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Learn How to Focus

Lesson 3: Get out of the fog.

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How attentive are you? One way to check is to run this little thought experiment: Sit quietly in a chair, with a second-hand watch or clock nearby, close your eyes, and check to see how long you can go without thinking of anything. If you can go more than five seconds without any thought, that is far better than average.

What does this little test say about attention? Actually, you are not paying attention as such; you are paying attention to not paying attention. In other words, you just measured your limited capacity to resist distraction.

Resisting distraction is the other side of the focus coin. If you can resist distraction, you can focus on any object of thought without being distracted. So what? Being able to focus is a skill that is crucially important to developing your ability to remember. It also empowers your thinking.

There are ways to develop the ability to focus. Before I get into that, however, let me illustrate a related point. You perhaps have heard the instruction: “Do not think about pink elephants.” I tell you now, “Do not think about pink elephants.” Were you able to not think about pink elephants? Unlikely. Real elephants are not pink. A pink elephant is such a compelling image so that you are hard-pressed to not see it in your mind’s eye.

Make Memory Targets Compelling

This makes a point about focus. If the target of focus is compelling, it is hard not to focus on it. Thus, whatever you need and want to focus on is easier to attend if you make it compelling. If a target of focus is compelling, it becomes encoded more strongly. You learned in Lesson 1 that encoding is the first crucial step in the memorization process cycle.

One of the best ways for a compelling focus of attention is to make a target of attention a mental image, either a literal simulation of the actual target or a metaphorical representation of it. Generally, the most robust images are not literal but those that are ridiculously exaggerated (like pink elephants). This tactic is the basis used by “memory athletes” who compete in international contests to see who can memorize the most material in the shortest amount of time. I will say much more about specific mental imagery tactics in Lesson 9 where mnemonics are explained.

The other obvious way to make compelling memory targets is to motivate yourself to remember. As I explained in my book on The Learning Skills Cycle, the centerpiece hub of the cycle is motivation to learn. Approach learning tasks with a zeal that drives you to do all things needed to memorize and the success in learning then strengthens the motivation to learn more. As I explained in the story about my “conversion” in the 7th grade, once I learned how to get to the top of the class and how good that felt, I was motivated to achieve that standing every year.

Avoid Distraction

While it is true that the brain processes information in parallel, conscious memorization operates serially. That is, you consciously attend one thing at a time, switching at high speeds from one target of attention to another. Any time you switch targets, you disrupt the processes of encoding and initiation of consolidation. This explains why multitasking greatly impairs memorization.

School environments are notorious for creating distractions. Students in a classroom have to make a special effort to stay focused on instructional material.

Learn to Focus

Conscious focus of attention is a skill that can be learned through deliberate practice. The best proof comes from Hindu ascetics who do such astonishing things as voluntarily regulating their heart rate and blood pressure or lying on a bed of nails. The Buddhist meditation practices provide a practical way for anybody to train their brains to focus—and you don’t have to be a Buddhist. The technique that works for me is called “mindfulness meditation.” The objective is to be mindful of what you are thinking and to force yourself to think of only one thing, usually slow, deep breathing. All extraneous silent mental chatter and images are pushed out of consciousness. You will be training your brain to live in the now.

See how long you can sustain sole focus on your breathing and keep out all intruding thoughts. Notice all things associated with the breathing, but nothing else. At first, you may feel aches and pains you have not been attending because you were thinking of other things. Ignoring these aches consciously during meditation adds to the value of the exercise.

Hear the sound of the moving air with each breath. Feel the pulse in your neck. If you don’t feel it, crook your neck or lie down to feel it in your back or hear it by turning your ear to a pillow. Notice the rhythm and the gradual slowing of breathing. Feel your clothes shifting position and the tension flowing out of your muscles, first in the jaw, then back and legs. The first time you try it, you likely will lose focus within a couple of seconds. But after a few days of 15-minute sessions, you will realize your brain has learned how to focus for several minutes or more. Not only does this kind of meditation teach your brain how to concentrate, but it also lowers blood pressure, reduces memory-impairing stress, and contributes to peace of mind.

As you develop the capacity to focus, reinforce the training by being more attentive to every target of attention that you are trying to memorize. Also, notice what is associated with the information you are trying to memorize. If you are learning about a historical event, like the First Continental Congress, notice what is going on in the meeting hall, where it took place, why that place was chosen, what prompted the meeting, who stood out in the meeting, and so on. In short, notice the context in which things exist. Paying attention to such details at the time of initial encoding provides huge numbers of cues that strengthen the encoding and can serve as handles to help you retrieve the information in the future. The context obviously aids in understanding as well. Sometimes, just the understanding helps you figure out something you actually failed to remember.


  1. To strengthen encoding and the initial stages of memory consolidation, make memory targets compelling. The best way is to represent the targets as mental images.
  2. Do not multitask. Alter your learning environment as best you can to reduce distracting stimuli and thoughts.
  3. Train your brain to focus like a laser. Make time for a 15-minute mindfulness meditation session every day and try to focus on your every experience throughout the day.
  4. Don’t go around in a mental fog. Notice things. Be consciously aware of everything.

Next Lesson: Week 4. Think and Get Smart

More from William R. Klemm Ph.D.
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