffuse mode, and to improve blood flow by moving the body around.

Try it For Yourself

Have you tried the Pomodoro Technique? How did it go? Were you able to stay on task, or did you find your mind continually wandering? As mentioned before, if you start thinking about other things, tell yourself to stop and go back to thinking about the task at hand until the timer rings. It usually takes practice and effort to improve your concentration.

Some people benefit by practicing Mindfulness techniques. Mindfulness can not only help with focus, concentration and learning, it can also improve your mental health and happiness. Coursera’s A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment also discusses mindfulness and includes a “Presence Practice” exercise.

A Final Thought

Focussing might be difficult at first, but with practice you will improve and begin to learn more quickly.

This article was written by Pat Bowden and was originally published on her Online Learning Success blog. Since discovering MOOCs in 2012, she has completed more than 90 fascinating courses and is delighted to be able to learn about a wide variety of subjects without leaving home

Pat Bowden Profile Image

Pat Bowden

Online learning specialist, still learning after 150+ MOOCs completed since 2012. Class Central customer support and help since 2018. I am keen to help others make the most of online learning, so I set up a website:  www.onlinelearningsuccess.org

Comments 2

  1. adrian devey

    Highly recommended: Monash University’s ‘Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance’ course on FutureLearn (https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/mindfulness-wellbeing-performance) – has a strong focus on concentration and avoiding distraction and procrastination in work and study.

  2. Taylor Scrybe

    For learning faster in any subject. I think everyone should need a good mentor. My mentor helped me a lot in take the right decision and learning and adopting new things faster.


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