Do YOU want to improve concentration? If you forever find yourself needing to figure out what you missed when you couldn't focus, you already know the frustration. The attention span struggle is real. But after you read this guide, you'll never have to go back...
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Part 1: How do the most successful students stay focused so easily?
You know the type. They sit there in class, absorbing the lecture as easily as paper scraps go into a vacuum.
Then when you try to focus, sometimes you can. But at other times, paying attention is a 1 on 10 tug-of-war. Even when you want to concentrate, your mind feels knotted. It wants to surge toward thousands of unrelated things.Have you ever tried to figure out how to focus better before? If you’re hell-bent on getting results, know that relying on willpower alone is the worst way to go about it. Increasing your attention span through willpower works at first—until you realize you just spaced out again.
There has to be a better way...
Want to pay attention better? Stop relying on willpower! Trying to improve your focus using willpower is the worst way to go about it.
Can you relate to any of these experiences?
If you could relate to any or all of these, know that you're not alone. Here’s a confession—my hand would have gone up for most of them at one point too.
The truth is that you’re more than capable of improving your attention span to the highest levels. All you need to improve concentration is the right approach. I wrote this free guide to give you exactly that—a system you can reliably use to increase your attention span and impact lasting change.
My system includes techniques, tactics, and strategies you can start using right away to improve concentration for quick wins. But that’s not all—if you stick with me and read my guide, you’ll also take away much, much more.
When you improve concentration, you’ll be able to learn faster. You’ll get things done more efficiently. Your relationships will get better. You’ll have less stress, anxiety, and frustration.
Are you ready to gain surgically sharp focus fast?
Great! Let’s get started.
Here's What You'll Learn In this guide On How to Improve Concentration:
The little known truth about how attention span really works.
Most people have no idea how focus happens in the brain. You'll gain a basic understanding of how attention span works in part 2.
How to Build Your Focus Foundation
Without mastering these fundamentals, any tactic you try will only temporarily give results—this is as sad as a cold shower. You’ll learn how to build a steady focus foundation in part 3—calm as a warm bath.
Exercises to Improve Concentration and Clear Your Head
Did you know that your attention span is like a muscle—you strengthen it with each rep. In part 4, you’ll find practical exercises to improve concentration and clear your head so you can focus better.
Strategies and Tactics to Improve Concentration Fast
Arm yourself with these bombastic tactics for weapons-grade focus. These concentration missiles fully-load more ammo into your arsenal.
Don't Just Improve Concentration—Engineer a High-Performing Attention Span
Have you ever found that you can focus better in some situations than in others? In part 6, you'll learn how to make concentration a lasting habit.
Part 2: How Attention Span Really Works
Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.
Did you know that your brain uses 2 separate systems to regulate your attention span? To improve concentration, we must start by understanding this vital point.
Let’s call system 1 the selfish system, and system 2 the selective system. Your selfish system drives your attention towards fulfillment of your own needs.
You can think of it as the me first system, because it’s ruled by your emotions. It’s automatic, involuntary, and always on.
Considering it’s called the selfish system, you may be wondering if it’s a bad system. It’s not—your selfish system serves many positive functions, and is thus vital to you. What are some of its strengths?
Your selfish system commands your habits and routines. Have you ever randomly gotten a flash of insight into solving a puzzling problem? Thank your selfish system.
In contrast to your selfish system, you’re the boss of your selective system; it’s under your conscious management. It lets you deliberately choose what to focus on, and gives you both self-control and self-awareness.
You use your selective system every time you pay attention closely while reading something, hold a conversation, or deliberately attempt to improve concentration.
Think of a time when you were first learning a new skill. Do you remember how you needed to dedicate all of your conscious attention to it? Then you could do it without thinking after enough repetitions, right?
Your brain hands a task off from the selective system to the selfish system once you’ve mastered it. The routine is then taken up by the basal ganglia, which regulates the habit.
Your brain does this to conserve energy, because selfish system tasks require less energy than selective system tasks.
Whenever you’re learning something new, your mind works hard to build new mental models. It also connects the info to models you already have.
Learning happens fastest when you use selective focus to devote all of your attention to the task at hand. A wandering mind is a big barricade to learning—this is why when you improve concentration, you'll find you can master new material much faster.
Hopefully you’re starting to see now how important it is to improve concentration. When you can focus faster, you can learn faster. But why is it so hard to focus?
Why It's So Hard to Concentrate
Imagine how our earliest ancestors lived in caves without cell phones, or internet. Their priorities would have been finding food and shelter, and avoiding dangerous predators. They would’ve needed the ability to respond quickly and instinctively to environmental demands. These tasks are exactly what the selfish system excels at.
While we live in an entirely different time period with much different attention span demands, our brains are still way behind the times. Cognitive science tells us that our “default” state is still governed by the selfish system rather than the selective system.
Our default state is a wandering mind that lets our emotions run the show. Whenever you select a task to focus on, your selfish system redirects your attention back to your own needs—that is, if you let it. Emotional hijacks—fear, worry, anxiety, etc.—will take you out of the present moment faster than a Bugatti Veyron with the pedal to the floor.
During an emotional hijack, the amygdala—your brain’s alert system—sends signals to your brain’s right prefrontal area that tell the selfish system to override the selective system. This nails your focus to the distressor. The left prefrontal circuitry can calm the amygdala by releasing signals downward.
Psychologist, best selling author, and lecturer
The inner tug to drift away from effortful focus is so strong that cognitive scientists see a wandering mind as the brain's default mode—where it goes when it's not working away on some mental task.
-Page 16, Focus by Goleman
[Photo by World Economic Forum [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]
Maslow's Hierarchy and Attention
Psychologist Abraham Maslow devised a hierarchy of human needs. His theory holds that we’re first motivated to fulfill our needs on whichever level we’re at before we pursue those at the higher levels.
How does this connect to what we’re talking about right now? The first three levels are mostly needs governed by the selfish system.
Are you feeling hungry, thirsty, or tired? What about too hot, or too cold? Have you had an argument with someone you’re close to recently that was never resolved? You can bet your selfish system doesn’t want to let you forget it.
We can think of both distractions from emotions and from unfilled basic needs as internal distractions.
What else causes us to lose focus? External distractions such as others’ demands on our time, phones going off, car horns blasting, and any other obnoxious stimuli that make it hard to concentrate and cause us mental fatigue.
Fortunately, we don’t have to allow the selfish system crash our internal show at inappropriate times. Nor do we have to let external distractions interrupt our train of thought—well, most of the time anyway.
What Focus Feels Like
We’ve all experienced true focus from time to time....
You sit down with a goal in mind. Maybe it’s to keep up during a face-paced lecture, to master challenging new material, or to compete in an intense sporting event. Can you recall a time when you were really in the zone?Perhaps when you first tried to focus, your mind wanted to jump all over the place, but you didn’t let it. You chose to let go of worries and concerns that weren’t relevant to the task at hand. You kept bringing your focus back to the present until you were locked in. You then went into the flow-state. Everything else faded into the background, and you became so absorbed in the task at hand that you lost track of time.
Keep this image in mind as you read the next section.
Part 3: How to Build Your Focus Foundation
Suppose you were building a house. Would it make any sense to start with the roof, and to then build down from there? No, of course it wouldn’t! If you ever hire a contractor who works like this, fire him. To build a house, you start by laying a foundation. It’s the same with building up your attention span.
The fundamental skills and behaviors you’re about to learn are the foundations of focus. You can't improve concentration to any great degree without first mastering them. Don’t just take my word for it. Work on these fundamentals, and I’m confident the results you’ll get will sell themselves to you in no time.
Here’s what you need to be able do to build a rock-solid focus foundation so you can improve concentration:
We're going to go through each of these next. Are you in? Awesome. Let's go!
The What and the Why
To improve concentration, you must start with two short words: what and why. Before you can accomplish anything worthwhile in life, you must start by clearly defining what you want to achieve, and why you want to achieve it.
We’re most productive when we channel our mental energy towards completing just a few specific goals, rather than trying to do 20 things at once.
If you haven’t done so already, I strongly recommend setting aside a few minutes to really think about your goals. Why do you want to achieve them? Put this down in writing!
You can choose what you focus on. You can also choose how you look at things.
Is the glass on the right half empty, or half full?
There’s no right or wrong answer. What you see is a function of how you choose to look at it.
If you focus on the glass being half empty, that’s what you'll see. But if you focus on the glass being half full, that's what you'll see. It's the same with your workload.
Do you view studying as something you dread doing? Or do you view it as something you do because you want to achieve your goals?
Your selfish system tries to keep you focused on the negative. Don’t let it! Remember, you choose.
Improve Concentration by Managing the Factors you Can Control
By default, your selfish system locks your focus to your own needs like hunger, thirst, sleep, and body temperature.
You’re smart enough to know you can’t always controls these factors. But if you take efforts to control as many as you can, you'll solve a lot of your focus problems.
Eating a healthy diet and staying hydrated does wonders for your attention span. Most noteworthy, it's much easier to focus in class on a full stomach than an empty one. When you go to class starving, your stomach groans will disrupt everyone else's focus. Plan your meal schedule to maximize your energy levels when you're in class or studying.
Exercising at least 3 - 4 times a week in any form is also amazingly beneficial. The focus of this post (pun intended) isn’t on diet and exercise, so I’m not going to launch into a tirade on how you should take care of your health. It's worth emphasizing though how helpful living a healthy lifestyle is for maximizing attention span.
This includes good sleep habits like going to bed and waking up at a regular time, and getting 7 - 9 hours of sleep each night.
In addition, wearing clothing appropriate to your environment also makes a big difference. Dress in layers. You can always take them off, but you can't put them on if you don't have them.
You must also consider the noise level in your study environment. If you can't focus with a lot of background noise, make a list of quieter places to go. You can get a cheap pair of earplugs at most retail stores, or online for only a few bucks. I’m the type you’ll find in the library’s quiet section with earplugs wedged deep into my hollow inner ear cavities. But this isn’t for everyone.
So if you run into class hungry, you're freezing cold, and you only got 4 hours of sleep the night before, is focusing impossible? No, not at all! You can absolutely still focus, it's just that your selfish system will make it a lot harder under these conditions. The point here is simply that managing as many controllable factors as possible makes paying attention way easier.
We now know that by living a healthy lifestyle, we can overcome many internal distractions. But what about managing emotional hijacks?
How to Handle Emotional Hijacks
Since the dawn of time, strong emotions like anger, fear, and resentment have ruined countless relationships.
Now, keep in mind that these emotions themselves aren’t always bad. But when they hijack your attention in situations when it's uncalled for, it makes life a lot harder.
One of the best ways to deal with these feelings is to face them directly rather than repressing them. Next time you’re feeling angry, pull out a journal and write down how you’re feeling. Nobody has to see it! You can always burn the page or throw it in a paper shredder afterwards.
Let yourself experience your feelings without judging them. Then let them go completely! If you’re stuck somewhere like in class where this isn’t possible, mentally pick a time to do this later on.
This one realization alone can literally change your whole life if you really grasp the significance: When someone does something that upsets you, you get to choose how you respond.
You can decide to forgive and forget, or to get angry and hold resentments. No matter what the other person did to you, your feelings belong to you.
Forgiveness takes guts, and it takes character, but I guarantee it will make you feel a lot better afterwards. Now, if someone has repeatedly been a total jerk to you, it’s probably for the best if you stop hanging out with them. But, you can still forgive and forget. It won’t change what happened, but it will change how you feel about the situation.
Can you see now how improving your concentration starts with intention, removing potential distractions before they wreak havoc, and caring for your emotional needs?
Once you have a plan for nipping this stuff in the bud, if you’re still having trouble concentrating, it's not your fault. Don’t beat yourself up—it’s because you lack the willpower. Your focus muscles just need some body building.
If you can't pay attention, it's not your fault. The problem is either having weak focus fundamentals, or needing to strengthen your focus muscles.
Part 4: Mental Weight Lifting: Exercises to Improve Concentration and Clear Your Head
Have you ever wanted to focus, but your mind was so full of clutter that you couldn’t concentrate?
These exercises can be used both to clear your head and to train your focus like a muscle.
#1. Deep Breathing
Your brain needs plenty of oxygen to function. When you hold your breath for too long, or breath too fast, it causes your body stress. Instead, take deep, rhythmic, breaths. Breath in slowly, and let your stomach relax as it expands. Hold your breath for a few seconds, and then slowly let it out through your mouth. Pause briefly, then start the inhalation again.
Your body relaxes when you breath deeply. Eventually, your mind follows.
If you were to ask me to pick the one exercise that can help you improve concentration fastest, meditation would be it. There are several different kinds of meditation—concentration, mindfulness, etc. While each forms has a unique purpose, virtually all of them have been proven to increase attention span.
The simplest way to meditate is to sit somewhere on the floor quitely. You don’t need a special mat unless you want one—carpet is fine. Sit up straight, close your eyes, cross your legs, and place your hands on your knees with your palms facing up. Folding them in your lap works too. If this is too uncomfortable, you can also sit in a chair, or even do it lying down—just don’t fall asleep!
Relax and take deep breaths. Try to clear your head and concentrate just on your breathing. As you breath in, say rising to yourself in your head. Then as you breath out, say falling to yourself in your head. Keep repeating this as you inhale and exhale—rising, falling, rising, falling, rising, falling, etc. Another way to do it is to say in in your head each time you breath in, and out each time you breath out. Put a timer on, and meditate until the timer goes off.
Your mind is going to wander. This is okay. Each time you become aware that you’ve lost focus, bring your attention back to your breathing. You’ll improve concentration during meditation with practice. This will carry over to help you improve concentration in other aspects of your life.
If strong emotional feelings come up as you meditate, allow yourself to feel them without trying to change them. Stay focused on your breath, and when they pass you’ll feel wonderful.
If you’ve never meditated before, you may be wondering what’s so hard about this. On paper, it looks pretty simple. However, I can assure you that it’s not. Set a timer for more than 20 minutes for your very first session, and you’ll quickly question whether you’re doing meditation, or some kind of sick, twisted punishment. Instead, start slow. Try doing just 12 - 15 minutes for a few days, then work up to 20 minutes.
I’m really serious about how amazing meditation if your goal is to improve concentration. After just a few days in a row of 15 - 20 minute sessions, you should start seeing results. After a few months though, you’ll likely surprise yourself with all the positive changes.
While I’ve had some training in meditation, I must point out here that I myself am far from an expert. If you ever have the chance to take a class with someone who is, do it! You’ll thank me later.
This exercise is similar to meditation, but it’s not exactly the same. Next time your mind is unnecessarily flooded with thoughts when you want to study, pick a random number, and then count backwards to zero in your head.
#4: The Fish Bowl Technique
I learned this one from U.S. Navy Seal Mark Divine in Unbeatable Mind. First, go somewhere quiet, relax and take some deep breaths. Next, imagine your head is a fish bowl filled with murky, cloudy water.
The water represents your unfocused mind; it’s in a cloudy state rather than a clear state. Take slow, calming, deep breaths in and out, and visualize the fish bowl water getting clearer and clearer with each breath.
After 10 - 20 breaths, picture the fish bowl being as clear as natural spring water on a warm, bright summer day. Feel your mind become calm, still, and clear, just like the water in the fish bowl.
#4: Dot on the Wall
Take a pen or marker and put a small dot on the wall. Make sure it’s so small that nobody will ever know it’s there. Now, pull up a chair a few feet away, pick a time between 5 - 20 minutes, and put a timer on. Your task is to focus on the dot until the timer goes off. Whenever you catch your mind wandering, pull it back to the dot!
#5: The Pomodoro Technique
This technique is one of the most popular methods for increasing attention span. Why? Because it works!
Here are the basic steps to follow:
- Set a timer for a specific period of time (25 minutes works to start)
- Focus all of your attention on a task until the timer goes off. Do nothing but work during this time!
- Stop the timer and put a checkmark on a sheet of paper. You’ve just completed what’s called one pomodoro. Reward yourself with a short 3 - 5 minute break!
- Set the timer back to 25 minutes and start again. After you complete four pomodoros, reward yourself with a 15 - 30 minute break, then discard your check marks and start over completely with zero checkmarks.
In summary, you’ll work in 25 minute increments, and will then take a 3-5 minute break. After you complete four of these 25 minute sessions, you’ll take a longer 15 - 30 minute break.
Part 5: 10 Tactics and Strategies to Improve Concentration Quickly
In this section, you're going to learn 10 tactics and strategies you can start using right away to improve concentration! Let's start with #1.
#1: Be On Time
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? While being late to class and other places is often a symptom of not focusing, it's also a cause.
When you get to class late, you miss what's covered at the start of class. Plus, it's going to take some time to get settled in and on task. You're wasting much more class time than you realize by doing this. Try really hard to be on time!
#2: Study and Relax in Separate Places
By separating where you study and where you relax physically, you’ll also separate the two mentally. When you don’t do this, they blend together. For example, if you’re used to relaxing on the couch and watching tv, if you try to study on the couch, you’ll trigger your brain to relax rather than get into focus mode.
#3: Work in Short Intervals Followed by a Brief Break
Instead of studying for hours on end, split your work sessions up into shorter intervals, each followed by a brief break. You can only give something 100% of your attention for so long before your mind inevitably wanders. Taking short breaks allows you to refresh so you can get back at it without losing intensity.
#4: Avoid multitasking
Do you consider yourself to be a good multi-tasker? Well, sorry to break the news to you, but there’s really no such thing as multi-tasking! What we commonly refer to as multitasking is in reality just switching focus from task to task at a rapid pace. The problem is that this drains your focus rapidly.
Keep your focus directed on a single task until it’s 100% complete. This is much more efficient than trying to focus on multiple things at once!
#5. Turn Off your Devices
We live in an age where we’re used to constant text messages emails, pop-ups, and much more. Yes, I agree technology’s awesome. But when it comes to getting work done, it’s a major distraction. The obvious solution is to silence your phone and put it somewhere out of sight, close out all tabs that aren’t relevant, and do nothing else but the work you set out to get done.
Yes, this is hard at first, but it’s a sacrifice you’ll have to learn to live with if to maximize your focus. Again, take frequent breaks, and use this time to browse social media. Or better still, focus hard on getting all of your work done, and then you can browse social media all night to your heart’s content.
#6. Make Daily To-Do Lists and Plan Ahead
Remember how we said above that the selfish system functions to pull your focus to your own needs? These nagging thoughts are what David Allen calls open loops. Your brain will keep alerting you of everything you must complete until it’s all recorded somewhere where you’ll review it often, like a to-do list.
Once you master daily planning, you can go ahead and move on to weekly planning, and even monthly planning. Planning gives your subconscious a tip to what’s coming next. You’ll find you have a lot more focus when you establish order.
#7. Surround yourself with sticky notes, notepads, dry erase boards, and/or scratch paper
Have you ever sat down to work on a project when suddenly you got a brilliant idea for another one? Be grateful for the insights, but don’t let them throw your focus off of your original task. Jot them down, then get back on track! I keep several notepads, sticky notes, and scratch paper near me constantly to record new ideas that come to me. You can also use dry erase boards.
#8. Visualize an Obnoxious Alarm Clock
This one comes from Dr. Bernstein's book Test Success, but with my own twist. Right now, as you sit there, reading this, try a thought experiment with me. Form a clear mental picture of an alarm clock in your mind’s eye.
Don’t imagine just any alarm clock. Make your clock as loud and obnoxious as possible. What does it look like? What does it sound like? Is it a digital clock or an analog clock? The more outrageous you make the picture, and the more detail you add in, the easier it will be to remember.
Whenever you catch your mind wandering, whether it’s during lecture, during reading, or any other time, imagine your alarm clock blasting as loud as possible. Train yourself to do this as a reminder to get back on track!
#9. Use a Timer
Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time it’s given. This is why putting your work on a timer is an excellent way to ensure it gets done. For every task you do, approximate how long you think it will take, then add 30% to this as a time cushion. Go somewhere quiet, and focus on your work until it’s completely done. Knowing that you’re working on a time limit will help you stay on track.
#10. Set Boundaries
Let’s be honest. None of us like to disappoint people. But the fact is that it’s impossible to go through life without having to sometimes.
Suppose you’re at the library studying by yourself when one of your friends comes up to you and starts a conversation. Do you spend the next half hour talking, or do you politely tell them it’s not the best time to talk? The choice is totally up to you, but from the perspective of maximizing focus, it’s a no brainer.
All you have to do is say something like “I’d love to talk more, but I have something due soon. Let’s talk another time!” In college, the 4 magic words I have something due work amazingly well for setting boundaries on your time, while still maintaining relationships.
Part 6: How to Engineer Focus that Lasts
MIT researchers have discovered a 3-part loop that underlies all of our habits.
Each habit loop has three components: the cue, the routine, and the reward. The cue is the trigger for the selfish system to take over--launching you into the routine on autopilot. You’re more likely to repeat behavior that makes you feel good, and thus there’s a reward behind every habit.
Changing any habit first begins with self-awareness. Habits are so ingrained in our subconscious mind that we do them without thinking. Let today be the day that you change this.
You must first identify what the bad habit is that you want to change. From there, you need to find the trigger. Replacing the old behavior with a new one can be tough, but it’s the only way forward. Having a specific plan in place for how you’ll respond the next time you experience the trigger is essential.
An excellent way to become more self-aware is to journal daily until you’ve gained the insight necessary to make the change.
Consider what your cues for losing focus are. Here are some questions to ask yourself at the end of each day:
Take the time to reflect and answer these questions every day for a week. Yes—that’s right! Do this exercise for a week! It shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes each night.
You can expect to start seeing patterns emerge. Once you know the cues, come up with a plan to change your behavior.
Again, remember that you have the power to choose. It doesn’t matter what happened yesterday. You don’t have to go through life letting the selfish system decide for you how you’re going to live your life.
Imagine the possibilities that would open up for you if you were to replace your bad focus habits with some of the strategies above.
Just by being present right now, reading these words, you’ve already taken steps towards getting this part of your life under control. Know that for that, you’ve earned my respect.
Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.
Thanks for reading!
1. Focus: The Hidden Drive Diver of Excellence, by Daniel Goleman
2. Fast Focus: A Quick-Start Guide To Mastering Your Attention, Ignoring Distractions, And Getting More Done In Less Time! By Damon Zahariades
3. Test Success!: How to Be Calm, Confident, and Focused on Any Test, by Ben Bernstein
4. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg
5. Unbeatable Mind (3rd Edition): Forge Resiliency and Mental Toughness to Succeed at an Elite Level, by Mark Divine
*The sources for Random Focus Facts are listed in the caption below the chart.
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