Which habits sharpen your focus

Concentration, please!

Why you should put your smartphone away and sharpen your focus

Photo credit: rawpixel on Unsplash

Think back to the moment when you were completely focused on writing and blanking out everything around you. Do you remember just writing? Time flew by and you enjoyed getting the words down on paper (or on the screen).

Many people experience this "flow" state on a regular basis. He overcomes them especially when working on everyday, scientific tasks, e.g. when writing a research report, reading a complex article or preparing for an exam. If only it wasn't that difficult to get into the flow. Quite a few reach for their smartphone at the slightest difficulty to quickly check Instagram, the latest news, the weather or messages from friends.

While this may seem harmless, looking at your smartphone while trying to stay focused is a double problem.

  1. In the short term, your smartphone is obviously holding you back from your current task.
  2. In the long term, it could become a habit to indulge in this distraction and thus generally difficult to concentrate on tasks in the future.

We'll take a closer look at both problems below and provide practical tips for more concentration when working with a reference management program.

Smartphone usage and concentration on tasks

It has long been known that the brain has difficulty multitasking. In fact, the results of one study show that too much multitasking can change the structure of the brain over time. You can't get better at multitasking by doing it more often. A landmark study on multitasking showed that people who multitask frequently did the worst at switching between different tasks. We wrote about multitasking in a previous blog post and gave tips on how to fight it.

However, the problem isn't just limited to jumping back and forth between different tasks on the to-do list. Constantly letting your mind wander from what you are supposed to do to a distraction you enjoy: like your smartphone, can have the same effect.

And we often use smartphones. Recent statistics from a mobile operator in Great Britain have shown that users check their smartphones every 12 minutes on average. If previous studies are correct that it takes up to 25 minutes to get back to work after a distraction, it means a lot of wasted time just looking at your friend's new status. That may not be a problem in general. But if you urgently need to finish a term paper the night before the deadline, every minute is valuable.

How annoying are smartphones really? A media-effective study from 2018 found that the mere presence of one's own smartphone in the same room reduced concentration while we were doing a task - even when the smartphone was switched off. In addition, the effect was most pronounced in those participants who were most dependent on their smartphones.

Concentration is like a muscle

The other side of the problem is, if you regularly interrupt a task at the first sign of difficulty, it could reduce your ability to concentrate in the future. The author Cal Newport writes about this in detail in his new book “Deep Work” in the chapter “Embrace boredom”. He makes a good comparison with concentration being like a muscle that needs to be trained to function well. His theory is that the more you practice not being distracted in everyday life, in the office or in the laboratory, the easier it will be for you to focus in the future. And exactly when you really have to.

One technique to resist temptation is to train your brain to work non-stop for a period of time. There are many different methods for doing this. One is to block time by dividing your entire day into blocks of time. During a time block, you only work on the specific task. For example, give yourself an hour to write part of your academic paper. At the end of the lesson, take a break and move on to the next block, even if you haven't completely completed your first task.

This method can be difficult over a long period of time, especially if you are not used to concentrating at the beginning.

When you find that you simply cannot begin a task, one of the easiest ways to train your focus is to use the Pomodoro Technique®. In the original method, you set a kitchen clock in the shape of a tomato (pomodoro in Italian) for 20 minutes. During these twenty minutes you work hard and when the kitchen clock rings you take a short break. You then repeat this procedure four times. The short time span of twenty minutes makes the goal achievable, even for those of us who really have difficulty concentrating. Think of it as a high-intensity exercise for the "focus muscles" of your brain.

Even if smartphones are the cause of many difficulties concentrating, they could also offer a solution for some. Many new apps promise to help make their users more productive. The Forest App, for example, will grow a small tree on your screen if you concentrate on a set task for a certain amount of time. The more passes you make, the more trees you will see. This gives you a nice, visual representation of how you've trained your focus over time. While Forest will help you make concentration a habit, other apps will help you eliminate interference. For example, by blocking social networks or limiting your time in them.

At this point, it's important to note that checking social networks isn't a bad thing per se. The problem is, you make a habit of reaching for the distraction whenever you feel uncomfortable. Smartphones are just a ubiquitous distraction, however everything can be distracting. For example, tidiness expert Marie Kondo distracts tidying up from studying on an exam:

"You gather up the copies that are lying around on the desk, you arrange the books scattered on the floor in thematic piles, you clean the keyboard of your computer with a special cleaner - suddenly you cannot be stopped. The notes and Other material sorted on the shelf, then the writing utensils in the drawers come in turn and so on and so forth. Time flies by and suddenly it's half past two in the morning. When it finally looks tidy around the desk, you feel yourself broken and sleepy. So you nod off and startle again around five, pull yourself up to really deal with the material again. I admit it and don't want to gloss it over: That's exactly my ritual on the evenings before Exams." (Kondo 2019, 31-32)

Concentration when working with a literature management program

Not all of the tasks that you do in your reference management software require a high level of concentration. Your brain doesn't have to run at full blast entering an ISBN or bibliographic information. However, reading and taking notes on a difficult essay, creating an outline based on your collected quotations, or starting an initial draft of your paper are all mentally intense tasks. And they benefit from your concentration. Here are my recommendations for staying focused while working with Citavi:

  1. Set a goal for timethat you want to spend on a task or a goal of what you want to finish. You could spend an hour organizing your collected quotations or taking the final notes for a journal article.
    When writing, we recommend setting time-based goals as it is difficult to gauge how fast you will be. Otherwise, you would feel bad if you didn't achieve your goal of writing four pages in an hour.
    The exception is when you have a relentless, approaching deadline.
    However, the focus on the time required takes the pressure off of having to write a certain number of pages. And by concentrating for the length of time you choose, you will improve your ability to concentrate as you write over time. Even if you get stuck, it will help you improve your result.

  2. If you don't necessarily have to be available during your learning phase, turn off your cell phone and put it as far away as possible - preferably in another room. Too many of us subconsciously reach for our smartphones when we are bored or uncomfortable. If it is from your perspective, you will not do it. If you find yourself surfing the web instead, turn off your Internet connection or set your computer to airplane mode. If you are working with a Citavi Cloud project and plan to read and annotate offline in peace and quiet, download your PDFs first.

    For tasks that require an Internet connection, such as researching databases, you can use a program that blocks web pages that are tempting to distract you.

  3. If your mind is wandering, try this Pomodoro Technique®to turn your full concentration time into a short sprint rather than a big marathon.
    Citavi user Daniel Lutz makes this even easier with a “Tomato Timer” add-on for Citavi. It adds a small tomato to the bottom right of your project. You start the timer and after 20 minutes has passed the tomato will go away and you can take a break. You can find the add-on with explanations of how to use it here. It is planned to add the add-on to the list of add-ons made available in Citavi.
    Try the Pomodoro Technique® (with or without add-on), then do not skip the breaks after your 20-minute work phase. They give your brain the strength it needs to see focus as something positive rather than just a duty.

  4. Force yourself to honor your commitments. If you said you would write for an hour, stick with it for an entire hour. Do not open other applications on your computer or start reading. If you made a promise to yourself that you were going to take the final notes for a journal article for your upcoming class, don't do anything else until you have that done.
    This can be very difficult and uncomfortable at times. But when you get yourself to stay seated and keep going (even if you look at a blank sheet for a long time), you start building the mental muscle you need to focus better. In the future it will be much easier for you!

  5. Reward yourself after your concentration phase. Use the break to go to the other room and check your smartphone. Or stay in analog mode and go for a walk, grab a coffee or chat with your roommate. Taking a little break gives your brain a chance to recharge. So try not to skip this step before moving on to your next task.

Being able to concentrate is an important skill in life. We hope these tips will help you develop this skill over time.

What are your tips for staying focused and avoiding disruption?
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To deepen

Burnett, M. (Ed.) 2008. The 26th Annual CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI 2008: Conference proceedings; April 5-10, 2008 in Florence, Italy. New York, NY: ACM.

Kondo, M. (2019). Magic Cleaning: How proper tidying up can change your life (40th ed.). Reinbek near Hamburg: Rowohlt paperback.

Loh, K. K., & Kanai, R. (2014). Higher media multi-tasking activity is associated with smaller gray-matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex. PloS One, 9, e106698. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0106698

Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008). The cost of interrupted work. In M. Burnett (Ed.), The 26th Annual CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI 2008: Conference proceedings; April 5-10, 2008 in Florence, Italy (p. 107). New York, NY: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/1357054.1357072

Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world (Kindle Edition). New York, Boston: Grand Central Publishing.

Ofcom. (2018). Communications Market Report. Retrieved from https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0022/117256/CMR-2018-narrative-report.pdf

Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106, 15583-15587. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0903620106

Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2, 140-154. https://doi.org/10.1086/691462


About Jennifer Schultz

Jennifer Schultz is the only American on the Citavi team, but her colleagues (usually) don't blame her for that. Her passion for supporting scientists in their work brought her a successful degree. But she also likes learning difficult languages, being outside in nature and sticking her nose into a book.