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  5. Attention

The most important skill

Attention is the most important of the memory and learning skills because without it, none of the other skills can be applied. Often, the main reason we don’t learn something or remember it well is because we weren’t paying attention in the first place.

Many people think they are just absent minded because they can’t remember where they left something, or they have a bad memory because they can’t remember things they have learned. Often, the problem is a matter of not paying enough attention at the times you are learning something. By not paying enough attention things aren’t learned well enough and are easily forgotten.

Limitations of attention

Our attention can only focus on one thing at a time, though it can switch between two or more things to make it appear we are paying attention to more than one thing (such as reading a book while watching TV). However, if we are trying to pay attention to two things at one time we are likely missing out on both things.

To truly learn and remember something requires full attention during the time you are applying the learning technique. If your attention is split between two things either return your full attention to what you are learning (say, by turning off the TV) or give your full attention to the other task and return to learning at a more appropriate time.

Paying attention

Learning how to increase your focus and pay attention takes effort and practice. However, if you persist, your ability to stay focused on a given task can be improved.

People who are proficient at meditation have much to offer on the topic of attention since many meditation practices require intense focus on a single item (such as the breath) for long periods of time. Meditators say the mind is like a small child and should be treated that way. When the mind begins to wander, gently return it to the task of learning. Initially this may happen very often (several times a minute). However, with patience and practice you will be able to focus on a task for longer periods of time. Just be sure to be relaxed and patient with yourself and accept the process as being normal. Becoming tense or agitated may interfere with your learning process and create further distractions.

Increase motivation

Increasing your motivation for a task can help you pay more attention. The more motivated you are to complete something the more you will want to focus on it. You can increase your motivation by making a task more meaningful and interesting.

Take breaks

Taking breaks while learning is important — it helps relax your mind, provides an opportunity to stretch and get your blood flowing, and can put you in a state that is better for learning. Short breaks every 15-30 minutes can be effective. During breaks take time to move around, get some fresh air, or have a drink of water. You should have an easier time paying attention to your studies after you have taken a short break.

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