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A student looks up as she walks on a busy staircase on a campus.

Helping students to maintain concentration on what is important can contribute to their academic and personal success. 

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If you or your students are feeling overstimulated, you’re far from alone.

The constant barrage of rapidly changing technology and the fast-paced social change that has followed, combined with the flood of information we encounter whenever we go online, is leaving many people wired and distracted.

Young people, in particular, may struggle with overstimulation, and this can affect not only their academic performance but their mind-set toward learning.

I work every day with student athletes to sharpen their focus, training students to block out irrelevant and intrusive information (noise) and listen to the signal—the exact task or action required to succeed. This skill has never been more important, given the unprecedented overstimulation we experience today.

Here are some proven strategies to help students work those focus muscles, maintain their concentration on what’s important and take charge of their academic and personal success.

Separating Signal From Noise

Before students can learn to tune out the noise and prioritize the signal, they need to be able to identify both. In the athlete-development program I manage, we begin by cultivating awareness through simple exercises that help students observe where their attention falls over the course of a few minutes. By doing this, we can help them gain insight into the distracting thoughts that intrude on their concentration and steal their attention. Becoming aware of these intruders, or “attentional thieves,” can take away much of their power to divide a student’s attention.

Filling Attentional Space

Once students become aware of their distractions, we can give them tools to help them focus. We start by breaking down complex actions into component tasks and ranking those by importance. This exercise is usually sports-specific, but it can also work for academic goals like acing a test or completing a project. By giving students a clear hierarchy of the things that go into their success, they can return their focus to the next most important item on their task map if they find themselves distracted in the middle of a performance.

For example, when preparing for a big exam, a student might break down the complex task of studying for the exam into smaller, more manageable tasks such as reviewing notes, reading the textbook, practicing problems and creating study guides.

The individual would then rank these tasks by importance, with the most important ones being those that are essential to success on the exam. For example, the student might prioritize reviewing notes and practicing problems over creating study guides, since the former tasks will help in better understanding the material and applying it on the exam.

If the student gets distracted or overwhelmed while studying, referring to their task map and focusing on the next most important item on the list can help the student avoid getting sidetracked by less important tasks or distractions.

We also have students practice interrupting their thoughts with an exercise called Stop and Pause. This involves taking a breath to recompose oneself and then focusing attention on the highest-ranking item from the task map that still needs to be done. With practice, the amount of time and effort required to regain focus diminishes, making the process nearly automatic and instantaneous.

Avoiding Negative Thinking

In moments of stress, our minds can produce convincing and distracting stories that match the discomfort in our bodies. Understanding that stress is inevitable and that such stories are merely reflections of physical discomfort rather than inevitable truths can help students remain aware of what’s happening and what tasks they need to perform next, even when experiencing discomfort or anxiety.

While the world today may seem endlessly chaotic, I believe that young people can find a sense of calm and focus through mental preparation and practices like the ones outlined above. With the right emphasis on developing focus and mindfulness, students can learn to thrive, chase their dreams and excel in any field or stage of life.

Greg Young, a certified mental performance consultant (CMPC), is a former academic, researcher and collegiate athlete who is now the coaching and development manager at IMG+, an online offering of IMG Academy. IMG Academy operates a boarding school and training for precollege student athletes, including on mental performance.

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