Let’s be honest. Suppose you need to study a topic. You got a book with everything you need to know. You start reading it and… how long will you be able to keep concentrating without distracting yourself? No checking email/Instagram/Twitter/Facebook/phone, no conversations or thinking about something else. So how long? If it is around 30 minutes, it is already a good result. If you believe you can do it for longer, test yourself. There surely is a book with the knowledge that can improve your daily work.
Concentration is a skill that everyone can learn
We live in a more and more distracted world and deep concentration becomes rare. It is a hard skill to learn. However, there are ways how it can be improved. In my teenage years, I used to be the most distracted person in the class. It is still easy for me to get distracted, but I know now how to concentrate when I need to. When I was writing the Effective Kotlin book, I would often spend 16 hours in a row working on a single chapter and nothing else (with effective breaks). From morning to night, day after day. This is something unimaginable to me in my teenage years. However, it is not so unique - concentration is a skill that everyone can learn through training.
Concentration skill and deep work
Concentration skill connects to the deep work. In that article, I described the idea and how to create an environment for deep work. Here I explain how to practice concentration skill. To work and learn effectively, we need both puzzles.
There are many ways how we can practice concentration. The chosen method should suit you. It is best when it pushes you a bit out of your comfort zone and gives you feedback when you deconcentrate (deliberate practice). It should also have other benefits, different from teaching you to concentrate better. For instance, reading is a good concentration practice, but it can be fun or useful. Learning gives us knowledge and skills. Writing gives us a voice. Concentration practice should be an additional motivation to do these things. So how can we improve our concentration skill?
I learned how to concentrate by reading books. The rule is easy: spend some time every day only reading a book and doing nothing else. You can start from some easy books for 15 minutes daily, progress to 45 minutes overtime and then switch to a shorter time again but with a bit harder position. Here is an example of progression:
- Level 0: Child books or comics.
- Level 1: Light belletristic, like Harry Potter or The Witcher.
- Level 2: Non-fiction books about psychology, like Deep Work by Cal Newport or Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
- Level 3: Heavy belletristic or philosophy, like books written by Jacek Dukaj or Fiodor Dostojewski.
- Level 4: Technical or scientific books from your discipline.
Reading books is fun, and it is a great way to acquire knowledge. In-depth knowledge does not fit in an article or a short video. It needs many pages to build the whole picture and present all the aspects of an idea. That is why in many ways, books are irreplaceable (except maybe by long lectures). Reading is also a great way to practice concentration, but not the only one.
Courses or lectures
Another way to learn how to concentrate is by watching courses or lectures. Many great courses on the Internet teach programming, biology, graphics, UX, … practically everything you can think of. Just be aware that if you want to improve your concentration, you should not focus on anything but this course. When you sit in front of the computer, it is much more tempting to open an email or Facebook. Discipline yourself and do not deconcentrate, because every time you let yourself do that, you build a bad habit. So this is not a perfect way to improve your concentration, but it is a great way to start learning a new skill or profession.
There is strong evidence that different types of puzzles can also increase our concentration and problem-solving:
- crossword puzzles,
- jigsaw puzzles,
- word searches or scrambles,
- memory games.
Likely some games will work as well. A 2017 review looked at 100 studies examining the effects video games could have on cognitive function. The analysis results suggest that playing video games may lead to various brain changes, including increased attention and focus. However, it is complicated because it depends a lot on the game and how you use it. Playing while watching streaming and joking with your friends may not be very useful, but playing like a pro likely will.
Even though it was over ten years ago, I remember my class’s reaction when a teacher asked us to write an essay. It seems trivial now, but back then, it was a challenge. Not because of a lack of skills - I remember that when I finally forced myself to start, I could have finished it in 30 minutes. It was hard because it needed undivided attention. Writing for others is not easy, but it is also a powerful skill. Similar to speaking publicly - both can give us a lot of voice in our community. Having a voice is powerful, but also a huge responsibility. I believe it is important to learn to write. When you do, you will also learn to concentrate better.
Other ways to practice concentration
I’ve just mentioned here the methods that I think are the most popular, but every activity that requires concentration can be used to practice it. To make learning effective, it should:
- get you out of your comfort zone, which can sometimes feel like a tingling in your head,
- give you feedback - you should know when you deconcentrate and what your performance is.
Reading books fulfills these criteria well. You know how much time you spent reading and how many pages you read. You can test yourself and describe what they were about. You will feel how hard it is.
Working time rarely fulfills these criteria. It can if we have one task and no distractions. But it is often required that we do many other things at the same time, like checking emails or attending a meeting. If you have trouble focusing on a single task in your job, having a passion that teaches us to concentrate can help a lot.
Working and learning
All this concentration learning is not for its own sake, but instead improves our work and learning skills. You have to transfer the still to the practical applications. It is to achieve deep work when you work and learn. Except for learning to concentrate and training the discipline of concentration, these rules are useful:
- block distractions (turn off notifications, find a quiet place),
- make effective breaks (spend them in silence, on a walk, meditation, exercise, a nap),
- do not consume unrelated content or news before or during work,
- set up boundaries.
Set up boundaries
If your concentration-time needs to be longer, make clear boundaries between working and free time. It is impossible to spend the whole day just working. It would quickly lead to burnout. Your brain and body need free time too, but it is best to do so after working time as we’ve already learned.
So the rule is: determine when to work and work at that time on 100% without distractions. Make only effective breaks during that time. Then leave some part of the day for yourself, and when the time comes, stop working and start relaxing without feeling guilty. At first, you need to learn how many hours it is best for you to work and then keep this balance by respecting time boundaries.
There are also small work-break boundaries that you can set. An effective technique is the pomodoro.