I have often had to study for 10-12 hrs a day, if not longer, be it during my prep for the Civil Services exam or the IITJEE. Even when I was working with McKinsey, I often worked 12-16 hrs a day, with intense focus.
So how does one maintain concentration for long hours without getting tired or distracted? Not by doing long marathon sessions, but doing focus sprints with sufficient breaks. Let me explain why.
The limits of concentration
Some studies suggest that humans operate in alertness cycle of 90 minutes, after which, we need a 15-minute break.
However, our ability to focus might be even shorter than 90 minutes — probably more like 30-50 minutes, depending upon the nature of task. When reading a book or watching video lectures passively, your learning efficiency will decline rapidly after 30 minutes. Hence you will need a break – a short period of time for a reset.
But if you are doing some work that is not as passive as learning (e.g., writing a presentation), you might be able to focus for up to 50 minutes. After that, however, you will need to take regular break.
If you are looking for practical tips on how to study or work for long hours without distractions or simply how to concentrate better, this guide is for you. Keep going.
Top 6 tips on improving concentration
1. Do short sprints of focus followed by breaks
From my personal experience, if you do sprints interspersed with breaks, you can stay focused for long hours, though later in the day, you may still not be as efficient as at the beginning of the day.
The biggest mistake people make is trying to do a long marathon session without breaks. They are not able to concentrate after a while and get frustrated.
Instead, decide on a small amount of time, say 50 min, for which you will give complete focus to a task. For that duration, pick a priority task and determine that you will work only on the chosen task, and nothing else.
It will also help to have a clear target for each sprint (or a set of sprints). Now put aside everything else, start a timer, and get started on the chosen task. That will be your ‘focus sprint.’ And after each sprint, take a break.
In our Deep Work and Flow bootcamp, we have often seen people accomplish more in 1 hour than they would in 3-4 hrs when distracted. In this bootcamp, we conduct two such sprints of 50 minutes each daily, and 3 such sprints on Saturdays. Check it out here.
2. Take proper breaks for rejuvenation
Taking proper breaks is critical to relax your mind and become ready for the next sprint.
I have the following suggestions:
- Relaxation is the complete opposite of focus. Hence, during the break, look at far-off objects (think: the trees, the sky, etc.) and let your mind just be. It is almost as if you are zoning out.
- During the break, don’t look at your mobile screen or answer messages. The idea is to completely disengage the mind.
- Listening to soothing music such as the sound of nature, waterfall, etc., also help.
- When taking a break, you could also engage in some sort of physical activity, such as skipping, walking, stretching, etc.
- After a few (2-3) short breaks, take a long break during which, you can even take ‘power naps’ (for about 30 minutes) to boost productivity. You can also try doing yoga nidra or hypnosis for deep relaxation, as an alternative to a power nap.
- If you feel tired during a sprint, you can simply close your eyes and take three deep breaths to instantly improve your concentration.
- To improve focus and concentration, meditate for at least 20 minutes every day. Here is a 10 min guided meditation video I have recorded.
3. Get your full quota of sleep
If you are studying hard and compromising on your sleep, it can harm your mental health. Further, insufficient sleep can affect memory processing and other cognitive processes.
Here is a fun fact — whenever you learn something, it changes your neural wiring. And that neural rewiring gets firmed up during sleep. So one can justifiably say that you learn while sleeping. Not getting enough sleep can reportedly lower your learning abilities by as much as 40%.
So, if you are having difficulty remembering things, revisit your sleep cycle. Ideally, you should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep each day.
Here are a few tips I recommend for maintaining a healthy sleeping habit:
- Avoid caffeinated drinks post 3 pm.
- Switch off all electronic devices at least one hour before bedtime, as the light from these devices can stimulate your brain and prevent you from getting any sleep.
- Wind down by taking a hot water bath, reading your favorite book, or listening to some soothing music.
- The Cleveland Clinic recommends keeping your bedroom cool and quiet with an optimal temperature between 15 to 19°C. While that may not be always feasible in hot places like India, keeping your bedroom cool definitely helps.
4. If nagging thoughts are bothering you, try journaling
If you have a lot going on in your mind and it is preventing you from concentrating, write it down in a journal and give yourself some much-needed closure. Journaling can bring in great focus and clarity.
Once you write down whatever is bothering you, you can get into problem-solving mode instead of just ruminating about it. Journaling will help you either solve the issue, or accept that nothing can be done about it. Regardless, writing it down can give you immense peace.
If you are wondering how to journal, here is the ultimate beginner’s guide I wrote. Here are some guidelines in brief:
- You just need pen and paper to get started — nothing fancy needed. Else you can even type on your laptop.
- Write whatever feels right; do not overthink. Let the ideas flow freely. Think of journaling as a free-flowing conversation with yourself.
- Even if you are reluctant to start, just do it for a few days and see. Your experience will be the best guide.
5. Mix up different things you are learning
If you are using these focus sprints for learning, having some variety in learning will keep it fresh in your mind. You can switch your subjects every 1.5 – 2 hours.
The end goal is to prevent boredom and dullness, which will lead to loss of concentration.
6. Give active learning techniques a try
I recommend the following two active learning techniques to try during your next study session:
A. Making notes using active recall:
To make the most of your studying session, learn using active recall. Here’s a video from me on effective learning techniques, including active recall.
To do active recall, learn a topic and make shorts notes with your book closed, trying to explain the concept in your own words instead of directly copying from the book.
B. Use the ‘Feynman technique’:
This method of learning is useful in helping you get a deeper understanding of the subject.
Just follow these steps:
- Select a topic/concept you want to learn about.
- Explain the concept to yourself as you would to a 12-year-old, removing any complexity or jargon, and using simple words.
- If you are not able to explain things clearly, go through the study material again and repeat step no. 2.
The bottom line
You can concentrate for long hours but not by brute force. Follow the above tips and you will see a remarkable difference in your concentration levels. Your mind is like any other muscle in your body; the more you exercise it, the better it’ll work for you.
Enough theory — now it is time for action. Pick a task or learning goal and get started.