Every student is familiar with the problem of lack of concentration and stress during the exam period. Staring at your laptop, checking your phone every second and when the stress is real, studying until the middle of the night. We have searched for some help to deal with these struggles. We had the opportunity to have a conversation with Pepijn Lochtenberg. He gave us some insights about how to focus and how to deal with stress.
Pepijn Lochtenberg (1985) has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in human movement sciences, a post-doc in applied sport psychology and he currently is a sport psychologist who helps (professional) athletes, business people and other performers with mental trainings, to bring out the best in themselves. He gained his knowledge among others from the ACT-theory and the famous book of Theo Compernolle ‘Ontketen je brein’.
Me and my task
To perform optimally, it is key that your attention is in the Now: in the present moment. Keep your attention at what you are doing and the task you want to focus on. This sounds quite logical, but Pepijn explained the interesting story behind it.
Let’s start with some biology. Do not be scared, we will keep it short. Your brain consists of three systems: a reflexive, reflective and an archival system.
Your reflex brain is your first intuition. It causes the quick reactions when someone asks you something or when something is happening. This system is sensitive to stimuli and reacts continue quite automatically, involuntarily and goes without saying. When you react on a stimulus, your brain will release a shot of dopamine. This causes a short feeling of satisfaction and success.
Second, your reflective brain. This system allows you to look forward, look backwards, reflect and think proactive. The system works consciously, voluntary and is more purposeful. It can only focus on one thing at a time.
Finally, your archiving brain system. This system is active when your reflective brain is in rest. So, when you are taking a break, go for a little walk or when you are sleeping. This system saves everything in your long term memory.
Pepijn shared a surprising fact about the first two systems: the switch between two tasks takes around 1 ½ minutes. So, every time your reflexive brain reacts on surroundings, your reflective brain will be distorted and your focus will be gone. If you read a whole message and not just look at the push notification, the switching time will be even longer. The savings in your short-term memory will be lost and you should read the pages again to understand. As a results, time and energy are wasted and performance will be lower.
TIP 1: shut down the beeps of your phone and create offline moments. Focus on one thing for a scheduled time. Make a schedule with breaks to let your brain reflect and archive.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of superheroes who think they can do more things at a time with the same result and have the feeling that they are doing well. This is not a surprise because, in general, it is hard to see how things can be better. People with obese can feel really fit, but after losing some weight they feel a lot better. Students who learn all day and get high grades are not intended to learn in a different way, even if this can help to get better grades. So if you never tried something else, you will never be aware of another, maybe even better, way.
TIP 2: be experimental and practice. Test different and new ways of learning or working. Find a way that works best for you and which can optimize your performance in the long term.
When the exams are almost there, a long and uninterrupted day of studying is common for students. According to Pepijn, this is a very bad habit. You should take short breaks to let your brain reflect on and archive all the information you read. Taking breaks after two hours for example, may feel a little uncomfortable and unsure. Thereby, people who are used to continue switching will find it difficult to leave their phone off because it is a little addiction. It is key that you can postpone immediate gratifications to get a better result in the future.
TIP 3: consciously dwell on what you want to achieve in the long term and learn how stay focused despite an uncomfortable feeling. Brushing your teeth with the other hand is a little exercise to increase willingness.
The importance of good night rest
A short night’s rest means less time to archive your acquired knowledge. Besides, tiredness is a killer for concentration. A good night’s rest is therefore key to higher performance. Unfortunately, falling asleep is hard sometimes. You can change external conditions, like lightning, but when there is a lot of activity in your body you will stay awake. After a day of continuously switching and the pressure that you should answer messages all the time will make it difficult to fall asleep.
TIP 4: focus on the feeling of your body touching your bed and your breathing to optimize your chances to fall asleep.
There are different perspectives on how to deal with nervousness. Pepijn told us that he was initially working on how to reduce tension, but now he sees the more positive sides of the feeling and is learning people how to embrace it. Nerves can improve your focus. It is a sign that you find something important and your body is preparing for action. Keeping your attention in the present moment is important to optimize performance. When you feel nerves and are worrying about your future results, try to become aware of the feeling and get your focus in the right place.
TIP 5: first, listen to three sounds in the surrounding in a sequential way. Second, focus on three things you see. Last, focus on the feelings in your body. Focusing on your breathing is also very helpful!
Feel like you need to get away from the VU in order to fully concentrate? Check the ‘Coffee & Concentrate’ spots in Amsterdam to work on little assignments or to update some school stuff!