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  • Writer's picturemcmahon134

Improving Attention and Reducing Anxiety

Updated: Jul 20, 2022

Strategies and Techniques to Improve Concentration:

  • Structure: Many people with attention issues find a highly structured environment conducive to getting things done. With an absence of structure, many get easily distracted by the multiple options available and get nothing important accomplished.

  • Priorities: Establishing priorities is extremely important. Unfortunately, those with attention deficits find this very difficult to do. Many items seem to enter the brain as equally attractive options. In the midst of trying to write a term paper, a phone call to a friend may claim equal importance. It is important to establish a habit of intentionally rating the priority of tasks. Make this rating a routine at the beginning of the day, for example, make a list and select the three most important tasks in order. Then make it a point to put first things first.

  • Small steps: It's better to choose one thing, just one small step you can work on, over the next two months. Many people become overwhelmed if they try to organize all aspects of their life at one time. Try one step at a time. Then try another step.

  • Coping aids: Find a system to remember appointments and obligations. Use an appointment calendar. The computer stores are full of new items designed to help you organize your time. There are numerous calendars, to-do lists, address books, note organizers, etc. It is always challenging and effective to break a long term project into small, manageable steps and write those into the schedule. Allow time each day to organize your next day. Too many attractive distractions await those with attention problems. Unless you have a track to follow, you will certainly get lost.

  • Procrastination: Decrease procrastination. It is almost impossible to stop procrastinating entirely but you can decrease it.

  • Space—Identify specific places for important items (keys, papers, etc). Use functional storage containers. Regularly evaluate the immediate value of the stuff taking up your limited space.

  • Stuff—Take fifteen minutes each day to decrease clutter. Use bright colors and interesting containers. Make a list before you shop.

Tips for Learning

  • Tape your classes, lectures, or seminars. Then you can replay the tape later to fill in the gaps.

  • Get notes from someone else. Classmates, friends, teachers, speakers may be able to supply you with notes so that you can listen without the distraction of taking notes yourself.

  • Use a study group or tutor. You may need help differentiating important from unimportant information. Others can help you do this.

Set aside a place for study and study only.

  • Find a specific place that you can use for studying (for example, the school library, vacant classrooms, your bedroom at home, etc.)

  • Keep this place just for studying. You are trying to build a habit of studying when you are in this place. So, don't use your study space for social conversations, writing letters, daydreaming, etc.

  • Ensure that your study area has the following:

good lighting


a comfortable chair, but not too comfortable

a desk large enough to spread out your materials.

  • Avoid distractions in your study area, such as a telephone, stereo or television.

  • Irregular sleep, exercise, and eating patterns can cause concentration difficulties.

  • Many students are not aware that, as we perform tasks like studying, we talk silently to ourselves - praising accomplishments, helping to sort out what to do next, monitoring progress and achievement. However, comparing your abilities to others' and harboring inaccurate expectations about how long or how well you "should" be able to concentrate may also contribute to negative self talk.

Divide your work into small, short-range sub-goals.

  • Don't set a goal as vague and large as ... "I am going to spend all day Saturday studying!" You will only set yourself up for failure and discouragement.

  • Take the time block that you have scheduled for study and set a shorter study goal that you can definitely achieve (for example: finish reading three sections of Chapter 7 in my Chemistry text, or complete one math problem, or write the rough draft of the introduction to my English paper).

  • Set your goal when you sit down to study but before you begin to work. Set a goal that you can reach. You may, in fact, do more than your goal but set a reasonable goal even if it seems too easy.

Active learning

  • Be an active learner. It is much easier to concentrate when you are fully involved in what you are doing. Draw diagrams, pictures or squiggles, use highlighters, make mind maps, talk to yourself, use pretty colors. It all helps to keep you focused.

When you lose concentration

  • When you notice your thoughts wandering, say to yourself STOP and then gently bring your attention back to where you want it to be. Each time it wanders bring it back.

  • To begin with, this could be several times a minute. But each time, say STOP and then re-focus.

  • Don't waste energy trying to keep thoughts out of your mind (forbidden thoughts attract like a magnet!), just put the effort into STOP and re-focus.

  • You will find that the period of time between your straying thoughts gets a little longer each day, so be patient and keep at it.

Change you activity

  • If you really, really get stuck with something, put it aside and come back to it. Your brain is a wonderful time-sharing machine. While you are doing something else it will be working away at finding out more about the difficult thing you were struggling with before. You may find, to your surprise, when you try it again at a later stage that you have a far better idea of what to do.

  • Between periods of concentration, do things to change your physical and mental activity - e.g. move around to boost your circulation if you have been sitting, give your brain a new focus.

Lack of concentration is one of the most frequent complaints in high school or college.

  • Concentration: the ability to direct one's thinking in whatever direction one would intend.

  • We all have the ability to concentrate -- sometimes. Think of the times when you were engrossed in a super novel, playing a musical instrument, play a good game of cards, or watching a spellbinder of a movie = Total Concentration.

  • But at other times your thoughts are scattered, and your mind races from one thing to another. It's for those times that you need to learn and practice concentration strategies. They involve (1) learning mental self regulation and (2) arranging factors that you can immediately control.

Improving concentration is learning a skill

Learning a skill takes practice... whether it is shooting baskets, dancing, typing, writing, or concentrating. Do not confuse these strategies with medicine. When you take a medicine, it acts on the body without your having to help it.

Concentration strategies require practice. You probably will begin to notice some change within a few days. You'll notice considerable improvement within four to six weeks of training your mind with some of the skills that follow. And that's a short period of time considering how many years you've spent not concentrating as well as you'd like.

Begin by practicing these techniques:

Be Here Now: This deceptively simple strategy is probably the most effective. When you notice your thoughts wandering astray, say to yourself

"Be here now"

And gently bring your attention back to where you want it.

FOR EXAMPLE: You're in class and your attention strays from the lecture to all the homework you have, to a date, to the fact that you're hungry. As you say to yourself

"Be here now"

You focus back on the lecture and maintain your attention there as long as possible.

When it wanders again, repeat

"Be here now"

And gently bring your attention back.

You may notice that your mind often wanders (as often as several times a minute at times). Each time just say

"Be here now"

And refocus. Do not try to keep particular thoughts out of your mind. For example, as you sit there, close your eyes and think about anything you want to for the next three minutes except cookies. Try not to think about cookies...When you try not to think about something, it keeps coming back. ("I'm not going to think about cookies. I'm not going to think about cookies.")

When you find your thoughts wandering, gently let go of that thought and, with your "Be here now," return to the present.

You might do this hundreds of times a week, if you're normal. But, you'll find that the period of time between your straying thoughts gets a little longer every few days. So be patient and keep at it. You'll see some improvement!

Use this technique to help you regain concentration when you do become distracted momentarily.

Practice this in a variety of settings, such as:

  • In lecture classes practice letting people move or cough without having to look at them - just let them "be out there" while you form a tunnel between you and the lecturer.

  • When talking with someone keep your attention on that person, look at his face, and note what is being said. Let the rest of the world just be "out there."

Worry or Think Time

Set aside a specific time each day to think about the things that keep entering your mind and interfering with your concentration. For example, set 4:30 to 5:00 p.m. as your worry/think time. When your mind is side-tracked into worrying during the day, remind yourself that you have a special time for worrying. Then, let the thought go for the present, and return your focus to your immediate activity. There's research on this, believe it or not! Persons who use a worry time find themselves worrying 35 percent less of the time within four weeks. That's a big change!

The important steps are:

  • set a specific time each day for your time,

  • When you become aware of a distracting thought, remind yourself that you have a special time to think about them,

  • Let the thought go, perhaps with "Be here now," and

  • Be sure to keep that appointment with yourself at that special time to think on the distracting thoughts of the day.

Other Mental Strategies

  • Tallying your mental wanderings: Have a 3 x 5 inch card handy—Draw two lines dividing the card into three sections. Label them "morning," "afternoon," and "evening." Each time your mind wanders, make a tally in the appropriate section. Keep a card for each day. As your skills build, you'll see the number of tallies decrease. And that's exciting!

  • Rest/Stretch Time. Remember to take short breaks. Lectures are usually 50 minutes long, and that's about the length of time most people can direct their attention to one task. But, that's just an average. Your concentration time-span might be less (20-35 minutes) or longer (perhaps 90 minutes). When you take a break, oxygenate (get more oxygen to your brain)! Get up and walk around the room for a couple of minutes. When we sit for long periods, blood tends to pool in our lower body and legs (because of gravity). Our calves serve as pumps for our blood when we walk, getting blood flowing more evenly throughout the body. As a result, more oxygen is carried to the brain and you are more alert.

  • Change Topics: Many students aid their concentration by changing the subject they are studying every one to two hours. You pay more attention to something that's different. And you can give yourself that variety by changing the subject you study regularly.

  • Incentives and Rewards: Give yourself a reward when you've completed a task. The task might be small, such as stay with a difficult assignment until you've finished. An appropriate reward might be a walk around the block, a glass of water, or reading the day's cartoon in the newspaper. Incentives and rewards can be overdone. Use them for the especially difficult assignment or longer projects. When you do use them, make the rewards something you ordinarily would not give yourself.

  • Increasing Your Activity Level: Your concentration wanders more easily if you just read an assignment straight through. Instead, take the heading for each section and turn it into a question. For this section, that would be, "How can I increase my activity level while studying?" Then study that section to answer that question. Do this routinely. The questions give us a focus for each section and increase our involvement. Also, as you study an assignment, make a list of questions you can bring to class. Listen to the lecture for answers to those questions. Shift position in your seat every so often. Don't sit there frozen in one position. The move will help keep the blood circulating, sending more oxygen to your brain and helping you remain alert.


What Causes Test Anxiety

Lack of preparation as indicated by:

  • Cramming the night before the exam.

  • Poor time management.

  • Failure to organize text information.

  • Poor study habits.

Worrying about the following:

  • Past performance on exams.

  • How friends and other students are doing.

  • The negative consequences of failure.

During an exam, as in any stressful situations, a student may experience any of the following bodily changes:

  • perspiration

  • sweaty palms

  • headache

  • upset stomach

  • rapid heart beat

  • tense muscles

Effects of Test Anxiety


  • Having difficulty reading and understanding the questions on the exam paper.

  • Having difficulty organizing your thoughts.

  • Having difficulty retrieving key words and concepts when answering essay questions.

  • Doing poorly on an exam even though you know the material.

Mental Blocking:

  • Going blank on questions.

  • Remembering the correct answers as soon as the exam is over.

How to Reduce Test Anxiety

Study and know the material well enough so that you can recall it even if you are under stress.

Learn and practice good time management and avoid:



day dreaming

Build confidence by studying throughout the semester and avoid cramming the night before the exam.

Learn to concentrate on the material you are studying by:

Generating questions from your textbooks and lecture notes.

Focusing on key words, concepts and examples in your textbooks/lecture notes

Making charts/outlines which organize the information in your notes/textbooks.

Use relaxation techniques, for example, taking long deep breaths to relax the body and reduce stress.

Minimize distracting noise. Some people need some sound and some like silence. Find what works for you.

Culprits are family and friends. Consider a "do not disturb sign" and turning off your phone or cell phone. You can catch up with friends later.

75 watt bulbs are best, but not too close and placed opposite the dominant hand.

Better cool than warm.

Have plenty of room to work; don't be cramped. Your study time will go better if you take a few minutes at the start to straighten things up.

A desk and straight-backed chair is usually best. Don't get too comfortable--a bed is a place to sleep, not study.

Have everything (book, pencils, paper, coffee, dictionary, typewriter, calculator, tape recorder, etc.) close at hand. Don't spend your time jumping up and down to get things.

Preparing for or Anticipating Test Anxiety

  • What is it you have to do? Focus on dealing with it.

  • Just take one step at a time.

  • Think about what you can do about it. That's better than getting anxious.

  • No negative or panicky self-statements; just think rationally.

  • Don't worry; worrying won't help anything.

Confronting and Handling Test Anxiety

  • Don't think about fear; just think about what you have to do.

  • Stay relevant.

  • Relax; you're in control. Take a slow, deep breath.

  • You should expect some anxiety; it's a reminder not to panic and to relax and cope steadily with the situation.

  • Tenseness can be an ally, a friend; it's a cue to cope.

Coping with the Feeling of Being Overwhelmed

  • When the fear comes, just pause.

  • Keep the focus on the present; what is it you have to do?

  • You should expect your fear to increase some.

  • Don't try to eliminate fear totally; just keep it manageable.

  • You can convince yourself to do it. You can reason your fear away.

  • It's not the worst thing that can happen.

  • Do something that will prevent you from thinking about fear.

  • Describe what is around you. That way you won't think about worrying.

Reinforcing Self-Statements

  • It worked! You did it!

  • It wasn't as bad as you expected.

  • You made more out of the fear than it was worth.

  • You're getting better. You're learning to cope more smoothly.

  • You can be pleased with your progress.

  • You like how you handled it. You can be proud of it.

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