Focus the Key Tool to Improve Learning

Lens Camera Focus

As a student, your ability to focus or paying attention is one of the main factors to improve your learning and influence your grades. This is because the processing capacity of the conscious mind has been estimated (by the researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and, independently, by Bell Labs engineer Robert Lucky) at 120 bits per second. 120 bits per second is not a lot. For example, you can easily consume a ten minutes YouTube video at the bandwidth of 1mb per second. (1mb equals 1,000,000 bytes.) If you feel you are not learning as much or not getting the result you desire, then paying attention on your attention (😊) can improve your learning and in the long run change your life trajectory.

On the surface you loose focus or your mind wander because you are not interested in the subject, your professor is boring or speak in monotone, you are hungry, you did not sleep well, you are anxious because your favorite team has an important playoff elimination game on that day, you are stressful because of family or work issues, etc. Any combination of these factors can be a distraction and causes you to lose focus. The good thing is that you can make a conscious effort to reduce the distraction and actively engage your mind in the here and now. For example, if your professor is boring, maybe you can visualize how you can apply what he is talking about in your daily life or in the real world. You can try to recall what he said earlier or anticipate what he will lecture next. You can also try to eliminate or reduce external distraction by turning off your cell phone or any background noise such as tv, streaming audio or video. Try to find a quiet or quieter place. If you are doing a zoom class, and there are too many distractions at home, maybe put on a headset to reduce background noise.

Avoid multi-tasking! You are actually less productive when you multitask. This is because your conscious mind can only process at about 120 bits per second. So, doing two things simultaneously reduce your bandwidth to about 60 bits per second on each task. One time I tried to wash the dishes and simultaneously chew the last remaining food in my mouth. I figure if I do that, I would get back to watching the game on TV sooner. The next thing I know there was blood coming out of my mouth because I bit my tongue! Keep this in mind when you try to multi-task. It will divide your attention and decrease your learning potential.

Tension can activate our fight or flight mode, and it is more challenging to focus on learning in that frame of mind. One way to reduce this tension and improve your focus is to check your posture and breathing. Sit with two feet firmly on the ground and avoid slouching. Make sure your body is firmly seated in the middle and not at the edge of the chair. When there is tension in your mind and body, you tend to hold your breath and breath shallowly. Be aware of your breathing pattern and take deep relax breath. Changing your posture and taking deep relax breath will not totally eliminate the tension in your body, but they will help.

Make sure you are properly hydrated and avoid studying on an empty stomach. It is more challenging to focus when you are thirsty or your stomach is growling. Your body will fight for your attention if its needs aren’t met! Getting enough sleep and exercise regularly can enhance your ability to focus. Do you notice you are less alert or more froggy if you did not get enough sleep the night before? Do you notice that after a walk or some physical activity such as playing tennis, you tend to be more alert and active? Getting a good night sleep and doing simple exercise can set the tone for the whole day. Also, just like exercise, do not try to study too long without taking regular break. This is because your attention will decrease after a certain time. You can apply the Pomodoro technique where you set your timer for 25 minutes, and focus on a single task until the timer rings. When your session ends, mark off one pomodoro and record what you completed. Then enjoy a five-minute break. If that is too short, take a ten-minute break instead!

If you go for a walk, pay attention to the thoughts that cross your mind and tune them off. When I go for a walk, many thoughts and feeling would constantly pop into my mind: Would the Lakers win tonight game 6 or be pushed to game 7 elimination against the Miami Heat? Are my stocks going up or down right now? In a way, this is my brain on autopilot if I am not ware of it. The first step is to simply be aware and pay attention to these thoughts. Then the next step is to “tune the volume” down so I do not hear them any more while walking. It can be challenging, but the more I can do it the better my focus or attention is.

On a deeper level, the cause of your procrastination and inability to focus is the lack of self-confidence or self-efficacy. This is because you tend to be more engage in an activity if you are more confident about it. Lacking confident is a challenging issue to solve. However, to the extent that you employ a combination of these suggestions to improve your focus, it will help your learning and improve your confident in the long run.