Paying attention in university
Attention is an important part of being a student. It is impossible to learn something if you did not pay attention to it in the first place. For example, you cannot remember what your professor said if you were thinking about something else when they said it.
Paying attention is easier said than done at times. There are many things all vying for your attention. For example, when sitting down to write an essay your focus many not be on the essay - you could be distracted by things in your environment such as a notification on your phone, thoughts you are having, etc. Attention can also be impacted by a variety of other factors, including fatigue, physical and mental health, brain chemistry, etc. Below is information to help you understand some of things that affect your ability to focus and strategies to help improve your attention. Select each to learn more.
- Fueling Your Attention – your brain needs fuel to work well.
- Reduce External Distractions – it is difficult to manage attention when there is lots going on around you.
- Dump Internal Distractions – it can be even more difficult to manage attention when you’re thinking about other things.
- Limit Attention Residue – sometimes something you just did interferes with what you want to attend to.
- Boost Your Motivation – it is very challenging to attend when you’re not motivated.
- Be a Chemist – experiment with strategies to get your brain working as well as possible.
- Manage Your Physical and Mental Health to Manage Your Attention – both your physical health and your mental health can affect attention.
Give some of the above strategies a try to help improve your attention. If you continue to struggle with attention difficulties, you may want to speak to your physician about these attention concerns to determine if you have ADHD. If you suspect you have ADHD, here are some resources you may find helpful:
- The SCC offers a group called “Pay Attention” for students who have ADHD or suspect they have ADHD. The purpose of the group is for students to learn strategies to cope with their difficulties and connect with other students who also have the same difficulties. For more information refer to the Groups and Workshop Website.
- There are many self-help books available related to ADHD. Two books that are available online through the U of M library for adults with ADHD are:
- Taking Charge of Adult ADHD by Russell Barkley
- More Attention, Less Deficit : Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD by Ari Tuckman.
ADDitude’s ADHD Experts Podcast: This podcast series from experts on ADHD covers a multitude of topics that may be relevant to people living with ADHD Or something along those lines. https://additudemag.libsyn.com/
- A resource to connect with other people with ADHD is the subreddit for ADHD where people post to vent, connect, make recommendations, etc.
- A YouTube channel that has a number of short videos on ADHD called “How to ADHD” may also be helpful.
- This online magazine has a lot of useful articles about ADHD and coping with ADHD.
Fueling Your Attention
Brains are like cars in some respects. Cars don’t run well or at all if they do not have gas or proper fluids. Similarly, your brain has difficulty functioning efficiently when you do not provide enough fuel in the forms of sleep and nutrition or enough fluids like water. It can be hard for your brain to focus without enough of these fuels and fluids. To help improve your attention, ensure you are drinking water throughout the day and getting enough sleep at night. Also, remember to fuel your brain with food throughout the day. Many students skip breakfast or only eat once or twice a day, but this can have a negative impact on cognitive functioning, including attention. Studies even show that having an increase in glucose in the brain during a task can improve cognitive functions like attention and memory. So, consider sipping on a sugary drink the next time you are having trouble focusing when you are studying or are trying to write an essay as this may improve your focus.
Reduce External Distractions
It can be hard to manage your attention when there are lots of distracting sights and sounds around you. To help your focus, reduce as much of these distractions as possible when you are trying to do your academic work. Make sure you keep distracting things out of your line of sight. For example, make sure you cannot see your television, video game console, guitar, or anything else you would rather be using when you are studying. If you are easily distracted by sounds in your environment, wear earplugs or listen to low level instrumental music. Limit your electronic distractions. It is easy to get distracted by your phone so turn off notifications, turn it off altogether, or place it on the other side of the room.
Dump Internal Distractions
As mentioned above, distractions from the outside world can be addressed by reducing these distractions, but what do you do if your distractions are coming from inside your mind? Your brain is thinking most of the time and sometimes these thoughts may not be about the task you are trying to focus on. Unlike dealing with a noisy environment, you cannot just put in earplugs to drown the internal distraction of other thoughts. If you simply tell yourself to stop thinking something it will probably happen anyway. Like if you were told right now not to think of a sumo wrestler in a pink tutu being shot out of a cannon… you probably will think about it at some point. The best thing you can do with distracting thoughts is to offload them for a while. When you are studying, write down your distracting thoughts on a piece of paper for you to think about later and make sure you take time later to attend to these thoughts. Do this for any type of thought, including worries, things you don’t want to forget like remembering to send an email, creative ideas, etc. So just dump these thoughts onto a piece of paper for now to give yourself mental space to focus on what you need to focus on.
Limit Attention Residue
Attention residue is a term that was coin by Sophie Leroy and refers to how thinking about a previous task impacts your ability to focus on the current task. This residue splits your focus between the previous task and the current one, making it harder to concentrate fully. There are a couple things that you can do to limit your attention residue. First, don’t overschedule yourself. If you a rushing from task to task without any transition time or not enough time to finish tasks, you are likely going to be feeling the impact of attention residue. Second, break tasks down into smaller goals so you can feel you have finished something before you have to move onto another task. Finished tasks create less residue compared to unfinished ones.
Boost Your Motivation
Motivation impacts attention. Therefore, working on improving your motivation can improve your attention as well. One way to improve your attention is to remember why you are doing something. Give your brain a reason to pay attention by reminding it of how the task is tied to a long-term goal. For example, if you are having trouble focusing on reading the next chapter in your textbook, you might remind yourself you are doing this to finish the course in order to get your degree. You could also give yourself a reason why paying attention is related to a short-term goal or a learning goal. In that case, you might ask yourself what you need to learn from this chapter to pass your next exam or ask yourself how this chapter’s information is related to the last chapter’s information. When you know why you are doing something, then it is easier to feel motivated to do it compared to simply doing something for the sake of doing it. Another way to improve your motivation and by extension your attention is to use rewards to motivate yourself. There are some tasks that may be difficult for you to feel motivated to do and, in that case, finding something rewarding to do afterward can help motivate you to complete the task. If, for example, you dislike math and you need to study for your calculus exam, you might reward yourself for studying for a couple hours with a coffee from your favourite coffee shop, watching an episode of your favourite television show, going for a hike, or whatever you find enjoyable.
Be a Chemist
Brain chemistry has a significant impact on your ability to pay attention. In particular, the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a large role in attention. For this reason, some people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) take stimulant medication to help manage their attention difficulties because it increases dopamine levels in the brain. You do not need to take medication to change your dopamine levels though. There are several ways you can do this naturally. Here are a few:
- Exercise: If you are having difficulties concentrating, try a movement break. Even 10 minutes of moderate physical activity like walking can impact your dopamine levels.
- Get outside: Spending time outdoors has been associated with higher levels of dopamine. Try spending some time outdoors between classes or take a study break outside. Even consider doing some of your academic work outside if you feel your attention could use a boost.
- Listen to music: Music has also been associated with dopamine. Try listening to music while you study. In order not to get distracted by the lyrics or feel the urge to sing along, listen to instrumental music or music in a language you do not understand.
- Meditate: Try building meditation into your study routine to get a dopamine boost.
- Read in a curious way: Many people read in a passive way where it is easy to zone out. Doing things in a curious way can improve dopamine levels as the act of problem-solving increases dopamine in the brain. You may want to read with trying to answer specific questions in mind in order to get the dopamine boost of solving a problem. One method of reading material in a curious way is called SQ3R, which you can find more information about on the Academic Learning Centre’s page.
Manage Your Physical and Mental Health to Manage Your Attention
How your body is functioning can also impact your attention. If you are fatigued, in pain, or feeling unwell, it can cause your attention to be divided between what you want to focus on and what is going on in your body. For that reason, you may want to speak to your physician when you are experiencing ongoing physical health related difficulties in order to reduce the impact these difficulties have on your attention. Similarly, managing your mental health also can play a role in managing your attention. Many mental health concerns can impact your ability to concentrate. For example, if you have anxiety, you can be distracted by worries that make it difficult to focus on your studies, or if you have depression, negative thinking or low motivation may make it difficult to focus as well. If you are having mental health related concerns, it is beneficial to seek out support. This support can involve speaking to a friend, family member, or other social support, consulting with your physician, or accessing counselling services. Please consult the SCC webpage for more information about available counselling resources .